Sunday, October 12, 2008

Twenty-second Sunday in Pentecost
Isaiah 25:1-9
Psalm 23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

I’m a worrier. I don’t want to be a worrier. I know all the right things to say when there is something difficult in my life, but I worry. I worry about my kids. I worry about finances. I worry about tomorrow. I worry. I know that worrying doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t solve anything. But I worry, because when there is nothing I can do, at least I feel as though I’m doing something. But that’s just it. There’s always something we can do that makes worrying unnecessary—trusting in God’s promises.

I found this on a website, “Seems the Oxford philosophy exam normally requires an eight page essay answer, studded with source material, quotes and analytical reasoning. But one student handed the following back and aced the exam: Oxford Examination Board 1987 Essay Question: 1.1a What is courage? (50 Marks) Answer: This is courage.”

Now, most of the students went into that exam with a great deal of trepidation. I don’t know if they had the question ahead of time, but I imagine they must have since they were required to add source materials. It would be impossible for even the best students to be prepared for an eight page essay with source material if they did not have some notice to prepare. I can see them worrying in the days and weeks leading up to the exam about whether or not they could even accomplish an eight page essay in the time limit. Would they answer the question in a matter satisfactory to the professor? Would they get a good enough grade? How will this test affect their grade point average?

That one student took a different direction with this essay. Instead of working hard to come up with a dozen sources, pre-planning the essay and worrying about the test, he or she came up with a brilliant answer. It was courageous to just write, “This is courage.” What is courageous about not doing the work? Courage is trusting that the professor will see the brilliance and humor in the short but powerful answer. It is courageous to do something different even if there is some risk involved. It is courageous to face a difficult situation without worry. To us, three words did not seem like enough, but it was for that professor. To us, singing praise and thanksgiving to God does not seem like enough, but it is.

Living a life of praise and thanksgiving to God is a life which Paul says will be without worry. Trusting in God’s promises, we look toward tomorrow with peace and joy rather than fear and doubt. Perhaps this is a message that is most relevant to our time today. After all, we are looking at a world that seems to be collapsing and we do not know what is going to happen that we walk with fear. And while I doubt that God is planning a financial takeover of the world banks, I do know that God is in control of the world which He has created. Even if times get frighteningly bad, we can look to Him for peace and hope.

Paul writes that we should rejoice always. It is difficult to rejoice when we do not know what is going to happen tomorrow, but we do not face our troubles alone. “The Lord is near.” This promise is the foundation of everything we do today and always. As someone once said, “Worry is unconscious blasphemy.” Worry is self-centered. When we worry we focus on our own inability to handle the problems in the world. It makes us and our works the center of our attention. Worry is the opposite of faith. Instead of worry, we are called to live in prayer and thanksgiving, knowing that God is able.

Have you ever known anyone who was perpetually happy? Have you known one of those people that no matter where they are, no matter what is happening in their life they have a smile on their face? In the movie “Sister Act” starring Whoopi Goldberg, Kathy Najimy played Sister Mary Patrick, an upbeat nun who helped Sister Mary Clarence (Whoopi) find her place in the convent. Sister Mary Clarence was actually Delores Van Cartier, a Las Vegas headliner who was in hiding because her boyfriend had threatened her life. The convent life was far from Delores’s comfort zone and no matter how temporary it was to be, she needed people to help her adjust.

In one scene, Sister Mary Clarence and Sister Mary Patrick were sitting together, chatting about their lives. Slightly annoyed by the constant giddiness, Sister Mary Clarence asked Sister Mary Patrick if she was always so happy. Sister Mary Patrick answered, “Yes” and said that her mother thought she would grow up to be either a stewardess or a nun. Most of us look at people like her with the same annoyance as Delores. We can’t imagine always being happy. It is exhausting to be with them, how much more exhausting must it be to be them?

Yet Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, Rejoice.” Always is a very long time. Sister Mary Clarence seems to have found that place where she seems to be always rejoicing, but I don’t know many people who can get there. We go through a whole range of emotions, sometimes in just minutes. Even as we watch the movie “Sister Act” we experience fear, worry, sadness, hope, doubt and happiness. We react to the experiences of those characters on screen and we respond with smiles as well as tears.

