Saturday, October 14, 2017

October 15, Proper 23, Space, Practice, Vision #7: Resist, Respect, Rejoice

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

This parable is a Monty Python parable—comic, outrageous, exaggerated violence, an army at war while the banquet food is sitting ready on the tables. It’s a Road-Runner and Coyote parable, when that poor guest without a wedding garment gets thrown out like the Coyote to the bottom of the cliff, banged up and gnashing his teeth in bitter frustration. The parable is extreme and absurd.

Whatever is comic, whatever is confusing, whatever is vengeful, whatever is violent, whatever is impulsive, whatever is short-sighted, if there is any unfairness, if there is any impatience, that is this parable. Is this the Kingdom of Heaven that we want our draft mission statement to refer to?

It’s true that life under the Kingdom of Heaven can feel outrageous and extreme, and sometimes comical and sometimes troubling. Not so much that God will act like this, but when the Reign of God is near, if we don’t take the matter seriously, even before the pressure is on, and if we don’t move heaven and hell to receive it and accept it, then it’s going to feel like this. If the Lord is near, that means we’re in a day of decision and a day of judgment and a moment of truth, and though our choices may seem small, the outcomes are extreme.

While the Israelites were living in Egypt for 400 years, they were worshiping who-knows-what. Some combination of the gods of Egypt and Canaan and Abraham. Maybe some golden calves. But now the Lord has liberated them, and there is no return to the status quo ante. Once having accepted God’s invitation, even if hardly comprehending it, you can’t go back. If you accept an invitation to the banquet, don’t go without a garment. Show some respect to the God who brought you out of Egypt.

But the Israelites use their freedom to indulge their fears and appetites. “Make us gods that we’re familiar with. Make us gods who will serve us but not challenge us. Make us gods with no expectations.” God had liberated them for worship and for service, and they said, No Thanks.

You know the long-term story of the Bible is not just the story of God’s love. It’s the double-story of God’s love and our resistance. God’s grace and our ingratitude. God’s invitation and our refusal. God’s Yes and our No Thanks. The Kingdom coming and our resisting it. That’s the double-story of the Bible the whole way through, until the very end, when God says the final No to our No Thanks and all that’s left is Yes, the final Yes to which we witness by our worship and service.

If we compare the parable to our draft new mission statement, it does seem mostly to suggest a welcome that is unconditional. Everyone is welcome to the banquet, everyone both good and bad. Yet it also is conditional for that one guy who got tossed out. What do we make of this, even if the parable is absurd?

Well, the meaning of the parable is not within the parable, but in our response to it, and how we examine our own response to God. So that if I am suddenly invited to the banquet, then I’m going to show respect, and act the part, and get decked out to rejoice in my inclusion, or grab a sheet at least and show my respect for what God has done for me.

The Kingdom of Heaven is welcoming. You find yourself within it. Maybe you started coming to church, and then you began to see the Heavens not just above you but before you and around you. Maybe you grew up knowing you were in it; you always knew “The Lord is near.” However you find yourself within it, you face its challenge and its expectation that you embrace its expectation.

Which might daunt you, except that its expectation is most natural. Not the kind of “natural” that the flesh regards as natural, with our distractions and idolatries, with our typical indulgence of our fears and appetites, but the “natural” of God’s design, the truly human nature that we aspire to.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not some foreign realm, but the true reality that we were meant to live within. The Kingdom of Heaven is always coming near on earth for life within the world. The Kingdom of Heaven is our natural environment when our human nature is restored to be truly human as God intended us, and not in bondage to the idolatries that we run to whenever we indulge our fears and appetites. The Kingdom of Heaven is our true and native land for peace on earth and good will towards humankind. It is good ground for us to live on and healthy air for us to breathe. It is actually less alien to us than the pretense of reality that the empire wants our allegiance to.

That the Kingdom of Heaven is truly natural and not foreign is indicated by that marvelous sing-song list of virtues from Philippians: “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything praiseworthy, think about these things.” 

These virtues are in a vocabulary is not narrowly Biblical, but drawn from popular Greek philosophy. Any new convert could understand this list right off. You don’t even have to be a believer to see the virtue of these virtues. We can tell that St. Paul offers this list as the truly human virtues, recognized throughout the world, which every culture has aspired to.

What this means is that to live within the Realm of God, to live under the Kingdom of Heaven, is not to live apart for some utopia, but to live within the restoration of humanity and the reclamation of human culture. The Kingdom of Heaven is what the world desires even when it does not know its own desiring. To live it is to join in the Resistance, with a capital R, that is, the true and lawful government in resistance against the false and idolatrous empire that holds itself in power.

But not an armed resistance. Nor hidden, like the French Underground. But open and peaceful, with its gentleness known to everyone. Which is more revolutionary than the revolutionaries. You have to consider that this nice list of virtues and the call to be gentle were written to the Philippians when they were under constant threat of persecution. Their faith was illegal and seditious, and they could be rounded up for their loyalty to a foreign king. Their situation was like undocumented immigrants in America, or the Dreamers of DACA, always nervous of their place and subject to arrest. And yet what they should keep thinking about and doing is all the best of human aspirations.

It’s an amazing vision, and a constant choice. It does not just come. You will be tempted to keep thinking about the evil around you, and how you are misunderstood, and how things are going from bad to worse, and the imperial authorities are unjust, and Caesar is a brutal pig, even a moron, and Syntyche did this to Euodia and Euodia did that to Syntyche. You are tempted to irritation and defensiveness. So you have to keep the vision before you and to keep on choosing for it. The daily choices are often small but the outcome is extreme.

He says it another way. Keep choosing for joy. Rejoice, and again I say rejoice. Practice the resistance of rejoicing. Yes, join the Resistance, but make it a resistance of rejoicing. Dress up, get decked out. “Deck thyself, my soul, with gladness.” The banquet is set, the bridegroom is near! Keep your lamps trimmed and burning! Keep your wedding garment always ready.

The New Testament never gives a punch list for the practice of worship and service. Instead it offers a wide field, with room and space for flexibility, creativity, and improvisation. As an ethic it is  aesthetic and artistic. It looks like “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, any excellence, anything praiseworthy.” In fact this sing-song list is not so much a list as a field, and these virtues are not discrete—they overlap, they weave into each other, they blend into the fabric of the garment to wear to the banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The parable, for all its outrageous absurdity, is about a wedding reception. The wedding reception is one of Our Lord’s favorite images. It’s how he wants you to see your lives within the Reign of God. And what else is a wedding reception but a love-feast. A wedding reception celebrates pledging love and making love. Love is where the joy comes from—joy is the heady froth upon the wine that’s poured into the cup of love.

Yes, it always comes back to love, extreme love, outrageous love, absurdly unconditional love, the love that our reluctance and resistance cannot stop, because it is the overflowing love that rises from the eternal fountain of God’s heart.

Copyright © 2017, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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