Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Romans 10: Everybody's In

Hello, again. As I said at the beginning of worship, it’s good to be back.

A few things before we begin our study of Romans 10 today. First, I have to admit to playing a rather cruel joke on Ron Poisel and Alec Brohnson - your supply pastors and my fill-ins while I was away on sabbatical. Because I wanted some continuity this summer in the preaching texts, plus to make things a little easier for Kylie while I was away, I made the choice to focus on the book of Romans. Well, I made the choice for them.

You see, Romans is considered one of the most challenging of Paul’s letters to figure out. It’s a theologically complex and very dense writing. Everyone struggles with it. So, I promise, there will not be a quiz at the end of the summer. And the truth is that I am getting a little payback because I, too, will be preaching in it for the next 4 weeks.

A second thing I want to say is that I can guarantee that some of my experiences on sabbatical will likely find their way into my preaching and conversation over these next few weeks. It was a wonderful experience. A time of rest and renewal of relationships for me. A time of exploration and travel. And I’m still processing some of it. But, expect to hear a little more about it. And, if I haven’t said it enough, thank you for allowing me the time away. I was more exhausted than I knew.

Then, lastly, I want to talk briefly about our understanding of Romans. Since the early church, we have digested this letter as Paul’s treatise on faith and justification and salvation. Since the time of the Reformation, we - especially we Lutherans - have understood it to hold the core message of justification by faith. It has become an understanding that more and more pulls verse out of their context to highlight the reality of sin and the necessity to confess Christ for one’s own personal salvation. One of the dangers of this is that it makes salvation all about the individual. And one’s personal relationship with Christ as a personal Lord and Savior.

Over the past 50 years, the understanding of Paul’s writing has changed. It’s called a “new” perspective on Paul. If considering a “new” understanding makes you a little uncomfortable, know that this began with the writings of Krister Stendahl - a Swedish Lutheran theologian who, it was a change in understanding that began with the writings of Krister Stendahl - a Swedish Lutheran theologian, who pointed out that Paul - a Jew - did not view his life as one of conflicted torment with a troubled conscience. Stendahl argued that “justification by faith” was not the heart and soul of Paul’s theology, but that only used this idea when circumstances arose to argue that both Jews and Gentiles stand on equal footing before God. Other theologians picked this up and ran with it - and it has changed the entire culture of the study of Paul’s writings. Because Paul’s writings have primarily to do with community and how Christ-followers are to live in community.

Now that’s a very long introduction to our reading today, which comes from the heart of Romans.

Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the Law: The person who does these things will live by them. But the righteousness that comes from faith talks like this: Don’t say in your heart, “Who will go up into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will go down into the region below?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the message of faith that we preach). Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation. The scripture says, All who have faith in him won’t be put to shame. There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all, who gives richly to all who call on him. All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.

So how can they call on someone they don’t have faith in? And how can they have faith in someone they haven’t heard of? And how can they hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, How beautiful are the feet of those who announce the good news. (Romans 10:5-15 CEB)

One of the best times I had on sabbatical was on July 4th. I was able to spend time in Texas with my gathered immediate family - including my son, brother and sister-in-law, nieces, and my new grand-nephew - the first grandchild for my brother and his wife. And, yes, it was hot! But we were on a lake - so it was tolerable.

It was the first time in over 15 years that we had all been together. For my son and his cousins, it was a time of getting to know each other all over again as adults, each with their joys and struggles. For me, it was just good to be with family - and to experience each family member in their unique personalities. 

There was a twinge of sadness, though. First, my niece’s husband, Coddie, wasn’t there. He died suddenly this past May of a heart attack. Then second, my nephew, Alex, also wasn’t there. He has been estranged from our family for several years. Although he has reconnected with his dad - my brother - he hasn’t yet come back into the family fold. So, there’s a little nick in my heart because of that.

Maybe you have something like that in your family. Maybe there’s someone who is estranged from the rest of your family. Maybe you’re the one who is estranged. I think this is more common than we know.

