Psalms in a hard week

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Vivian Lewin, Spiritual Director in the Diocese of Montreal

This has been a horrible week. Bad News flooding in from the Holy Land, from the US, and from Quebec City.  (See note 1 below).

As one of my friends said yesterday, “It makes my problems look a lot smaller.”  Problems that had brought that same friend to tears, ten minutes earlier, at my kitchen table.

[You can watch and hear the sermon as it was preached, which amplified some sections, here  The gospel starts 22 minutes in, and the sermon follows.]

I don’t often cry, myself, and I wasn’t expecting to cry, but there I was with tears running down my face as I sat on metro on my way to this Cathedral on a weekday morning and reading the Guardian on my phone.  Jewish and Palestinian children killed in war.  And then I came upstairs, wiped my eyes, came into the chapel, and opened up the morning psalm, a portion of Psalm 119 [149-154]

Hear my voice, O Lord, according to your loving-kindness;
According to your judgments, give me life.

They draw near who in malice persecute me;
They are very far from your law.

You, O Lord, are near at hand,
And all your commandments are true

Long have I known from your decrees
That you have established them for ever.

Behold my affliction and deliver  me,
For I do not forget your law.

Plead my cause and redeem me;
According to your promise, give me life.

I could spend this whole sermon talking about a psalm that is not even one of our readings this morning.  I won’t.  I use it to show that God’s word comes to us as we need it.  When I stand in a different place, I understand the same words completely differently.

On other, quieter, days, the words “according to your promise, give me life” was a concept. I wanted to make it personal, and so this phrase became in my mouth a request for, well, spiritual rejuvenation or renewal, or closeness to God, or freedom from some bad habit. Perhaps being more faithful to prayer or scanning the news on my iPhone less often.

This week there was none of that! The danger is real and deadly, not an idea in my head– as I read the words “according to your promise, Give me life” I really was invoking God’s covenant itself…aware of people on the other side of the world whose very lives are in absolute peril, for whom I can do nothing but pray, who might at this same instant in a different language be saying this same Psalm, beseeching God.

And what makes this possible, I think, is the generations and generations who have prayed the psalms throughout time. People, too, who are praying them in other churches and in monasteries throughout all Christendom.  When we pray the psalms, we also join them and they in turn sustain us.

Today, we have Psalm 123 … which also holds out hope in the face of danger: and “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil…”
“thou spreadest a table for me in the presence of my enemies”

This abundant table echoes the one described in Isaiah “on this mountain, the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast…” and gets us ready to deal with Jesus’ difficult parable in today’s Gospel from Matthew.

And this parable in Matthew has its own violence and its own problems. We have had a whole cluster of parables in these last weeks, all from Matthew. Today, Jesus is in Jerusalem. He says  The Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who is throwing a wedding feast for his son.  Host and guest being significant roles especially in Middle Eastern culture.  (Even here across the Atlantic, with folks from the Middle East it’s always a big big drama over who pays, right?) And the host is generous. “I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.”

But the guests bow out.  He gets mad and destroys their city. (Is this God? And if so, what kind of God are we talking about?) Let’s just say for the moment that he is a powerful host, and his hospitality has been rejected (but see also Note 2 below).

Additionally, the image or metaphor of the wedding banquet is a significant theme through the Hebrew Bible (notably in Hosea) and in the Gospels – Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom in Matthew Chapter 9 (14-15)

Then the disciples of John *came to [Jesus], asking, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

So we get a sense that the Kingdom of God, when we are with God or aware of God, is not a time for anything except joy. The inclusivity of the king’s welcome to this banquet of his son can also be identified with God’s abundant mercy and grace, poured out on all people as Isaiah has prophesied in today’s reading and elsewhere.

But then there’s this poor guest who gets thrown out—ouch.  “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Some translations use the word elect. Some commentaries refer to the wheat and weeds that grow together until harvest time, when the weeds are consigned to the fire.

Is this person’s fate dependent on their performance of good deeds in this life? I’m not sure. Because the invitation was to everyone, and the servants had dutifully rounded up “both good and bad” on the King’s orders. Is it something else? Perhaps an attitude?  Maybe the earlier passage in Matthew helps illuminate the more difficult question of the guest who is not wearing a wedding garment. “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” Perhaps this person has not clothed themselves with the attitude demanded by the occasion.  They might be weighed down with trouble, or envious, or spiteful… that’s not a wedding garment kind of mentality.  I spent some time developing that thought… and I abandoned that line of thinking. (I apologize for doing a 180 on you here.)  Because this is not a week to get all interior.

I had the privilege in the late 60s to see Abraham Joshua Heschel in person. He was a revered Rabbi originally from Poland who had come first to Germany and then to the US to teach, standing on a stage in a room full of Conservative Jews. He had been invited to speak about Jewish education in America.  There was an American flag on one end and the Mogen David flag of Israel on the other—it was after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and after the Six Day War, and nationalisms were in full force.  He looked out at us and said calmly “The Temple will never be rebuilt on land soaked with blood.” [Deborah pointed out that this may be a reference to I Chronicles 22:8 where God tells David that he has put too much blood into the land, and he has to wait for his son to build the Temple.]

But I found it a truly prophetic and brave statement at a time when blood was running hot and tempers were running high, yet the fact that only peace would bring peace.  He knew that. When a lot of religious leaders in those days were silent, they were cowed by the spirit of the times.  I wasn’t a believer yet, but I was about to become one.  That night, I was in the presence of a man who knew and spoke God’s truth.

That’s why I want to end with what Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians—for us all:

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 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.”

Amen, my friends, Amen.

THE LECTIONS for today, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, are:
Isaiah 25:1-9 and Psalm 23, Philippians 4:1-9, and Matthew 22:1-14

(Note 1) Israel was attacked by Hamas a week ago and is now at the point of invading Gaza City; the United States government is paralysed because the majority party in the House of Representatives has not been able to agree on a leader; the Quebec government announced that it will double tuition for Canadian students outside Quebec attending the three English language universities: from the Gazette, “Tuition for Canadians outside Quebec will jump to $17,000 from $8,992, Higher Education Minister Pascale Dery announced Friday. She said the government will charge universities $20,000 for each international student they recruit and direct that money only to francophone universities.”

(Note 2) Nadia Bolz-Weber gives a completely different reading of this parable.

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