This week, in the morning, I was back in Holbrook. They fed me chocolate cake and coffee, and told me stories about when their kids were younger, and lived in town, and went to church. Now, they’ve all moved to Phoenix. One is apparently dating a Cardinal!
In the afternoon, I did an “emergency animal blessing,” which is to say that I filled in at my friend’s church, since she had to fly back to the East Coast suddenly. I was glad to do it–Animal blessings are common around St. Francis Day, in liturgically-minded churches, and they are one of the perks of the priest-job. Stand around outside on a pretty autumn day and pet dogs, cats, etc in the name of their Creator? Yes, please. And as this particular church has a healthy sense of fun about it, they had also provided ‘doggie snacks’ and animal games, complete with ‘doggie musical chairs.’ (God likes and endorses party games, including bowling, clearly.) Fun was had by everyone.
Clearly, I have an awesome job.
As a side note: this parable from Matthew about drove me spare. I appreciate this run of RESPECT MY AUTHORITY!!! parables we’ve been having between Jesus and the authorities in the Temple in their broader context, but come on, now. Matthew’s supercessionist tendencies get old really quick, and short of taking a homiletic time out to disavow this, it’s difficult to deal with, week after week.
And here’s what I did end up saying.
October 9, 2011
In the days since the death of Steve Jobs, there’s been a revival of
heaven jokes, heaven cartoons. And among them my favorite: A man dies,
and he goes to heaven. St. Peter says to him, “Hooray! We’re thrilled
you’re here, welcome to heaven, your eternal abode, let me show you
around so you can choose where you’d like to live.”
They first come to an elaborate banquet hall, filled with delicious
smells, and fine china, as cheerful people chatted happily and ate their fill.
“What’s this?” asked the man. “oh these are the Episcopalians,” said St.
Peter, “mind your manners, but they throw a good dinner party.”
Next they came to a raucous dance party. Even from a distance, they
could hear the music and the sound of people dancing and clapping.
“What on earth?!” asked the man. “Oh, these are the Baptists. They’re
happy they get to dance now. Takes a while for the thrill to wear off.”
Finally, the man had seen everyone there was to see, all the
inhabitants of heaven, everyone you could think of– all joyful and
Then, off to one side, the man was surprised to notice a stone
house, all boarded up, with a wall around it, and a large sign that said
“Quiet! Keep Out! “. He wandered up to it. “Who lives here?” he asked.
“Shhhh!” said St. Peter. “that’s Jerry Falwell’s house. It’s been in there for
years. He thinks he’s the only one up here.”
It’s a funny story. Funnier, certainly, than the parable for today. This is the
third parable about the kingdom of heaven from Matthew that we’ve gotten
in as many weeks, each with some sort of twist, each preached by Jesus
as he’s in the Temple during the last eel of his life. Now, granted, parables
are supposed to be surprising. As one New Testament scholar put it, a
parable is a story that is drawn from normal, everyday events that shocks
you just enough to make you think.
Which is fine, but this one shocks you all over the place. First there’s
this king who wants to give a wedding banquet. But no one will come;
everyone blows him off for various reasons, so he gets so angry that he
invades the local town, kills the population and burns it to the ground.
A slight overreaction, perhaps.
Still desperate for this party, he then decides to do a sort of all out dragnet
operation, and sends his army to the streets of the capital and collects
everyone they can find– young, old, rich, poor, whoever, and force them to
come. Because come hell or high water, this king is having a party, gosh
This being accomplished, the poor king is then most distressed to
discover that one of his forced guests has shown up without a proper outfit
on. It’s like the guy doesn’t even realize he’s at a party. So frustrated by
this is the king that he throws him out.
Who, after all, shows up to a party and doesn’t realize they are at
And what sort of king is that desperate to throw a party?
Parables, like I said, are meant to shock. That’s how they work.
Frustratingly, they aren’t meant to answer questions– they are meant to
provoke them, which is probably why Jesus was so very fond of them.
And they aren’t literal. Which is to say that Jesus wasn’t recounting the tale
of an actual king with anger management and party-planning issues, or
giving advice on how to plan events, or rule an actual city-state.
He was trying to communicate something true about the nature of God, and
the nature of humans, and the nature of our relationship to God.
So, then, in this parable, what is striking is a king who really, really wants to
celebrate. To give good things to whoever he can, wherever he can find
them. He’ll drag them in off the street if necessary.
And a people who can’t seem to receive them.
Shhh. He thinks he’s the only one here.
What keeps us from receiving the grace of God? What keeps us from
showing up, ready for the party? What keeps us from realizing we’re at
Frequently, we blame it on stubbornness, pride, or arrogance. This mainly
happens when we are looking at other people, though. Other people are
the ones who should just get over themselves!
I have a hunch, though, that more often, what holds us back is not pride–
it’s guilt and confusion. It’s our conviction that we aren’t possibly good
enough to receive anything this gracious from God. Why should God be
kind to us? We are hopeless cases! We mess up, even when we know
right from wrong! This is so far from what we deserve– surely there’s a
catch. Surely there’s another shoe that will fall right on top of our heads.
Because that’s the way the world works.
So we end up like the man at the feast, confused and speechless before a
God who just wants to love us.
The good news for us is that God doesn’t give up. God chases after us,
time and time again, despite everything we do, and despite our persistent
denial of our own worth. Over and over again, God assures us that we are
loved beyond imagining, and there is not a thing we can do about it.
Whether we feel we are up to it or not, we are stuck in the unending love of
Its like that old children’s book called the Runaway Bunny. In it, a baby
rabbit tells his mother that he is tired of being a rabbit, so he’s going to run
away. He tells her he will become a fish in the stream, so she replies that
she will become a fisherman to catch him. Annoyed, he says he will
become a trapeze artist in the circus, and she returns that she will be a
tightrope walker, and catch him. On and on it goes– he’ll be a sailboat, and
she’ll be the wind to blow him home, etc. Finally he gives up. Well, I guess
I’ll just be your little bunny, then, he says. Ok, she says. Have a carrot.
God’s love and grace aren’t going anywhere, and eventually, they will win
even over our stubborn guilt and unworthiness. So let’s open our eyes,
open our doors, and enjoy the banquet prepared for us.