Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Being and doing … are there
two ways of saying yes, and no?

Being and doing: Socratic wisdom on sale in the Plaka in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

5 p.m.: The Eucharist

Collect, Readings and Post-Communion Prayer
for the 15th Sunday after Trinity

Readings:


Exodus 17: 1-7; Psalm 78; Philippians 2: 1-13; Matthew 21: 23-32.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Black or white?

Dog or cat?

Land or sea?

Wet bob or dry bob?

Paris or Rome?

Beatles or Rolling Stones?

Wine or beer?

It’s the sort of game we all play in our families at one time or another. I loved playing “Matching Pairs” with my children when they were at the early learning stage.

For adults, there are similar jokes about two kinds of people we compare or contrast:

“There are two types of people: those who divide people into two categories, and those who don’t.”

For the mathematicians among you: “There are only 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.”

And for those with a more subtle sense of humour: “There are two types of people in this world: Those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.”

This evening’s readings give us contrasting pairs:

In the Old Testament reading (Exodus 17: 1-7), we see contrasts between adults and children; water and wilderness; testing and thirsting; obeying and quarrelling; responsible freedom and slavery without responsibility.

The Psalm (Psalm 78) contrasts images of ancestors and children, day and night, rock and river, and so on.

In our Epistle reading (Philippians 2: 1-13), the Apostle Paul gives us the stark contrasts offered in Christ of slavery and freedom, deity and humanity, fear and trembling, heaven and earth.

This helps us to prepare for the matching pairs or clashing contrasts we find in our Gospel reading (Matthew 21: 23-32).

This reading is set in the immediate aftermath of Christ’s entry in triumph into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his cleansing of the Temple.

When he returns to the Temple the following day, he is confronted by the religious and civic leaders, the guardians of belief and tradition, who challenge and question him about his power and authority.

The “chief priests and the elders of the people” are the leaders in the Temple hierarchy, and also at the apex of society in Jerusalem – questioning Jesus about what gives him authority. In particular, they ask what gives him the right to behave as he does, and especially the right to claim he is acting in God’s name when he is behaving like that .

It is a question that Christ might have expected, under the circumstances. The exchange takes place when he enters the Temple. The day before had been an eventful day: when Christ enters Jerusalem and the crowds hail him as king. He next goes into the Temple courts, overturns the tables and the seats of the money changers and the dove sellers, and speaks about the destruction of the Temple.

The Temple authorities have been offended. Quite naturally, they have to confront him.

Who does he think he is?

What gives him the right to force his way in and stir things up?

What authority has he to behave like this?

But, in a clever manoeuvre, Christ answers their questions by asking his own question.

A clever manoeuvre, indeed. It was acceptable then, but every bar room lawyer knows now that you are not allowed to ask questions that allow only a choice between two convicting answers, loaded questions like: “When did you stop beating your wife?”

Loaded questions are loaded with presuppositions, often with built-in fallacies and false dichotomies.

And the chief priests and elders fall into a trap that every sixth form debater would know how to set and how to escape.

There is a great deal of humour here. Those who are skilled in the Law failed to see the flawed legal trap. And in doing this they display their innate inabilities, their incomparable incompetence, their own failures in judgment.

In this evening’s reading, Christ answers with a two-part question. And once again, he turns the tables on those who confront him. They are taken aback; they are caught in a dilemma. If they answer one way, they are caught out; if they answer the other, they are still caught out. It’s a dichotomy. And either way they cannot win.

‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today’ (Matthew 21: 28) ... grapes ripening on the vine in the Hedgehog in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As they are left mulling this over, Christ tells the parable of two sons and a father. The second dichotomy, the second comparison, the second either/or choice, is posed when Christ tells this parable about a father who sends his two sons, a willing son and an unwilling son, to work in the family vineyard.

It is a sharp contrast between being and doing.

The two sons remind me of the T-short I should have bought a few years ago in the Plaka in Athens that had the words:

“To do is to be” – Socrates

“To be is to do” – Plato

“Do be do be do be do” – Sinatra

The American publisher Cyrus Curtis (1850-1933) once said: “There are two kinds of people who never amount to much: those who cannot do what they are told, and those who can do nothing else.”

But the two sons illustrate a serious dilemma:

Those who respond negatively to what they are asked to do, may eventually do it … and recognise their initial wilfulness.

Those who say they are going to do something they are tasked with, but then refuse to follow-up, to deliver, to do, refuse to recognise their own wilfulness yet persist in their sinfulness.

How often have you responded to people because of their words rather than their deeds and found you have completely misjudged them?

The sons are asked to go to work in the family vineyard.

One son says: “I will not.” In a village culture, in which there is no such thing as personal privacy, this son’s reaction to his father shames the father publicly.

