Navigating Life's Unexpected Twists

Today's parable is quite challenging. One advantage of having both an epistle and a gospel reading is that if the gospel is too tough or difficult, you can always choose the other to preach on. However today I am brave, and, I'm going to address both, hoping that Paul's inspiration will illuminate today's gospel message.

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. Amen.

As people of faith striving for justice and peace, we're faced with a tough question: how do we balance the Gospel's call for love and compassion with God's challenge against sin and evil? It's a difficult question, but we can't avoid it, especially with this week's readings.

In our worship tonight, let's seek a deeper connection with God's reign and confront any areas in our lives where we resist letting it in.

When we come together, we are met with the harsh realities of our world, where pain and suffering often dominate the news headlines and our daily existence. We don't need to look beyond the memories of September 11, or the ongoing challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, to recognize the sudden and profound insecurity that can grip us. In a world characterized by death, destruction, loss, war, and the persecution of innocent people, grief has become a constant companion for many.

The memories of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center continue to haunt us. For some, the pain, agony, fear, and anger remain as vivid as ever. In the face of such suffering, the temptations of vengeance and revenge stand ready to promise quick fixes to complex and profound problems.

Therapists have long understood that hearing the pain and perplexities of others can unearth our own unresolved suffering, the suffering we've pushed away and hoped to forget. It's as if the skeletons in our closets return like tormenting spirits. We find ourselves identifying with Ground Zero because, in our own lives, we have experienced moments of private terror.

But for some, they become emotionally numb. It's like the constant reminders of human suffering, terror, and death have made them emotionally tough, shielding them from pain and hiding their fear.

And now, in recent days, we are faced with the tragic events unfolding in Gaza and Israel, events some have likened in seriousness to those of 9/11. These events occur within the long-standing conflict between Palestinians and Jews, a dispute that has persisted for nearly a century.

Simultaneously, we grapple with the aftermath of a recent referendum in Australia. After years of discussion about the establishment of a constitutional body to voice the concerns and needs of Australia's Indigenous population, the nation has cast its vote, resulting in a resounding rejection. Now, we must contemplate the potential consequences of this decision for our Indigenous community and our unity as a nation.

In the midst of all this complexity, chaos, and confusion, we, as Christians, ache for answers that bring healing and hope. We must resist the temptation to offer quick and easy solutions merely to numb the pain. Perhaps, instead, we should grant ourselves the opportunity to truly feel the sadness and grief, to collectively mourn, and to carry both the anguish and sorrow into our prayers as we seek recovery and healing where it is needed.

Jumping the gun with statements about these events can result in superficial and overly sugary expressions that lack real meaning and don't get the job done. When we're called to help, it might mean we should keep experiencing the sadness and loss, mourn together, and carry both the pain and sorrow into our prayers.

We pray today that the “Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts”. The apostle Paul wrote in the Epistle to the Philippians about deep, struggling prayer. “But in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” 

Praying our struggles means bringing the full mixture of thoughts and feelings into our prayers. CS Lewis said “Prayers without thoughts never to heaven go” means that meaningful and sincere prayers require genuine thoughts, emotions, and intentions; empty or thoughtless prayers are unlikely to reach God or have any meaningful impact.

In addition to speaking directly to God, such praying consists of struggling with ourselves in the presence of God. Like Jacob who wrestled with an angel, we too are called to wrestle with God even as we struggle with ourselves.

As Christians, we also struggle with Scripture. The lessons for this Sunday were set when the Prayer Book Lectionary was approved in 1979. Years ago, we knew that on October 15th, 2023, a passage from Philippians, and particular verses from St. Matthew’s Gospel would be read today. The themes present in the lessons appointed for this Sunday speak of Positive Thinking and the Unexpected. 

Paul's message encourages a positive mindset through its emphasis on finding joy, engaging in prayer, and directing our thoughts towards what is virtuous and uplifting; at times, it's essential for us to disconnect from the constant stream of negative news and television and reconnect with God and the good news of the Gospel. Prayers pave the way for healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness, collectively illustrating a lived experience of growing friendship with both God and each other.  My wish and prayer are for your homes and this church to transform into spaces devoted to unceasing prayer.

