Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Parable of the Stingy Bridesmaids&the Foolish Virgins


Matthew 25:1-13 tells the story of ten bridesmaids, or, as older translations have it, the “foolish virgins”. The wise bridesmaids carried an extra supply of oil for their lamps, but the foolish ones did not. When the groom was late, they all fell asleep, and when he finally showed up they all “got up and trimmed their lamps.” Guess what: the foolish bridesmaids’ lamps had burned out, and when they asked their wise counterparts to share with them, they would not. When the foolish bridesmaids returned from having replenished their supply at the lamp oil store, the wedding banquet was already underway, and the groom would not let them join the Feast, though they entreated him piteously. “Truly I tell you, I do not know you,” he said.

Before I can make any sense out of this parable I must first disabuse myself of any notion that it represents a New Testament version of “The Three Little Pigs.” It is not, cannot be, a cautionary tale about the virtues of thrift and holding on to scarce assets. If there is to be any Good News in this parable, it will have to fit somewhere on the spectrum with the crowd of Prodigal Sons and Good Samaritans and widows who put their life savings into the collection plate. “Do not be anxious,” says Jesus in Matthew 6:25, “about what you will eat, or what you will wear.” Or, one might add, “how much oil is in your lamp.” To hear Good News in this parable it is nec essary to imagine the world as a wedding where the arrival of a major participant has been inexplicably delayed.

The Gospel of Matthew was composed at a time when many Christians were discouraged that the Second Coming of Jesus had not occurred. If they were disappointed that Jesus had not called down armies of angels to overthrow Pontius Pilate at the time of the crucifixion, they were even more disappointed when the glorified and exalted Jesus did not come down from the sky to save them from persecution and extinction at the hands of the Romans.

It is to addre3ss these fears that the Gospel of Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, in 24:13, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

I have my own experience with weddings and the absent grooms, and brides as well. Our daughter Caitlin married a wonderful Scotsman, Michael Lester, in July of 2007. For the wedding, we joined family members who traveled from as far as Trinidad and Australia in anticipation of a great gala wedding in the village of Duns, located in the Scottish Borders southwest of Edinburgh. On Wednesday before the wedding, however, I received a call from our daughter saying that the immigration authorities would not permit Michael to return if he left the United States without a certain document, for which he had applied many months before but which still had not been issued. “We can’t come to our own wedding, Dad”, Caitlin told me, “you will have to have it without us.”

She was devastated, of course, and so was I. I was also mad, mad at the INS, and mad at God. This was not a big issue of theodicy, as when a child dies or there is a horrible natural disaster of some kind. I could not construe the missing of a wedding party as a tragedy, but I could see it as petty harassment, as a trivializing example of divine spitefulness. We can struggle against the image of God as an oppressive tyrant, but “God as a party-pooper” doesn’t seem worthy of any effort at all.

So I was mad, but I made my peace with God, and set about composing a sermon to give at the “wedding for an absent bride and groom.” In the sermon I said that it was OK to mad at God, that God expects us to get mad and forgives us for it. After all, Jesus had commanded us to have this universal kingdom of heaven party and then left us to figure out all the details on our own while he parties with the Father and the Holy Spirit “up” in heaven, or whatever direction it is.

So God expects us to get mad. God also expects us to grow up and stop whining. If you are married, you know that marriage is not just about parties and receptions, it about loving and cherishing each other “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.” And people are treated harshly by immigration authorities all the time- why should we expect to be an exception?

Anyone who wants to come to God’s wedding party will, sooner or later, find themselves walking in the shoes of every immigrant, legal or otherwise, because Jesus himself was an illegal immigrant, smuggled into the world under King Herod’s radar. Anyone who wants to come to God’s wedding party will find themselves having to learn how to love their neighbor no matter what, whether the economy is up or down, whether your government is the Roman Empire or the USA, whether the Groom is up at the altar or up on the cross.

That’s not exactly what I put into my “Wedding Sermon in the Absence of a Bride and Groom”, but it’s close, and I never had occasion to preach it after all. At the last possible minute the INS relented and issued the necessary permit, so Caitlin and Michael flew over to Scotland and we had the wedding and the greatest party ever held in the history of the world. The sermon I did give at the Scottish Episcopal Church in Duns said, basically, “this wedding is the closest to the kingdom of heaven as we ever get in this world.”

