Putting on the garment of gratitude in hard times...

Last week I heard a number of members of this congregation speaking to one another about how much personal wealth they have lost in the recent Stock Market crisis – nearly $2 trillion dollars for all Americans - and they were afraid.

+ Last week I listened to the political debates – and watched the television commentaries – as the Presidential campaigns entered their final month and amidst the mudslinging, attempted character assassinations, factual distortions and periodic forays into veiled race hatred mostly what I heard was fear.

+ And, last week our church secretary told me that there hasn’t been one day in the last two weeks when we didn’t receive calls from a variety of people requesting either emergency food or heating assistance. To be sure, there is fear in the air we breathe and it is palpable.

Jim Antal, the Conference Minister for churches in our area, recently sent a pastoral letter to all the clergy in Massachusetts in which he asked us to take stock of this fear – own it and name it and pray over it – because it is profound. He writes:

Every pastor knows – whether or not they’ve read Karl Barth — that in times like these, it’s especially good to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. (NOTE: I understand that is essentially an outdated image; as one young blogger put it, "Nobody reads newspapers any more. What we should be talking about is the Bible in one hand and your IPOD in the other!") And the reason for this is that there is a dialog between the events of the day and the wisdom of the ages – and we as preachers are called to articulate that dialog from our pulpits…. Are we not approaching a point where the cacophonic chaos of the financial crisis is drowning out the still small voice of our still speaking God? So ask yourself – what would give people in your church confidence that the word they would hear from the pulpit would address their condition with the good news of Christ and send them home with a hope in their heart that would guide and sustain them throughout the week?

He goes on to say that the fear and doubt that is rampant today will touch those who gather in church in a host of ways:

Some will come to the pews with heavy hearts and narrowed horizons. Some will be dragging the weight of this crisis like a millstone around their neck. A few might be desperate, not knowing how they will pay their mortgage, or their child’s college tuition, or their November heating bill. While others will be angry at the corporate executives – or at our government leaders – who will likely “smell like roses” long after this crisis passes. In our quiet prayers, many will say to God, “what was I thinking?” as they regret a recent, personal decision. Some will be focused on the most vulnerable – for whom any possibility of coping has been extinguished.

As with September 11th – the Tsunami – or any other community tragedy of great consequence – like the suicide of a teenager – many – perhaps most – will come to church in the hope that you will help them understand something of the cause as well as something of the consequences of these cataclysmic events. Some clergy will be tempted to head for the op-ed pages of the past week or two and suggest political solutions or even blame.... but I would urge you to turn to the book that’s in your other hand…It will offer an interpretation that will appear neither on the front page (of any newspaper) nor on the op-ed page either. And it will ask us to acknowledge a truth that each of us has experienced at one time or another in a small or large place within our own heart.

I believe that Jim is right – and faithful – in his admonition to scour God’s truth and wisdom in scripture during this time of crisis. Because if we do – if we are attentive to the bold alternative to the sea of greed that has cast us into this chaos and become normative for Americans – we will see both a new way of living and a deeper way of being Christ’s church that will give shape and form to truth, hope and healing amidst this pain and fear. Take, for example, the alternative – even counter-cultural – vision that Jesus offers in today’s gospel story in Matthew 22:

+ First, Christ speaks of God’s presence in our lives as a wedding feast – not a test, not a judgment hall or even an encounter with the most recent episode of “Law and Order” – but a wedding feast. A banquet – a sacred meal of hospitality built on abundance and hope rather than scarcity and fear – where everyone is welcome. To be sure, some will always say they are too busy – that is what happens at the start of this story – those who are too self-absorbed for whatever reasons tell the king that they will not come because they have made a choice to stay in their small, self-centered world.

One scholar puts it like this: Those who do not go to the feast “want to do what they want to do when they want to do it. One goes to his field and another to his business. These aren't excuses, but personal concerns that they think are more important than the king's invitation to this most important celebration for his son.” Some will get it and some will not but God’s invitation to the feast remains.

What’s more, rather that stop the joy, God expands the invitation. Yes, there is that nasty part about destroying the uncooperative thugs and burning down their city after they killed the messengers of the Lord – and that’s pretty harsh and ugly. But I think that detail is more about good story telling than the true nature of God. Dare I go so far as to call it a plot device to make sure we stay tuned?

At any rate, the second real insight here is that the King expands his invitation and welcomes into the banquet hall everyone – even those who look like they don’t belong – because he understands that everyone has a place at this table: the good, the bad and the ugly – the young, the old and those in-between – those who have glimpsed something of God’s alternative vision for life in community and those who are clueless. Bible scholar, Robert Smith, puts it like this:

The new community in Matthew's view is a mixed body, both wheat and tares (13:24-30), good fish and bad (13:48), obedient and disobedient sons (21:28-32), sheep and goats (25:31-46). In this new community, he saw the grace of God in its odd assortment of people. God has acted with a marvelous disdain for all the old rules, all the old definitions of worthiness or acceptability and has filled the banquet all to the rafters. (So) Matthew celebrated the surpassing depth and splendor of that grace while at the same time being painfully aware of the sad tendencies among both the good and the bad to abuse this grace: (1) "Good" people in the community are (sometimes) tempted to embark on programs of purification to weed out the tares or to cast out the (bad) fish. (2) And the "bad" people are (often) tempted to count on God's foolishness and misconstrue grace as divine indifferences to morality or behavior. So Matthew is tireless in warning that judging others is no business of the community, and equally ardent and insistent that history will end with God's judgment. Ever and again in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus spells out the terms of judgment, its criteria and standards, summoning us to self-criticism, to self-examination, and to the timely yielding of obedience to God.

