October 15, 2017 — Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Alison Quin
The Lord is Near
Several times in the gospels, Jesus refers to himself as the Bridegroom. There have been lots of weddings in the past few months—they give us a clear and vivid picture of what a bridegroom is like. Excited, nervous, eager, dressed in his best, overjoyed to see his beloved. His face is transfigured by joy.
Of all the images for Jesus to choose, how extraordinary that he chose this one! Who is the bride in this metaphor? Is it not us?
The prayer book describes marriage as the union of two people in heart, mind and body. In a certain sense, two people become one through the sacrament of marriage.
It is precisely this kind of union that God seeks with us. God desires an intimate, committed, lifelong relationship with us. A shared life–God sharing the divine life with us, and us sharing our human life with God—in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, not just until death, but for all time.
Jesus is the manifestation in history of God’s union with us—he is both human and divine. He is the expression of God’s desire to share our life in deep intimacy and love. One of the names for Jesus that I love the most is Emmanuel—meaning God with us.
The metaphor of Jesus as the bridegroom appears in the parable we just heard. The kingdom of heaven is like a king who have a wedding banquet for his son. . . . The parable initially revolves around invited guests who don’t show up despite the ancient equivalent of an evite reminder. The king sends out slaves to remind them to come but they’re too busy, they have other things to do, or they just don’t want to come.
The king is enraged and he wages war against them and burns down their city. That’s a bit of an overreaction, even given the stress of hosting a wedding. But it’s also an image that captures God’s anguish that people are rejecting God’s love, manifested in Jesus.
The slaves are sent out again and told to extend the invitation to everybody—and they all show up, both the good and the bad. God’s offer of love is for everyone, with no exceptions.
Now the parable takes a sudden left turn—one guest isn’t wearing a wedding garment, and the king asks him how he got in without it. The man is speechless and the king orders him bound and cast into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Now, God is not going to condemn anyone to hell for not wearing the right clothes, despite what we may have believed in middle school. There is more to this parable than not wearing a dinner jacket.
The man is clearly still refusing God’s invitation even though he is physically present. Unlike the other guests, he made no effort to put on clothes reflecting the joy and solemnity of a wedding. And even worse, he didn’t answer when the king spoke to him.
The man’s refusal to speak cut off the possibility of relationship. Even if he had expressed fear or anger or doubt or despair, at least he would have been present and engaged in the relationship. Without communication, relationship breaks down.
It isn’t God who puts us in hell for refusing to communicate. We simply can’t be fully alive without communicating with God, because communicating with God is the same as communicating with ourselves.
I am reading a great book called Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer, by Ann and Barry Ulanov, a Jungian psychologist and a theologian. The premise of the book is that prayer is our primary form of speech. “Everybody prays. People pray whether or not they call it prayer,” whether or not they have anything to do with religion. Prayer is our fundamental effort to communicate our being.
Our earliest efforts at communication are nonverbal, arising out of our instincts and emotions. Then we learn language to try to articulate the constant flow of thoughts and feeling and images.
“To pray is to listen to and hear this self who is speaking. This speech is primary because it is basic and fundamental, our ground. In prayer we say who in fact we are—not who we should be, nor who we wish we were, but who we are. “
We become more fully alive by admitting who we are and what we are to ourselves. We face the truth about ourselves in prayer—our gifts and strengths, our flaws and limitations, our desires and dreams. And we open ourselves to others—prayer helps us to become more aware of the world’s suffering and expands our capacity for compassion and action.
Prayer is not an escape from reality—rather, it leads us more deeply into the reality of ourselves and the reality of others.
Above all, though, prayer leads us to ultimate reality—to God. We communicate our known self to the unknown God and we discover that the One we are seeking has already reached out to find us.
Our prayers are answered in subtle but unmistakable ways. Our external circumstances may not change. We may still have to go through adversity. But prayer changes everything. It can bring clarity, a new way of seeing or responding to a situation. It can open your heart to new people, new ideas and new possibilities. Prayer helps us to grow in patience and forbearance. We have renewed energy and enthusiasm for our work. Or we have renewed strength to endure a tough situation. We find that we have more gratitude, more joy and a greater sense of peace in our lives.
St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians has this to say about prayer: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Our joy does not depend on our circumstances. Paul wrote that letter from prison. Our joy flows from our relationship with Jesus, who eagerly seeks us out and cares about every detail of our lives. The peace that passes all understanding and the gift of being fully alive flows from our communication with God who is always near, who is in fact the ground of our being.