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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Beggars Made Worthy

October 15, 2017
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 22:1-14
Sermon Series, “Barriers to Generosity” – Entitlement

          I have a keen interest in the British royalty. I love to read both history in general and historical fiction of England. I’m fascinated with the lives royals lead, and with the ritual and tradition that surround them.  Last year, for instance, the two television programs I most enjoyed binge watching were “Victoria” – based on the life of Queen Victoria I, and “The Crown,” based on Elizabeth II, the reigning Queen of England.
          As a result, I find royal weddings kind of exciting. The first royal wedding I very clearly remember was that of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. I recall the excitement of the crowds, straining to get a look at Lady Diana in her royal carriage on the way to St. Paul’s Cathedral; the pageantry; her charming stumble over the order of her husband-to-be’s multiple names. What fun to be invited to such a spectacle and party!
          So, I have to tell you that if I received an invitation to a royal wedding, I would feel enormously honored and grateful to be among those to be included. There is no way I can expect to ever receive such an invitation. Therefore, if I indeed received one, not only would it come as a great surprise but I would do everything in my power to come, prepared to show not only my gratitude and joy, but my utter respect and desire to please and honor the queen or king issuing the invitation.
          So, what’s wrong with the people who were the first to receive the invitation to the king’s son’s wedding in today’s gospel text? The king must have been so pleased to issue the invitation. With great pride and with over-the-top generosity, surely, he looked forward to having the grateful recipients of the invitation come to honor both him and his son by their presence. What a party he was prepared to throw!
What’s wrong with these people who surprisingly declined the invitation? Who simply would not come? Who had better things to do with their time – more important things demanding their time and attention?
          Not only did they decline the initial invitation, but they made light of it – they behaved as if they were entitled to the invitation, and could simply choose to attend only if it were convenient enough for them to do so – only if they had nothing better to do. They behaved as if this invitation and the honor it conveyed was all about them and had nothing to do with the honor, fealty and praise that was the king’s due.
          Now, we all know that rulers can be incredibly thin-skinned. When thwarted they can behave like children having a full-blown and devastating temper tantrum, with devastating and deadly results. After all, kings expect the ultimate respect, honor, and worship of their subjects.
So, when we read what seems to be the over-the-top reaction of the king to the insult that has been dealt him when even a second invitation he issued was rejected, we are shocked.
But the people hearing this parable for the first time would have gotten it. They would have understood the disconnect - the deep disloyalty of these invitees, who have repaid the king’s generous invitation with disregard and insult; they would have understood the tragic ramifications of their rejection.
          But, as the parable goes on, it is not just the outright rejection of those on the king’s first invitation list that is brought under scrutiny. Another group of people is invited.
These are the ones who probably think the likelihood of them ever receiving an invitation from the king is about the same as my ever being invited to the next royal wedding. Null. So, when they do receive an invitation, they are excited. They don’t even care that they weren’t in the first group, they never expected to be. Instead, they are grateful to be thought of at all.
Anyone accepting this invitation would want to put their best foot forward, to be seen as grateful for the generosity of the king, and worthy by the king’s grace to be in the mere presence of the king and his son, let alone to be their honored guests.
          So it is surprising – shocking, even, when this one person behaves in a manner that shows his hosts less than the honor and praise they deserve. He seems to think that all he needs to do is just show up.
While those attending this wedding would be given the appropriate wedding dress provided by the king himself, this person eschews even that tradition. It just doesn’t suit him. He’s happy to come to the party, but seems to take the rest for granted.     
The problem with the first group who were invited and with this single invitee seems to be the same. They lack the proper attitude toward their gracious host and king. They lack the respect to accept the generosity of the king as pure gift and not simply as their due. They forget to respond with the proper sense of gratitude and awe for being included in the party at all.
Their basic sense of entitlement gets in the way of any gratitude at all.
          Each week, we are invited to the greatest feast imaginable. This is the feast, Martin Luther wrote, of the marriage - the union between heaven and earth. We come together in worship as undeserving guests, to praise God and offer our thanksgiving for this marriage, the incarnation of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. We are invited to the banquet to celebrate God’s love and generosity and our inclusion in the marriage feast.   
On our own, we are not worthy to be here, but by God’s good grace we are among both the good and the bad, saint and sinner both, who have received the invitation. We don’t deserve this honor, in fact there is nothing we could do to be so deserving. We come not because we are great but because God is great and steadfast in love, mercy, and generosity.
The problem with entitlement is, that whenever we allow ourselves to believe that we deserve what we have, or are somehow more worthy than another, we will find ourselves incapable of gratitude. The proper response to the king’s invitation is to run breathless to the banquet, dressed for the marriage of heaven and earth, wondering how we ever got on such a guest list.
When we come to church, we answer God’s gracious invitation to unite around the table. While we find community here, we don’t come for community. While we find lovely music and pleasing surroundings and friendships here, we don’t come for those things.
We find forgiveness of our sins here, but we should not forget that we come as beggars in need of God’s mercy, neither entitled to it nor deserving of it. But, because God loves us so, we come to be surprised, humbled and grateful to be among those Christ serve at the table of life. Such gratitude requires us to sing out for joy, and cry out in thanksgiving and praise of God.
In the traditional eucharistic liturgy still in use in some places is this confession: “I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.” We would do well to use these words in our liturgy as well, and to embrace the truth within them.
Our birthright as followers of Jesus Christ is to remember that none of us is worthy – none of us deserves to be here; therefore, we should respond to this invitation with nothing short of humble gratitude and thanksgiving.
Like the guests invited to the wedding feast in our gospel story, we too are provided a garment appropriate for the celebration.
The garment we are provided is the righteousness that comes from God.
This garment, in which we become clothed in baptism, sets us apart as the glad recipients of God’s grace. It is the outward expression of the inward change God performs in us in the sacrament through which God calls us Child of God.
It is no ordinary garment, even by the finest of standards. For this garment is comprised of threads of compassion, generosity, kindness, and forgiveness. The fabric of this garment is knit with concern for social justice, care for the poor and the marginalized. The golden thread that holds together the seams of this garment was spun from the blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and it compels us, to welcome other to the feast.
It compels us to be not only guests, but servants. It reminds us that in the eyes of God, whether we came from the stock of the good or the bad, we are forever transformed by God’s grace, united with Jesus Christ and with one another at the table.
Worthy? No, except by the love and mercy of God, which knows no bounds. Deserving to be here? No, but our inclusion compels us not only to come to the party, but to come prepared to give honor and glory to the host with thanksgiving, joy, respect and love. May it be so.

