Gospel as Comedy not Tragedy


In his book, Telling the Truth, the Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy and Fairy Tale, Frederick Beuchner says that if you can’t take a joke you’ll never understand the Gospel. There is a profound difference between tragedy and comedy. In a tragedy the hero pits himself against the gods and is destroyed by the process. Tragedy is concerned with struggles of power. Comedy, on the other hand, is about ambiguity, and the transformation of roles. We think it is one way and it turns out another. Tragedy invariably ends in death; comedy ends in marriage – a criss-crossing of boundaries and limits. One is serious and the other is playful.

The Gospel lesson today is a tragic-comedy. The setting of the readings for today is feasting and partying. Here in the first act, if you will, of today’s production. The prophet Isaiah marches out mid-stage and issues the invitation of God to a party. The aristocratic prophet from Jerusalem in his best prophetic voice proclaims, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, Lo, this our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

This is a to be a lavish party with the best vintage wine and rich food full of fat. This is long before most of the human population had to worry about fat in their diet. This is a time when fat was good news not bad news. Not only will the eats be great, but as a further act of excess God will shallow up death forever. He will wipe away the tears from ALL faces. Not only will the feast be of the finest food full of fat and taste but the shroud of death will be removed. It will write paid to the old saying of eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die. Wrong, eat, drink and be merry for death is swallowed up and tears are wiped from every face. Death is no more. Furthermore, the disgrace of the people will be removed. God’s salvation — restoration and healing will be unveiled to all the guests — to all people: what an extraordinary vision. We can eat anything that appeals to us without remorse for the things that trouble our consciences and with the sure and certain knowledge that death is no more. Not a bad first act.

Now on to the Main act: Jesus picks up the setting of a party in the Gospel reading today. “The Kingdom of Heaven may be compared,” says Jesus, “to a King who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” In the ancient world one received an invitation to a feast by messenger. Then messengers then delivered a second message that the feast will soon begin. The King sent servants with the message; “The ox has become barbecue. The fatted calf is now filet minion. Countless cases of Dom Perignon are chilled. The tables are groaning with everything from Buluga caviar and Italian truffles all the way to MOON PIES and R.O.C. cola. There is some of whatever you want to warp your beak around. (It’s enough to drive the editors of Gourmet Magazine wild.) Come to the Wedding banquet,” they said. BUT — the guests made light of it . . .One went to his farm — One went to his business, while the rest seized the servants, mistreated some and killed others.

The King’s reaction is like a scene out of Rambo or The Terminator: Houses exploding in flame. These are the beautiful people from “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” They are the very folk we admire. They are beautiful people who have everything but the one essential thing, namely, trust — the only, from God’s point of view, that matters. They have everything but lack the one thing essential, namely, trust — faith, the only from God’s point of view required. That is the tragedy. They have trusted themselves when that is the only thing that will not work. They are like the long list of winners who lose: the Pharisees, the Priests, the rich young ruler, they are you and me, they are all of us . . . who live the twin mistaken notions: Our good works will get us into the marriage feast. And that God’s nature will absolve us from having to sit through it if we happen to have other plans. Both are tragic mistakes. As the guests learn they are dead wrong. Salvation is not by works and the heavenly banquet is not optional. We are saved only by accepting a party already in progress and God has paid the price with his own death. He counts only two things grace and faith. Nothing else matters!

The scene changes – Act II, Scene 2, The King says to his faithful butler, “the wedding is ready, but those invited are not worthy (by their unfaith.) Go into the streets and invite those you find to the wedding feast. Out all the uniformed flunkies went. They went out and gathered all they found: good and bad. (Note he does not invite the good and snub the bad, he invited ALL, while we were yet sinners. He simply invites us to trust his invitation. So the poor, the prostitutes, bag ladies, men with missing front teeth and the smell of Thunderbird on their breath, all the ner-do-wells completely overlooked by the beautiful and important are all home free. See the comedy breaking out? So the hall is filled with guests.

Act II, Scene 3: Now, let me admit that what I am about to say is conjecture. Just go with me, here, … you can’t hold it against someone if they are shanghaied to a party and you don’t like what they wearing. So I think . . . the “sudden guests” are provided wedding clothes, suitable clothes — Bill Blass – Valentino — all sorts of designer rags in exchange for their filthy ones. As the King comes by to mingle with the guests he spies a man without a wedding suit. He apparently came in since he was forced but he will not put on his suit. The King said to the man without a wedding suit. Friend (or as Ann Landers used to say, Buster) How did you get in here without a wedding garment?! The man was speechless! And then they threw him out. Even in a comedy some will always insist on tragedy. You might make some people show up, but you really can’t make them like it, after all, can you?

What is this tragic-comedy telling us? Invitation is the principle judgment in this parable. Notice that “Nobody is kicked out who wasn’t already in. Hell may be an option; but if it is, it is only one that we insist on after we had already been invited to the heavenly dance. The first Guests are worthy. They just wouldn’t come. Their unacceptance was the issue. The Replacement guests become guests by accepting the invitation. The man without a garment wouldn’t accept or even speak and out he goes. The King insists on dragging everybody and their brothers to the party. Everyone is a member of the wedding party and is only shown the door AFTER they were invited in.

GRACE is the only basis of entrance into the Kingdom . . .Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus EXCEPT our unwillingness to accept his INVITATION. The difference between the blessed and the cursed in one thing and one thing only: the blessed accept their acceptance and the cursed reject it; but the acceptance is a done deal for both groups before either does anything about it.