And this is really what Paul is writing about in this chapter and the surrounding ones, chapters 9 through 11 in Romans. He is expressing and working through his heartbreak over the Jewish people - HIS people. Wondering how it’s possible that Israel, God’s chosen people, have been given the promises in scripture and the covenant, yet are sitting on the sidelines while the Gentiles are flocking to Jesus as the Messiah. He writes at the beginning of chapter 9: I have great sadness and constant pain in my heart. I wish I could be cursed - cut off from Christ - if it helped my brothers and sisters, who are my flesh-and-blood relatives.

The resurrection of Christ was, for Paul, key. It is the beginning of God’s cosmic re-creation and reconciliation of humanity with God’s very self. Note that it is Christ’s resurrection - and not his death on the cross - that is key for Paul. Because, you see, anyone can die, even die on a cross. But, it is only Christ who was resurrected by God, which proves God’s faithfulness. That God keeps God’s word. God says what God will do.

At the very beginning of Romans, Paul writes that the gospel was “promised beforehand in the scriptures. Throughout the letter, Paul quotes from the Hebrew scriptures to show God’s hand - to show what God intended to do. It began with the Jewish people. 

Yet, the most important principle of ancient biblical interpretation is this: what God has done in the present determines the meaning of what God said in the past. So, Paul’s conclusion is that all of scripture points to Christ as the Messiah. And that God’s ultimate solution to the problem of sin and the separation of humanity from God was Jesus.

But what about the Jews? That part, for Paul, is so hard to figure out. It’s the question he’s struggling with here. The early church was made up of the Jewish disciples. But as it has grown, more and more Gentiles - and not Jews - are flocking to Christ. Paul struggles with this. He is a Jews. The Jews are Paul’s peeps.

But they are largely uninterested in the idea that Jesus is the Messiah. So the early movement of Jesus-followers is full of Gentiles (in other words everyone else who is not Jewish). Paul is arguing and advocating that the Gentiles are to be included without requiring them to follow Jewish law or custom (like circumcision or keeping the Sabbath, even though these have been commanded in scriptures). So, if the Jews then aren’t joining up with this new movement, then this new movement is no longer only Jewish. And that creates, at least, 3 problems.

First, God. How can God be faithful to God’s own people if they aren’t enjoying the benefits of God’s great and final act of salvation in Christ? But, Paul argues that God is faith. And that God will keep God’s promises.

Second problem. On the ground. What are Gentiles to make of Jews? And vice versa? In Rome, Jews are returning after having been kicked out of the city 50 years earlier. There are Christian Jews returning to the community. People are having to learn how to live together. Or wondering if they even should. It’s like it’s a church potluck and half of the group won’t show up because Patty isn’t bringing her deviled eggs. Who gets to control things? Gentiles? Jews? What actions count as faithfulness and obedience to God? This is the question. What does faithfulness to God look like if the Gentiles aren’t required to follow the same scripture requirements?

Third. What are we to make of non-believing Jews? How do we understand their rejection of Jesus as Messiah? What is their future?

For Paul, it’s a work of navigation, balancing the promises of God to Israel with the reality that the Jewish people have largely not accepted Jesus as Messiah while, at the same time, numerous Gentiles have. For us, too, it matters. Because the Jewish people are God’s chosen people - that hasn’t changed because God is faithful to them. So, to reject the Jews as part of the family is to reject Israel’s God. Our God.

The bottom line is that everyone is in. Humanity was created to bear God’s image - to show the whole created order what God is like. And if God’s plan of salvation isn’t to restore all of humanity, then God’s got a big problem. 

By the end of Romans, as we’ll learn, it’s not clear that Paul has everything all figured out. But, ultimately, he comes to a place of trust. Trusting that it is the resurrected Christ - and not obeying the commandments - that the law actually points us to. 

And that we are to be the bearers of that good news. Good news that transcends all boundaries, all divisions, all borders - everything that we, as broken human beings, like to put in its way. “Neither Greek, nor Jew. Neither male, nor female. Neither heterosexual or transexual. Neither documented, nor undocumented. Neither slave, nor free. 

