What Are You Wearing?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany NY

By Rev. James Eaton, Pastor * © 2020 All Rights Reserved

19th Sunday After Pentecost * October 11, 2020

Philippians 4:1–9Matthew 22:1–14

“Saturday I have to take Lucy for her rabbi shot.” It was a simple text from Jacquelyn; most of you know Lucy is our little seven pound endlessly barking dog. What you may not know is that our best friends in Albany beyond the church are our neighbors who are Orthodox Jews. So we hear a bit about rabbis and we’re very conscious about Saturday being their sabbath. But why would Lucy need a shot to protect against a rabbi? I looked at the text again and then it hit me: the demonic spell checker had hit again and converted ‘rabies’ to ‘rabbi’. I laughed, I laughed and laughed again. The spell checker failed but in failing made me laugh. We are a society frantic to succeed; what if going forward means failing? 

Wrong Shirt, Wrong Time

Today’s gospel reading contains two parables. One is about a great banquet; that occurs in a slightly different form in the Gospel of Luke as well. The other is this strange, last part about the a guest at a wedding who gets thrown out, all the way out, into the outer darkness, because they wore the wrong thing. I guess we all wear the wrong thing sometimes. One day, I put on a nice shirt with pink stripes only to have Jacquelyn take one look, make the face, the one that says,  “Oh no!” and inform me that it was a spring shirt. I didn’t know shirts had seasons. So I had to find one what went with fall for reasons I didn’t understand and put that on.

This unfortunate guest has made the same mistake: he’s mistaken the time. Clothing rules are really about showing respect, a way of acting by wearing. When my daughter Amy was married, I did what ministers do: I wore a suit. Jacquelyn had many things to navigate: what was the mother of the bride wearing? what were the bridesmaids wearing? Would it be hot or cold? Did it call for heels? Coming up with the right outfit wasn’t as much about style as about showing respect to her new stepdaughter and the rest of the family.

The issue here isn’t style, it’s whether we are responding to God’s call in Christ. Clothing is a symbol for who you are and who you are following. Paul knows this. In a culture where the symbol of power was the armored Roman soldier, he says to Christians, “…be strong in the Lord and in God’s mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. [Ephesians 2:10f]” The guest with the wrong garment failed to grasp the moment; he failed to honor the king. The punishment is to be left out of the kingdom, for the kingdom is the place of light; the outer darkness mentioned is its opposite. 

Are You Ready for the King?

So the critical issue here is this: are you ready for the king? The best way to understand this story is to look at the context. If we look a little farther back, we find that Jesus tells a series of three parables about people who miss out on the kingdom. We read one two weeks ago: a man tells two sons to go work in the vineyard; one replies, “I go!” but doesn’t, one replies, “I will not,” but goes. “Which did the will of the father?,” Jesus asks. 

The second is also about a vineyard. A householder plants a vineyard and then lets it out to tenants. At harvest, the tenants beat his servants and kill one. He sends more servants; same result. Finally, he sends his son; they cast him out of the vineyard and kill him. What will the owner do when he comes? The answer is obvious and the disaster that befalls the tenants comes from their failure to remember the vineyard doesn’t belong to them. 

Finally, we have the parable of the great supper, in this version is a marriage feast. Once again, this is a story where someone loses out because they don’t grasp the moment. That’s a common thread in these stories. The son who doesn’t go into the vineyard, the vineyard workers who kill the owner’s son, the guests who don’t come to the feast are images of people who should have known better and didn’t. They are images about Israel’s spiritual life; the vineyard is an ancient image for God’s people. The stories take place in a setting of conflict with religious leaders and just before the parable of the great supper, we read that the Pharisees and Chief Priests knew he was speaking about them and are plotting to arrest Jesus.

The structure of this parable is simple. A king invites several subjects to a wedding feast; each refuses, giving as a reason some concern of his own. In response, the king wipes out the things they thought were important and, left with an empty banquet hall, invites strangers instead. The feast goes on but those first invited aren’t present. They weren’t ready for the king and their failure destroys them. 

Two stories of failure; two stories of rejection: that’s a lot for a Sunday morning! What is Jesus saying? What can we learn about following him from these failures? Perhaps the most important thing is the urgency of now.