Friends, if we now direct our attention to the Gospel, we'll uncover a profound theme of the unforeseen. It unfolds a fascinating narrative about a monarch who arranged a grand wedding feast in honour of his son. At the outset, the anticipated guests declined the invitation, leading the king to dispatch his attendants to collect individuals from the streets. To our great surprise, a guest dressed inappropriately was forcibly restrained and cast into a dark place where sadness and distress prevailed.

At first glance, we might perceive this king as arrogant and autocratic, revelling in his royal authority. We might even dismiss this as an odd story altogether if it weren't for the opening sentence, which introduces the parable: "Once more Jesus spoke to the people in parables, saying: 'the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son'.

"The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…" These words create a link between the kingdom of heaven and the concept of a wedding banquet. The narrative commences in a seemingly typical manner but then takes an unexpected twist when the invited guests refuse to attend. 

This unexpected behaviour intrigues us. We can grasp the connection between the kingdom of heaven and the inclusion of people from the streets—this resonates with us. However, the king's unexpected response towards one guest puzzles us. This individual, likely impoverished and from the streets, lacks appropriate wedding attire. Consequently, the king orders his expulsion into darkness. 

What does this peculiar story reveal about the kingdom of heaven? Much like Jesus' original audience, we find ourselves shocked and perplexed by this narrative. In many cultures, hospitality held significant importance, making such behaviour disgraceful for both guests and hosts. Jesus' listeners would have been appalled and offended, especially when he likened this story to the kingdom of heaven.

Perhaps that was precisely the point. Jesus often employed unconventional or startling comparisons in his parables. Once again, he challenges the assumptions of his audience, jolting them with an unforeseen and unconventional story.

But why did he choose to share such a story about the kingdom of heaven? It wasn't solely for its shock value. Jesus aimed to expand people's perspectives. He wasn't suggesting that the kingdom of heaven mirrors the king, the banquet, or the guests. Instead, he emphasized that the kingdom of heaven surpasses our expectations, defies our assumptions, and eludes our complete comprehension. 

This doesn't mean we shouldn't contemplate or lean on our own understanding. It merely underscores that there's always more than meets the eye, that God will continually surprise us, consistently presenting the unexpected. The point is for us to remain receptive to more, refusing to rest in the complacent belief that we have God all figured out.

These stories discomfort us. We grapple with them—whether it's tales of the Lord discussing judgment upon his people or mysterious parables uttered by Jesus. Typically, we either overlook them or attempt to rationalize them by saying, "This is what it truly means".

However, there's a way to interpret them without taking them literally. In the Gospel, Jesus intentionally provokes us. He challenges our preconceived notions of God and God's kingdom. We all harbor our preferred notions of what the kingdom of heaven might entail. Yet, Jesus informs us that it will transcend our imagination. In the well-worn phrase, Jesus invites us to "think outside the box".

For the truth is, we cannot possess absolute certainty. As the book of Isaiah asserts, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord." This doesn't imply our inadequacy but underscores our humanity and the limitations of our knowledge and understanding. Despite containing a divine spark and being made in God's image, we are not God, despite the sometimes-misleading messages often found in the self-help section of the book store.

In this lifetime, the most we can hope for are occasional glimpses—through stories, scripture, prayer, meditation, and personal experiences. By remaining open to the Spirit and attentive, we may occasionally catch a glimpse of the kingdom.

These glimpses align with what Paul describes in his Letter to the Philippians when he encourages us to focus on whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. These aspects all pertain to the kingdom. The only elements Paul doesn't explicitly mention are those that are surprising and unexpected. Often, it is through these very surprises that God communicates with us.

So, dear friends, as we navigate the complexities of our world, let us remember that God's kingdom is filled with the unexpected. Let us remain open to the surprises that God has in store for us. And as we pray, let us wrestle with ourselves and with God, seeking a deeper understanding of the mysteries of faith.

Amen.

Navigating Life's Unexpected Twists Navigating Life's Unexpected Twists Reviewed by Shane St Reynolds on October 15, 2023 Rating: 5

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