This good news is about life. About the life that Christ’s resurrection - and not his death - points us to. About - together - experiencing the fullness of God. A God who, as Elijah experienced, comes not to us in the wind, or the earthquake, or even the fire. But in the most unexpected way. In the sound of sheer silence, through which God whispers to us: Y’all are mine. Y’all are enough. I choose y’all. I love y’all.

May we be the messengers of this good news.

Preached Sunday, August 13, 2023, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
11th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 1 Kings 19:9-18; Romans 10:5-15

Sunday, June 11, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: Orvieto, the Miracle at Bolsena, and the Feast of Corpus Christi

Everything over these past two weeks in Orvieto has been leading to this day, June 10th, when the entire Orvietani community celebrates the Feast of Corpus Christi (Domini). They don't celebrate it, though, like anyone else. Because it was right here, in this small, enchanting village where this feast originated. It all started with the Miracle at Bolsena.

Before I jump to the story of the miracle, a little about Bolsena. When Rome defeated the Etruscans here in 264 BCE, when it was known as Velzna, the Romans "exiled" all of the residents to an area called Volsinii Nova, 21 kilometers (13 miles) away. This became the town of Bolsena. 

In 1263, a German priest - Peter of Prague - stopped at Bolsena while he was on a pilgrimage to Rome. He is described as being a pious priest, but was struggling with believing that Christ as actually present in the consecrated Host (or bread) of Holy Communion. This is a Roman Catholic theological belief - transubstantiation - that teaches that at the time the priest consecrates the bread and the wine with the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper ("This is my body...This is my blood."), the elements of communion are changed into the actual body and blood of Christ. 

(As an aside, the words "hocus pocus" are believed to be a perversion of this blessing from the Latin Catholic mass, Hoc est corpus meum, or "This is my body." But back to the story and to Father Peter!!)

Tapestry of Peter of Prague consecrating the Host

While he was celebrating mass in the church in Bolsena, named for the martyr St. Christina, he had barely spoken these words of consecration when blood started to drip from the consecrated Host and trickle on his hands and then onto the altar and the corporal. [The corporal is a square of white linen cloth onto which the containers for wine (chalice) and bread (paten) are placed during celebration of the mass.] Peter was immediately confused by this. At first, he tried to hide the blood. But, then, he interrupted the Mass and asked to be taken to Orvieto, where Pope Urban IV was residing. 

The Pope listened to his account, absolved Peter of any potential wrongdoing, then sent representatives to investigate. When he received the results of the investigation, the Pope ordered that the Host and the linen cloth bearing the bloodstains be brought to Orvieto. These relics were placed in the cathedral, in a special reliquary, and to this day - on this day - are brought out and reverently exhibited in the cathedral and then during a massive procession that winds through the streets of Orvieto. 

Exactly one year after the miracle, in August 1264, Pope Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi (or Corpus Domini, as it's also called). After today's celebration, these relics will be returned to the Chapel of the Miracle in the duomo at Orvieto. The altar where all of this happened is still preserved at St. Christina Church in Bolsena. 

This is THE major festival each year in Orvieto. It's not only a significant religious day, celebrated with a special mass using the Aquinas liturgy that is broadcast on speakers throughout the village, but one that involves the entire community. Volunteers dress in beautiful medieval costume, carrying colorful banners that represent the four districts, or quarters, of Orvieto: Corsica, Serancia, Olmo and Santa Maria della Stella. Children, women and men are dressed as peasants, carrying their wares for sale. Representatives of the medieval guilds also dress in costume, holding aloft the many banners representing the different guilds of the time - artists, olive oil makers, carpenters, and farmers, to name just a few. Volunteers dress as members of the Knights Templar and the Swiss Guard, along with others dressed in ancient military garb, carry their jousting lances and represent the defenders of the church, the government, and the people. 