The other son says: “I go, sir.” In public, he appears to be as a good son should be.

But the tables are turned when we learn that the son who mouths off actually goes to work in the vineyard, while the son who seems at first to be good and dutiful turns out to be disobedient.

So those who say they are compliant and say they are doing the right thing have headed off to do things their own way, while claiming they are doing what God wants.

On the other hand, Christ tells all present that even prostitutes and tax collectors who appear to be disobedient might actually end up with a true place in the vineyard. In today’s context, who are the people you keep excluding from the kingdom yet are being called in by God?

Paradoxes aside, most of us are not like one son or the other … most of us are like both sons, and wrestle with their responses and their approaches throughout our lives.

Have you ever received an invitation to a party, a book launch, a wedding, with those four little letters at the end: “RSVP”?

Have you ever been one of those people who, anxious not to offend, sends back a reply saying yes, I’ll be there, and then … and then something else crops up, and I fail to turn up.

It has happened to me. I have been invited to parties and book launches, ignored the RSVP line in the bottom corner, and then, at the last moment, turned up. And, I have to confess, I have, at least one or twice, accepted … and not turned up.

On which evening do you think I was most appreciated?

An obvious answer, I think.

It is more forgivable to be socially awkward than to be wilfully rude.

When you are in full-time ministry it will be easy to be like one of these sons.

You may find it difficult to do what God and the Church are calling you to do. If you have been late in testing your vocation, then, like me, you will know what it is to say ‘No’ to God, but eventually answer that RSVP and seek to do his will.

You will find it difficult, you will find it hard, you will even find it boring and tedious, especially when it comes to committees and administration. You will say No countless times, and then realise how worthwhile it all is: labouring in the vineyard should be hard work, but it leads to a good harvest and good wine.

And when you are in full-time ministry it will be easy to say yes, but to continue wilfully to do just what you want to do, persisting in thinking what you want is more important than the promptings of God or even the expectations of the Church.

You may even persist in trying to persuade others, to persuade even yourself, that you are doing God’s will, when you are simply satisfying your own wilfulness.

I have to be careful to distinguish between God’s will and my own will. When they coincide, there are countless blessings. But when they are in conflict, I need to beware of pretending that one is the other, that I am answering the Father’s call and doing his work, when in reality I am doing what I want to do myself, and telling others what I want rather than what God wants.

In the words of the Collect of the Day this evening, I pray that we may all, each one of us, be “found steadfast in faith and active in service.”

In The Great Divorce, CS Lewis claims: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’.”

And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Collect:

God,
who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit
upon your Church in the burning fire of your love:
Grant that your people may be fervent
in the fellowship of the gospel;
that, always abiding in you,
they may be found steadfast in faith and active in service;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Eternal God,
we have received these tokens of your promise.
May we who have been nourished with holy things
live as faithful heirs of your promised kingdom.
We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist in the Institute Chapel on 1 October 2014.

Matthew 22: 1-14: accepting
the invitation to the banquet

Banqueting at the end-of-term dinner organised by the Durrell School of Corfu ... we are all invited to the heavenly banquet, but are we ready to accept the invitation? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Introduction:

For our Bible studies in our tutorial group this semester, we are looking at the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Sunday week.

Sunday week [12 October 2014] is the Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 23). The RCL readings for that Sunday are: Exodus 32: 1-14; Psalm 106: 1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4: 1-9; Matthew 22: 1-14.

Matthew 22: 1-14:

1 Καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ Ἰησοῦς πάλιν εἶπεν ἐν παραβολαῖς αὐτοῖς λέγων, 2 Ὡμοιώθηἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν ἀνθρώπῳ βασιλεῖ, ὅστις ἐποίησεν γάμους τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ. 3 καὶ ἀπέστειλεν τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ καλέσαι τοὺς κεκλημένους εἰς τοὺς γάμους, καὶ οὐκ ἤθελον ἐλθεῖν. 4 πάλιν ἀπέστειλεν ἄλλους δούλους λέγων, Εἴπατε τοῖς κεκλημένοις, Ἰδοὺ τὸ ἄριστόν μου ἡτοίμακα, οἱ ταῦροί μου καὶ τὰσιτιστὰ τεθυμένα, καὶ πάντα ἕτοιμα: δεῦτε εἰς τοὺς γάμους. 5 οἱ δὲ ἀμελήσαντες ἀπῆλθον, ὃς μὲν εἰς τὸν ἴδιον ἀγρόν, ὃς δὲ ἐπὶ τὴν ἐμπορίαν αὐτοῦ: 6 οἱ δὲ λοιποὶ κρατήσαντες τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ ὕβρισαν καὶ ἀπέκτειναν. 7 ὁ δὲ βασιλεὺς ὠργίσθη, καὶ πέμψας τὰ στρατεύματα αὐτοῦ ἀπώλεσεν τοὺς φονεῖς ἐκείνους καὶ τὴν πόλιν αὐτῶν ἐνέπρησεν. 8 τότε λέγει τοῖς δούλοις αὐτοῦ, Ὁ μὲν γάμος ἕτοιμός ἐστιν, οἱ δὲ κεκλημένοι οὐκ ἦσαν ἄξιοι: 9 πορεύεσθε οὖν ἐπὶ τὰς διεξόδους τῶν ὁδῶν, καὶ ὅσους ἐὰν εὕρητε καλέσατε εἰς τοὺς γάμους. 10 καὶ ἐξελθόντες οἱ δοῦλοι ἐκεῖνοι εἰς τὰς ὁδοὺς συνήγαγον πάντας οὓς εὗρον, πονηρούς τε καὶ ἀγαθούς: καὶ ἐπλήσθη ὁ γάμος ἀνακειμένων.

