Isaiah 25. 1-9 Psalm 23 Philippians 4. 1-9 Matthew 22.1-14
I am a bit of a stickler for the lectionary and love the discipline it imposes on us. Sometimes, it makes the preacher’s work very hard while at other times we are offered a real gift. What I do value is the obligation it offers to work out of scripture rather than the other way round, having an idea and rummaging through one’s Bible find something that fits what one would like to say, a practice I have heard described as ‘hobby preaching’.
Recent weeks, I will admit, have been challenging. Working through Matthew and the parables of the kingdom have, for me at least been difficult. Why? Because one always wants to offer something uplifting and encouraging. These parables have been rather too full of weeping and gnashing of teeth, of people behaving badly, of wrathful rulers demanding that those who have let them down be bound hand and foot and cast into eternal darkness.
And in these present times, it is far from easy to be all sunshine. Just as we get a peek at how life might be easier and governments let off the brakes, that very freedom throws us back onto restrictions and lockdowns to contain this dreadful virus. In our own lives and communities, we encounter loss and sadness, never an easy matter despite the promise of resurrection light in which we live.
But we must preach the gospel of Christ, which very words translate as ‘the good news’ of Jesus. The title of a novel by Kate Atkinson has continually rolled around my head in these last months – When will there be good news?
Well, it is there in today’s readings. Isaiah and Psalm 23 echo each other in extolling the generosity of our God – a feast of rich food, fat with marrow, of well-matured wines, a table spread before us, a cup of fullness, still waters, green pastures and refreshment for the soul. Paul exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord always present amidst the promise of his peace. And there is an invitation to the wedding feast, a joy for all who respond and who come in the right frame of heart and mind, an invitation to communion with God.
Such communion, despite its ambiguity, is not a reference to a weekly or even daily visit to the still waters of God’s presence. It is an invitation to constant immersion, constant engagement, constant attention to the omnipresent nature of divine love. It is another way of understanding the Pauline encouragement to ‘pray without ceasing’ I Thess 5:17, expressed in ‘rejoice always’.
We have, many of us, I suspect, lost or abandoned a right sense of prayer, which we imagine to be like a machine-gun burst of words in the general direction of God, triggered by sudden calamity or something not happening. The world seems to have discovered what it calls mindfulness as if it is a novelty, a modern way of managing the swings and roundabouts of outrageous fortune that life throws at us. To me, and to any God-centred person, mindfulness is simply what we might call prayerfulness, an attitude of being rather than discrete activity. I often describe it as the home screen of life, constantly there as a context for all the applications that we click onto to live in this world. Think for a minute of what you have chosen as the home screen for your computer or your phone – probably an image that means much, is resonant of a person or a place. Then imagine what you might select as a ‘home screen’ for your life. The unfailing presence of God, of divine immanence might just work. A prayerfulness where, as Henri Nouwen reminds us the literal translation of ‘pray always’ is ‘come to rest’. It is, he says ‘little to do with an absence of conflict or pain. It is a rest in God in the midst of a very intense daily struggle’. (Kathleen Norris, The Noonday Demon, A Modern Woman’s Struggle with Soul-Weariness).
The term akedia may be known to you. It describes a sense of spiritual malaise, listlessness and melancholia. I am not one of those Christians who can be constantly bonny and smiling, and when people ask if I am happy, I will respond that I cannot be while a third of the world lives in a state of absolute poverty, disease, malnutrition and insanitary surroundings. But I do know moments of happiness, of joy in the world, glimpses of Eden and the way things can be. Akediais well documented, from the desert fathers to modern times. And the ways of dealing with it are consistent. One way or another, we rest in the presence of God.
Rowan Williams says that he manages those moments of emptiness by taking hold of the moment and letting himself be drawn deeper into it, feeling the fabric of the moment and saying “Here I am… this is what I do next; here is God. Who knows what serves God? Do what’s there. God meets me in the moment and nowhere else.’ (Silence and Honey Cakes, p112)
I worked once with a lovely colleague, a person of genuine and lived faith, who had a tile on his desk, which read ‘Smile, God loves you’. I told him that it did encourage me to walk past and be reminded of God’s love, but I wanted to find a matching tile that said, ‘and when you can’t, and when you weep, God loves you.’
We were not promised an easy road. The scriptures are as full of human anguish and despair as of green pastures and still waters. Woven into the beauty of Psalm 23, we are brought to recall the shadow, the deep valley, but we are brought, too, to those places of rest and calm. The hymnwriter reminds us: Father, hear the prayer we offer, not for ease that prayer shall be ….. but the steep and rugged pathway may we tread finding joy in what is true, pure, honourable, just.
And the good news is that God travels with us throughout this cycle of down and up, of death and resurrection into a newness of life. It is not unfamiliar to God – read your Bible and refresh your memory, and there you will also rediscover the ultimate promise that nothing can separate us from the divine love, where all things are being made new.
The parable of the wedding feast teaches us of our need to respond to the invitation, to avoid the distractions that take us from our place at the table, to prepare ourselves to come clothed and in our right mind. It is an invitation to turn not away from the ever-present force of life, but toward the one we carry with us and who will carry us when we cannot.
And that is good news, the feast to which you are invited.