Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23A)   October 11, 2020 by the Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas (for SustainablePreaching.org) Matthew 22:1-14

Invited to love’s banquet

Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast has been interpreted in all sorts of ways, some of them helpful – some, not so much.  Over the years, commentators have interpreted the parable as an angry rebuke of the religious authorities who rejected Jesus; as an allegory to justify the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman soldiers in the year 70 C.E.; and as an account of why early Christian communities opened their doors to Gentiles as well as Jews.  At their worst, interpretations of the parable smack of conscious or unconscious anti-Semitism; at their best – well, let’s give it a shot.  What meaning can this parable have for us today?  In particular, can it give us any spiritual guidance in these turbulent times?

Let’s take it from the top.  Once upon a time there was a king – a wise, all-powerful king who decided to hold a wedding banquet for his son.  He got everything ready and prepared a feast of the finest foods.  He sent out invitations to his chosen guests, saying “Everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet” (Matthew 22:4).  But the guests refused to come.  Twice they were asked, and twice they turned him down.  They “made light” of the invitation, the story tells us, and some “went away, one to his farm, another to his business” (Matthew 22:5), while the rest attacked and killed the messengers.
Late summer goldenrod and bee
When we read this through the lens of spiritual experience, what might this part of the story mean?  What comes to my mind are all the times that I refuse those invitations to the feast.  Too often I act like one of those guests who is handed a beautiful, hand-engraved wedding invitation: I cross my arms and say, “Nope; not interested.”  Has this ever happened to you?  Maybe you’re sitting indoors, and you’ve been inside all day, getting some work done, and you look up and notice that the sun is now low in the sky, casting a marvelous golden light across the purple underbelly of the clouds, and some part of you stares and says Oh! And you want to get up and gaze out the window for a while – or even step outside.  But you don’t. Or maybe there’s a man with a loose gray coat and an unshaven face who is standing on the sidewalk where you just parked your car, and as you put a quarter in the meter, he mumbles a request: could you give him money to buy a cup of coffee?  You look across the street and sure enough, there’s a coffee shop right there; even if you don’t want to give the man cash, you could perfectly well walk across the street and get him a cup of coffee.  But you don’t. Or maybe you feel stressed and distracted, or maybe sad and discouraged, and you sense a deep tug to prayer.  You know that new life will blossom in you only if you get yourself to sit down and pay attention to what is going on inside, only if you let yourself rest for a while in God’s embrace.  But do you let yourself pause to take in that nourishment?  You don’t.  You’ve got other things to do – good things, important things.  That inner tug can wait.  If you ignore it long enough, maybe it will go away. Invitations to love’s banquet can take many forms, and they come not just once, but every day, and many times a day – maybe as an invitation to gaze at the beauty of the world, or as an invitation to be generous, or as an invitation to pause for a while to give the lover of our souls our full and undivided attention in prayer.  Yet how easy it is to say No!  I have a million excuses – I’m too busy, too focused on my own agenda, too scattered or overloaded to relinquish my worried, busy mind, to let my awareness open, and to drop down to my heart. That’s a loss, because deep at the center of our being is an unquenchable thirst for union with the divine.  Deep in our guts, our bones, our very DNA, is an irrepressible yearning to move toward the Source of life, the All, the Ultimate, the Holy One.  Call it what you will – human beings the world over, whatever their religion, share a desire for what one writer calls “the union on this earth and in this body of the human with the divine.  This is the true spiritual marriage, the consummation of love that in one way or another is the aim of every ritual and every practice in every religion.”1 It’s no wonder that the Bible so often uses wedding imagery as a way to express the complete and intimate union of God and God’s people, or of God and the individual soul.  Sometimes the Bible depicts the bridegroom as God; sometimes the bridegroom is Christ.  Sometimes, as in this parable, we are invited to be guests at the wedding, and sometimes we ourselves are the bridegroom or we ourselves are the bride. Love poets and mystics know all about the ecstasy of spiritual marriage.  Take, for instance, St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast day we celebrated last week.  Francis gazed deeply into the natural world as if into a mirror, and he saw reflected back to him the outpouring love of God.  For him, God was not an entity “out there” – God was within him and around him; God infused and sustained and shone out from all things.  Here is a little poem adapted from St. Francis:2 Such love does the sky now pour, that whenever I stand in a field,   I have to wring out the light when I get home. The human longing for union with God is universal, but how quickly we repress it, ignore it, or push it away!  Who knows why?  Maybe we don’t want to feel our need and vulnerability; maybe we’re afraid to relinquish control; maybe we’re convinced we’re not good enough and we can’t possibly be loved that much.  But if we keep pushing God away, if we keep shutting ourselves off from the invitation to love and to be loved, then before long we will start to experience God as the enemy, and that’s the next part of the parable: some guests mock the messengers and blow them off, and other guests seize, mistreat, and kill them.  The text tells us that “the king was enraged” (Matthew 22:7).  He sends in his troops, destroys the murderers, and burns their city down.