11 εἰσελθὼν δὲ ὁ βασιλεὺς θεάσασθαι τοὺς ἀνακειμένους εἶδεν ἐκεῖ ἄνθρωπον οὐκ ἐνδεδυμένον ἔνδυμα γάμου: 12 καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ, Ἑταῖρε, πῶς εἰσῆλθες ὧδε μὴ ἔχων ἔνδυμα γάμου; ὁ δὲ ἐφιμώθη. 13 τότε ὁ βασιλεὺς εἶπεν τοῖς διακόνοις, Δήσαντες αὐτοῦ πόδας καὶ χεῖρας ἐκβάλετε αὐτὸν εἰς τὸ σκότος τὸ ἐξώτερον: ἐκεῖ ἔσται ὁ κλαυθμὸς καὶ ὁ βρυγμὸς τῶν ὀδόντων. 14 πολλοὶ γάρ εἰσιν κλητοὶ ὀλίγοι δὲ ἐκλεκτοί.

Translation (NRSV):

1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless.13 Then 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.” 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.’

Putting the readings in context:

Exodus 32: 1-14

The Old Testament reading from the Book Exodus is set after Moses has received the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai.

Aaron and the Israelites have been waiting from Moses to come down from Mount Sinai. Moses has been up there 40 days and 40 nights and is late, or, as one translation puts it, “shamefully late.”

As the people wait, they grow impatient. In response to their impatience, Aaron takes gold from the people and makes a golden calf to represent God for the people. When God sees this, he is angry with the Israelites for worshipping a false god, and is filled with wrath.

After Solomon’s death in 930 BC, Israel split into two kingdoms. To stop people visiting Jerusalem in the south, Jeroboam, king of the northern kingdom, set up two golden calves, one at each of two alternative places of worship (see I Kings 12: 28-30). The writer is not only recording history, but is also teaching that Jerusalem is the only proper place for worship.

But, as we read this story we are uncomfortable not only with the worship of false gods, but with the wrath of God. Wrath is not an emotion we are comfortable with associating with God. Instead, we tend to think of God as loving, gracious, kind and so on.

What does the wrath of God mean?

How should we respond?

What is false worship? And what is appropriate worship?

Moses is not tempted by the offer to become the founder of a new “great nation”. Instead, he stands by Israel and pleads and argues with God.

Are there going to be times when what you think is a call from God becomes a temptation that you should resist?

When have you found yourself arguing with God?

Moses responds by standing before God and testify to God’s power and might and reminding God of his faithfulness to the Israelites in bringing them out of Egypt. As Moses speaks, God changes his mind (see verse 14).

What other examples in the Bible can you recall when God changes his mind in response to prayer?

We often speak about God being unchangeable, yet in this passage we hear a story about God’s mind being changed in interaction with Moses.

What does it mean to you that God’s mind has been changed?

Is it possible that God can, at once, be both unchangeable but yet also changed?

Have you ever been impatient with God?

Have you ever had your mind changed as a result of praying?

Psalm 106: 1-6, 19-23

These portions of Psalm 106 continue the themes in our Exodus reading.

In the first portion of this Psalm, we move from praise and thanksgiving to petition and confession, through the full range of human emotion and the complexities of our relationship with God, relying on God’s continuing faithfulness.

In the second portion, though, we move to a confessional tone.

What spiritual practices do you have that help you balance your prayer life?

Philippians 4: 1-9

In this reading, we meet two leaders of the Church in Philippi, Euodia and Syntyche, women who struggled alongside Paul in the work of the Gospel. Now they differ with each other in their understanding of what the way of Christ is, and this causes disunity in the Church. But the Apostle Paul does not deal with them harshly or accuse them of divisiveness. Instead, he urges the members of the Church in Philippi to care for one another, to stay strong and faithful even when they face hardship, and to rejoice in the Lord always.

