(N.B.: At the beginning of this sermon, in silence I set a table using some of the loveliest linens, china and silver I received from my mother before she died)
There were so many spaces of silence and absence where my mom would have been when I got to Panama on Monday. In a very unexpected way, today’s readings helped fill those silences and also helped me understand a bit more about my mom, and a bit more about God’s grace.
My mom knew how to throw a party. She was a gracious, warm and welcoming hostess. She would spend weeks planning and organizing for a party, with endless lists and phone calls and decisions and actions. I watched her painstaking efforts to get things just right for all kinds of parties from the very formal to silly, funny times with friends. She left few details to chance because she was convinced that what people couldn’t see, the apparent effortlessness with which they were welcomed was at the heart of true hospitality. One afternoon this week, I spent almost 3 hours sorting through all her tablecloths, napkins and other table linens. She had an absurd number of salt and pepper containers from the sublimely elegant to the absurd because even that was important to her.
If my mama worked as hard to throw a good party as she did, I can only begin to imagine what the king who was throwing a wedding feast for his beloved son did to prepare. I decided early this week that I would try to set a table for you like my mom would, using some of pieces she gave me. I love each and every item on this table and I am mindful that they are nothing but the palest, the dimmest, most unremarkable reflection of the glory that was the feast the king prepared for his son’s wedding.
I can imagine setting a table, cooking a feast and throwing wide my doors and being devastated, absolutely devastated when no one shows up. Of course, the king would be furious–bite through nails, spitting mad angry at the callousness and disregard of the first bunch that didn’t show up. Under all that reaction there must have been quiet desperation–what will it take, how much more can I do if instead of coming to my party they kill the people I have sent to invite them? I have tried everything, I have laid out my finest and done my utmost and still, they will not come.
It is easy and tempting to see his final response–his instructions to bring any one, any warm body will do–as an expression of an ego-driven ruler not used to being thwarted who won’t take no for an answer. But what if the feast this person had to offer was a gift of life itself. What if it wasn’t that the silverware was newly polished or the linens of exquisite silk? What if the king didn’t care one whit about all that money he’d spent to have the best caterers in town prepare the most delicious morsels of food imaginable. What if the thing that mattered most was the hope, a hope against hope, that there would be someone or some people who would recognize that the feast was pure gift for the guests. That what the king had to offer was what the guests most needed.
Especially after all these years of living in Florida and dressing down, that whole thing at the end, the part where the person who is not properly dressed gets thrown out and condemned to an eternity of weeping and gnashing of teeth, just seems outright mean and callous. Really, God? Throw that poor person to eternal damnation just because his shoes were wrong or that blouse too eighties? That’s harsh. In fact, the whole passage has a real edge to it that makes me uncomfortable.
I’ve learned to be suspicious of my own temptation to skip over the parts where it sounds like God is not being very nice. I want my God to be nice, reasonable, non-reactive and lovable. Matthew does not see God that way and maybe in part that has to do with living at a moment of tremendous, violent upheaval in his world. Remember, he had witnessed the violence and desolation that accompanied the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
There is also something really important in Matthew’s insistence that it isn’t enough to show up at the party, but that we must come dressed appropriately for the occasion. You see, if we don’t even understand enough about the party to know how to dress–if we are so insensitive and unperceptive and self-absorbed that we cannot even make that one gesture for the sake of the party, how will we be able to recognize and receive the mercy and graces that are to be found at the feast? God wants a relationship of reciprocity and mutuality with us. God wants a relationship of give and take with us because it is in that kind of trust and commitment that the seeds of the spirit can take root, and grow and flourish and bear rich fruit. In this parable, we also have the sense of a God who understands the urgency of our need, that the time is now to come to the party.
Our instinctive response goes something like this: “God you ask me to come to the party now? When things are falling apart all around us? When all we see or hear on TV is the rage, the disappointment, the fear and the despair? Are you serious God? Your answer is a party?”
My family has always been prone to Nordic angst. In fact, my husband calls my two brothers Commander Gloom and Commander Doom. When my big brother calls and we get to talking about the sorry state of things, a moment usually comes when I say, “Hans, I’m getting either homicidal or suicidal, so it’s time to get off the phone now”. I look back now and I realize that my mom was on to something with those parties of hers. They taught us about joy. I am also beginning to think that being joyful is both counter-cultural and a really important part of being a community of faith.
Here at St. Ambrose we don’t have all the trappings and finery and special salt and pepper shakers–but we do have a party each and every week, without fail. No matter what else has happened, we come together to party. It is a marvelous party with the most gracious host imaginable. And when we have allowed ourselves to accept the invitation, when we have overcome the despair and the inertia that tempt us to say, “why bother”, when we have clothed ourselves in hope, we leave here with a little more spring in our step. A little more gratitude. A little more awareness of brothers and sisters who are also in need of that kind of goodness.
Thank you for coming to the party today. Thank you for being willing to dare to find joy. I have thought of the fact that often at parties, we receive party favors, and today there’s one for each of you in the insert to your bulletin. Take a look at passage from Philippians. There’s one paragraph that I hope you will cut out and put in your pocket, or tape to your mirror for the week. It is a wonderful reminder of this time together and a promise of the enduring favor and mercy that is at the heart of God’s love for us. Read it often this week. Read it as a prayer for someone you know who’s struggling–or for yourself. And remember, the invitation is simple: Come to the party…
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”