Who are these people who are turning down the king’s invitation to the wedding feast? And what’s wrong with them? Who in their right minds would do such a thing? And yet, that’s what these people do. Some just said no, without bothering to give an excuse. Some actually make fun of the invitation. Some were too busy. In Luke’s version of this story, people come up with obviously lame excuses, excuses so lame that they’re insulting, basically the ancient world’s equivalent of saying: “Oh, thank you for your sweet invitation, but my Netflix queue is really long right now, and I just don’t think I can get away.”
The world is overflowing with violence. Death begets more death. Fear and disdain and oppression give rise to yet greater division, suspicion, and anger. There’s Sandy Hook, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Charleston, Gabby Giffords, Paris -- the cycle we have seen more times than we can easily recall is played again in our Gospel lesson this morning, and as the columnist states, we know, deep down, will continue to repeat itself -- round and round and round. How do we get off of this ride?
There is much good work to be done in the courts of justice, the halls of legislature, police stations, community groups, and on your very own neighborhood block, but these good works are not the ultimate answer. To think that we can right the ship ourselves if we just put our backs into it is to fall square into the problem of pride which pesters the tenants in our parable this morning. Whatever your profession or income bracket, your employment status or political commitments, whatever the color of your skin or even the content of your character, there is only one who brings relief and salvation, only one who can turn this world around, only one whose answer to violence and death, division and destruction, fear and anger, is different from all the others, and that difference is the truth.
I wonder how we ourselves might long for the past, or dwell on the way things have always been, or cling to the things that we know, rather than letting our God lead us into the wilderness, rather than trusting that the devil we know is indeed worse than the God that we don’t. Of course, we do know this God. He is I AM WHO I AM, he is YAHWEH, he is Jesus.
And so, the most important thing that I want to say about where we find the Israelites this morning, and indeed, where we ourselves are this morning, too, is that the most important thing has already been done. This is not a sermon, nor is Christianity a religion, that’s about achievement. We’re not striving to accomplish some particular work, or to earn some kind of favor, or to develop this or that virtue. The work is done, my friends. God in Jesus Christ accomplished it all on the cross. God in Jesus Christ freed us from oppression, took us up out of slavery, and opened his arms to all humanity as he died on the cross and was then raised in victory over death.
There are, I think, many things about the Christian faith that we would never have come up with on our own. There are plenty of things that we would probably change about our Lord’s teachings if we put them up to a vote. They just don’t seem reasonable. After all, Jesus said some pretty out-there stuff, things like: turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and forgive not just one or two or even seven times, but seventy times seven.
Today’s Gospel passage is right up there near the top of the list of things about Jesus that we’d probably change if we could. Everyone knows of course that forgiveness is central to what Jesus taught and how he lived. That’s probably why nearly every church website and street sign I’ve ever seen says something about God’s extravagant grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. That’s as it should be. But the thing is that making forgiveness into a slogan can be a way to avoid having to think too much about the implications of what we’re saying. I’ll bet you’ve never seen a church sign that said, “Jesus loves his enemies—especially you!”
I think that might be what Paul is getting at in today’s passage from Romans, living as if it is night, drowning ourselves in various vices, reaching for something that can quiet our hearts and still our souls just for a moment. We seek to escape, to choose the easy path; we want to provide for the flesh, just for a minute, to release all the tension and the stress just for a little bit of time. You know as well as I do that a waffle, even one scratch-made and freshly cooked, both crispy and gooey with syrup, will not solve even one of my problems. It won’t even make me feel better for more than the three minutes it takes for me to wolf it down. My waffle is provision for my flesh, my waffle is the easy way out. My waffle is the exit route.
I had to turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why these people who had lost everything were not burned up, where this living flame of fire and faith and hope in the midst of many waters had come from. The woman dressed in white kept singing. As she sang I thought of a black woman from Fort Worth I’d met only a few days before at a church meeting, who had told us that after Charlottesville she had been asking people from church to give her rides to and from work, because every time she got behind the drivers’ seat she would be overcome with worry about what might happen to her out by herself. I thought of that as I listened to the woman dressed in white who had lost everything sing out with joy and hope and power: Glory! Lord Jesus! Send revival! We want to see your kingdom here! I wondered: Where did this fire come from? How does it keep on burning? How does it still burn after being covered over by many waters?
Do we really want to know how we ought to be? Is the Kingdom of God, lived daily, even moment-by-moment, in the lives of St. Augustine’s parishioners, really something we want to glimpse?
Do we want to look that directly into the sun, knowing that it requires facing the darkness that clings to each one of our souls? Not only do we ourselves have to face our personal, individual darkness, but we must admit our sin to one another, even as we admit it to God in the quietness of our hearts, we must bear one another’s burdens in this way.
How is the story of Scripture different from the stories that the culture tells us about ourselves, how we can find help, how we can succeed and be happy?