Dignitaries from the Comune de Orvieto (City of Orvieto) and from communities across Umbria dress in their official garb and walk in procession. The municipal band marches and plays melodies from the ancient liturgy written for this feast day by Dr. Thomas Aquinas. There are a series of ancient tapestries carried that tell the story of the Miracle at Bolsena. It is a spectacular sight - the ultimate Renaissance festival!!

All of this, though, is overshadowed by the relic - the cloth - as it is carried by priests, accompanied by the bishop and the many other priests, nuns and seminarians who process throughout the streets of this medieval hill town and are greeted by its residents with cheers and flowers along the way.

There is nothing quite like being in Orvieto on THIS day - the day remembering the Miracle at Bolsena and reminding us under our own slightly different Lutheran theology, that each week, as we participate in the mystery of Holy Communion, somehow Christ's body and blood are in, with and under the bread and wine, and God is truly with us.  

Happy Feast Day of Corpus Christi!!

Friday, June 2, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: Republic Day in Orvieto

Today - June 2nd - is Republic Day (Festa della Repubblica) in Italy. It's a day that recalls the post-World War 2 referendum in 1946, in which the citizenry of the kingdom of Italy chose to be a republic over a monarchy. To understand this more fully, one needs to go back in history a bit to the medieval period and the rise of the city-states. 

These were many different independent and political entities that arose after the collapse of Rome and the descent of Germanic "barbarians" into northern Italy. Orvieto was also invaded and came under control of the Longobard duchy. In 774 CE, the area was liberated and Orvieto became a province of the Papal State. This began a long era of great wealth, beauty and expansion. Orvieto became one of several modern, functional, democratic city-states (communes) with a well organized political system and urban structure. (These are the basis for our modern-day democracy in the U. S.) Because of a civil war in Rome during this time, Pope Urban IV lived in Orvieto. His residency led to the construction of a pontifical palace in the city, as well as, the commissioning of the construction of the duomo to be built beside his palace. In this medieval period each major square in the city represented an institution - Piazza Duomo represented religious power; Piazza del Popolo, the power of the people, and Piazza della Repubblica, the power of the polis (political power). These city squares still exist today. 

Orvieto's prosperity lasted until 1348, when the plague and fighting between the noble families (especially the Monaldeschi and Fileppeschi families) put an end this time of expansion. However, the city still found economic prosperity, thanks to its close connection to and popularity with the papacy - it was viewed as a quiet and safe place to stay not far from Rome. Orvieto continued as an important papal province until 1860, when Italy was unified and it became part of the Kingdom of Italy, a constitutional monarchy governed by the House of Savoy. 

It was under the rule of this House that Mussolini came to power in the early 1920's, leading to the fascist regime in Italy and the Axis alliance with Nazi Germany. After disastrous defeats in Eastern Europe and North Africa, the Italian empire collapsed. Mussolini was arrested by order of King Victor Emmanuel III, which provoked a civil war. The northern half of the country was occupied by the Nazis with the cooperation of Italian fascists, becoming a puppet-state. The south was controlled by the monarchy, which fought for the Allied cause. However, the Italian resistance movement (the "partisans") operated all over Italy. In April 1945, Mussolini was assassinated by Italian partisans two days before Hitler's suicide. This led to the call for a national referendum for Italians to decide whether they wanted to be a republic or a monarchy.

The results of the referendum are quite interesting to me, which ended up with about 55% of the population voting to become a republic versus the 45% who wanted to remain a monarchy. The blue in this image represents those areas with a majority vote for a republic, the red for the monarchy. In central Italy in particular - where the independent city-states and democratic institutions were formed - the population overwhelmingly voted to form a republic, to be self-governing.

Italy's history is so much more complex than what I've captured in these few paragraphs. It's a fascinating study of the struggle between the three areas represented by the three piazzas - that of the church, the people, and the political system. 

