Sermon for 10/11/20: Tools for Connecting the Dots

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19 Pentecost

Ps. 106:1 – 6, 19 – 23; Exodus 32:1 – 14; Philippians 4:1 – 9; Matthew 22:1 – 14

Finally, beloved, whatever is true…honorable…pure…pleasing…commendable, if there is any excellence, anything worthy of praise, think about these things…and the God of peace will be with you.  Philippians 4:8 -9

“Transparency,” “fact-checking,” “connect the dots,” “following the evidence,” “the back-story,” –these are all phrases that have found their way into everyday colloquial American, and heard with unending frequency during our current political season.  Because we tend to base our assumptions on our own experiences or on recent history, we are sore tempted to believe that we are the first to seek the truth.  The Bible, our Book of Record, teaches us otherwise.  The Apostle Paul provides us with intangible tools, with which we are able to connect the dots that will bring us to the essential truth of our being: There is one God and we shall not make unto ourselves the golden calf of the people of the Exodus.  And Jesus of Nazareth, preceding Paul and using other vocabulary, did not hesitate to hold up to his contemporaries the means needed to reach that truth.

I have often wished that we might rearrange the Bible, such that it were more linear, at least reorder our liturgical seasons, then perhaps the phrases most often used during political seasons would make sense and how politics lead to the Crucifixion.  My rearranged liturgical world would be: Advent – Christmas – Epiphany – Recruit and Mission – Lent – Passiontide/Easter – Ascension.  In my linear setting, that would allow the lessons which we hear during the Season of/after Pentecost to assume a more logical place.  My linear rearrangement would help us to grasp, lineally, what was behind the Crucifixion: when politics collides with the aim of God for the creation.

As reasonable as my linear suggestion may at first glance appear, it is not a realistic one.  For just as the earth, on which we live out our exciting, challenging, often frustrating but also exhilarating journey is spherical, not flat, so is our life’s journey not experienced in linear fashion.  Twists, turns, forward thrust, often minimal advancement—these all mark our journey, and so it is that we use “road signs” to continue our journey.  Likewise, is it that our dots to that one eternal truth, the omnipotence and benevolent God of Creation, are not laid out or experienced in a linear fashion.  But can we image Jesus of Nazareth involved in politics of his day?

Politics, you say?  How see you that in this allegory?  Look closely, if you will, at the record in the Book of the Exodus—the desires as expressed in today’s account that for their own satisfaction the people formed and worshipped as god a golden calf, molded from minerals form the earth.  Look closely at the people’s rejection of the generosity and privilege offered to attend a wedding feast that signals none other than the beginning of new life.  Look closely at the painful ejection of an interloper at a wedding feast who believed he could short-circuit requirements and expectations of joining in.  Paul, as noted prior, provides the dots which, when connected or followed, will assist us to that eternal truth.

Because our Book of Record teaches that Jesus was the earthly manifestation of the Triune God, heralded by angel, honored by Three Kings or Magi, and declared God’s beloved at his baptism, we shudder to think of innocent, truth-seeking and truth-telling Jesus as a politician.  I suspect that is because we hold politics to be something seedy, dirty, ugly, repugnant, rather than as a tool, a dot to help us in our journey.  The Pharisees, Scribes, and Priests of the Temple certainly had difficulty in accepting the preacher from Nazareth as authorized to involve himself in their lives.  Jesus prodded them to use the dots.

If we were to look objectively at the Old Testament prophets, it becomes immediately obvious that connecting of the dots in that era points us to a disarming fact: The prophets were at the forefront of political and social issues.  When we direct our attention to the New Testament era, there also it becomes clear that whether the Pharisees, the Scribes, the Priests, out of fear of alienating or arousing the people, refuse to say that Jesus is not from God or a prophet, Jesus was not holding forth in a secluded in seminar room at a university.  Rather, he was in the thicket of things.  He stood in the marketplace, in the Temple, in the Synagogues where the people were, where life was being lived.

Our Book of Record makes no mention that Jesus benefited from a formal education of any kind.  In fact, just the opposite is emphasized over and over again.  He was a man of and from the people.  He lacked an advanced degree in Social Psychology or Business Administration.  Yet, in spite of his lowly carpenter’s background, Jesus understood *and understands* that his mission was to the people, the “polis,” a Greek term, from which we derive “politics, policy, police,” and which refers to the commonwealth, that which is held in trust for the good of all.  Jesus’ every word and action expressed concern for God’s Created Ones.  And if God declared the “polis” good, when properly approached and developed, how, then, ought we to declare it dirty, seedy, ugly, repugnant?

