Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sermon for Proper 23

St Thomas', Salem--Matthew 22:1-14

Some of you know that Brenda and I are the parents of three grown children, and two granddaughters—Charlotte, who is almost six, and Elsa, who is three-and-a-half. Recently their parents sent us a photo, which is now attached to the door of our refrigerator, of Charlotte in a baseball cap with a bat over her shoulder. She was apparently part of a T-ball team for kids her age. One of the virtually inevitable rites-of-passage in child-rearing in our society, it seems, is some participation in organized sports—whether it’s T-ball for five-year olds or high school varsity football. At the younger ages, I’ve noticed a pronounced trend away from exposing our kids to any potential hurt feelings and toward bolstering their ego and self-confidence. This starts with rules like “everybody gets to play equally, regardless of ability” and ends with the rather counter-intuitive practice of having a game at which no one is allowed to keep score, so there is no winning side and no losing side.

The theologian within me is not totally unsympathetic to these practices and the motives behind them. What a wonderful illustration of the nature of God’s grace: generously abundant, freely bestowed, no one’s relationship with God comes at the expense of anyone else’s, everyone who finishes the race, even those who come in last, gets a prize, a crown no less glorious than the one awarded to the first contestant to cross the line. God’s grace is extravagant, and it is fitting that we find ways to joyfully proclaim that fact. Jesus offers us an open invitation to come and follow him, but what most people don’t realize is that what lies at the end of the road he wants us to follow him on is a party, a great banquet, an occasion of celebration the likes of which we have scarcely even imagined. Jesus himself, you know, had a reputation—an not entirely savory reputation—as a party animal, who knew how to have a good time and liked to hang around people who knew how to have a good time. That’s probably why he tells so many stories about parties.

Today we hear one of those stories—about a king whose son is getting married, and he wants to make sure the banquet hall is filled. He invites several hundred of his closest friends, but as the hour of celebration draws near, nobody is showing up. So he falls back on Plan B, and extends the invitation far and wide: virtually anyone who was willing to show up at such short notice would be welcome. Again, an appropriate indicator of the nature of divine grace.

When I served in the Diocese of San Joaquin, about fifteen years ago, during the time when the big Promise Keepers rallies for men were in full swing, the parish adjacent to mine offered an opportunity for “open baptism” right after the Promise Keepers event. The supposition was that a number of men would experience a spiritual awakening at Promise Keepers and want to respond to the invitation by being baptized. So the rector scheduled and publicized this opportunity for baptism where the only questions to be asked would be those actually in the Prayer Book service—no classes, no examinations, no waiting—just show up, tell the priest your name, and get baptized.

This, too, reflects an attitude that is congruent with the extravagance of grace. The scholars and technicians of what might be called “ecclesiastical sociology”—the study of the way people behave within churches—make a distinction between “high demand” and “low demand” congregations. A low demand church is one which accentuates the freedom, the spontaneity, the lavish wastefulness of God’s favor. Anybody is welcome, any time—no requirements for membership, minimal rules and expectations, you can just come, you can get involved just a little, or you can get involved a lot. Nobody’s going to hassle you either way. Wherever you are on your spiritual journey, we honor that place, and you’re welcome to be with us. Not too different in approach, really, from the Little League games where you get to swing at the ball until you hit it, the team stays up at bat until everybody has had a turn, and when the bats and balls are put away at the end of the day, no one remembers what the score was.

But as we know, not all sporting organizations are run along those lines. The older a child gets, the less likely he or she is to encounter such an environment. At the high school football games that were played here in Marion County last Friday night, each one had a winner and each one had a loser, and the players with the most time on the field were the ones whom the coaches judged to be the most able. At the Olympic Games, only one person gets the gold medal in each event, and if you finish last, your friends don’t even get to see you on TV. Even Babe Ruth, the largest legendary giant in the history of baseball, got traded by the Yankees when they thought he was over the hill.

Now, the theologian in me also sees potential in these somewhat harsh facts of life as well. St Paul compares the life of a Christian to that of a soldier, and several passages of Scripture pit the forces of Good against the forces of Evil, all arrayed in battle. Military endeavor calls for discipline and commitment. There is no room for half-measures, for faintheartedness, for partial conversion to the cause. It’s all or nothing. Count the cost and choose your weapon. The salvation of your soul and the welfare of the world is at stake. This is not a game, this is war. And you’d better not be caught out of uniform, or else you might be shot as a spy.