Apart from Paul, Euodia and Syntyche, there is a fourth, unnamed “loyal companion” (verse 3), sometimes named Syzygus after the Greek description of him here, who is asked to be instrumental in achieving reconciliation, and a fifth person, Clement, who appears nowhere else in the Pauline texts.

The idea that God keeps a “book of life” or a roll of the faithful to be opened at the end of time, is also found in Exodus 32: 32, Psalm 69: 28 and Luke10: 20.

At that time, many were expecting the second coming, and thought it had been delayed. Like the freed slaves in the wilderness in the Old Testament reading, they think that the returning Christ, like Moses, is delayed, perhaps even shamefully late.

Are there divisions among themselves tantamount to idolatry?

Yet Saint Paul tells them: “The Lord is near” (verse 5). The Philippians should seek unity in prayer and find peace in God.

Matthew 22: 1-14

This parable, which is the third parable about the kingdom of heaven, is particularly difficult. It tells the story of a king hosting a wedding banquet for his son. The king has invited a long list of guests, but even after being repeatedly sought out, none of these guests comes to the banquet.

To refuse to come, to refuse a king’s command, is treason; to kill his slaves amounts to insurrection. So the king sends troops to put down the rebellion.

The king then sends his slaves into the streets to find enough people to sit at the tables at the wedding banquet. Notice how he invites all people, “both good and bad” (verse 10).

Yet, when the king sees that a man is not dressed appropriately for the event, the king throws him into the outer darkness.

If you were to imagine yourself as one of the characters in this parable, who would you be?

And would you behave that way?

Are you the king, throwing a lavish wedding banquet?

Are you a wedding guest who has denied the generosity of the king?

Are you one of the people brought in from the streets, but not prepared for the celebration about to take place?

Where do you find Good News in this parable?

Christ’s audience would naturally associate a festive meal with the celebration of God’s people at the end of time. The wedding feast is a recurring image in the Bible of the heavenly banquet and the coming kingdom.

What is meant by the many and the few here?

I have read that in Western thought many is the much more than the majority, while few is many less than the majority. In Eastern thought, one less than 100% would be considered few.

This story has elements of harshness and tragedy, and some of the responses seem out of proportion to the crime.

The first guests are those who are hostile to Christ. The one who arrives without wearing wedding robes represents those who do not count the cost in becoming disciples. The judgment on anyone who does not prepare will be at least as severe as that on those who reject Christ. The final verse is the moral of the story – a generalisation of Christ’s intent in telling the parable: “For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Wedding garments were provided to all comers, so refusing to wear one was not a matter of pleading poverty – it was a deliberate and direct insult to the host.

Some questions:

Yet is the king in the parable a paragon of virtue or a model for how Christ behaves? Christ’s condemnation of violent retaliation is clear and consistent, not only in his teaching throughout his ministry but also in his example of becoming subject to death on a cross.

I have difficulties with the traditional, exclusive claims made in many interpretations of this parable, the standard storytelling of this parable. Is Christ proclaiming that God will retaliate violently when God’s messengers are attacked?

The wedding feast is a consistent image of the messianic banquet. How often do we try to shorten and edit the guest list for the party? The task of the slaves is to gather all – “both good and bad.” If it is for anyone to decide who should be ejected, that call belongs to the king.

But there is another, alternative reading of this Gospel passage. The guests have been compelled to come to the banquet, not because they have something to celebrate, but because they are in fear of the tyrant.

In this telling, Christ is the only one who speaks out protested against the king’s tyranny, the tyranny of the kingdoms of this world, by refusing to wear the robe, and ended up being rejected, being ejected, and being crucified on behalf of all those who are marginalised, thrown out, expelled.

For many are called to the way of the Cross, but few are chosen.

On the other hand, we might think of the person was invited by the king, but who does not change. Many are invited to Christianity, come to the banquet, but do not change, thinking that God’s grace will cover it all.

As with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s discussions of Cheap Grace and Costly Grace, we are invited to the banquet, but we must change.

Or you might see the guest who shows up without the wedding garment as being like someone coming to a party but refusing to party. How often am I like that person? Are you?

Collect

Almighty God,
you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you:
Teach us to offer ourselves to your service,
that here we may have your peace,
and in the world to come may see you face to face;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our guide,
you feed us with bread from heaven
as you fed your people Israel.
May we who have been inwardly nourished
be ready to follow you
all the days of our pilgrimage on earth,
until we come to your kingdom in heaven.
This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Next week: Matthew 22: 15-22.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with MTh students on 1 October 2014.