October 15, 2017 Ecumen
We are so happy to share worship with you all this morning. We are a small church and it is special for us to share worship with a bigger crowd too. And we are an ecumenical group here, members of many different denominations. I share a story about a particular ecumenical gathering. While the several denominations were gathered, the church secretary suddenly rushed in shouting, “The building is on fire!”
The Methodists gathered and prayed in the corner. The Baptists wondered where to find the water. The Lutherans posted a notice on the door announcing the fire was evil. The Congregationalists shouted, “every man for himself!” The fundamentalists proclaimed, “It's the vengeance of God!” The Episcopalians formed a procession and protested. And the Presbyterians formed a committee to look into the matter and promised a written report. Finally, the church secretary grabbed the fire extinguisher and put the fire out.
There is some truth in that little story. But more important than our little quirks as denominations is the fact that we can gather together as a community of faith; not faith in our denomination but faith in Jesus Christ our Lord. I hope we sense our unity of faith as we gather this morning; neighbors, strangers, acquaintances gathered to worship together; to share the prayers, the hymns that unite us in faith in our Lord.
In our gospel reading this morning, there is the rather strange parable about a wedding feast. I read this statement about this passage this week, “a worship service ought to be something like a wedding feast. Here we are, gathered in the presence of the king.” The candles are lit, the choir has sung. We are dressed in nice clothes. We are celebrating in a spirit of fellowship. And what I want us to focus on this morning is just what it is we are celebrating.
Let's look a little closer at our gospel reading. Its not really a normal story. Consider, invited guests that would rather commit murder than attend a royal wedding? Platters of fine food that remain fresh and edible while an army destroys a city. Partiers who must eat and dance while death and destruction is happening all around them. None of this is normal. But then most of the parables Jesus told have some twists and turns that can make us feel a little uncomfortable.
The easy and safe interpretation of the parable says that the King is God and the bridegroom is Jesus and the feast is the Messianic banquet in heaven. The rejected slaves are the Old Testament prophets and the guests who refuse to attend are the Jewish people of Jesus' day. The second group gathered up is us, the gentiles who are wise enough to join the party. A few problems with this view; 1. it shows a God who is petty and vengeful and pretty unforgiving. 2. there is the anti-semitism inherent in reading it this way. 3. It makes it out that we, the gentiles, because we accept the invitation, are deserving of attending that heavenly banquet.
As I said, one purpose of the parables Jesus told was to make the ones who think they have it figured out a little uncomfortable. And it just may be that we have an unconscious vision of our religion that looks like we are the deserving ones and God will take vengeance on the rest of the world.
What if the true heart of this parable is a warning against being closed minded in our religion? Are we so exclusive that our wedding banquets, our churches, reflect the way that King acted? Do we get to decide who is in and who is out? Are we are upset with those who aren't in step with our agendas. Author Debi Thomas puts the question to us in this way: “Are our tables open to all who come and does our love extend to those who refuse our invitation? Are we willing to extend a welcome to those who come unprepared, unwashed, unkempt? Do we have a stake in seeing some people end up in the “outer darkness”? Are we known for our impeccable honor--or for our scandalous hospitality?”
We seek to be a hospitable church. Notice the cover of your bulletin. We try to fulfill the invitation printed there; the weary, the lonely, the guilty, whoever will come, we open wide our doors and say welcome! Our purpose statement conveys our aim to be open and welcoming, “As servants of God, we open our doors wide with the heart of Jesus welcoming all as children of God. We strive to provide spiritual growth and support for all through prayer and community and the acceptance of mutual respect."
These are our goals. We are, however, an imperfect church made up of imperfect people. We make a mistake if we come thinking we deserve to be welcomed in to God's fellowship, God's family because we are such good people. I'm not saying we aren't good people, but none of us deserves God's rewards, God's promises. God loves you because God is love. One message for us this morning is the reminder that we are here simply and solely because of God's love. Worship is not centered on the music or the candles or even the sermon; worship needs to be centered on God and our response to the grace offered freely and without strings attached.
Our opening hymn this morning is the famous hymn written by Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is our God. Johann Sebastian Bach borrowed Luther's popular tune in his Christmas Oratorio and in his “Choral hymns for 4 voices”. I share that because Bach is remembered for his commitment to making God the center of everything; especially his music. In almost all his manuscripts, he added two sets of initials: JJ and SDG. JJ at the beginning: in Latin, Jesu Juvet--Jesus help me. And at the end, SDG, Solio Deo Gloria--to God alone be the glory.
That makes a pretty good formula for our worship too. We start by asking Jesus to help us in our worship and in our lives...for the purpose of SDG—giving God alone the glory.
But it only happens in community when you are present. Seems obvious but something of our Christian faith is missing without fellowship with fellow believers. I know that there are weekly worship services in this chapel, I got a lot of experience preaching here ten or so years ago, Judy Holmes preached for several years and our recent seminary grad Amy Levinski preaches once a month now. It is great that it gives everyone the opportunity to worship in community. Gathering in Christian community is so important for our growth and our giving glory to God.
Without fellowship...well I share the story of Joe, a member of a certain unnamed church, He'd been a member for years, but drifted away and was no longer attending. The pastor decided to visit him. On a chilly evening, he rang the doorbell and Joe greeted him, led him to a chair by the fire and waited for the lecture he was sure was coming. The pastor made himself comfortable but said nothing. He sat simply staring into the fire, contemplating the flames around the burning logs.
After some time, the pastor took the fire tongs and carefully picked up a brightly burning ember. He placed it to one side of the hearth all by itself. Then he sat back and the silence continued. The host watched this, but said nothing either.
Soon, the lone ember's flame diminished, and in a few minutes, it was cold and dead. More silence, then the pastor got up and prepared to leave. Before he left, he took the cold, dead ember and placed it back into the fire. Immediately it began to glow again with the light and warmth of the burning coals around it.
As the pastor reached the door, Joe said, “Thank you so much for your visit and especially the fiery sermon. I shall be back in church next Sunday.”
Fellowship with the Lord and fellowship with each other is what keeps our faith alive and burning brightly. We encourage others by our presence and are encouraged as we share the music, prayers and word of God. It may be that the services here aren't what we are used to, or it isn't the same as in “our” church. But remember the old saying, if you are looking to join a perfect church (or worship service) don't do it-- because your presence will ruin its perfection. There is no perfect church. But there is perfect love. And that love comes from God through Jesus Christ by the power of the holy Spirit. We gather as fellow travelers on this journey of faith.
David read a passage from Paul's letter to the Philippians. If you are ever discouraged, or doubting, or worried, Philippians is a great book to read. Paul wrote it from a prison cell and yet it is full of hope and promise and joy. Today's passage has a lot of good news, but I leave you with these words of advice from the apostle: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
We come together in the presence of the Lord to contemplate the excellence of God and God's creation and the peace of Christ. Our heart are bound to one another in the love that Jesus has demonstrated in his life, death and resurrection. May our fellowship on Sunday mornings, across the street, in your home church or here in the chapel, may it lead us to grow in unity, in compassion, in gratitude, in love in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. And the God of peace will be with you. Amen.
Hymn: Blest be the tie that Binds 169