At the end of the same parable of extravagant grace which forms the first part of today’s gospel reading, is a contrasting incident which is really quite jarring in its context. It was probably originally a stand-alone parable, and made sense in its own right. But Matthew has combined the two into one. The King—presumably the same fellow who issued the blanket invitation, “Y’all come” —is circulating through the banquet hall greeting his guests. He runs into one poor fellow who is not properly attired. Maybe the invitation had specified “white tie” and he was wearing a black one, I don’t know. But he is somehow not appropriately dressed for the occasion.
And the consequences are catastrophic—the King orders his servants to seize the man, bind him, and, in effect, throw him in the dungeon. That seems a little drastic to our modern sensibilities, but, in any case, it seems that the fellow should have known better, that he would legitimately have had access to the proper attire, but was too lazy, and was, in fact, disrespectful of his host.

There is a strong strand within the Christian tradition that emphasizes discipline and preparedness and high expectations. In the second, third, and fourth centuries, baptismal preparation lasted a full three years. Entire occupations and professions were on a forbidden list—actors and soldiers among them!—and if you practiced one of those trades, you either had to find a new job or not get baptized. Several witnesses were required to testify to the quality and integrity of your life as a Christian. Shortly after this same era, the monastic movement developed and flourished, with its classic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. And in our own day, there are those churches which the ecclesiastical sociologists classify as “high demand.” A high demand congregation has clear and unbending standards for membership. Sometimes one must give written assent to a detailed doctrinal statement. There is a strong expectation of attendance at church every Sunday, and sometimes more than once on a Sunday, and often during the week as well. It is presumed that everybody, of whatever age, is involved in some form of ongoing Christian education in a formal church setting. Tithing is taught and tithing is expected and tithing is practiced. And service is too—members go on mission trips nd knock on doors in the neighborhood and serve as literacy tutors and work in soup kitchens and build low income housing. There is an acute awareness of being involved in an important and serious struggle. And I’ll tell you something: Contrary to what you might think, these high demand churches are generally large and thriving and financially prosperous. To a large extent, people will respond at whatever level seems to be expected of them. If little is asked, little will be given, and if much is asked, much is given.

But there’s no denying that we’re left with a sort of conundrum here, a definite paradox. On the one hand, we’ve got a God who seems wastefully prodigal with his grace and favor, spreading it around like there’s an endless supply of it, because, to tell the truth, there is an endless supply of it. On the other hand, we’ve got a God who wants us to know that, when we were baptized and confirmed, we were enlisted in his army, and he expects us to act accordingly—with discipline, commitment, and heroism to the point of death, if called to such an extreme.

One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to resolve the paradox in one direction or the other. If we pay attention only to the magnanimous grace, and ignore the demand of military-style discipline, we will end up with a religion that is initially quite attractive, but quickly disappoints, because people will find that it doesn’t cure what ails them, it lacks teeth, it’s a sesame-seed bun with no all-beef patty. And if we pay attention only to the demands of the gospel, and ignore the aspect of God’s playful and unpredictable grace, we will end up with a religion that is potentially quite effective for the salvation of souls and the glory of God, but which nobody practices because nobody can meet the strict qualifications.

But it’s also not a matter of splitting the difference and going down the middle, which, as Anglicans, we can do in our sleep. Paradox is not that way. Paradox demands that the integrity of both horns of the dilemma be maintained. That’s why, even though the two parts of this gospel parable may have originally existed in isolation, the fact that Matthew put them together means that we no longer have the luxury of splitting them apart. The King who issued the open invitation to the party is the same one who severely punished the guest who was not properly dressed. The God who is liberal with his grace also makes unrelenting demands on those who would be his disciples. The gospel of Christ is understood and lived only in a paradoxical tension between extravagant grace and rigorous demand. Resolution will come, but it will come in God’s own time and God’s own way. It is not up to us to force the issue. Our souls’ health depends on accepting the messiness and the ambiguity, the tensions and the conflicts, and trusting God for the outcome.

Praised be Jesus Christ.

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