Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A sermon illustration: Relax and Enjoy the Party

One thing I really miss about St. Thomas is having the opportunity to preach. We seminary juniors (first-years) do not have that privilege, but we do get to hear great sermons by the seniors, and we look forward to our field education placements, where we will probably also have preaching duties.

So in my church history class, I was rather excited to be given the assignment of a "sermon illustration," an outline of a sermon citing a historical source. In this case, I chose the 1552 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, published during the brief, tumultuous reign of Edward VI as the English were trying to figure out just how Protestant they were going to be.

Because I love to preach, I went ahead and wrote the entire sermon, then backed it down to an outline for the sake of the assignment. Actually, I think this was easier than writing the outline only. And who knows? The finished sermon may come in handy on October 12, 2014. If so, I’ve never worked this far ahead in my life. This will be the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, with the lectionary readings for Proper 23A. The texts are Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9, and Matthew 22:1-14.


sermon written at VTS as an assignment for Church History with Dr. Gray
by Josh Hosler
appropriate to Proper 23A/ October 9, 2011
assignment due December 9, 2011

Toward the end of my first semester of seminary, while I was drowning in more reading than it was possible to complete, writing three papers in a week, and studying for exams besides, not to mention carrying out family responsibilities, worrying about money, and doing Christmas shopping, I came to a decision. I decided I no longer wanted to be anxious about money, or my daughter’s developmental stages, or my wife’s employment, or my grade point average. I didn’t want to worry about whether I would have energy to give to a good cause, or money to pledge to God’s work in the world. It’s a realization that I think a lot of us come to sooner or later: life is just too short to take everything so darn seriously. I’ve seen it on a bumper sticker before: “Life’s a beach … and then you dance!” The Bible phrases it differently, in a way that shows how high the price is for being anxious: “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?”

But let’s back up a bit. First, let’s all admit that this is one confusing and unsettling parable. At first glance, it doesn’t seem at all like this parable of Jesus—given very shortly before he was crucified—could lessen our anxiety is any way. First there’s an orgy of hate, murder and vengeance, much of it perpetrated by the host of the party himself. We assume the kingly host represents God, and we don’t like God to act this judgmental. But maybe we can overlook the first part and celebrate the fact that God invites “the last and the least” to the party instead of those who are wealthy and privileged. OK. Maybe this isn’t such a tough parable after all.

And then we get to the wedding robe.

I’m sure you’re all wondering what I’m wondering. If the king had his servants comb the streets and compel the poor, the hungry and the homeless to come in, how could he possibly hold them accountable for their clothing? After all, we don’t expect the homeless man to put on a suit and tails before entering the soup kitchen. We don’t go to the teen drop-in center expecting to see expensive prom dresses. So we naturally shudder at the thought that something as superficial as clothing could make any difference to God.

Augustine of Hippo first put forward the idea that the king would have provided appropriate clothing for all his guests, so naturally it would have been a willful snub not to wear it. Some scholars disagree, although there is some evidence of the custom. But perhaps we are taking the wedding garment too literally. After all, it is a parable. Parables are not even direct allegories, but stories that are intended to turn conventional wisdom upside down and reveal surprising good news. In this way, the most shocking parts of the story become the parts we are meant to pay the most attention to.

Many metaphorical interpretations of the wedding garment have been put forward throughout the history of the church. We don’t need to worry about whether a metaphor is “the right one,” but rather, whether a given metaphor is useful to get a theologically appropriate point across. In the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, published during the reign of King Edward VI, this story of the wedding banquet was woven throughout the Eucharist. In fact, if you’ve ever felt the Eucharistic prayer is too long, just be happy you weren’t around in 1552. That prayer book contained a stern warning just before the Great Thanksgiving, to be used “at certain tymes when the Curate shal see the people negligent to come to the holy Communion.” A small portion of that warning read:

Ye knowe how grevouse and unkynde a thing it is, when a man hath prepared a riche feaste, decked his table with al kinde of provision, so that there lacketh nothing but the geastes to sit down: and yet they which be called, without any cause most unthankefully refuse to come. Which of you, in such a case, would not be moved? Who would not thynke a great injury and wrong done unto him? Wherfore, most derely beloved in Christ, take ye good hede, lest ye with drawyng yourselves from this holy supper, provoke god's indignacion against you. It is an easy matter for a man to saye, I wyll not communicate, because I am otherwyse letted with worldly busines: but suche excuses be not so easily accepted and allowed beefore god.[1]

In other words, don’t skip out on the party, or God, who has prepared a feast for you, will be deeply offended.