Monday, October 2, 2017

That Was the Best Time of Our Lives!

10-1-2017, Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Lectionary Series on Barriers to Gratitude
Exodus 17:1-7
        By the time we had our second and third children, I was lucky enough to be be a stay-at-home mom.
        We wanted and were blessed with three children. Like the Israelites had prayed for their lives, we had prayed for healthy children, especially after we lost a child during pregnancy and conceiving again took longer than we had hoped.
       So here I was, surrounded by my three cherubs! I loved their baby days. I loved getting up in the middle of the night to feed them, while our house and the world around it was fast asleep and oh, so quiet; sitting with them for hours, cuddling; reading books on the sofa or lying in bed soaking in the love, their little arms and legs forming a cocoon around me. Those were the days!
       I loved the smell of my children; the sweet baby fragrance, later replaced by the fresh-air-and-earthy smell when they came in from playing outside. In fact, I loved those days so much, that even now, when I look through old pictures from that season of our lives, I want to weep for missing them. Truly, those were the days! <p>
       When my children were young and I was a stay-at-home Mom, I took up journaling. It was a way to preserve my sanity, though some may question how well it really worked.
Life with one school-aged child and two toddlers was a little crazy, often totally exhausting, and sometimes really frustrating. Most days, there was just not enough of me to go around.
       While I was cleaning up one mess, the “cherubs” were usually delightfully busy making two or three more. I was outnumbered.
       With three to run after, schedules to juggle, and living far from any of our family, with minimal support system, those days could be hard. Many of you have been there.
       Through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, I look back blissfully on the wonderful, sweet, utopian memories of those days, and think how perfect they were. The journals I kept are a great reality check.
       As I read through them, I read loving reflections on the blessing of motherhood, followed by the details of a day to day existence that was fraught with tension, exhaustion, frustration, loneliness, isolation, confusion, worry and fear. Some days as I wrote in my journal, I just skipped the “how blessed is motherhood” part and went right into the venting part.
When I pick up one of those journals now, I read about the days I thought I would lose my mind. I read about the relative lack of reward for so much hard work and heartache. I read words reflecting my worry that I might not be getting it right – could I be permanently scarring my children with my mothering choices? In the pages of those journals, I read of quite a different experience from the one of my nostalgia-addled memories. <p>
Not long before the events of our First Reading take place, the people who have been praying so hard for God to liberate them are freed from the cruel grip of slavery in Egypt. They who have suffered so long in misery as slaves under Pharaoh, were finally and quite dramatically led into freedom by Moses.
       God did the incredible, answering their prayers and giving them miraculous, safe passage not only away from the despot, Pharaoh, but away from the hard labor, heartache and demoralization of their slavery.
       Through Moses, God to lead the Israelites on a path to freedom, parting the waters of the Red Sea, and giving them safe passage away from the pursuing armies of the Pharaoh. The first response of the people after their liberation was a grand celebration. The women danced and Miriam sang, ‘Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
       But, not long after, within a few verses, in fact, the miracle has worn off and the people fall into a pattern of grumbling. They forget to trust God. They keep forgetting all that God has done – they forget about the Passover and the parting of the Red Sea; and the gift God gave them in this leader, Moses, whom God equipped to guide them through the rough places toward a promised land. They fail to look around and see God’s presence and provision for them each day.
       In our text today, we see it again. When they tested and stressed, rather than trust God, they grumble.
       Now, this truly has to be one of the signs you’ve really lost it: when you start to idealize your past, even though your past involves being a slave to the Egyptian Pharaoh: “Back in the good old days,” you enthuse, “when we spent all day in the hot sun, making bricks and doing the back-breaking work of building pyramids, when we had no rights, no freedom, when we could be beaten to death for not producing enough, for being too old or weak or sick or slow, and the Pharaoh occasionally killed all our male children - yeah, those were the good old days!”
       And then, what happens next? These Israelites get so lost in their grumbling that they end up going in circles for forty years! An entire generation passes away because they are lost in their nostalgia and nostalgia, candy-coated, much-improved rendering of what once was never leads you forward; it casts an impossible standard. .
I sure loved those baby days; Except when I didn’t. We sure were happier, more secure, more complete; except that we really weren’t.