However, rejoicing need not manifest merely as giddiness. Sister Mary Clarence has that kind of happiness, even in tough times, because she always sees the glass as half full. But we can rejoice even as we cry tears of pain and doubt because in this passage Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord.” This is different than mere happiness. This is living out trust in God and responding to the world with a steadfast faith that is visible to the world. It does not mean we have to smile at all moments, but it means standing firm in the promises of God knowing that He is faithful. It means praising God even in the midst of the pain and trouble that we experience. It means being thankful, even when it seems like there is nothing to be thankful for.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew writes, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” We tend to read this with some sense of haughtiness, since we who are believers consider ourselves amongst the chosen. We also deem ourselves as ‘one of the few,’ even separated from others who are counted among the believers. We think we are special, set aside because of our gifts and abilities rather than because of God’s grace. It is easy for us to think the verse refers to those who had been invited but who rejected the call to the banquet.

But the verse does not seem to fit in this story. After all, it comes just after a brief aside in which Matthew discusses one guest who has not put on the wedding garments. Only one guest is kicked out, only one guest is sent to the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Of the many that entered, only one is removed. I don’t think Matthew meant to say that the one sent out is the ‘one chosen.’ Instead, we are given something to think about. The person thrown out of the party had entered. He had accepted the invitation and was let in to enjoy the feast. But there was something he did not do. He did not wear the wedding garments.

We do not follow this tradition in our society, but in those days the host gave clean robes to the guests. They had traveled far on dusty roads. The robes were a gift from the host, so that the guests would feel fresh and clean for the feast. It showed a lack of respect for the host and for the gift to not refuse to wear the robe. It is suggested that the guest was cast out because he had not changed his ways or repented of his ‘grime.’ But we must be careful how much credence we put to that idea. There are many who think that none are welcome who have not yet become righteous according to a set of rules. They say that the guest was one who was still a sinner. Yet, every guest in that room still had the dust and dirt from the road; it was simply covered by the wedding garment. The guest was not cast out because he was grimy and dirty from the road, but because he rejected the gift that had been given.

So, as we consider this story, we wonder about who in today’s world are the ones invited who refused to come, the ones who came and wore the garment and the one who came but refused the gift. We might want to categorize our friends or neighbors, judging few to be ‘the chosen,’ while we automatically put ourselves into that category. We would do well to ensure that we are not basing our judgment on our own gifts and abilities, but to see that our welcome into the banquet is fully and wholely based on God’s invitation and His gift. If we expect to enjoy the banquet based on our own good works, our own righteousness, we will be sadly mistaken. It is only by the gift of the wedding robe, the righteousness of Jesus Christ, that we will be received at the great and glorious banquet which God is planning for us.

The guest at the banquet who refused to put on the gift is like the person who worries. The worrier does not recognize that God is near, that He has offered something of great value worth rejoicing always. This is certainly easier to type in words than to exhibit in actions, yet Paul gives us suggestions of ways to begin. Do whatever is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and commendable. Think about that which is worthy of praise. Follow the lessons learned from those who have walked in faith before us. As we do these things the peace of God will be with us. The peace is with us anyway, because where God is, His peace follows. But as we live in praise and thanksgiving, we will recognize the peace and rejoice. We might even bring some hope to our neighbors and change the world by sharing that peace.

The Old Testament passage from Isaiah begins with a hymn of thanksgiving in which the singer praises God for the things He has done, and for planning them long before there was ever a need. God knew at the beginning that His people would need Him. He knew they would fall. He knew they would be overcome. He knew they would face terrible enemies. And He promised to be faithful. He promised to protect them against the storm and the heat of the sun. Knowing that God has promised these things and that He is faithful, God’s people can go forth in faith even through the storms.

