Search form

You are here

A Strange Story

Autumn at Salisbury Cathedral
Posted By : Edward Probert Sunday 12th October 2014

A sermon by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor

Sunday, 12 October 2014 - the 17th Sunday After Trinity

Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14

We are an odd phenomenon, aren't we? Look at this place; look at one another; look at the songs we sing; look at what we spend this hour and ten minutes doing, at a time when most of our society do something domestic or for fun. None of this is normal.

The Church can seem a weirdly detached thing, its life a series of odd experiences. And not just in its cultural strangeness, but also in its frequent self-absorption.  So much of the inner workings of the Church can seem to be introverted, focussing on keeping going the institution and its buildings, raising money to do so, preserving our purity as a group by defining (explicitly or implicitly) who is in and who is out.  Sometimes this can seem like an elaborate social and psychological cocoon to protect ourselves against all the intractable, and yet hugely important, things which press upon us every day: things like the Islamic State, ebola, our relationship with the European Union, poverty, climate change, the tide of refugees (51 million worldwide at the moment); and things like our own neediness, our own losses, our own fears, the desperation in us and immediately around us.

All of that may be true.  But it ignores one key part of all this: at the heart of all this personal and social experience is an attempt to remember God. This isn't purely human, something which can be fully studied sociologically - it's a way to bring God into the equation.  Which is why the physical fact of coming together, of bodily expressing that intention, is so important. It's both a statement of priority, and also an actual shift of perspective - you see and experience things differently when you go somewhere, when you are out of your own environment.

So the weirdness of Church can actually be its very strength - paradoxically not just risking putting a cocoon around ourselves, but also risking taking us out of our cocoons, exposing us to the ultimate challenge.  For the God we seek to meet, around whom we seek to build our life and worship, is the God in whom are held ebola and ISIS and human culpability and human need and all things in heaven and on earth.  He knows all these present concerns, he is embodied to meet them, and yet he is not bounded by these pressing things. As the maker of time, he is beyond it, and it does him no dishonour if, in part at least, there is a beyond-timeness about what we do to meet him.

So it is that the texts I read as president of the 8 a.m. Holy Communion service earlier today were almost entirely written in 1552: these are not invalid because old. So it is that we spend so much of our time collectively reading, hearing, reflecting on, the even older texts of the Bible.  These ancient things exist to help us encounter God who is at once both like us and unlike us, whose care is boundless, and who has reached out to his creation since it began.

And so it is that we have much to learn: being in his presence, seeking relationship with him, will involve strangeness as well as comfort and familiarity.  All that I’ve said so far is a kind of elaborate prelude to saying that there is plenty of strangeness in the passage chosen for our gospel today, which is why I hope you will excuse me if I spend some time addressing that strangeness.

The similar story in Luke is so much easier to grasp: guests are invited; they can't be bothered to come; so other, less honoured, guests are pressed in to enjoy the feast.  That's a story to communicate the urgent generosity of God, the 'host'. But here in Matthew, what must have started off as the same story, has taken on many extra layers and seems to make no simple sense.  Why do the invited guests now live in a distant city? Why do they abuse and kill the slaves?  Why, strangest of all, does the king take against one of the guests who does actually come, because he's not properly dressed? And why does this version give the point of the story as 'many are called, but few are chosen', when Luke's version has an almost diametrically opposite intention?

Well, Matthew's version reveals the layers of change as this story has been passed on for a few decades before it was written into this gospel.  Into the simple story Luke gives us have been woven three factors which have taken place in those years: the falling out between the wider Jewish people and the followers of Jesus; the change within the balance within the Christian community from all Jewish to mostly gentile; and the destruction of both the Jewish kingdom and of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in AD 70.

So in Matthew’s version the person who is the host has become the king, and his invitation is to the authorities, and the authorities reject him, and their city has been destroyed.  That reflects Matthew’s perspective on what had happened when Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish ‘church and state’ were themselves destroyed, having brought down the judgement of God for their rejection of his purposes in Jesus Christ.  The invitation to the strangers to come in has become a reflection of the gentile presence within the church.  And the exclusion of one who is not behaving properly could well be a commentary reflecting the perspective you can see throughout Matthew’s gospel that to be Jewish was to be the greatest thing, to follow God’s rules even better than the scribes and Pharisees did was to follow God most fully.  While there is a place for the gentiles within the kingdom of God, the most honoured place there is for the Jewish people, properly constituted.  And the response to God that is full for Jewish people is obedience to the law in all its jots and tittles.  This is a very Matthew kind of concern and it’s all taken its place here within this story; and the saying which Jesus undoubtedly did say – that many are called but few are chosen – probably had no place within this story when he told it, but has found its way here.

Well, lest we get lost in the complexities, contradictions and obscurities of our tradition, we have been blessed this morning with one of the best and most delightful passages from that often rather tortured and driven writer, St Paul. Unlike that parable in Matthew, this might have been written to someone we know last week; and it's full of excellent advice in forming our attitudes as Christians.

Rejoice; do not worry; pray; focus on what is commendable and praiseworthy.  He's not implying that there is nothing bad in the world or in his readers' lives and characters, he's quite simply advising them to dwell not on what is bad but on what is good.

If you have ever been around people who are relentlessly negative, or people who are constantly looking for what is good, you don't need me to explain the difference.  On this occasion, Paul was absolutely right, and if we apply it, we can help change the world. I leave him the last word.  'Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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.'