Actually, I say something pretty close to that at every Eucharist, because every Eucharist is a kind of rehearsal for God’s Wedding Banquet where the Guest of Honor is absent, having ascended into heaven 2000 years ago. We still get mad about the inconvenience of it, or at least I do, but Jesus loves us anyway. Loves and forgives us, but also calls us to grow up and get on with our discipleship. There is a place for everyone at this Wedding Banquet- no one is excluded for lack of enough good deeds on their resume, or enough oil in their lamps, or enough anything. If you are with Jesus, it is always enough.

If anyone succeeds in excluding themselves it will be because they cannot stand God’s way of doing parties. It will be because they can’t stand a party where everyone gets the same thing at communion regardless of how much they give to the church. It will be because they can’t stand weddings where the Groom keeps the guests waiting for 2000+ years. There are ways to exclude ourselves, but not because God is stingy. It is a tough love that God bestows upon us, but also a love that is lavish, abundant, prodigal, and persistent.

If you can’t stand a love like that, stay home. Otherwise, come to the party: it’s the greatest party in the history of the world.

Monday, October 17, 2011



Dr. Fredrica Thompsett is a semi-retired seminary professor with a gift for accessibility and humor. She has written extensively about the crucial significance of baptism in the life of the church, both historically and in the present day. According to her, our return to a theology of baptism that more closely conforms to the norms of the early church is the most significant of all the changes that have occurred in the Episcopal Church. For this reason she uses the term “Baptismal Revolution” to describe it, and sees such developments as women’s ordination, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer,“ Total Ministry” (including the ordination of local, non-professional clergy), the eucharist as the main worship activity on Sundays, increased openness to sexual minorities, and closer relationships with Lutherans and others as, if not proceeding directly from it, at least closely related to it.

What follows is my understanding of what constitutes the “Baptismal Revolution,” as stimulated by Dr. Thompsett’s scholarly and prophetic insights.

1. In the period after World War Two period liturgical scholars were discovering and writing about the central role of baptism (and the eucharist) in the life of the early Christian church. At the same time, Christians in Europe and North America were being forced by circumstances to reclaim their vocation as members of a missionary community, sent not to heathen nations overseas, but to their own secularized and idolatrous culture. So our renewed emphasis on baptism and eucharist arose, not merely as an antiquarian desire to copy the practice of the early church, but in response to a cultural situation more like that of pre-Constantinian Christianity than of the Middle Ages, or even the 1950’s.

2. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer established a norm, new to most congregations, of baptism celebrated on Sunday, with participation from the entire parish community. This represented a return to early Christian norms, and reversed the medieval practice of treating baptism as a private matter to be transacted between families and clergy, with the emphasis upon its being a prerequisite for entrance into heaven. In the Episcopal Church,” Fredrica Thompsett says, “baptism is first of all about God acting and the community responding.” That is why we will baptize a person at any age, including infancy, because God is the initiator of the relationship, and we respond as a community, not just as individuals.

3. With baptism being celebrated often and publically, the entire parish community is reminded of its calling to partake in mission, not just maintain the institution of the church. As the western world becomes less and less nominally “Christian,” the need for a missional posture becomes more and more evident, just as it was in pre-Constantinian times. Engagement in mission inevitably brings an increased awareness of suffering, which calls for a more informed and motivated discipleship on the part of the entire church. As we are more challenged in our faith, we require a deeper and more mature spirituality, a more intimate and informed relationship with God and each other. The weekly Eucharistic meal fed this relationship in the early church, and is doing so again in the context of the “Baptismal Revolution.” Eucharistic spirituality in today’s church transcends the doctrinal disputes of the past, as the Sixteenth Century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker was attempting to achieve when he wrote, “the purpose of the eucharist is to change lives, not bread.” (Quoted by Fredrica Thompsett).

