s061g99 Sunday 28 a Somerton Park 10/10/99 Sunday 28
"The king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen." Matthew 22:13,14.
This last statement of this parable I find curious - for many are indeed called, but it still seems, if the parable reflects reality, the wedding hall was still filled with guests. It is but a few, four in all, who exempt themselves. So I can't explain the words "few are chosen" - at least in the light of the parable.
As I have grown up I have thought that this parable was a stern injunction to be ready on time, to dress correctly (hair especially was meant to be cut to a "respectable" length), and generally to behave in Church like one would walk through a minefield. The interpretation of the parable was really always in the light of the words "few are chosen" - which, as I have said, really are a little at odds with the rest of the parable. So children were to be seen and not heard - even better if they were usefully occupied in Sunday School. I should say that I do like orderly worship (and I shall return to this later), but I still remember the priest in the parish of my youth saying that he didn't mind how people were dressed when they came to Church, as long as they came. This is a sentiment with which I would heartily concur - well, within limits I suppose :-)
It is interesting to me that the parable has traditionally been interpreted in the light of the words "few are chosen". Does this again reflect a strict discipline imposed on ourselves - either by others or by ourselves as well. How does this discipline square with the proclamation of the gospel? For all I respect discipline, I would more often rather do without it :-)
For I begin to wonder if we have not made coming to Church - being ready on time, dressed correctly (hair cut to a "respectable" length), and treading carefully like one would walk through a minefield. This seems to me to be very much like being bound "hand and foot", where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth".
The constant theme of this parable is that some "important" people didn't want to be there. The important people were those who had been invited beforehand - they were so important. They had farms and businesses to go to, and power to mistreat and kill the messengers of the king.
So in all likelihood, the man without the wedding robe also didn't want to be there either. He didn't want to be there, he didn't want to join in the celebrations; indeed in all likelihood he found himself in the company of people he really wouldn't normally want to be associated with - even though their lowly station in life was masked by the wedding garments provided for by the host. He knew who they were, he could see them, the wedding garments didn't deceive him, and he didn't want to be seen with them. I mean, after all, they were from the streets, both good and bad, we are told.
Of course he didn't need a wedding garment like them, for he was already dressed better than any of these others would hardly dream of in ordinary circumstances. His attire was most likely, as we would say in Australia, in the best of Italian suits. He was the sort of person we would heartily welcome into our midst - particularly for the fat wallet in the jacket (or handbag).
I have no doubt that this person was inwardly "weeping and gnashing" his teeth rather than joining in the celebrations. He condemns himself to that same existence for all eternity. The wedding garment was not external, he was no "scruff". The wedding garment was internal; he didn't want to join in the celebrations, precisely because he didn't want to be seen to be associating with the lowly. He wasn't in a mood to celebrate with these people; he really was looking for the quickest exit, and guess what - he found it! The King puts him out of his misery; though it is only to an equivalent misery.
Is coming to our Church like walking through a minefield, or is it like a celebration? Are we really happy to welcome one and all, or only provided new-comers don't change anything? And of course I mean this in a far wider sense than here at St Philip's.
I began this sermon on the day after it was announced that a Bishop had resigned after he found himself unable to bear the burden from a brief extra-marital affair fifteen years earlier. No one wishes to encourage extra-marital affairs. But I have no doubt what so ever that this man has punished himself far more than God ever would have done. Is it just that he has tripped on one of those mines that seem to be found, particularly in Church circles - and how often do those that look on "get a kick" out of the explosion? I still remember going to car races at the old "Rowley Park" when we were young. The best nights were when someone had a real bingle - though we didn't really want anyone hurt. I most certainly join the chorus of support for this Bishop, and pray for him and his family, that he will find release from his burden, a continuing ministry and place for his obvious gifts.
The episode of the latest adult cartoon, curiously showing the same evening as I prepared this sermon - South Park - was an episode where people began to "spontaneously combust". It would be funny, if it weren't so damn frequent.
The wedding garment of Christians is that we are forgiven, that we are plain ordinary sinners just like everyone else. No one is better, or worse, than anyone else. We are here because of one reason and one reason alone, because the King has invited us. This also means that no one is more important here, or less important here (least of all me). The parable tells us that we are here, first and foremost, to celebrate the fact that we are invited, that we are here. If we are weeping and gnashing our teeth because we are here, then God will, quite happily, put us with those whose lives are made up of weeping and gnashing of teeth - elsewhere - somewhere where the celebrations will not be spoiled by such ungraciousness.
So let us sing the Agnus Dei: "Jesus, Lamb of God have mercy on us, Jesus bearer of our sins, have mercy on us, Jesus redeemer of the world, grant us your peace" not with weeping and gnashing of teeth, but joyfully, knowing that God is already merciful - because we are here, because God has invited each and every one of us. For if St Paul can exhort us to "be merciful with cheerfulness" - with hilarity - God must certainly be able to live up to St Paul's injunction better even than we can (Rom 12.8). May the laughter of God rid us all from the demons of eternal self recrimination and despair.
Let us be happy that we are here, no matter what I say in the sermon, no matter which hymns we sing, and most especially no matter to whom next we are sitting.
There is, however, an etiquette associated with wedding feasts, and with Church services. ...
I want also to affirm that I do believe strongly that worship is for children, and I acknowledge that this is a congregation where we do rejoice that the familiar pattern of worship is not so rigid that we cannot cope with a cry or a bit of a tantrum. I've "been there and done that" in the lives of our own family often enough in times past. I only hear when my own have caused some small disturbance. I, and I am sure everyone else here, accepts that young people can only learn the etiquette as they experience worship. They need to experience first hand the value we place on this time together, and they can only do that through first hand experience.
Indeed this is the reason I have consistently disregarded those calls for worship to go longer than an hour. Worship is meant for all, younger and older. If we want young people in Church, then an hour is the limit. Young people, quite legitimately, have other things to do. If we only want older people, whose existences are indeed more relaxed, then the services can be longer. There is always next week. If I say everything this week, why should anyone bother coming next Sunday? And, I am told, some older ones occasionally don't want to miss the tennis on TV either :-)
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