One last note about the preservation of the cathedral in Duomo. There's a fascinating story captured here on how this lily of Italian cathedrals was preserved near the end of the second World War. As Allied forces approached from the south, they were greeted by a Volkswagen, carrying a young German officer waving a white flag who spoke perfect English. He carried a message from the German commander based in the city: "In consideration of the historic beauty of Orvieto, the German commander proposes to the allied command that the city of Orvieto be declared open." 

The allied commander agreed and fighting continued away from the city, saving this beautiful medieval city with its incomparable duomo. 

Fino a tardi, arrivederci!

(Molte grazie to the website, Orvieto Viva, for much of the history on this and previous blog pages.)

Saturday, May 27, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: Time for Vita Comunitaria

I made the mistake yesterday of going to the local grocery store during the noon rush. Here, as in most small villages in Italy, things shut down around 12:30 or so for the afternoon riposo. So, right around this time, the grocery store is packed with people headed home from work or from school to pick up a few things for lunch. Italians don't shop for groceries once a week, but, because they can so easily walk to the grocery store, usually go every day or couple of days. 

Looking at this idea of riposo (or siesta in Spanish, which you might know better) from an American cultural viewpoint, we might consider this unproductive. And unnecessary. A waste of good working or learning time. This tradition, though, came out of necessity, especially in more southern places where the heat of the day can be intense. Buildings weren't air conditioned. It was dangerous for workers to be outside in these high temperatures. So, this cultural phenomenon developed. Everyone goes home to have lunch and to rest. Then, around 5p, when things started to cool down, they return to work and school for about another 3 hours or so.

This is possible when you live and work and go to school in a small village because you live within easy walking distance of everywhere you need to be. School is a 5-10 minute walk away. The grocery store and other shops are the same. So, are workplaces. By slowing down the pace of life, spending time together, meeting one another on the street as you're walking to and fro, and even running into each other in the grocery store during the noon rush - all of this creates community. Add into it the evening tradition of the la passeggiata - an evening stroll where the entire family goes out and walks the main corso together, running into friends and other family members, catching up on the news of the day - then followed by another time of gathering together for a meal that often stretches late into the evening, and vita comunitaria (communal life) just happens. Naturally. All the time.

During the period of the Middle Ages, all three of the major religions - Judaism, Islam and Christianity - innovated their spiritual traditions centered around the idea of God as lover and human beings as beloved, an acknowledgement of the feminine in spirituality. The many rich and abundant texts by female mystics were composed in and for very specific communities. As urban centers grew, the need for pastoral care in towns and cities required greater lay participation. Lay women and men organized themselves into these communities, some endorsed by the Church and others not. Spirituality was formed in community. Pastoral care was offered from within these communities. Even in the U.S., up until the individualism of the 20th century, much of faith life was developed through communal life. 

My time in Orvieto reflecting on vita comunitaria, both past and present, makes me recognize that we've lost something in America. Faith is meant to be shaped and lived out communally. Each of us is blessed by God with unique gifts to serve that community, which then offers them more fully in greater society. We are called to be the body of Christ, working together, then sent out to perform what Ulrike Wietnaus calls "street mysticism." It is on the streets where we find sacred space like the feminine mystics did - in the open spaces of markets, churches, shrines dedicated to the saints, shops, apothecaries, roads and hospitals. It is on the streets where the spiritual and the secular mix. (Perrin, 4-7)

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. It's a huge festival in Orvieto that celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. Here, it is celebrated in the streets of this village - communally - with a Vigil mass, processions, an art festival, an evening dance, then culminating on Sunday with the palombella, an ancient aerial transit of a dove (la columba) from the Church of St. Frances (Chiesa de San Francesco) to the duomo with fireworks. (I promise to take pictures as long as you don't show them to PETA!) Here, the sacred intermingles with the secular. There is no separation. One can only wonder how much fuller the lives of Orvietans are because these two aspects of life - and our very beings - aren't separated from each other, but fully intertwined as part of life together. 

Something to think about on this Vigil of Pentecost. Fino a tardi!