Autumn glory
As a spiritual story, this parable is quite accurate and exact: when we turn ourselves into the enemy of God, eventually we begin to experience God as an enemy.  God has not changed, but we have – we have pushed God away and have deliberately alienated ourselves from the divine.  Before any spiritual union can possibly take place, maybe that stubborn, resisting part of the self needs to be brought low and to fall away.  All of us who at some point have made a mess of our lives, who have made terrible mistakes and headed too far down a willful, self-centered, and defiant path, know what that’s like.  Sometimes the ego must be crucified before the soul can be born. Yet the invitation to love never ceases.  In fact, it keeps getting wider, deeper, more expansive and more inclusive.  There is no guest list now.  The king’s love reaches out to everyone.  The wedding is ready, he says; the feast is about to be served and the food is hot.  He sends messengers into the streets to invite everyone to come, both good and bad, and they stream into the wedding hall until it is filled at last. If you read this as a story of the interior life, it seems that only now – after our pride and defiance have been humbled and brought low – only now can we understand that every part of ourselves is being invited to the feast, that everything in us that we have cast away, abandoned, and rejected is being invited into the presence of God to be welcomed and healed and made whole.  Our whole selves are invited to the feast, and everybody else is invited with us.  There is no need now to shrug hopelessly and to say that we have to settle for being alienated from each other, that we have keep living driven, restless, distracted lives, that we have to make peace with poverty, with racial injustice and economic injustice, that we have to condone destroying the earth and that we have to tolerate an endless succession of wars. Now we know the truth: we have been invited to feast at the table of divine life.  We have been invited into the very heart of God, and in the strength of that divine presence we are sent out into the world to bear witness to God’s justice and mercy and love. The parable ends with the startling little story of the guest who comes to the feast with no wedding robe and is summarily bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness (Matthew 22:11-14).  Maybe this is a reminder to stay humble: God loves us completely and invites everyone to the feast, but we have our own work to do: to clothe ourselves day by day with the intention to love.  As St. Paul put it in Colossians, our job is to “[strip] off the old self with its practices and [to clothe ourselves] with the new self…” The passage continues: “As God’s chosen ones… clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and…forgive each other… Above all, clothe yourselves with love” (Colossians 3:9-10, 12-14).  In short, we wear the right clothes to the wedding feast of life when we clothe ourselves with love. We are living through a time of extraordinary stress, a time in which each of us must clarify who we are and what we value.  So, here is what I want to tell you.  When love’s holy invitation comes, I want to say yes.  When love calls me to marvel at the sunset, to stop and gape at the beauty of the world, I want to say yes.  When love calls me to walk across the street to bring someone a cup of hot coffee and to add some honey to it, and some milk, as well, because that’s the way he says he likes it, I want to say yes.  When the divine call comes to sit down in prayer and to give the lover of my soul my full and undivided attention, I want to say yes.  As Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “When Death Comes,”3 When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement.  I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. I want to say yes to life, yes to God, yes to the One in whose invisible, irresistible Presence we step fully into life, daring to connect deeply with ourselves and each other, refusing to be spectators, refusing to hold back, stepping out to create a world – and to fight for a world – in which everyone has a chance to experience how deeply God loves them. The banquet table is prepared, Jesus says to us. Will we come to the feast? I will give the last word to Rumi, a Sufi poet who ends one of his poems like this:4 On a day when the wind is perfect, the sail just needs to open and the love starts.    Today is such a day.     _______________________________________________________________ The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is Missioner for Creation Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ.  Her Website is RevivingCreation.org. 1. Roger Housden, For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics, (New York City: Hay House, Inc., 2009), xiii. 2. St. Francis of Assisi, “Wring Out My Clothes,” in Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West, translated by Daniel Ladinsky (New York, Penguin Compass, 2002), 48. 3. Mary Oliver, “When Death Comes,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 10. 4. Jalaludin Rumi, “On a Day When the Wind is Perfect,” in Love Poems from God, 80.

