Psalm 23; Philippians 4, 1-9; Matthew 22, 1-14 May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit of life,
Earlier this week I was talking with a colleague at work. She told me how for weeks she'd been being tormented by a new neighbour who played music loudly late into the night and whose house always seemed to be full of the noise of parties and conflict. One weekend a fight broke out which spilled onto the street. My friend told me she was in despair - how was she going to make things better? She tried reasoning with her neighbour, she wrote letters, but nothing worked, until the day she brought some rhubarb from her allotment and left it at her troublesome neighbour's door. A little later came a note, thanking her for the gift and apologising for the noise and the conflict. My friend realised that just by reaching out and doing something a little unexpected she'd opened an avenue to a new relationship and a new understanding with someone she'd thought there was no hope of ever getting on with.
I thought about this story when I read this Sunday's readings and thought about all those references to conflict, violence, and suffering. In Isaiah and in Matthew cities become ruins and are burned. People are frightened and enraged, there's murder and destruction. So much in today's readings also seems to shout of injustice -why are the king's slaves in the parable killed just for bringing a wedding invitation? Why is the poor man thrown into the outer darkness just for wearing the wrong clothes? Today's readings seem full of terrifying acts of terror and violence. But they also offer us a way forward-a way of acting and of doing something about the violence that seems today, just as in the time of Isaiah, Paul, and Matthew, such a terrible and unchanging part of human nature. Paul and Jesus tell us that as Christians our calling is to bring peace, and that we do that firstly through our prayers and secondly through how we live.
Paul's letter to the Philippians is itself brought into being by conflict. Paul is writing from prison, a victim of a regime determined to punish him for his faith. And yet he doesn't bemoan his state-rather his concern is with Euodia and Syntyche, two women, leaders of the church in Philippi, who've clearly fallen out over something. Whatever it is, Paul wants the church to know that peace is attainable, but to make that peace a reality they have first got to pray. 'Let your requests be known to God' is his instruction. Today, as we witness on TV and hear on the news the terrible things that are happening to men, women and children in Israel and Gaza Paul helps us to see that just feeling sad, or angry, or even giving up in the belief that there's nothing we can do is a mistake. Paul tells us that prayer is a proper response to conflict. He tells the Philippians, and us;
'Do not worry about anything, but in prayer and supplication ...let your requests be made known to God.'
I think it matters that Paul doesn't just say 'don't worry'. He's not saying, 'don't bother', but he is telling us that worrying over conflict, whether its local, national, or international, simply isn't enough. We can't just be passive observers of wars and conflicts which result in the displacement, death and suffering of hundreds of thousands of innocent people; we are being called as Christians to act and we can act through prayer. Our work is to pray for peace, but not peace as we might understand it. This is God's peace, which Paul tells us, surpasses human understanding. It's a peace for everyone who offers up their worries and anxieties to God.
Prayer is important in finding peace, but for peace to be a reality in our lives and those of those around us it matters what sort of people we are. In Matthew's Gospel Jesus is talking to the chief Priests and Pharisees- men who may well have been confident that they were the chosen few and who might well have felt unsettled by being told through this parable that this might not be so. I think there's something personal in this parable; Jesus perhaps has his friend John the Baptist in mind when he talks of the messengers who invited people to the banquet being put to death. The Chief priests and the pharisees may perhaps have seen themselves in Jesus's description of the invited guests who reject the King's invitation to share in the feast. Jesus tells them that the Kingdom of Heaven is for everyone; the wedding hall is filled with 'both good and bad'. But the terrible fate of the guest who is pulled in off the streets and then thrown into darkness because he's not wearing the right clothes then seems a puzzling paradox. It's an act of such random and irrational cruelty that we're entitled to wonder whether the kingdom of heaven really is for everyone, unless that is we see the wedding garment as representing something else in the same way that other elements of the story also symbolise other things….
Perhaps the wedding guest is rejected by the King not because of his clothes, but because something about his outward appearance suggests that there's something lacking in his innermost self. Paul tells us that if we're prayerful, gentle, truthful, and honourable then we'll play our part in bringing Gods peace to the world. The unfortunate wedding guest doesn't present himself as such a person. The king wants his guests to be radiant with the light of their calling; a wedding robe would have been made of the cleanest brightest whitest cloth, but this guest's scruffy appearance suggests that that calling just isn't evident in how he appears to those around him.
Perhaps to fully understand what Jesus means by saying that 'many are called but few are chosen' we need to go back to Paul. Paul tells us that being 'chosen' means living lives which celebrate whatever is just, pure, and worthy of excellence. He presents himself as an example, telling the Philippians and us that if we want to be at peace, and to see peace in the world around us, then our first step is to 'do the things that we have learned and received and heard and seen in him'.
The first of those things is to pray, and the second is to act in ways which bring about reconciliation and understanding. Then the promise of today's readings is that we will find the God of peace present in this troubled world, just as Paul found him two thousand years ago in prison and my colleague and her neighbour found him through that gift of rhubarb.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.