The present can never match an idealized past, and being lost in that past keeps us from seeing the things that are all around us that are truly gifts from God for our present. Nostalgia leaves us stuck in the quicksand of our edited memories, perpetually ungrateful for the place we now find ourselves. Clinging to a season of our past, nostalgia quietly steals our joy and even, our hope; it makes us indifferent to the flowing streams of living water God is providing even now in our wilderness.
       Like the Israelites, when we are trapped in the rosy past, we are blinded to the constant provision of God - today. When we focus on the idealized past, we are numbed to the way that God is acting - now. When that happens, we, too, become trapped in the spiritual lands of Massa, meaning “test” and Meribah, meaning “find fault.”
       Nostalgia not only cripples us as individuals, but also as a community of faith. We recently held a series of Cottage Meetings. During those conversations, we named concerns about our life together today, and we got to name hopes and dreams for tomorrow. We also identified the ways we are blessed today, and gifts we see among and around us; we got to name ministries and activities we do really well.
       Here are some anecdotal observations about those conversations that  reveal some interesting patterns:
First, the greater the institutional memory of the group – that is, groups that were made up of a higher percentage of long the higher the percentage of the group was made up of long-time members, the lower their ability to name blessings. Conversely, groups with a greater percentage of new members present, having little to no institutional memory in this community, were more able to name blessings and gifts, and were more able to hope and dream for the future of the church.
Similarly, groups with longer-term members, had a greater number of concerns framed by comparison with the past. This is not surprising. Discontent of today was viewed through the rose-colored lens of yesteryears.
As a whole while the Christian church is struggling and declining, we are apt to frame our grief through the glorified visions of the churches of the past.
Yet, the church of the idealic past had problems of its own. Massive building projects often tore away at the unity of congregations, we saw the beginnings of white flight, churches divided, the stirring of the Civil Rights movement caused dissention within churches in many places, and the establishment of suburban communities drew thriving ministries away from the cities. This led the theologian Paul Tillich to call suburban Christianity, “one of the greatest dangers for Protestantism.”
All this led to the beginning of the unraveling of what many today would call the traditional church.
Back in our Cottage Meetings, newer members named more blessings, drew lists of things to be grateful for, recognized more places where God is working within the church, which led to more hopes and dreams being named, particularly in outward-looking ministries.
Nostalgia affects us all. It takes practice and intentionality to look around us and to recognize the blessings and gifts with which our world and our very lives are blessed on a daily basis.
My babies grew up and have all become fine young adults. I still miss those baby days sometime, and I cherish my memories of those days, but can appreciate and even look forward to the ways they will bless the world.
Grace is nearing it’s one hundredth anniversary. Ministries have come and gone and our culture during her lifetime. Our culture has vastly changed, but there is a rich community into which God is sending us to serve and to share his presence, gifts and love. I see God at work inspiring us to ever greater generosity in our feeding ministries, in providing school supplies for youth service projects, in the youth ministry we’ll kick-off this afternoon, in the quilting group that will meet on Wednesday and in the groups that use our building, every day of the week.
God is at work in our ecumenical relationships and work; in the faith discussions that take place each Sunday morning around the tables in Fellowship Hall. I see God in our ministry focused on the care of creation, in members reaching out in the past few weeks to so many who have been devastated by storms; God is present in the beautiful music we so enjoy. The best way I can see to stop being paralyzed by the past or kept from building up the future of this church, is by intentionally increasing our gratitude quotient.
       I invite you to practice seeing how God is present and active in your life each week. God is constantly reaching out and blessing us, growing us, stretching us, using us, and accompanying us in all we do. When we open our eyes, ears, and hearts, we will see God at work in everything.
       Rather than the sugar-coated, rosy-lenses of nostalgia, let’s develop the practice of seeing God’s presence, activity and love in our world, and responding to it with deep gratitude.
       Liberation from our past will allow us to walk in faith toward God’s future, full of promise and blessing, casting a vision for generosity and gratefulness living. AMEN.