The following sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day is adapted from a sermon I delivered in 2011. It is posted at SustainablePreaching.org (January 5, 2020).

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day

Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84: 1-8 
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19
Matthew 2: 1-12

                                                Journeying with the wise men

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way. – Psalm 84:4

When I think of the three kings, what leaps first to mind are the crèches I unpack every year a couple of weeks before Christmas. On the piano in the living room I put the tall, earthenware figures of Mary, Joseph, and the baby, of the shepherds and sheep, and — yes — of the three kings and their camels. On the mantelpiece goes a miniature nativity set in which each teeny-tiny figure is made of clay, delicately painted, and no more than one inch high. On the coffee table I put the plastic figures and the cheap wooden stable that children can play with to their heart’s content without making their grandmother worry that something will break. No crèche is complete without its three kings, and when the Twelve Days of Christmas are over, back go the kings and camels into their boxes, where they spend the rest of the year stored in the basement.

Reflecting on today’s Gospel, I got to thinking: what would happen if the wise men walked out of those crèches and into our lives? What would happen if these figures — so easy to trivialize as nothing more than decorative props for a mid-winter festival that we pack away when the festival is done — what if the wise men actually came to life for us? What if their journey informed and deepened our own spiritual search, and propelled it forward? So I began to read the story for its spiritual significance, wondering if it might be read as a sacred, archetypal story about how we grow in intimacy with God.

Four parts of the story stand out to me.

First, of course, is the star, that mysterious, shining presence that startles the wise men and launches their search. Ancient tradition held that an unusual star could appear in the skies to mark the birth of someone special, such as a king. That is how the wise men interpret what they see: something out of the ordinary is taking place, something truly significant is afoot, and out the door they go, leaving their ordinary lives behind as they follow the light wherever it leads.

Let’s pause to note that even though every painting, movie, and Christmas card that depicts the journey of the wise men shows a dazzling star above their heads, we don’t actually know from the biblical story whether anyone but the wise men can see that star. King Herod, the chief priests and scribes don’t seem to know anything about the star until the wise men arrive in Jerusalem and tell them about its rising. So the star may be visible to the eye or it may be perceptible only to one’s inward sight; it may be seen or it may be unseen. Either way, it signals the birth of something new in the world. It heralds a presence and power just now being born. The wise men are wise because they spot the star and set everything aside to follow where it leads.

Maybe every spiritual journey begins with a star. At some point we get a sense — perhaps a very vague one — that there is something more to life than the ordinary round of tasks and responsibilities, something above, beyond, or maybe within material reality that can give a larger meaning and purpose to our days, something that is beautiful and shining and that lights up the world. So we set out on a quest to follow that star and to see where it leads. We may name the quest in different ways — maybe we call it a search for meaning or wholeness, a search for happiness or peace. Maybe we seek to know that we are loved, or to draw closer to the divine Source of love. Maybe, as some Greeks say to Philip in the Gospel of John, we express our desire in a simple, straightforward way: “We wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). However we name that desire, deep down we want to know God. And so, like the wise men, we set out, and what beckons us forward is a star, a subtle, shining presence that keeps company with us, and that we follow as best we can.

For most of us, most of the time, following the leadings of God is not like having a GPS in the car, delivering clear-cut instructions: “Turn left in .2 miles; take the freeway; turn right in 4.3 miles.” Like it or not, the star of Bethlehem is more elusive than that, so we have to develop a stance of careful listening and open inquiry, and a practice of prayer that makes us more sensitive to the glimmers of the holy. It takes practice to stay attentive to the star, for, as Boris Pasternak once wrote, “When a great moment knocks on the door of your life, it is often no louder than the beating of your heart, and it is very easy to miss it.”

