Sermon from October 15, 2017

The Peace of God Will Guard Your Hearts and Minds
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
October 15, 2017   Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 25:1-9; Exodus 32:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

The first followers of Jesus understood that he was trying to shock them with this parable about a king who killed or tortured guests he had invited to his son’s wedding.  They knew he was not saying that God is an unstable, violent, merciless tyrant.  The first three hundred years of the church saw wide diversity of views and beliefs, but all leaders of every Christian sect were united on one thing.  They all understood that to follow Christ meant to be loving toward everyone and strictly nonviolent.

The disciples knew that the point of this parable had to be the opposite of murder and torture.  Jesus urgently wants us to see how to enter the rich feast of God’s realm and dwell in it so that, in Paul’s words, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds.”

So what positive wisdom can we take away from this parable?

We can see that God invites everyone to enter the realm of heaven on earth, both people we call good and those we call bad, regardless of our worthiness.  We all have a place at the feast.

We can see that part of us would rather look to our material self-interest and the busyness of taking care of business than enter that feast.

We can see that it is human nature to get annoyed at voices that remind us to focus on God when we would rather be doing something else.

We can see that we need not only to say yes to God’s realm, but also to show up and enter in; and we need not only to show up and enter in, but also get changed somehow, to put on wedding clothes.

Finally, we can see that the choice is between life and death, and to choose not to accept God’s invitation leads to suffering.

Let’s go a little more deeply into each of these pieces of Jesus’ wisdom.

The realm of God is inclusive.  There was a detail in today’s reading from Paul that most people glide over.  Paul says, “I urge Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind.”  He says “these women… have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers.”

Many people consider Paul sexist and oppressive of women, and turn their backs on the wealth of practical wisdom he offers about how to live the spiritual life and be the church.  They base that rejection on a few passages that clearly put women in an inferior position, but Biblical scholars who have done close examinations of those texts feel certain that they were not written by Paul.  Some entire letters, like Ephesians, were written in Paul’s name by other people, a common practice in antiquity.

The truth is that Paul’s authentic letters reveal churches that were extremely inclusive and equitable, where women were leaders on a par with men.  This was Paul’s understanding of God’s realm as Christ modeled it.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female.  All are invited to the feast.

Paul goes on to tell us to rejoice always and to trust that God is always near so that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds.  The realm of God is indeed a rich feast available to us, yet Paul knows that we have a tendency to get caught up in our material lives and to neglect the spiritual.  Something makes us say no to God, and be unable to see the richness we are missing.

C.S. Lewis gave a beautiful image for this in his final Narnia book, The Last Battle. The world of Narnia is ending, and the Christ-like lion, Aslan, has come to open a door into paradise. The door is for everyone, no matter their race, religion or species or what they have done in life.  Some when they see the light and Aslan standing there feel a tremendous “yes” welling up in them and they pass through the door, but others feel the “no” of fear or guilt or suspicion, and they veer away from the door into the growing darkness of the dying world.

One of the people who has come through the door is an enemy soldier.  He wonders why he is there, because his religion taught him to hate Aslan.  Aslan explains that what the soldier was worshipping in his heart was goodness and love—that was his intention—so it didn’t matter that he called his god a different name, it was Aslan’s God that the man was worshipping and serving.

A circle of dwarves somehow gets through the door but they refuse to believe the light and beauty they are seeing.  They are convinced that the darkened, dying material world is all there is, and when Aslan puts a feast before them, all they can taste is stale food and animal fodder.

I imagine we all know people whose lives are full of struggle and suffering, and we wish so much that they could find their way through the door into a community of loving support like the one we have found here, a place where they could gain spiritual tools and practices to cultivate the peace that passeth understanding that could guard their hearts and minds, a place to find calm in the midst of struggle and gain a higher power’s wisdom and strength for the journey.

The 12 Step movement holds open such a door to people whose lives are being severely damaged by addiction.  12 Step wisdom says that it can take hitting rock bottom to drive people finally to say yes and accept the invitation.  Until they reach total devastation addicts can feel annoyed or threatened by people who try to help them.  In Jesus’ parable the messengers bearing the invitation to the feast are beaten or killed by those they are inviting—when we try to be messengers to people who desperately need help we can have our calls and emails go unanswered and even lose friends.

The parable is shocking when the king orders the execution of all the wedding invitees who declined, since they must have been his closest friends and family and most valued subjects, but we can understand Christ’s point that to say no to God’s realm is to lose the life that really is life.  It is even more shocking when a man who was pulled in off the street is bound hand and foot and thrown “into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” just because he is not in wedding clothes.

This is a hard teaching to reconcile.  We believe in a God who is unconditionally loving and forgiving, who holds out free grace to us, if only we will accept it, as that poor man had.  Protestant Christians do not believe in earning our worthiness, and Jesus certainly did not make people earn his love and grace.  He forgave seven times seventy times, he ate with the outcasts and impure and least of the least.

All that is true, and yet it is also true that dwelling in God’s realm needs to change us, or else we are not really there.  This makes sense if you think of an addict in a 12 Step group.  It is not enough to come in the door if we are going to go right back out and maintain the way of life that lead us to drink or eat compulsively or whatever our addiction is.  We need to go out and show signs.  We need to bear fruit.  As Abraham Lincoln said, “I care not for a person’s religion whose dog or cat is not the better for it.”

The French writer Léon Bloy went further and said, “Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig.”  That is as shocking as Jesus’ parable, and yet the psychiatrist Viktor Fankl observed something similar in Nazi death camps.  He saw how many victims in Auschwitz became inhuman—dog-eat-dog animals looking out only for their own survival.  He marveled at the heroes who found a way to maintain their humanity as the Nazis tortured them and tried to rob them of their soul.  They would share their one small scrap of daily bread with a prisoner who was weaker or sick.  They would go through the camp giving words of encouragement.  They shone a light in that darkest of places, and walked to the gas chamber still maintaining their peace and love.

They had the same pain inflicted on them as on other deathcamp inmates, but their suffering was transformed into wisdom and strength and gifts to share.  They were transformed, and they found ways to transform the camp, and all the weapons of the Nazis could not stop them.  They kept shining even after the Nazis had killed them.

That is why our saying yes with our whole being to dwelling here and now in God’s realm is literally a matter of life and death.  It leads us to the life that never dies, and it saves the lives of those around us, those we give our bread, those whose hope we kindle with our light.  Saying no to God casts us into a life of greater suffering, and blocks us from easing the suffering of others.

Jesus was clear that what matters is not the way we dress or the religious or social rules we keep, what matters is our heart, because from the heart comes our actions.  Our heart is what will guide us to participate in the feast or lead us to say no to it.  Our heart will determine how we treat our dog or cat, and friends or enemies.

God holds out the invitation to come in and be changed.  The Holy Spirit will do the changing for us if we open our hearts and allow it.  The grace is free, but we need to accept it and respond to it with a yes that resounds through our entire heart, mind, soul and body.

Let us pray in silence, offering our whole self, and resting in the peace of God that surpasses understanding, and letting it guard our heart and mind…


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