Even now, as we live in a time of fear and confusion, as we worry about what tomorrow will hold, we can sing the hymn of thanksgiving because God is still faithful. We can look forward to a day when things are better, knowing that it might not be comfortable or perfect for the moment because we will face times of trouble, but God is in control. He is with us and He can see beyond the moment. He has great things planned for His people and He will not allow us to be destroyed. There is a feast waiting for us, a feast we will enjoy in the day of the Lord. Our salvation is waiting for us on the other side of our fear and pain. Knowing this, we walk through the times of trouble with faith, praising God for all that will be because He has planned it and He is faithful

Psalm 23 is probably the most used scripture in our lectionary; this is the third time this year alone. So, we have discussed it from so many different angles over the years. I have little to say because I know I’ve said it so many times before. This is one of those passages we hear so often, as it is a favorite for funerals. When we hear these words we hear the promises of God’s caring hand on our lives. He takes care of our every need, even as we walk through that shadowy valley.

In our times of stress and worry, we all have things onto which we cling. We cling to them even when things are not going bad because they give us comfort and peace. As adults we do not take a blanket and stuffed animal to bed, but we do have other things we just do not want to do without. How many of us can’t face the day without a cup of coffee or cigarette? I know people who must hang certain pictures in their home or take special care of items they have which remind them of people they love or happy times. How many of us crave the chance to worry because it makes us seem like we have some control?

One place we can turn is to the scriptures, and yet they are not always as comforting as we might suppose. For many, Psalm 23 is filled with hope and it helps them through the difficult times, but it is not comforting to everyone. Our blankets seem old and smelly, that cup of coffee just something to drink. These things are unnecessary to those who find comfort in less tangible things. I had a friend who identified Psalm 23 with funerals and death. The Psalm will not bring comfort to that person, only more pain. It would do us well to remember that God has created each of us to be different. We are unique in not only our gifts and our personalities, but also in our needs. For one person, Psalm 23 might offer a glimpse into something wonderful while for another it will only bring pain. So, we are called to minister to each others in their needs, to help them find comfort during their own times of stress, doubt and fear.

The Epistle from Paul to the people at Philippi was written in part because two fellow co-workers for Christ were at odds. We don’t know why Euodia and Syntyche were fighting, but I’m sure we have all experienced disagreement between fellow believers. Perhaps it is not moreso today than in the days of Paul, or throughout the age of the Church, but it seems so for us. We are a divided people, unable to agree about much, even the color of the carpet. When we begin to discuss real issues, we become separated from one another, breaking the bonds of brotherhood and peace. Each side is passionate about their opinion and are willing to fight for what they believe to be right and true. Perhaps Euodia and Syntyche had differing opinions about certain doctrines of faith or the direction of the new and growing Church. Things haven’t changed. It would be impossible to find full agreement in the pews of our churches today, let alone between church bodies.

But Paul says, “Be of the same mind.” Does this mean that we have to agree fully about every detail of our faith? Some might think so, but Paul goes on to talk about rejoicing in the Lord. Despite our differences (differences that occur because God has created us as unique individuals), we can be of the same mind, praising God in all circumstances, even when things are not going so well. We can share the peace of God as we dwell in the love of God in Christ Jesus, instead of dwelling in our differences. As Paul writes, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is good—think on these things.” Jesus Christ is all this, and in Him we can rejoice together, singing praise and thanksgiving to God.

So, instead of worrying about tomorrow and arguing about insignificant details, let us remember that Christ has called us to be one in Him, of the same mind. We won’t agree about everything, but there is something about which all of us can agree—that He has given us the gift of His own righteousness, a robe to wear over our dirty and grimy selves. We are drawn together into a banquet of unlimited grace, a feast that has been promised in eternity but which we can enjoy even today. And as we wait, we join in the chorus of our forefathers who knew the words of praise and thanksgiving to sing to experience the peace and joy of living in God’s presence. They failed, as we all fail, with dirty clothes under the garment of grace. But when we feel like we should worry, like there’s nothing else for us to do, let us remember to sing and rejoice and we’ll forget about the fear and pain because we will know that God is dealing with it.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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