The Urgent Now

A wedding is a unique moment. That’s what the invited guests miss. “…they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business,” [Matthew 22:5] They missed this most important part of the invitation: “Everything is ready.” 

From the beginning, Jesus has been saying the same thing. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins to work when John is arrested and he begins to preach with this simple message: “Repent, for the kingdom of God heaven is at hand.” [Matthew 4:17] He lifts up the tradition of God’s people; he talks about the future of God’s people. But he begins with the urgent now: “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”—right here, right now.

“Now is the time,” was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite phrase. The gospels’s give us two patterns of calls to discipleship. The first is the call of Peter and Andrew. In their case, the signature is the immediate response: “He said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.’” The same pattern is repeated with John and James. They’re mending nets, working with their father when Jesus comes to them and Matthew tells us, “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” [Matthew 4:20–22] But later, when a scribe offers to follow him, he’s discouraged when Jesus tells him that foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another follower who wants to wait to begin following him while he buries his father is told to leave the dead to bury their own dead.

“Now is the time.” The great irony in the story is the violence. Those invited were concerned about their farms and businesses; the king destroys them both. What they thought was so important is gone. What now? What will they do now? 

This is a parable for this moment. How often were we told that we lived in the most advanced country in the world? When the pandemic first began, it was easy for many to believe the promises of leaders that we had nothing to worry about. After all, we had resources, we had the Center for Disease Control, the CDC, why worry, why wear a mask or close a business or stay home? We missed the urgency of the moment and just as in this story, disaster has resulted.

“Now is the time.” Jesus preaches the urgency of now: the kingdom is at hand. It’s not tomorrow, it’s not yesterday, it’s right now, right here. What are we going to do? 

Living from the Mind of Christ Now

That’s the question each day: what are we going to do now? what are we going to do today? It’s certainly the question Paul presses on the church in Philippi. In the part we read this morning, he gets personal. 

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life

Philippians 4:1–3

The church is divided; these two women lead factions. You know how strong feelings must be running for it to threaten the life of the church. It’s easy to love your enemy as long as your enemy is abstract; when it’s that annoying Syntyche, when it’s that awful Euodia, it’s harder, isn’t it? I’ve always thought there was great insight in Jesus’ command to love your neighbor. The world is easy to love; a neighbor, someone close by is harder.

So we’re back to what we talked about two weeks ago, also from this letter to the Philippians: have this mind among yourselves that was the mind of Christ. Except now it’s focused, now it’s harder because now it’s now. Now is the time: now is the time we’re called to live from the mind of Christ. We’ve talked about how humility can lead us to this; Paul says, 

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Now he offers a standard:

“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 and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

It’s hard to fight a church fight when you are thinking about things that are honorable, just, pure, commendable. It’s hard to rant in your head about someone and think about what is pleasing, worth of praise and so on. Everyone who hikes learns to watch for trail markers; everyone who drives watches the signs. These are signs of the mind of Christ and if they aren’t part of your journey, it’s time to stop now, and do exactly what Jesus said: repent—for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom is right here, right now, and if you aren’t living from the mind of Christ, you’re wearing the wrong outfit. 

What Are You Wearing?

This is finally the message of these parables: following Christ is a series of moments, not a one time commitment that needs no follow up. Now is the time—each day, each moment, each interaction. Now is the time to put on Christ; now is the moment to live from the mind of Christ. Today is the day we’re invited to the kingdom. What are you wearing?

Amen.

Who’s In Charge Here? – Learning to Pray the Lord’s Prayer, Lent 2

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by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday in Lent • February 21, 2016

A fisherman and his wife lived in an old dirty hut alongside a lake in Bavaria. Every day the fisherman went out to the lake and every day he returned with his catch. One day, the fisherman’s net caught a golden fish. The fish spoke to him and said, “If you throw me back, I will grant you any wish you desire.”
The fisherman thought about it, and being of simple means he could think of no want, so he let the fish go. Upon returning to the dirty old hut that night, he told the tale to his wife.

“You should have asked him for a nice cottage,” she said. “I would love to move out of this filthy hovel.”
So the next morning, the fisherman approached the lake and called out for the fish. The water bubbled and the fish surfaced. It asked, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She would like a nice cottage to live in.”
“Your wish is granted. Go home and see.”