The star is the first thing that catches my attention in this story.  The second is Jerusalem. Where does the star lead the wise men? Straight to Jerusalem, straight into the center of political and economic power, where King Herod the Great, a client king appointed by Rome, rules with the same ferocity that Stalin wielded over his own country in the 1930’s. We might wish that following a spiritual path were only an individual and interior enterprise — that following the star meant nothing more than developing a personal practice of prayer or going away on periodic retreats. There are plenty of contemporary books and speakers out there that define spirituality in a very individualistic way as being mindful of your own mind and cultivating your own soul — and of course that is definitely part of the journey. But right from the beginning, from the very moment that Christ is born, it’s clear that following his star also means coming to grips with the social and political realities of one’s time. Being “spiritual,” for Christians, is not just an interior, individual project of “saving your soul” — it also has a civic dimension, a political dimension, and as the wise men faithfully follow the star, they are drawn straight into the darkness and turmoil of the world, where systemic power can be used to dominate and terrify. Without intending it or knowing it, the wise men even contribute to Herod’s program of terror, for Herod takes the information that they give him and uses it to order the slaughter of all the children under the age of two who live in Bethlehem.

Following the star evidently means being willing to become conscious of the darkness of the world, and even to perceive how we ourselves are implicated in that darkness. The taxes I pay help subsidize fossil fuels; the clothes I wear and the electronic devices I use may have a vast but hidden social and environmental cost.  If I drive a gas-powered car, with every turn of the ignition key, I add to global warming. Until I recognize how I am caught up in and contribute to the contradictions and injustices of our political and economic system, I am not following the star and accompanying the wise men into Jerusalem.

And let’s notice, too, that King Herod trembles at news of the star — in fact, its rising frightens him. The powers that be are terrified when God in Christ draws near, for God’s love is always a threat to those powers; it opposes everything in us and around us that is selfish, greedy, and motivated by the wish to dominate, control, and possess. As I read it, the wise men needed to get to know those powers, both within themselves and in the world around them, if they were going to find and follow Christ.

So they entered Jerusalem and faced the darkness. Then, keeping their eyes on the star, they kept going, “until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:9b-10).

This is the third part of the story: the encounter with Christ. What a beautiful line that is — “when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.” The long, long journey with all its uncertainties and privations, its cold nights and its restless, ardent searching, has reached its fulfillment. The star has stopped, and the wise men can be at peace at last, they have arrived at last, they have found what they were looking for, at last! They enter the house, they see Mary and the child, and they fall to their knees in a gesture of deep reverence and humility.

Do we know what that’s like? Of course we do. We glimpse such moments whenever time seems to stop, when, for instance, our minds grow very quiet in prayer, we surrender our thoughts, and we seem to be filling with light. Or maybe it happens when we gaze at something that captures our complete attention — maybe a stretch of mountains or the sea, or when we take a long, loving look into a child’s sleeping face, or when we are completely absorbed in a piece of music. In moments like these, it can feel as if we are gazing through the object on which we gaze, and seeing into the heart of life itself. Love is pouring through us and into us, and all we can do is throw up our hands, fall inwardly to our knees, and offer as a gift everything that is in us, just as the wise men open their treasure chests and offer everything that is in them. Worship is what happens when we come into the presence of what is really real. When we come to the altar rail at the Eucharist, whether we choose to stand or whether we kneel as the wise men did, like them we stretch out our hands to offer everything that is in us, and like them we receive — we take in — the living presence of Christ.

Finally, the fourth part of the story is its closing line: “… having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road” (Matthew 2:12). In other words, the wise men refused to cooperate with Herod. They deceived him. They resisted him. The wise men have been called the first conscientious objectors in the name of Christ. They are the first in a long line of witnesses to Christ who from generation to generation have carried out acts of non-violent civil disobedience in Jesus’ name. The journey of the wise men is our journey, too, for, as Gregory the Great reportedly remarked in a homily back in the 7th century: “Having come to know Jesus, we are forbidden to return by the way we came.”

So, as we set out together into a new year, I hope that you will join me in keeping the wise men at our side, rather than packing them away somewhere in a box.

Like them, we can attune ourselves to the guiding of the star and renew our commitment to prayer and inward listening.

Like them, we can enter Jerusalem and all the dark places of our world and soul, following where God leads, and trusting that God’s light will shine in the darkness.

Like them, we can make our way to Christ, and kneel in gratitude.

And like them, we, too, can rise to our feet with a new-fired passion to be agents of justice and healing, and a renewed desire to give ourselves to God, for “happy are the people whose strength is in [God, and] whose hearts are set on the pilgrims’ way.”