Thursday, May 25, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: Orvieto - A Little History

The history of Orvieto is quite fascinating. Like the other hill towns of central Italy, it sits on a huge mass of tufa rock, likely from an ancient volcanic eruption. This rock is solid in some parts, not so solid in others.

Orvieto's first traceable history comes from the Etruscan civilization, beginning about the 9th century BCE. This was a culture of great splendor and importance and Orvieto (known then as Velzna) was the most important town in the Etruria territory. Below the cliffs of this village, archaeologists and histories discovered what they think is the Fanum Volumnae, an ancient sanctuary that was thought to be the center of the Etruscan religion. 

Here, the Crocifisso del Tufo necropolis was excavated, along with remains of the Temple of Belvedere. The necropolis is an ancient burial site consisting of over 200 tombs made of tuff (tufa) blocks. This is a likely predecessor to what tombs looked like in the the time of Christ. Each tomb was owned by individual families and was marked with family names, which can still be seen. In a tour I took in my last visit, our archaeologist tour guide mentioned that there is an early connection between one of the families, whose tomb is in this burial site, with that of Remus and Romulus, the traditional founders of Rome. 

Velzna was also the political center, where the leaders of the 12 major Etruscan cities (dodecapoli) would gather to worship the gods and decide by common consent the political strategies to adopt.

Under the settlement, the Etruscans built a series of caves and tunnels to connect themselves. They did this because they often were under siege from unfriendly neighbors. Many of the homes in the village have underground "basements," some of which have been excavated to connect up to the various tunnels. There are still olive presses in some of these caves, dating from the Middle Ages. And they are still great places to store cheese and wine, two commodities for which Orvieto is famous. 

Eventually, Orvieto fell to Rome in the third century BC, although it took them two years to conquer this natural fortress, with cliffs on all sides and its intricate web of caves and numerous wells. The Romans destroyed most of the evidence of the Etruscans and then used the area to supply crops, wine and other goods to Rome. There are only a few traces of Roman civilization in the village.  

This area was dominated by the Goths, Byzantines and Lombards until about 1000 CE. It was then that Orvieto began to repopulate, especially on the northwest side, which is known today as the Medieval Quarter. This is evidenced by the presence of the Chiesa d'San Giovenale (Church of St. John), whose first documentation was in 1004. (More on Orvieto churches later!)

During the 13th and 14th centuries, Orvieto, then called Urbs Vetus (See the present name taking shape?), advanced and increased its power. It was a time of great artistic and cultural flourishing. Thomas Aquinas taught in a school here and composed a special liturgy for the Feast of Corpus Christi, which originated here (more on that later). Pope Urban IV found refuge here from a civil war in Rome for a couple of years. Other popes "summered" in Orvieto. Most importantly, this time included the construction of the duomo. The cathedral, besides being known for its beautiful mosaic facade, also contains in its chapel (Chapel of San Brizio) frescoes by Fra Angelico and, most famously, Luca Signorelli's masterpiece, the Last Judgment, based on Dante's Divine Comedy, written in 1314. 

This amazing time ended in 1348, when a pandemic followed by continuous internal fighting within a ruling family (sound at all familiar?) destroyed the Comune of Orvieto. It came under the rule of the Papal State and, then, in 1860, was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy. 

This history with all of its drama and richness is, in large part, what draws me to Orvieto. Sometimes, I think that, in the US, we're too young as a nation to understand that our hold on democracy is tenuous. That it takes constant work and effort to maintain it. Here, in Italy, the people understand this. And, they also know that life goes on. That history continues. And that, no matter what, there is resurrection and life even after death and destruction. 

Or, in the words of Julian of Norwich (b. 1343), an English feminine mystic: "All will be well. And all will be well. And all manner of things will be well."

Fino a tardi, arrivederci!

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Sabbatical 2023: First Days in Orvieto

In these early days of my sabbatical, I have been simply trying to rest and relax and unplug a little. Last week I spent most of it in riposo, as Italians might call it. This week I'm actually in Italy - more precisely in my favorite hill town, Orvieto, located in the province of Umbria. Orvieto is most known for it's duomo, one of the most beautiful in all of Italy that is called the "lily" of all cathedrals.