That’s what the wedding garment is all about: putting on a new life of gratitude rather than self-righteous obligation that welcomes the wounded and heals the broken with love and compassion. It is an alternative way of responding to God’s grace with our lives so that Christ’s words become flesh within and among us. St. Paul tells us:

Let’s not squander these precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight. Get out of bed and get dressed! Don't loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute. Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about… remember: your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ's life, the fulfillment of God's original promise – so now you're done with that old life. It's like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you've stripped off and put in the fire. Now you're dressed in a new wardrobe and every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with God’s label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete. Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ and everyone is included in Christ.

And Paul, of course, is drawing insight not only from his encounters with God’s amazing grace, but also from his knowledge of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah who wrote:

Here on this mountain, our God-of-the-Angel-Armies will throw a feast for all the people of the world, a feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines, a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts. And here on this mountain, God will banish the pall of doom hanging over all peoples, the shadow of doom darkening all nations. Yes, God will banish death forever. And God will wipe the tears from every face. The Lord will remove every sign of disgrace from the people, wherever they are… so I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, and my whole being shall exult in my God; for in this blessing God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, covered me with the robe of justice and compassion, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Gratitude is our response to God’s grace – it is the wedding garment we put on to reply to the Lord – and it is visible to all. And the wedding garment of gratitude is really needed at this moment in time both because it keeps us grounded in God and shows the world that there is an alternative to greed and fear. Putting on the wedding garment is about trust despite our fears – putting on the wedding garment says that we’re going to a feast even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death and scarcity – putting on the wedding garment encourages and empowers us to share with others rather than horde and become stained with selfishness.

Now I don’t have any illusion that the hard times we are entering will not be painful for the wedding garment of trust and gratitude is not about fantasy or escapism – that would be cruel and mean spirited – and would do nothing to help us prepare for the challenges yet to come. Rather what I am encouraging us to do – and what this moment in history is pleading with us to do – has to do with a feast not a famine – the wedding banquet not a bankruptcy court – God’s abundant promises rather than our limited vision of scarcity and fear.

You see, I believe that the wedding garment of gratitude is both prophetic and redemptive. It reminds us that we do not serve or worship a God who is trapped or limited by our lack of trust and at the same time it shows those who are wounded and afraid that there is an alternative to the darkness of this hour:

+When the world shouted “crucify, crucify that man” as if death could extinguish the light of grace…

+ When those who had been bound together in trust and compassion gave in to fear and greed, betraying and denying the one they loved the most…

+ When doubt and darkness defined the days between Good Friday and Easter Sunday and all the women could do is go to the tomb with tears and the garments of mourning while the men hid away in darkness and despair…

God waited – waited in trust and love – waited and grieved our anger and fear – sharing the consequences of our emptiness and confusion fully and helping us endure what it means to live by self-indulgence and idolatry. And then, in the fullness of time – at exactly the right time – God came to us again in Jesus – wounded by our fears but raised from the dead by the power of God – to show us that whenever the world says there is no way, God will make a way.

God will make a way that transforms fear into trust – greed into gratitude – despair into hope – and death into new life. God’s promise is clear: when all we can see is our way, God will show us a new way – a way out of the tomb, out of the darkness and out of isolation into community … And that is one of the fascinating truths that is being exposed by this horrible financial collapse: we really are all in this together. America needs Europe - Asia needs Russia - China needs South America - for when one stumbles, everyone falls. (Think of U2's brilliant, "One" which reminds us that we're: "One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should. One life with each other, sisters, brothers. One life, but were not the same,we get to carry each other, carry each other.")

But… and here’s where it all comes together – but… we will miss the potential of this tragedy unless we can put on the wedding garment of trust and gratitude even while we doubt; for then the connections become visible. Then we can see that sharing by all will mean scarcity for none. Then this collection of weird and wonderful characters – the sinners and saints in this faith community – can be a center for healing and hope amdist the pain and fear. A place where grace truly is rising now at last.

Because then, you see, when the king wanders in among us looking for those clothed in compassion and commitment, he'll see those committed enough to put on the wedding garment of gratitude even in hard times... and the feast will be blessed.


Black Pete said…

And I still prefer a newspaper to tv news. :)
RJ said…
OMG me, too... and still read it everyday, too.
Luke said…
"God has acted with a marvelous disdain for all the old rules, all the old definitions of worthiness or acceptability and has filled the banquet all to the rafters."

here's my comment: aobucebaobeaoceano;!!!!

speechless and in awe. RAWK

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