The fisherman returned home, and sure enough their filthy hut was replaced with a nice cottage.
The next morning his wife said, “Go back and ask that fish for another wish. I want to be the Princess of Bavaria and live in a fine castle!”
The fisherman said, “Oh no, wife. That is too much. Do not make me ask the golden fish for such a thing. Let us be happy in our nice cottage by the lake.”
But his wife insisted and persisted, and eventually he agreed to ask the golden fish for this wish.
He went down to the lake, and the water was choppy. He called for the fish and its head appeared above water. It said, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She wishes to become Princess of Bavaria and live in a fine castle.”
“Your wish is granted. Go home and see.”

The fisherman returned home, and sure enough the cottage was replaced with a castle. There were battlements and guard towers and soldiers all around. His wife greeted him splendidly dressed as a princess.
The next morning his wife said, “Go back and ask that fish for another wish. I want to be Empress of Prussia and live in a grand palace!”
The fisherman said, “Oh no, wife. That is too much. Do not make me ask the golden fish for such a thing. Let us be happy in our Bavarian castle.”
But his wife insisted and persisted, and eventually he agreed to ask the golden fish for this wish.
He went down to the lake, and the water was boiling and turbulent. He called for the fish and its head appeared above water. It said, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She wishes to become Empress of Prussia and live in a grand palace.”
“Your wish is granted. Go home and see.”

The fisherman returned home, and sure enough the castle was replaced with a grand palace. It was larger, with more soldiers, more battlements, and more guard towers.
He went in to see his wife and said, “Surely you are happy now. There is nothing greater than being the Empress of Prussia, and no palace greater for you to live in.”
She said, “We shall see. I want to sleep on it and discuss it on the morrow.”
In the morning, she roused the fisherman and said, “Go back and ask that fish for another wish. I want to be the Pope, and live in the grandest palace of all.”
The fisherman said, “Oh no, wife. That is too much. Do not make me ask the golden fish for such a thing.”
She said, “Why not?”
“Well, for one thing, they only let men become popes.”
But his wife insisted and persisted. He said, “Let us be happy in our Prussian palace!”

But she said, “I want to become like God, and order Nature to do my bidding, and tell the sun and moon when to rise and command the stars in the sky above!”
She extolled and cajoled, and eventually he agreed to ask the golden fish for this wish.
He went down to the lake, and the water was dark and roiling. He called for the fish and its head appeared above water. It said, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She wants to become like God.”
“Go home. She is sitting in your filthy old hut.”

So the fisherman returned home, and all was as before. He and his wife cleaned the old hut, and lived out their days in peace.
There are many versions of this story, the one here was taken from
The Story of the Golden Fish

What did you think while you heard this story? Did you sympathize with the fisherman or the wife? Can you imagine just wanting more, like she did, more space, finer things, more power? Did you know from the beginning how it would end? I went searching for stories of people who wanted to be in charge this week and there were so many I was overwhelmed. I knew from the beginning in each how it would end. So did you, I expect. Here’s my question: if we know how it will end, why do we keep doing it?

The Bible has stories of people like this. One is right near the beginning, but we often remember it wrong. Adam and Eve are newly created, without anything covered. They live in a beautiful garden doing a little weeding here and there, taking care of it and in the middle of the garden there’s a tree they’ve been told not to touch. One day a serpent points out the tree to Eve and Eve, who is the first theologian, expounds God’s Word regarding the tree. But at the end, Eve takes the fruit from the tree and shares it with Adam. Why? It’s not clear from the story exactly. But we all know don’t we? I told this story to a group of children once. One of them said, “Why did God tell them not to take that fruit, it just makes you want it more when someone says don’t eat it.” Yeah: she had it right—we just want more, until like the woman in the story we have so much that we have nothing. We fall. We live in the midst of the storms of life, and we think if we just had more, more power, more money, more something we could still the storm and sail safe.

Theologians have names for this: “original sin” is one, “total depravity” is another. Those are deep dark concepts, caves that take some time to explore, you need to put on a head light and have some equipment to go spelunking there. But you don’t need all that to know what we’re talking about; you really just have to look in your own heart. You just have to think about why we buy powerball tickets when the prize gets over a hundred million dollars. You just have to look at how we run things when we’re given the chance. Look at our own history. The Puritans are kicked around England until they finally leave and come to Massachusetts. “They came for freedom!”, our happy history teaches us. Truth is, once they got settled in, they turned around and started kicking other people out, sent them to Rhode Island. Yes, we want to be king and sometimes even that isn’t enough.