This area is rich in so many ways - natural beauty, art, food, beverages, and, especially, history. It's a place in my personal history, too. In 2006, I came here along with a small cohort from Fuller Seminary for a summer intensive. We immersed ourselves in the theology, spirituality and art of the medieval period - a time so integral to this area, to the church, and, honestly, to Western civilization. These Middle Ages - often misnamed as the Dark Ages - were actually a time of great expansion, whether culturally, artistically, spiritually and theologically. During my few weeks here that summer, I learned so much about the important influence that women had then in the church through their writing and witness - an understanding that we've only just begun to unearth over the past several decades. During those weeks, I also made a few lifelong friends.

So, I'm back in 2023 to this place so dear to my heart. It's my fourth time here. Each time I arrive I feel like I've returned to my spiritual home. This time is no different, other than that it will be the longest number of days I've spent here. I'm trying not to live as a tourist, but to settle in. To shop for food every day or so in Pam Local, the nearby grocery store. To honor this culture's daily period of afternoon repose. To make new friendships and to renew old ones. To rest and to renew. 

During this time, I'll be refreshing my memory and expanding my learning of the feminine mystics of the Middle Ages, who come from this part of Italy. In a Facebook post a few days ago, I mentioned that I'll be reading Women Christian Mystics: Speak to Our Times, edited by David B. Perrin, OMI. In his introduction to a series of essays, this is what HE writes about listening again to these women who have "lived valiantly the drama of human life and who, to date, have not had the opportunity to teach us."

"Listening again does not mean we sit back in our comfortable tightly knit intellectual dwelling places and sigh contently knowing we've done our part to heal past wounds by passively patronizing women's stories with albeit our attentive ears. No, listening again means to allow their stories to touch our stories, to let their lives enter into our lives such that we gain the hard-won wisdom they have to offer. Nor does listening again mean we laboriously try to fit their stories into our preconceived categories. Rather, we listen in order to allow their stories to BREAK OPEN the sealed containers within which we sometimes live. We need their stories to provide for us the grist for our own wisdom. They have walked treacherous and burdensome ways, as do we as individuals and as a collective body. Taking up their stories into our lives provides some wider context within which we can reflect and expand our own worlds outside the often times patriarchal or other limiting horizons against which we have come to know and define who we are as Christians and as human beings."

May this time break me open from the sealed container in which I often live. May it provide discernment and wisdom. May it open me to a broader context and expansion of my own thought and being. And, particularly, may I be renewed and refreshed to live authentically.

Hello, Orvieto - my old friend! And, to you dear reader, welcome to Orvieto!

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Seeking: Who is invited?

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad, so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.” --Matthew 22:1-14 (NRSV)

Wow. Just wow. Okay. So, who would like to interpret this parable this morning?

Before we dig into this text in earnest, there are a couple of things I’d like to mention. 

First, we have to be careful not to jump too quickly into the allegorical interpretation. An allegory is a story or picture or poem that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, usually a moral or political meaning. It’s important for us, especially with Jesus’ parables, that we first look closely at the story, before we jump to trying to figure out its allegorical meaning. We try to understand what is going on, first, because doing this can then help us draw out its meaning for us. 

The second caution is about hyperbole. 

In Matthew, in particular, Jesus’ parables contain a lot of hyperbole, of exaggeration. If you think about the community that Matthew is writing to, a community some 50 years after Jesus ascended that has been tossed out from their religious and social community, it might be easier to understand that, as Matthew captures Jesus’ parables, there is an edge to them. Whether it is anger or cynicism, Matthew’s Jesus exaggerates. For far too long, the church has used scripture, including this parable, against the Jewish people in a way that encourages anti-Semitism. Jesus’ parables contain a lot of hyperbole - exaggeration. Why? To catch the reader’s attention. To draw them into the story. Sometimes, to shock them. To drive home a point. Does that mean, then, that we should take Jesus’ parables literally? Probably not. But, we also should not miss the point. We should take it seriously.

