Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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            For anyone who has ever been denied admission to a club, a school, a social event, or who has ever felt treated like a second-class citizen or worse, or treated as if he or she didn’t count, the parable of the wedding feast is bound to bring joy to that person’s heart. Here, in plain view, is a story about being included. As Jesus tells the parable, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son, and, when it wasn’t filled right off the bat, he sent his servants out into the highways and byways to scour up more guests. And he says, “…they went out and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.” This is so inclusive that even being good or bad doesn’t seem to make a difference to the king. Here indeed is a welcome!

            No one can deny the emphasis on inclusiveness in the parable, or in Jesus’ own public actions. But, of course, this parable, as is the case with all parables, is a little more complicated than that. In fact, on closer examination, it turns out that there is plenty in the parable that seems to pull in the other direction, in an exclusive direction. First of all, there is the question of those who were initially invited. They wouldn’t come and made light of the invitation; others took the servants who delivered the invitation and treated them badly, very badly indeed. The king’s patience was quickly exhausted with these folks, and so he destroyed their city. But he doesn’t stop there, for after he had invited all those who had been left out, which is the inclusive part of the story, and after they filled the hall, when he walked into the banquet and saw one man without a wedding garment, he had him tossed.

            What this parable means, even with the addition of these non-inclusive factors, isn’t really all that hard to say. What it means constitutes a lesson that those who make the heart of the gospel inclusiveness need to take very seriously. For the invitation is, indeed, open to everybody, to good and bad. But Jesus clearly implies that there are also standards you have to meet once you get into the banquet hall. There is required dress at this party.

            Now, one way of putting the lesson that Jesus is teaching here is simply to say that you cannot presume upon God. You cannot presume that your place is assured no matter what you do or think or say. It is not. For, if, like the original invitees, you blow the king off and don’t show up when your presence is requested, you will not be part of the party. If, like the man who showed up dressed like a slob, you presume that the king is a soft touch, you are likely to get tossed. The invitation is, indeed, inclusive, but you cannot presume upon the generosity of the one who invited you. You cannot believe that what you do doesn’t make a difference.

            In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches this lesson over and over again. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says he is bringing something new, but what is new is a higher standard of righteousness than had been in play up until then. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” he says up front. “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect,” is the way he sums things up. To stress this even further, a couple of chapters on from today’s lesson, he roundly criticizes the Pharisees for being hypocrites and recounts the woes that are due them for that fact. The Pharisees, by the way, are the folks who refused the first invitation. We, who have received the second one, have to do better than they did, Matthew’s Jesus says.

            But, it is at this point that we may therefore wonder if the invitation isn’t quite as inclusive as it appeared at first; we wonder if it is not so free and gracious, if it doesn’t somehow come with a price tag, that it is only the right sort of people who get in.

            Well, it would be all that if what were expected is our own righteousness. Nobody can ever provide a wedding garment good enough on that count. That is why we have to rely on the gracious invitation of the one giving the party to include us. But what we can do is put on the garment that is given to us inside the party. The problem from the outset is that we are not sufficiently righteous on our own. What we need, and what we are offered, therefore, is Christ’s righteousness. That is the garment that we are to put on. But that is the garment that we often refuse.

            But what exactly is this garment? What does it mean to put it on? Well, let me put it in terms of a modern parable, one told in the 2014 Irish film Calvary.

            But before I tell you this parable, let me first give you its punch-line as it were, which is a quotation taken from St. Augustine via Samuel Beckett. It is put up on the screen before anything else happens. It is a simple quote, and it refers to the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus on Good Friday. You remember the story, of course. One thief asked for forgiveness and Jesus forgave him and brought him into paradise; the other thief mocked Jesus. I presume he didn’t go into paradise that day. The quote then is simply: “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.”  The point carries over very well to the divide between those who put on the appropriate wedding garment and those who didn’t; that is what this story is about.

            The story of Calvary takes place in western Ireland, and western Ireland here looks pretty idyllic and untouched by the larger world. The story, at points, appears simply to be a story of a priest and his parish operating as things used to operate in rural Catholic Ireland. At its center is Father James Lavelle, who is what a priest of the old school was like when the old school was at its best. We see him giving communion to his neighbors, offering sage counsel to them, interfering in their business whenever his care for their well-being dictates he do so, but who also knows human frailty and is willing to cut them some slack. He is a man of common sense, and whenever he is fed a line or lame theory excusing bad behavior, he cuts it short by saying “that’s nonsense.”

            The problem, though, is that things are not so idyllic. At the very outset, Father James is speaking to a parishioner in the confessional, and the man confesses in graphic terms that as a child he was abused for years by priests. As a result, he announces, he has determined that he will kill Father James in two weeks’ time. Not because he holds Father James responsible; he is innocent, the man admits. Rather, he will do it because Father James is innocent just as the man himself was innocent when he encountered evil in a cassock as a child.