4. The Baptismal Revolution also has the effect of redefining how ministry functions within the church. While upholding the legitimate role of ordained ministry, it “flattens out” and democratizes the hierarchical structure of the church. This is not from any political motive, but because baptism confers the highest” dignity and status that a Christian can possibly achieve. If it constitutes full membership in the Body of Christ, incorporation into the risen Lord, and sacramental participation in the death and resurrection of the once ordained to judge the living and the dead, how can one get any “higher up” in the church than that? Dr. Thompsett quotes Anglican Bishop Stephen Sykes as saying “No one (not even bishops) moves beyond baptism.” Just as Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River was the occasion of his “call to ministry,” so every baptism empowers and authorizes the recipient for ministry. Obviously, when a recipient is only a few months old their ministry will require considerable mentoring and formation before it can be acted upon. The baptism of infants and young children places great responsibility upon a parish community that is called upon to answer with an enthusiastic “I will” when asked, in the Baptismal Liturgy, if they “will do all in [their] power to support this [newly baptized] person in their life of faith?” Are congregations really prepared to make such promises? Most of us have a long way to go in this aspect.

5. Dr. Thompsett correctly observes that our approach to baptism is greatly influenced by our beliefs about God (i.e. our “theology”). When our study of the Bible reveals how it was a community that has experienced the presence of God down through the Centuries, it puts us on a theological collision course with a culture that privatizes God and thinks of religion as an individual matter. In our practice of baptism we cannot escape the communal experience of a Sacramental God, a God who may refrain from working miracles but who is made accessible and present through the common elements of the material world. This God is not just a concept or an ideal, but a universal Creator to whom all people and things are accountable, whether they wish to be or not. Baptism does not “invent” the life of God in a person otherwise hopelessly condemned by original (or unoriginal) sin. Baptism celebrates, recognizes, and proclaims the belovedness that already exists within each person by virtue of their humanity, as well as the forgiveness that Christ has accomplished on behalf of us all. When it comes to salvation, the initiative always comes from God.

6. The question remains, “can a missional church function without becoming exclusive and “rigorist” in practice? The early church was of a divided mind about this, and so is the Episcopal Church today, as witnessed by controversy over the practice of “Open Communion”, and many other disputes over boundaries, doctrinal and disciplinary. It is evident that the existence of strict boundaries and rigorous entrance requirements helps to maintain a strong group identity and commitment, as can be observed in Amish communities, monastic orders, and fundamentalist movements. But is such exclusivity compatible with a Gospel specifically addressed to outsiders and outcasts? Jesus called his disciples to follow an extremely high set of expectations, yet coupled those expectations with a radically open, generous, and inclusive stance toward all humanity. Is this kind of “Gospel Posture” viable and sustainable? Institutional Christianity has spent 2000 years devising ways to domesticate, rationalize, and co-opt it, yet the mysterious authority of this paradoxical Good News has always found ways to assert itself somewhere, most often “under the radar,” but sometimes even through the agency of popes, prelates, and professors.

In its unique historical and social context, the Episcopal Church seems providentially (or, fatally, as the case may be) situated to experiment with and embody such a “Gospel Posture” toward the world. Are Episcopalians prepared to do “all in our power to support” such an experimental life of faith? The Baptismal Revolution, aided and abetted by humorous prophets such Fredrica Thompsett, is evidence that, for better or worse, we are.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

More "Wedding Guest" commentary

I think the ill-dressed wedding guest is God and we are the terrible king, who keeps making demands of God and eventually kicks him out because God never conforms to our ways. So, then, if we want to be with God, we, too, will be kicked out. God has left the building.

Pastor Manisha Dostert

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Good News for Wedding Guests?

Intrigued by the “Parable of the Wedding Feast” (Matthew 22:1-14), which depicts a ruthless king determined to throw a major party for his son. When the original list of prominent invitees declines to appear (and indeed, murders the mailman who delivered the invitation), he dispatches his army to annihilate them. His next move is to invite everyone in the neighborhood, “both good and bad…so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” (The text specifically says “invite,” but I suspect the people on the new guest list had heard about the fate of those who had declined to respond positively to the first request.) The most puzzling aspect of the parable is the fate of one hapless guest who shows up “not wearing a wedding robe”. When the king spots him, he first insults him by calling him “friend” (a la the Richard Boone character in Hombre, my all-time favorite western… when a king or a gunman calls you “friend”, it’s time to get out of Dodge), then has him tied up and thrown “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Seems like an overreaction for a dress-code violation, especially in the context of a parable about the kingdom of heaven.

For the most part the commentators see this as a reflection of Matthew’s concern for maintaining high ethical and spiritual standards in the Christian community. Just because the new community was more inclusive and generous than the old didn’t mean it had no expectations of its members. On the contrary, its expectations far exceeded those of established Judaism, just as did its prodigality when it came to mercy and forgiveness.