So, what do we first see in this story? We have a king who is inviting guests to a banquet. But, even before this, we have this opening phrase: Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables…” So there are other parables that have been told before this one to “them.” If we back up into chapter 21, we see that Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem. We’ve skipped ahead because we will read this on Palm Sunday. 

The first thing Jesus does is to go into the temple and overturn the moneychanger tables. Then, Jesus curses the fig tree. This is an irritable Jesus we see in chapter 21. Soon, the religious leaders confront him and challenge his authority to teach in the temple. This is followed by two parables that are spoken directly to the chief priests and elders. And not in a good way. By the end of chapter 21, they want to arrest him. But, they are afraid because Jesus is so popular - thought by the crowds to be a prophet.

Then comes this parable in our text today, spoken to "them" - the chief priests and elders.

Now, something else you need to know is that in ancient times it was the custom to invite guests to a banquet in two phases. First, messengers would be sent to the guests, several days in advance, to invite them. And to tell them to be ready at an approximately time. The second invitation would be sent when the feast was ready. The guests were now to come. 

It appears that, in the story, we first learn about this second invitation. So, those invited have had fair warning to make sure they are available to attend. But, they violate the ancient rules of hospitality by refusing to come, something close to rebellion. Then, asked again, two of the invited guests walk away to go back to their business affairs. Others seize the servants, attack them and kill them. 

Is it any wonder that this king is furious? Wouldn’t, if something like this happened in our day - wouldn’t there be repercussions?

But, there is still a wedding feast waiting. So servants are once again sent by the monarch into the streets to invite everyone they can find. Good and bad. And they gather them into the wedding hall to begin this great feast. 

Maybe, up to this point, we kind of get this story. It’s about invitation and hospitality. About how God invites everyone, good and bad. And about some - particularly privileged - who simply ignore or even refuse God’s invitation. Or worse yet, seek to harm God’s servants.

But, then, we get to the last part of the story. 

Who can make sense of this? How could it be expected that someone gathered up off the streets into the great hall would need to wear a special garment, much less even own one?

What we need to understand is that traditionally the king would have had appropriate garments ready for his guests. The individual did not put on the garment provided - perhaps even refused to put on the garment,, thus, shaming the king. He is cast out not because of who he is, but because of what he chooses to do. Or not to do. In this, he dishonors the king.

So what does this mean for us? (Now, we get to the allegorical interpretation.). There are likely many meanings to this parable. But, perhaps one interpretation is that this is about “cheap grace.” We’ve talked about this before. This is a phrase first written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the years leading up to the second world war, as he and others tried to engage the broader church in stopping Hitler and his movement. Cheap grace, as he writes, is a grace without repentance. Or sacrifice. And, ultimately without a cross. It’s accepting God’s invitation, but refusing to “put on the garment of faith,” as Paul puts it. To truly live as one of God’s people. To do the work of discipleship - prayer, fasting, giving to the poor. Standing up to evil and power, especially when it is harming those whom society has pushed to the edges. It’s refusing to put in our time or energy or resources to serve God. It’s refusing to sacrifice. 

To be a disciple requires costly grace. Because it calls us to fully follow - to follow Jesus Christ. This kind of grace is costly. Because it cost Jesus his life.

So where are you in your Lenten journey? Have you, three weeks in given up on any fast or practice you decided to take on? Why is that? Or, perhaps, you have remained steadfast. How might this practice be more fully incorporated into your life as a disciple beyond Lent?

May we, this Lent, accept God’s invitation to the wedding banquet. But, may we also willingly put on the garment of costly grace. The garment of sacrifice. The garment worthy of the bridegroom himself - Jesus Christ, Son of God.


Preached Sunday, March 12, 2023, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Prospect, with Third Lutheran, Louisville.
Lent 3
Readings: Matthew 22:1-14; Psalm 45:6-7