            It soon becomes evident that things are a lot darker than they might first appear in this town. Pretty much everyone James meets – and they are all his neighbors – makes remarks that are critical not just of the Catholic Church, but about Christianity at its root, and all religion for that matter. Their lives are a matter of massive indifference to anything higher, and they are frankly disdainful of anything that might remind them of any higher duty. Their grievances against the church, which are the usual lineup of church criticisms, many of which are accurate, are not really the result of heartfelt moral outrage. They are clichés meant to cover up the careless lives of the people who utter them – lives of drug-use, violence, infidelity, alcoholism, and even high financial corruption, such as that which did profound damage to the Irish economy after 2008. These folk may hate the church and think they have reason to do so, but secular society, as they are playing it out, is a moral disaster area. So, even when James offers them a sense of forgiveness and grace and hope, and friendship, they are not about to take it. They mock forgiveness, grace, hope and friendship. The way that they then look at life is colored accordingly. In one of the film’s darkest moments, Father James, while walking along the road, falls in step with a young girl also going the way he is. He enters into a friendly chat with her, until suddenly her panicked father drives up and orders Father James to stay the hell away from his child. He clearly thought that there was no other motive for a priest talking to her other than a predatory one.

            That is a tough row to hoe for a priest. It is particularly hard as the time appointed for his murder approaches. James starts falling apart, especially after his church is burned down and his dog killed. He nearly runs away and gets as far as the airport. But once there, he watches a coffin being loaded onto the plane, a foreigner who had been killed in an accident. It is then that something he told a parishioner earlier in the week clearly dawns on him. In talking about faith in that earlier conversation, Father James had noted to the man who seemed to have lost his faith, that so many people have faith because they are afraid of death. That sort of faith, he said, is lost very easily. Thus, in the face of death, he returned to face death.

            Now, since this movie is long gone from local theaters, I can tell you the ending without spoiling it. Father James does go to meet his assassin, and he is killed.

            What are we to make of this story? Well, one way of looking at it is to see Father James as a Christ figure, one who is willing to suffer and die for his flock. Okay. But really that is not quite right. It would be a cliché in fact, and this story is better than that. For the fact of the matter is that Father James, like those in his parish, is not the Son but someone who got dragged in from the highways and the byways to the party. He didn’t become incarnate sinless from heaven. He had been an alcoholic, sobering up only when his wife died. It was at that time that he discerned a call to the priesthood. But, in doing so, he also had to leave a daughter behind. Some of the story’s most important moments are between him and that daughter, now an adult, as she learns to forgive him for his absence when she needed him, and as their bond of the heart becomes cemented in a love that goes beyond hurt. These moments are some of the few moments of grace in a world that is crying out for meaning at the same time it turns its back on the offer of love and meaning.

            So the story is really a contrast between those who rejected the invitation, who refused the wedding garment, and those who were invited in, accepted the invitation, and who dressed for the party. But what is that garment that those folks wore? Well, it is not moral perfection; Father James clearly isn’t morally perfect, although he is better than when he was drinking. The garment, rather, is his acceptance of a new life. It is his subsequent willingness to share life with others even when they reject it. It is his courage in the face of death, and also his refusal to hate or to run from his murderer, or to wreak further violence on that already violated man. The garment he wears, the party-garb he dons for the kingdom, is the gracious opportunity he offered to others; it is the hope he gave them. They had presumed, and their lives clearly showed the damning effects of such presumption. He had not despaired, and he was saved. And he was saved simply by offering the same gift he had received to others, even if they turned their backs on it.

            Now, that story might still be pretty bleak since the one ray of hope and of faithfulness is extinguished, and all those who presumed, and who led damnable lives were the only ones who were left. Except for the final moment. Father James is dead. His killer is in prison. But we see at the end, his daughter Fiona entering the prison, and going to visit her father’s killer. The last we see is each of them picking up the phone that allows them to communicate across the glass partition separating them in the prison’s visiting room. We do not hear what they say to each other. But could it be anything other than her willingness to forgive him, and thus to invite him, the afflicted and the guilty, to the banquet of the kingdom just as James had once been invited? If that is so, and I cannot help believe that it is, then perhaps the garment that James learned to wear, and that now his daughter was wearing, might be passed along once again. We really don’t know how things will turn out for the murderer if that is the case. But as Augustine hopefully said, “Do not despair, one of the thieves was saved.”                                                         

            So, take that offer of the kingdom, and dress appropriately for the wedding feast of the lamb which is in heaven. And do it this way, by having life through accepting forgiveness, and by then offering life and yourselves to a world that so desperately needs meaning and forgiveness.