Jesus is relentless in reaffirming the wonders of Creation and God’s grace to the “polis,” the people, even when the people’s rebellion, as recorded in the Book of Exodus, merits God’s displeasure.  This rejection by those who ought to know of God’s eternal pledge to sustain the people, is recited anew in Matthew’s gospel for a new era.  Theoretically a tale about a wedding feast, the ones to whom this story was told understood its allusion.  It lays out God’s independence and ability to seek out others who might find it an honor and a privilege to celebrate the joy of new beginnings.  Irresponsible and self-serving leadership are an abomination to God.  To be sure, the Apostle Paul had yet to appear on the scene to give the dots, the tools, which would help those in authority to achieve for themselves and others the connection to truth, the transparency which God desires in our relationships.  But, how could those holding positions of responsibility not know story of the Exodus and of God’s magnanimity, a tale told each year in the celebration of the Passover?  They knew, of course, but self-interest clouded their vision.  Without transparency, their response was to neglect those in need, to jail, to behead, to crucify their opponents.

However, Jesus makes them uncomfortable, by setting up another “roadblock,” as it were.  He gives them another dot, another opportunity to correct their direction.   As we read the conclusion of the parable recorded by Matthew, we might be tempted to declare its ending, either an ad-on or the portrayal of the King as a brutal sovereign, when one of the guests is ejected from the marriage feast.  But is that so?

The King is persistent that the celebration of new life should be made, and so he instructs his servants to go into the streets and, apparently, quite indiscriminately, invite everyone they could.  What this tells us, if we fast forward our thinking and assume, I believe quite rightly, that Jesus was referencing God, is that God has determined that all are welcome at the feast.  He did not place any restrictions or set any preconceived conditions.  All were welcome at the table.bread and tomatoes

You would think that finally the king and his son would be happy.  The banquet was an incredible feast and the wedding hall was filled with guests.  And as generous as the king was, the son’s wedding celebration was almost spoiled, for there was this one individual who “dissed” the king, by not being properly attired.  This man was removed from the party and his removal was described in the most frightening language: “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Mt. 22.13)

Why, we ask ourselves, should the king not be generous with this outlier, if the king’s servants had just corralled folks off the street?  Did the king allow his newly invited guests ample time to purchase or make a wedding garment?  That is precisely the point.  The king prepared not only the feast itself, but provided that proper attire for his guest, as was custom of the day.

As we look at this allegory, we are reminded that clothing often is mentioned, especially in the New Testament by Paul: “Put on the breastplate of righteousness,” just to name one instance.  It becomes obvious that this man thought that an exception would be made for him.  Special occasions require special responses.  You and I call it respect, common courtesy, and decency.  Just as it would be unthinkable for a bridesmaid or groomsman to refuse to wear attire appropriate to the occasion, for the announcement would carry such details, an appropriate robe to a wedding feast was the rule of the hour.

I am reminded of the stately senior citizens residence on North Lake Shore Drive in Chicago where the aunt of my late wife lived. The place afforded its residents a panoramic view of the Chicago skyline and of Navy Pier on Lake Michigan.  Grand it was, and with it came certain expectations.  Breakfast and lunch were casual.  However, dinner was formal.  Every male above 12 years of age was required to wear a jacket to dinner, no exception.  Should a man, even a guest of a resident, appear without a coat, entry would be denied.  But salvation was offered: a jacket was quickly produced for him.  It may not match his other outer attire; yet decorum is maintained.

The king was gracious, had opened his doors to perfect strangers, Oxen and fatted calves had been prepared.  It was, likewise, the obligation of the king to provide attire for his guests.  The one man needed only to have request a wedding robe, and, by right and custom, the servants of the king would have provided him one.  This fellow did not take seriously the importance of the occasion.  He was disrespectful, not only to the king and the wedding party, but showed likewise no respect for the other guests.  He wanted only what he could enjoy for himself.  The king was building community, the polis, the commonwealth.

Of all the stories that Jesus offers the Pharisees, Scribes, and Priests of the Temple, in order to correct errant behavior, this one is for me the most beautiful.  Why, you may well ask?  My answer is a simple one: This parable reassures me of a generous, not a jealous God, of a God who brings diverse individuals together, not shut off from each other.  God invites all, everyone, into a relationship with all that is holy, including those who by my standards ought perhaps to be excluded.  All are welcome at the table, but with a singular requirement: we must wear the breastplate of righteousness.  God invites you and me into relationship over and over again, through Scriptures, through our Eucharistic celebrations, through messengers who cross our paths in daily life.

As to the one who comes, but who is not yet really ready or willing to lead that life of acceptance that should mark our Christian foundation, we of faith must in our own interaction with others respond by living a life that is acceptable and pleasing to God.  Our own action must show what attire is acceptable.  Individually, each of us becomes one of the dots that lead to transparency, that lead to the truth of God’s intention for us.  While this is an invitation that many make light of, God, so I believe, hopes that all will rejoice in this invitation.  May a forgiving and loving God be exalted for providing us and all humankind always with the dots that lead us to eternal truth.    Amen