Giving God your `apologies for absence`.

We were discussing the Wedding arrangements. The father of the Bride was looking a bit faint. I said “Are you alright sir?” “No,” he said. “You`ll never believe the size of the deposit I`ve just put down for the reception!” Weddings are big business these days aren`t they? And it`s common to talk about how over-done they can seem. How easily that intimate little event which the couple dreamed of becomes the all singing-all-dancing extravaganza. Oh yes, and then there`s the Guest list. It intrigues me to watch the contortions that some couples get themselves into over who to invite to the wedding. Don`t misunderstand me I`m well aware of the pressures they`re under but they often go through agonies over the date and time so as to make sure everyone can be there. In one sense this is perfectly laudable- but they look askance when I tell them that since they are booking 18 months in advance, if these people really want to come, with that kind of notice, they`ll make the time…. Won`t they?

Invitations. That`s at the heart of our Gospel reading this morning (Matthew 22.1-14). Jesus is again reflecting on the Kingdom of God- the rule of God in our hearts, our lives and the world. He`s ushering in a new order and we`re all called to respond to this new state of affairs. The invitations are going out….. but he tells a parable that illustrates how, frankly not everyone is that keen. On one level what we have is Jesus telling a story about how things have been with the people of Israel. They have been invited to play their part in God`s purpose to put his world to rights…. But as the story illustrates; time after time they`ve just not turned up. So now, where Israel failed, Jesus would continue…. And through Him the turning point of history has arrived. Through HIM all the nations of the world will get to hear God`s invitation to life. In a nutshell, that`s what`s going on.

In our context of course, we read this parable two thousand years on, but the invitation remains. And the impact, of this parable relates to the way we, as a church sometimes fall into the trap of behaving as Israel did. For me the important thing to note is that the first to be invited are not atheists or irreligious people but the ones who should have known better; those who would have been expected to accept. And this is the tragedy at the heart of the parable. This is a parable which before anything else, invites the faithful to check whether their diary isn`t actually over full with excuses for not making this important date.

Because, again, it was the faithful- those whose loyalty might have been presumed who are described as those who `made light of it and went away, one to his farm another to his business whilst the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them and killed them`. It was the faithful who had become adept at giving their apologies for absence…….So this might not make a comfortable read; but let`s think for a moment about what we mean by the Kingdom of God being an Invitation. Well firstly, the use of this word reminds us that as I`m always saying it is not the case that we are in search of God but rather that he is in search of us.

The invitation to surrender to HIS agenda and way of living as a human being is there in the events of each day. The problem is that we allow and even indulge ourselves in the distractions that ensure the invitation is metaphorically left on the mat, unopened. It`s there in the moments of gratitude, wonder, compassion and repentance- the `sorry`, `thank you` and `help` moments of life that are too easily glossed over without proper reflection. It`s there also in life`s unsettling extremes- I`ve always found it intriguing that C. S. Lewis once called suffering `God`s megaphone`. But he was surely right in suggesting that if we allow ourselves the time and perspective to reflect on the nuts and bolts of the everyday concerns of life there is far more going on than we might otherwise imagine. But that of course is the issue.

For the crying need is for a quality of reflection on what is actually happening to us. As the French writer Charles Peguy once said that we need “To pray. To pray that a whole people be spared from falling among the dead souls, the dead peoples, the dead nations. Be spared from falling down dead. Be spared from becoming a dead people. A dead nation. Be spared from mildew. Be spared from going rotten in spiritual death, in the earth, in hell”.

Dramatic language perhaps- but this is the point Jesus makes isn`t it… The invitation was sent out but “They made light of it”. They gave their apologies for absence. I think it`s notable that Peguy didn`t confine his fears to observations about the fate of individual souls. Notice that his concern was for fate of his country as well. And I think this is the chief way in which WE make light of things. I think we have allowed our faith to be caricatured as simply a matter of individual salvation but when Christ talks of the Kingdom he is talking of God`s reign in ALL things- an altogether more serious matter. I mean, I`ve lost count of the number of times people protest to me about the horrible things happening on the news. They conclude (and I understand where they`re coming from) that it`s all outrageous…. But they make these remarks as if God is somewhere out there.

We`re simply not used to seeing Christ and all that he has done as directly aimed at the multitude of grotesque events we see on the news each evening. It seems that we too easily become light weight and we`ve failed to develop a faith that is robust enough to see the victory of the cross as being about more than just our individual salvation and instead speaking directly to these things which shake us to the core. So we refuse the invitation by not grasping the seriousness and the scope of what God is actually about in Christ. But secondly just look at those words “one of them went off to his farm and another to his business”.

Here`s the Invitation declined because they had better things to do. Very important things of course…. but Jesus is referring to the way in which these preoccupations amount to excuses for declining the call of the Kingdom. How does this work? Well essentially it`s a lack of perspective. It`s the refusal to really pursue that which is important in life. When we get caught up in working too much people often talk about a better `work-life balance` but we normally stop short at something like “I must give more time to family and personal interests” but Jesus has a bigger picture. What consideration do we give to the Kingdom? –to God`s agenda for our daily living? The Farm and the Office stand for that constant stream of evasive behaviour….. until as someone ironically said, “The one thing you never hear on a death bed is `I wish I`d spent more time at the Office`”.

And then of course there`s that quite violent rejection of the invitation to consider; where `they made light of it and went away, one to his farm and another to his business whilst the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them and killed them`. It` sounds a bit extreme doesn`t it? But this is where I think we`re a little naïve about the ways of sin and how crafty we can be in adjusting our perspective on faith to suit our own purposes. I`ve often witnessed the most extreme reactions from the most genteel of Christian people to what I regarded as uncontroversial matters. Suddenly that small thing becomes point of principle and a resigning matter and you realise that something much deeper is going on under the surface. And so often what`s at stake is the surrender of the ego to God.

And it`s in this light that we should see those interesting final remarks about the person expelled from the wedding for not having a wedding garment. Again it seems arbitrary and extreme but firstly, do give some latitude to the art of Middle Eastern story telling. If you`re reacting then it`s doing its job. But secondly consider for a moment that the `garment` spoken of may refer to the robe given to someone at Baptism. In other words what`s going on here has nothing to do with `clothing` but points to the life of `submission` which goes with being Baptised.

What I`m saying is that there`s something here which rids us of any sentimental notion of God. We`re completely right to speak of the graciousness of God who “accepts me as I am” but accepting his invitation and submitting to the ways of the Kingdom doesn`t mean `staying` as I am. Accepting the Invitation doesn`t in that sense mean turning up on our own terms; whenever and however it`s convenient for us. We`re all invited. That`s the background song of creation… But we can`t have it our own way. Each day, each moment is a call to choose; to say `Yes` to God.

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