15 October 2017
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
Revd Martin Wray
Isaiah 25. 1-9; Matthew 22. 1-14
Several years ago, when I was in local church ministry, there appeared on the church bookstall a book entitled, ‘101 things to do during a dull sermon.’ To my dismay it quickly became a best-seller – I can’t think why! Sub-titled ‘A survival guide for sermon victims,’ it did contain some interesting ideas.
One suggestion to pass the time is to see how many words you could make out of the name ‘Methuselah’. Another is that you might like find out if a yawn really is contagious (not just yet please!) Yet again, you might organise a team of people to stand at the back of the church with home-made placards giving ‘points’ to the sermon as it unfolded, rather in the manner of the judges on Strictly Come Dancing. Or one could write comments or suggestions on flash cards as the preacher went on, such as, ‘That’s enough about your holidays’, and so on…
So I was interested to see in the Church Times a few weeks ago a double-page article in which several, obviously quite eminent, contributors offered tips on what makes a good sermon. Not all the tips were that helpful, but one item in particular did intrigue me. It was written by the Dominican Timothy Radcliffe – as you will know the Dominicans are also called the Order of Preachers – and it contained this interesting , but perhaps rather blunt, suggestion:
Focus on what is most puzzling in the Biblical text: the verse you would rather not talk about. If people can see that you are struggling to make sense of it, then they will see that you too are a fellow-disciple on the way, and not some know-all who has it all wrapped up.
Well, that’s a very useful tip because there are many texts that leave me puzzled, and that would certainly apply to the few verses at the end of today’s Gospel passage…
11 But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22. 11-14).
We are told that the poor wedding-guest was left ‘speechless’, and so might we be!
Having heard the fairly familiar parable of the wedding feast, and how the invited guests declined to attend when the appointed time came, and how the servants went out to the ‘highways and byways’ to compel (in Luke’s version) anyone they found to come along instead, we are then rather surprised, and perhaps shocked, that one particular guest got a good telling-off for being improperly dressed.
It seems rather unfair; if he was one of those brought in from the highways and byways at such short notice, or no notice at all, he could hardly have been expected to be dressed in his best clothes. After all, few of us would go about our daily tasks in our Sunday best just in case we got an invitation to a special function. It all seems rather harsh and quite unfair – hence my taking of Timothy Radcliffe’s advice to share my puzzlement. So there it is, I’m puzzled!
But if we look more closely at this whole passage, the parable and its puzzling footnote, we might find something of an explanation. According to some scholars it seems probable that the verses in question did not originally belong to the parable that precedes them. It is quite likely that the verses, circulating perhaps as an independent saying of Jesus, became attached to the parable at some stage of the compilation of the Gospel because it had a similar theme or setting – a wedding feast, who was to be invited, and how to respond.
As we listen to the text, we are reminded that on several other occasions reported in the Gospels Jesus urged people to ‘be ready’. Ready for the coming of the Kingdom of God, or even for the coming of Christ himself.
We might be reminded of Luke’s, rather milder, version of the same parable in Luke chapter fourteen, sandwiched among various other wedding-guest related stories. Or the story, later in Matthew, chapter twenty-five, of the wise and foolish virgins or maidens, some of whom were ready for the coming of the bridegroom with lanterns lit, and those who were not ready. This parable ends with the clear admonition, Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Watch – be ready!
Of course, our wedding guests might well say, ‘Well, if we had known this invitation was going to be so important, we might have responded differently…’ That’s another part of the puzzle, we are never sure which event or invitation is going to have such far-reaching consequences. The only way is for us to nourish a kind of ‘constant readiness’ for the words or actions of God and the signs of God’s Kingdom.
We might still be puzzled. How do we do that? How do we prepare ourselves for this mysterious coming? Or to put it another way, how do we become, and remain, alert and attentive?
The wonderful Welsh Priest and Poet RS Thomas left us this poem, called ‘The Bright Field’:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
So the challenge is how to be sufficiently attentive that we do not simply ‘go our way’, but are ready and willing to ‘turn aside’, as the poet says, responding to that glimpse, however brief, of that ‘eternity that awaits us’– that momentary insight, or invitation, into the divine mystery and promise.
One possible way is to nourish a form of spirituality which serves to heighten our awareness of God – not just in the dramatic events of life but also in the relatively mundane. There are signs that the Christian community is beginning to recognize the significance of its own long tradition of meditative and contemplative prayer that helps us to do just that.
One example comes through the Ignatian spiritual tradition, originating from the teaching of Ignatius of Loyola; it is a way of praying known as the ‘Examen’, or the Prayer of Recollection. It is a prayer at the day’s end in which we are encouraged to think back across the day and to consider what has stayed with us from what we have seen and heard. This is not another opportunity to wallow in our own failures or weaknesses- most of us need little help with that – but an invitation to ask ‘Where has God been in my day?’
Why have I remembered that conversation on the bus, or the animation of those two ladies talking across the market stall? Why do I remember the bobbing flight of the dipper on the river, or the sunlight catching the heather on Barden Moor? Why has that piece of music stuck in my mind, or that poem moved me? Did I stop and look at that bright field?
The key question is ‘Why has God brought this to my attention today?’ It may seem a rather ordinary, or a familiar scene, not at all apparently dramatic or world-shaking – but why has God brought it to my attention? Is it to remind me of the wonder and beauty of Creation – or the tragedy of its despoliation? Is it to make me more sensitive to the peculiarities of human nature, or the depths of human relationships?
Only if we are ‘aware’ and ‘attentive’ do we glimpse the treasure in the field. Only if we are “ready” do we sense something of its importance. If we are able to see our prayer – quiet, meditative, reflective – as a way of heightening our awareness to the presence of God in the world, and in each other, can we help ourselves to “be ready” for that otherwise unexpected “breaking in” of some aspect of the nature of God, of God’s Kingdom, of the presence of Jesus, of the divine invitation. It is, I suggest, one of the chief purposes of our prayer, and one of prayer’s greatest gifts. The French writer and philosopher Simone Weil went so far as to say ‘absolute attention is prayer’.
Another poet, again a priest as well as a poet, the seventeenth century George Herbert, wrote a poem called simply ‘Prayer’ in which he lists, almost, various short definitions of what prayer might be.
Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almightie, sinners towre,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-daies world transposing in an houre,
A kinde of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softnesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted Manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest,
The Milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls bloud,
The land of spices; something understood.
Note that phrase towards the end, ‘man well-drest’. Did Herbert have in mind this very Gospel passage that has so puzzled us? If so, being “well-drest” has little to do with wedding-clothes, or our Sunday best, but everything to do with preparing ourselves before God, and for God, and God’s ways. This, suggests Herbert, is what prayer is for, to keep us alert and attentive, for the day and the hour of God’s self- disclosure in our, sometimes rather puzzling, experiences of life.
Not all puzzles will be removed or resolved- we might sometimes still be rendered speechless like the man in the story – but a puzzle can also be a gateway and a gift, inviting us to ponder again our place in God’s world and God’s Kingdom, and how we might be vigilant, and ready to respond to the indications of the divine presence in our lives.