More than a dozen years ago – a baker’s dozen, to be precise – All Saints’ Church and I were making preparations for me to come here as the new Rector. Once all the interviews with the Search Committee and the Vestry were concluded, that last step was to meet with the Wardens and the chair of the Finance Committee to work out all the details of the Letter of Agreement, and send that off to the Bishop, before my call here could be announced publically.
Some of you have heard that story, but it bears repeating: Jack Fuller, Bonnie Stocker McGrath, Geof Kimak and I all met at the Rath House and went through all the necessary details – with kindness and efficiency, I must say.
Once we pressed the “send” button on the Letter of Agreement, Bonnie asked Jack to lead us in prayer, and he did – a heartfelt and genuine prayer. Geof then stepped out to his car and came back with a bottle of wine – I suppose he hadn’t brought it in before, just in case the meeting didn’t go well – and we toasted to the next step in all of our lives of faith together. What went through my head was “Prayer and a party…what could be better?” and I knew I had come to the right place.
That phrase “Prayer and a party” has become something of a tag-line for us, summing up what life at All Saints’ is like – where prayer is frequent and deep and often spontaneous, and where we look for festivity wherever we can find it, knowing that faith in God is as much about celebration as it is about forgiveness, comfort, and strength. Our parish mission statement says it in a bit more detail: “Building a joyful community of faith in Christ through worship, learning, praise, and service” and it’s right there on the front of our bulletin every week. Joy, worship and praise of God, thankfulness and gratitude are all at the heart of our church, our faith community – not that there aren’t times of sorrow, grief, frustration, anger, difficulty, challenge, and all the other realities of human life – but on balance we have found that it is better to focus on the joy of faith and the goodness of God’s blessings and to be thankful, than it is to focus on the “half-emptiness.”
So the epistle, taken from Paul’s letter to the church gathered at Philippi, speaks directly to us: “Rejoice in the Lord always…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
Wonderful, uplifting words – and yet...and yet…what in the world are we to make of the first reading and then the parable in the Gospel?
In Exodus we hear all about the inconstancy of God’s People, their willingness so quickly to abandon the God who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Moses had gone up the mountain to meet with the Lord, to receive from him the Ten Commandments, the covenant of their life together, but he was gone longer than they expected, they got impatient and so were willing to make their own gods – out of their possessions – and ascribe to that golden calf the freedom that God had given them. How quickly do we forget, become frightened or anxious, and turn away from the Lord? It happens, it happens to all of us, we are in good company with the Israelites – and yet God, in his mercy does not let us go…tempting as it might be for him.
And then that parable that Jesus tells, the one about the king throwing a wedding banquet – how do we connect with that? how do we even make sense out it? To begin with, it’s a good reminder that our picture of Jesus must not fall into the category of what one friend used to call “Sweet Jesus and cookies” – meaning an overly-sentimental image of Jesus that leaves no room for strength, righteous anger, power, wisdom, a sharp rebuke or an acerbic comment. It’s important to remember that Jesus said and did some heard and challenging things, and as followers of Jesus we need to grapple with them – not once or even twice, but throughout our life of faith; that is, in part, why we are on a three-year cycle of readings in the lectionary, so that we are faced with these passages on a regular basis.
Second, this parable is an outrageous story, an allegory of salvation history that goes far beyond the day-to-day, real-life details of so many of the parables. I’m not going to delve deeply into it, but it is good to recognize that at the heart of this story Jesus tells is the image of a king throwing a wedding banquet – a time of joy, celebration and feasting to which all are invited, whether they will come or not.
And like all of Jesus’ parables, this one is showing us a picture of what God and God’s kingdom is like – a banquet of life and joy.
Today Tyler will be baptized; we will celebrate his entrance into the Body of Christ, and welcome him into the household of faith – it is a joyful day, not just for his family, but for us, as well. It reminds us of our own baptism, and brings to mind the goodness of God’s promises, and reminds us of what we are really about: living life in a way that is connected to God in Christ where God is in charge and we are actively seeking to do God’s will in the world, and where we live out our faith with and for others. Christianity can never be just “me and Jesus”; it is always about “we and Jesus,” we the Church, the Body of Christ…and the whole rest of God’s creation.
And part of the “we” is reaching back to hear what St. Paul wrote to those very early Christians in the Greek city of Philippi, writing to them when he was under house arrest by the Roman guard.
Those same exhortations apply to us – even in the face of harshness and challenge, even when we have been unfaithful to God and made our own golden calves, even when life has given us a raw deal.
Hear what Paul says again , in a different translation this time: “Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them…Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.” The Message
That’s the invitation that Christ makes to us in baptism, today, and every day – celebrate God, enter deeply into prayer, see God’s goodness everywhere around you, embrace salvation that is about body and soul, know God’s peace in your heart and among your fellow human-beings. This is the banquet that God offers us, this is the basis for our joy, this is at the heart of our community of faith.
Let us pray.
O heavenly Father, you have filled the world with beauty and have blessed us in countless ways:
Open our eyes to behold your gracious hand in all your works; that, rejoicing in your whole creation, we may learn to serve you with gladness; for the sake of him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~ adptd. Book of Common Prayer, page 814
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 12, 2014