OK, but I am still uneasy. For one thing, my reading of the biblical scholar Ched Myers’ works has sensitized me to the nuances of phrases like “outer darkness,” and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Our first response to such words is to assume they refer to some kind of “hell” where people are separated from God and the kingdom of heaven. But Ched Myers and others have observed that “outer darkness” is precisely where Christ goes to establish his new kingdom. “Outer darkness” is the habitation of the poor, the outcast, and the rejected. To the primeval imagination, “outer darkness” is the abode of demons, monsters, and predators, human and otherwise. Ched Myers points out that the street person Lazarus (Luke 16) dies “at the rich man’s gate,” on the edge of the circle of light emanating from the house where the rich man “feasted sumptuously every day.” On the day of crucifixion, “darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon” (Matthew 27:45), and the passion narratives draw heavily upon imagery from psalms like Psalm 22, where, in verse 16, “they open wide their jaws at me, * like a ravening and roaring lion,” and where (v. 16) “packs of dogs close me in.” It would seem that “gnashing of teeth” is not only a symbol of misery and extreme discomfort, but a reliable indicator of the presence of the Messiah.

I can’t help but sympathize with the wedding- guest-sans-tuxedo. The commentators notwithstanding, he seems more “Christ like” and more like “kingdom of heaven material” than does a bossy king with a penchant for violence. Remember, this is Jesus, who defied hallowed tradition to allow his disciples to “eat with unwashed hands.” And now he makes a villain out an underdressed man at a party? A party he was forced to attend at gun point? Give me a break…

Perhaps there is a paradoxical truth here. My own experience confirms what the Gospel of Matthew proclaims: Christianity does have drastically high expectations of adherents, coupled with its lavish inclusiveness; as Desmond Tutu has eloquently observed, grace is more demanding than law. However, just because I have been invited to the wedding party along with the other riff-raff doesn’t mean I have carte-blanche to drink all the fancy wine and barf on the bride. What it does mean is that even when I do presume upon God’s generosity , even when I do barf on the bride and exile myself to the outer darkness of teeth-grinding alienation, even then the king’s oddball son will come looking for me, come without an army and without any slaves, come gently into the place of exile, into the domain of dogs and lions, come wounded and divorced, to calm the lions and feed the dogs who came to lick my sores and his.

It is with that son that we are called to party. To that wedding even the old mad king is called, his troops demobilized, his slaves emancipated, his rage dispelled.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Mackinac Island

Every three years (or is it two?) the Episcopal clergy and spouses/companions of the four Michigan dioceses are invited to spend, at a reduced rate, two nights at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. This is an effort on the part of the Bishops to promote “clergy wellness,” since the clergy are generally understood to be obsessive workaholics whose need for approval drives them to neglect their own families and health, thus rendering them vulnerable to all the wretchedly familiar forms of priestly misbehavior. So our collegial visits to this posh old hotel, where we must dress up like peacocks to eat lavishly-prepared meals served with equally lavish solicitude, are actually a form of preventive medicine, something we must swallow for our own good, whether we like it or not.

What’s not to like? The best part is the opportunity for Nancy and I to spend time together without the beloved distractions that normally attend us. We especially enjoy thinking up new ways to describe the Grand Hotel’s famously eccentric d├ęcor. We are baffled by the public’s willingness to pay $10 a head for the privilege of touring the place, which reminds us of how out of touch we are with our own culture. No wonder the congregations I have served failed to attract megachurch-size crowds! I just don’t understand what most of my neighbors want to do with their money and time. Oh well.

Every so often, as we admire the stolid draft horses and stock up on fudge, we become conscious of the wind swept waters of the Strait that define this island, that embrace it with wide-waving arms of water and, for much of the year, solid ice. For a very long time people have recognized the special character of this island, and sought to use it for their own purposes, whether religious (for it was sacred to the Indians long before the Europeans came), military (they still fire ceremonial canons from the fort), or commercial (as evidenced by the fudge and fancy food).

It is not too outlandish to suppose that someday Mackinac island will revert to its ancient state, before the forts and hotels and shoppes, and its only visitors will be the descendants of tribes who come to dance out long-neglected liturgies, or perhaps the descendants of priests and bishops will make their way across the ferry-less Straits to prowl among the ruins and share whatever food they find where their ancestors once feasted.