Here in the epilogue, [following my device to the end] in the reading from Philippians, Paul writes from the perspective of one who has said yes to the heavenly banquet. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. … I have learned to be content with whatever I have. [That sounds un-American] I know what it is to have little and I know what it is to have plenty. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

If God accepts us then we no longer take our identity from our circumstances. We begin to relax in the comic “joke” that what we have always been told about who is in and who is out just isn’t so. Let’s relax, this show isn’t a tragedy after all. Yes, Jesus does die, really dead, on the cross. It’s not stage make-up and fake blood. He’s dead, really dead. That would be a tragedy, if that were the end of the production. But it isn’t. God raised Jesus from the dead. That same resurrection is ours, if we’ll just take it. Therefore things for us are not necessarily how they appear. Let us not be defined by circumstances. God is giving a party and all that is required is that we accept the invitation and show up. There is no end to the party he has prepared for those who love him!


Lucy Rives Williford 2016 -2017

March 8, 2017
Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Memphis Tennessee 38111

Judson Williford Lucy

Judson Williford shows off Lucy to the All Saint’s Sunday congregation

Today we come doing the three things Christians always do when they gather: To tell the story; to calm our fears and to speak to the hope that is in us.

I baptized Lucy last November in the company of several babies and little children. There is no rubric/stage direction that children having been baptized are to be returned to their parents. I’ve resisted the temptation to take them all home. I baptized Lucy into the household faith. I didn’t know baptize her with her family name because beginning then her last name from them, unspoken though implied was Christian. And so it remains.

You had so many plans for her! Of course you did, how could you not? Our pain today is that those plans are now mementos. There are so many things that will not happen.

She will never know how really cruel humans can be. She will never know the pain of sustained hunger, nor will she ever experience poverty of body, mind or spirit. She will never grow old and infirm. She lived among for just shy one cycle of the sun round this globe and has reached union with Christ before the age of one. Lucy was vivacious, already the apple of many an eye. Lucy was graced with beauty, a keen mind, a happy spirit. She was endowed with most every gift, save one: TIME.

Let me be as clear as I can beloved. This was not God’s will, not his intention. God created all things with degrees of freedom. Things fall down but not up. It doesn’t matter how many friends you have on Facebook (5000 is the max. I believe), whether you tweet, twit or twitter with millions hanging on every word and your opinions go viral on YouTube; Even endowed with all gifts so than you can move mountains, should you stumble off the roof a feather bed will not appear between you and the ground just because people like you (or not). Something did not function properly within its degrees of freedom last Saturday morning. We are left powerless in its wake. Likely nothing would have changed the trajectory, although, you will question yourself for evermore.

Here we are at a place of choosing. We can choose helplessness or guilt. Please hear me here? The truth is that most of us would rather feel guilty than helpless. Last Saturday morning, you and soon the rest of us met the limits of human power. Immediately, we turned toward guilt, “If I had done this or that? I arrived at a home once on a similar mission, only to have a person confess to me, “You know John, we didn’t get to Easter Sunday this year.” I assured them that God was not taking attendance. Because, were that true the Churches would be filled every Sunday, including Easter Day. This did not happen because Judson has red hair. I promise. I had red hair myself once. It’s not true. If we turn in the driveway of guilt we will torment ourselves and those around us from now on.

No, today let us embrace the truth, we were powerless to keep this from happening. We have no defense in our helplessness. Just sit with that. Grieve that. In addition, this was not God’s will.

God didn’t plan it and is just as sad about it as we are because the Holy One’s heart breaks when ours break. What I can tell you is that Lucy is with Him and in eternity outside time and space she is all that God had in mind when he created her.

Let us go back though and see just what it was we did last November? Let us examine the implications of baptism for Lucy last Saturday and for us today.

For Christians there are two kinds of death: terminal death and Paschal (Easter death). In his Second Letter to the Christians in Corinth, Saint Paul reminds them and us to NOT LOSE HEART.

2 Corinthians 4:16 – 5:10 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling – if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil

The only thing that we can know for certain all people who have ever lived have in common is terminal, “dead as a doornail death.” At birth our outer nature begins Baptism does not inoculate us against mortality. Rather, it was into Paschal (Good Friday – Easter Resurrection), I baptized Lucy months ago. Lucy was baptized into the death of our Lord Jesus, not his terminal death, but his dying and rising death.

Jesus’ empty tomb was exactly what no one expected to find the midst of history. But, the deepest intuition of humanity since that day is that if it can happen once in history it can happen again. It is into this death that she was baptized, not only was she baptized into the Good Friday death of Jesus, but she was also baptized into his Easter Resurrection.

We made promises to support her in her life in Christ. Parents and god-parents promised to bring her up in the Christian faith and life. Many of you here today joined in that promise. Clearly, there was not much time for any of that. But hear me; baptism always says more about God than us. Lucy was endowed by God in baptism with all the grace there is in potential. Today outside time and space: all that grace is realized. Lucy, is exactly, fully, completely everything God had in mind when God the Holy Trinity thought her up not so long ago.

You must grieve Lucy. You must grieve but not with despair. Here the Words of our Lord, recorded by Saint John, the Patron of this House of Faith,

JOHN 14:1-6 Jesus said: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me

Grieve, but not as people who have no hope. Hear me? Good. In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.