Gospel as Comedy not Tragedy

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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!

Amen

PENTECOST XXII

PROPER 24
Saint John’s, Memphis, Tennessee
October 16, 2016

 

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The Unjust Judge

 

In the Gospel reading from Luke’s Gospel, we hear the story of the persistent widow who pestered the judge who finally gave her justice to get rid of her. Does that mean that God is like a crooked judge? I don’t think so. Does it mean that we should pester God like a poor widow? No, The point is that God is NOT like the crooked judge and that those who call on God do not have to pester God into doing anything. God is always more ready to answer than we are to call.

Perseverance: continued patient effort. Perseverance is a frequent theme in the Lord’s teaching. We think of perseverance regarding our continuing to pray and to continue following our Lord to the place where he has gone. That is certainly true, but I submit to you and me that what is more extraordinary is God’s perseverance – the Holy Ones continued patient effort! Nowhere is this more dynamic more clearly revealed than in the life of Jacob.

We have the key part of Jacob’s story in today’s first reading from Genesis. But first, let me bring us review the story up to this point. Abraham’s son, Isaac, married Rebecca, the daughter of Abraham’s brother. Rebecca and Isaac had twin boys: Esau and Jacob. The boys struggled in the womb and Esau was born first with the hand of his twin firmly around his ankle. Therefore the second twin was named Jacob or heel-grabber.

The boys grew up to be very different men. Esau was a big hairy guy who liked to hunt and to be out in the field. I’m sure that he had a gun rack or maybe an arrow rack in the back of his chariot. He was sort of a Bubba, and his daddy liked him a lot. Jacob was more of a homebody, and he liked to cook and hang around the tent with his momma. Needless to say, she liked him a lot.

Jacob was a schemer and Esau was a bubba so one day when Esau came in from hunting and was famished he sold Jacob his birthright for a mess of lentils. And then Rebecca hatched a scheme to get Isaac to give Jacob the blessing that rightly belonged to Esau. Isaac was almost blind so when he asked Esau to get him a mess of venison she went into action. She made up a goat stew that would pass for venison, and she put the hairy skins on Jacob’s smooth arms, and so the old man gave Esau’s blessing to Jacob. When Esau learned what had happened, he threatened to kill Jacob. So Jacob skipped town and went to live with Rebecca’s brother, Laban.

Now Laban was even better at scheming than Jacob. Jacob may have been good as a schemer, but Uncle Laban was a master of the art of using people and getting the better deal at someone’s expense. To make a long story short, Jacob fell in love with Rachel, Laban’s second daughter. So he married her. But on the wedding night, Laban slipped the eldest daughter, Leah into the marriage bed. And Jacob in his haste didn’t know until morning that he had married the wrong sister. Leah was the sloe-eyed one. We don’t know what that means exactly, but you can count on the fact that it was no compliment. Maybe she had glasses that looked like the bottom of a coke bottle. At any rate for seven additional years, he was already signed up for seven years to marry the first daughter. So fourteen years became twenty-one by the time Jacob had worked off the flocks Uncle Laban “gave” him.

Then it was finally time to go home and face the music. So that brings us to the reading for today. Jacob sent word to Esau that he is coming home. The messenger tells him that Bubba is coming to meet him accompanied by 400 men. Jacob is terrified. He divided his company into two groups so that at least one group would likely get away if Esau attacks them. That night he got up and crossed the Jabbok River. He sent both groups on ahead, and he is left alone.

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On the way to Uncle Laban, Jacob had slept in the open alone like this night by the Jabbok. He had dreamed on that earlier night of a great ladder that stretched from heaven to earth. Angels were ascending and descending on that ladder. God spoke to Jacob and told him that he would go with him and that he would bring him home again.

Up to this time, gods were localized. If you moved from one place to another, you had to change gods like you have to change addresses. This is an innovation in the god business. Yahweh is not limited by the zip code! I will go with you, and I will bring you back again. So now over twenty years later Jacob is on the verge of returning home. And it was then that it happened. There on the river bank, (Note that crossing rivers symbolize the overcoming of an important personal threshold of experience.) in the night a being suddenly leaped on him. The literal words in the text say, “And there was one.” Some kind of seeming adversary grabbed Jacob. Jacob wrestles all night long. We never really know what the “one” is. Is it God? An angel? Does Jacob wrestle with himself? Today would we call it wrestling with our shadow? Or is it Esau or Esau’s angel that he wrestles with in a prelude to their match on the morrow?

They wrestled until daybreak. The “one” saw that he could not overpower Jacob, so he pressed Jacob’s hamstring so that he was injured.
The “one” said, “let me go, for it is daybreak.”
But he replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
He asked, ‘What is your name?”
He replied, “Jacob.”
He replied, “No longer will they say your name is Jacob, but rather Israel, for you have contended with the Lord and with men and have prevailed.”
Then Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.”
But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” And he blessed him there.

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The Sun shined as he passed Peniel and he limped on his thigh

This wound is a wound of the spirit as well as the hamstring. It is the sort of wound that you can never be the same again after it. This is what happened to Jacob. This is what happens to all of us in time. All of us are like Jacob. We are all egocentric, or in other words, we want to be the center of the world

Jacob called that place, “Peniel, for I have seen the Lord, face-to-face and my soul has been saved.”

John Sanford says that there are three basic experiences can break down this diseased ego: 1. suffering, 2. coming to care for someone other than ourselves, & 3. the recognition of a power greater than our own will is at work in our lives.

Notice that Jacob does suffer as a result of his choices. Uncle Laban uses him, and that produces suffering. He came to care deeply for Rachel and now by the River Jabbok, which is a pun in Hebrew with the word wrestle, he encounters a power greater than himself. He limps into the future, but he limps with a new name. He is no longer, Jacob/heel grabber, but Israel.

God promises us that he will go with us wherever we go. God promises to bring us back to the land of promise. And many times we will not see God’s hand at work in the world around us, but He is there.

“Elie Wiesel wrote as about Jacob’s encounter with the angel: “Jacob has just understood a fundamental truth: God is in man, even in suffering, even in misfortune, even in evil. God is everywhere. In every being. God does not wait for man at the end of the road, the termination of exile; He accompanies him there. More than that: He is the road, He is the exile. God holds both ends of the rope. He is present in every extremity, He is every limit. He is part of Jacob as He is part of Esau.”

The late Elie Wiesel is correct as a Jewish elder brother that God is in man, even in suffering, misfortune, even in evil. We adopted children of Abraham; We do not have to go looking for God. God came looking for us. We believe that God revealed himself most accurately in the person of his son, Jesus the Christ. Regardless of what happens – Regardless of what we do or where we go God in Christ Jesus is there with us. We meet the risen Jesus tonight here in this communion. Let us bring all our suffering; let us bring those who we love; let us bring all that we are and all that we are not and present them to the One who created us. Remember the words of his son, “I’ll never leave you or forsake you.”

Ego pain is growing pain.