Jesus lived in a highly structured society, a hierarchy where wealth and gender and where you came from mattered. It mattered that you were male; it mattered that you had money. It mattered whether you were Roman or Jewish or Samaritan. All these things and many more were set against the human desire for more and the competition was often bloody and violent. It was a time of peasant revolts, it was a moment when Roman soldiers crucified thousands up and down the roads around Jerusalem. So we read these words in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come”, calmly, quietly. But to Jesus and to the ones who first heard them, these were fiery words, fighting words, scary words. For kingdom is a political term and kings that will tolerate wandering preachers take action when the preaching turns to kingdom.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to be raising a political movement. Instead, as he does so often, Jesus is speaking beyond politics to the deeper reality of human souls. Living in a moment when the Roman empire was worshipped as a God, he calls his people back to this one fundamental reality: we are here to serve God, praise God, worship God. All the human agencies, all the human divisions, everything human is nothing compared to the majesty of God’s rule. That’s part of the lesson in the story of the fisherman. A poor couple are given an unbelievable chance to better themselves. Imagine them waking up in the nice cottage described at the beginning: running water, a beautiful setting. But it doesn’t satisfy. So the places get bigger and better: a castle, a palace. The drive focuses on power, as it always does. What is more? Be a queen, be an empress, until finally it ends with the desire to be God. We are back to the garden at that point: seeking the thing that will make us not just more but most.

Jesus calls us back from this journey to destruction. “Who’s in charge here?”, he implicitly asks. Is it the relentless drive for more?—or can we choose to understand ourselves in a different way? “Thy kingdom come” says first and foremost that we are not living on our own; we are living in the realm of a greater power, subject to a greater command than our own desires. To honestly pray “Thy will be done” is to say my own will, my own desire is not the most important. And in that moment, all those human things matter less than that one fact, that one will, God’s will. What is God’s will? That’s easy, it’s written all over the scriptures, all over the religious traditions of thousand years. “Love God, love your neighbor as yourself.” All the human categories of Jesus’ time and ours fall apart before this great command. Gender, money, celebrity, race and where you came from—they mean nothing compared to this one great command and the desire to live not from our own wills but from the will of God. It’s hard to live this way. Yet this is the choice Jesus puts before us: live from yourself, in the world where differences matter and the great drive is more, or live in the realm of God’, the kingdom of God, asking every day, “Thy will be done.”

This week I saw a movie that expressed this thought fully. It’s called The Finest Hours and it tells the story of a group of four young Coast Guardsmen in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, who were charged in a great storm to go out into the North Atlantic and rescue men on a ship that was sinking. I’m a sailor; I stay home when the waves mound up, when the wind blows beyond a certain point. “Small craft warning” means stay in port. But I’m just sailing for myself; these men had a higher calling. So knowing they are risking their lives, they go out into the terror of the sea to redeem the lives of strangers they’ve never met. “They say you have to go out, you don’t have to come back”, is an old Coast Guard mantra. These are people living from a greater ethic than more; they know what it is to give your life to a greater cause. In the event, they were successful; 32 men were saved that day. They were saved because four men lived not from what they wanted but from what they were called to do.

“Thy kingdom come,” Jesus prays and invites us to pray: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The transition is clear and critical. For it is when we live from God’s will, when this prayer condenses into lives that bits of heaven become evident on earth. When we lives out this prayer, we are making heaven on earth. For the true heaven comes not from miracle fishes or bigger and better palaces, not from more, not from us at all. Heaven comes when the kingdom of God appears. This is the mission of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Mark says it all:

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ [Mark 1.14bf]

Jesus comes to bring heaven to earth by proclaiming God’s rule, living from God’s rule. And his words and his life confront us with this choice: will we make his prayer our lives? This morning we read the story of a storm he stills. We all face storms; they blow into our lives and challenge us and ask, “Who’s in charge here?” When we pray, when we live, saying indeed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”, the storms are stilled; heaven is brought to earth.
Amen.