The second disclaimer was also to be used “at the discrecion of the Curate.” Its purpose was to ensure that the parishioners “searche and examine your own consciences, as you should come holy and cleane to a moste Godly and heavenly feaste: so that in no wise you come but in the mariage garment, required of god in holy scripture; and so come and be received, as worthy partakers of suche a heavenly table.” In other words, make sure you’ve confessed your sins, committed yourself to full repentance, reconciled yourself to any neighbors you may be on bad terms with, and made restitution where appropriate, all before daring to partake of the feast. Those who still had doubts about their worthiness were to speak with a priest one-on-one so as to be brought to trust God’s grace. Only then could these parishioners receive communion. Otherwise, “For then we be giltie of the bodye and bloud of Christ our saviour. We eate and drynke our own damnacion, not consideryng the Lordes body. We kindle Goddes wrath againste us, we provoke hym to plague us with divers diseases, and sundry kynds of death.”[2]

The fact that the church saw a need for both of these disclaimers back in 1552 tells me two things: (1) the people needed a lot of education about communion at this point in history, and  (2) they really felt and expressed that the stakes around the sacrament of communion are very high indeed. If you believe that communion must be taken a certain way, but that it definitely must be taken, it’s hard not to feel extremely anxious, right? Maybe that’s why so many of us nowadays have decided it’s really not that big a deal. It’s a matter of personal conscience whether to take communion. Some Episcopal churches are intent on inviting absolutely everybody to the table, even those who aren’t baptized. Other churches would never dream of doing this, partly because it’s contrary to what we as a church have agreed on, and partly because they do believe it is possible to take communion in the wrong way and thus incur divine wrath.

In light of all this historical background, I would like to propose two seemingly contrary statements: (1) the stakes around communion are, indeed, very high, and (2) it’s nothing to be anxious about. How can I preach such a paradox? Well, for one thing, I believe, to paraphrase Augustine of Hippo again, that God is closer to you than you are to yourself. God understands why you do the things you do, and if you do something inexcusable, God will call you on it one way or another. This might come through a twinge of conscience, a talking-to from a friend or stranger, or some other occurrence. Whether it’s ever inexcusable to take communion is between you and God.

But I think the advice from the 1552 prayer book has not lost any of its necessity: make sure you’ve confessed your sins, committed yourself to full repentance, reconciled yourself to any neighbors you may be on bad terms with, and made restitution where appropriate, all before partaking of the sacrament. If you don’t feel “right with God,” come up with your arms across your chest, indicating you’d like to receive a blessing. If there’s someone in the room right now whom you have offended or toward whom you have ill feelings, approach that person at the Peace—which, after all, comes right after the confession of sin but before communion—and say, “I’m sorry.” You don’t have to go into details—just let the person know there’s something you need forgiveness for. Ask that person to go up to communion and receive right next to you. Then, if there’s more you need to discuss, be intent about arranging a time for that discussion.

What does all this have to do with the wedding garment? Simply this: that if God is throwing us a party, you really don’t want to be the party-pooper. There’s room in the party for absolutely everybody who wants to be there. As the old song goes: “People get ready for the train to Jordan … don’t need no ticket/ You just thank the Lord.” You don’t need to wear fancy clothes, but if you are going to try to crash the party with a sour attitude, wondering how all this other riffraff got in, then why did you bother to come in the first place? In this way, the stakes are very high: how can you enjoy the party if (a) you don’t believe the party is for you, or (b) you think so-and-so shouldn’t be in the party with you?

This is why belief is so important. Belief is trust, and if you trust that you are forgiven, healed and renewed—and that so is everybody else—this party is for you. Receive God’s gift humbly and graciously. And never presume that there is anybody out there whom God deems unworthy of the same gift. After all, we can’t earn our way into God’s good graces. We’re already there.

As Paul wrote in the reading we just heard from his letter to the Philippians:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (4:1-9)

Did you hear that? The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but let go of all your anxiety, put on your most grateful outfit, and have a drink. Don’t throw an anxiety party, like the Israelites did in the wilderness, giving up on God and Moses and, in their fear, creating a golden idol to worship instead. Relax! God is not missing. The minute you talk to God, you reveal that God is there. The minute you take Christ’s body and blood into you, trust and grace can course through your veins and give you renewed strength. The minute we put away our pride and guilt and are ready to admit that God loves us and forgives us all no matter what we have done or left undone, the party can begin. Amen.

[1] The Society of Archbishop Justus, “The Book of Common Prayer – 1552,” (accessed October 26, 2011), 7.
[2] Ibid., 9.

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