A sermon by Kath Merrifield shared at the Centre for Ministry chapel service on 8 October. Readings are Matthew 22:1-14 and Philippians 4:1-9. The photo is from Kath’s UME Board presentation to the NSW/ACT Synod on Monday 29 September.
There’s nothing quite like a dose of outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth (22:13) – except if you are someone who lives with a mental illness. I am told that sometimes that is exactly how life feels… While I can’t pretend to be able to offer healing to those who live with what can be a crippling condition, I do want to offer some thoughts this morning about how we can attend to our own mental health and that of those around us.
Saturday morning – newspaper or ipad in hand, a good cup of tea or coffee – settled in for a long read of the week’s news. What comes to mind?
Surrounded by library books and articles and a blank screen in front of you hoping for inspiration for the essay that is due tomorrow. What comes to mind?
Confronted with the pile of essays that need to be marked and graded, what comes to mind?
“Rejoice”, says Paul. “Rejoice!”
Kind of like last Sunday night at the football? One team rejoices and the other – not so…
“Rejoice in the Lord, always”, says Paul. “Rejoice!”
Easy for him to say, right? He doesn’t know what it is like to live in our over-filled, over-engaged, over-indulged world where it has become a struggle to stay upbeat… And I find there is nothing better than the weekend newspaper to bring my mood down. But remember, Paul is in prison when he writes this letter to the church in Philippi (1:13).If anyone has a reason to complain or to be a bit down about his circumstances, it’s Paul.
And, it seems, the community to whom he writes might be having some difficulty – Paul’s urging of the two women to be of the same mind seems to indicate they might be having some kind of difference of opinion – never a comfortable thing when two ministry workers are disagreeing.
But in the midst of all this he urges the followers of Christ in Philippi to “rejoice”. Be gentle, don’t worry, pray always and give thanks. In this you will know the peace of Christ that is beyond understanding. He continues, saying, focus on things of beauty, truth, honour; things of excellence, things worthy of praise. I am not sure my weekend newspaper involves much of these things at all. And if it doesn’t and if I find myself surrounded by darkness, anxiety and confusion, where do I go?
What I have discovered is that the advice given to the people in ministry together in Philippi over 2000 years ago, is as important and relevant and true today. If we can learn to rejoice, to pray, to give thanks and to be gentle with ourselves and one another, then the peace of Christ is known to us. If we can lift our eyes to things of beauty and excellence and purity, then we will know the God of peace with us.
I am not saying we should never read the newspaper or watch the television news. We need to know about what is happening in the world – we need to hear the cries of those who are treated unjustly or who are hurting in our world. But my tip for ministry survival, Paul’s advice, is to keep a balanced eye on things of beauty and wonder – lift your eyes from time to time to see the majesty of God’s good creation, be reminded of goodness, often. Find images or music that lift your spirit and give yourself space to enjoy them from time to time.
This table is one space that invites us to lift our eyes beyond the ordinary to something extraordinary. The opening part of the liturgy as we approach the table here invites us to “lift up [y]our hearts”. Again, an invitation to shake off the lowness or laziness of our lives and to lift our eyes towards the one who is the source of life. It is an invitation that demands a response: “We lift them to the Lord.”
Out of the depths of all that life can sometimes be, out of our apathy or lethargy – lift up your hearts to the one who invites you to the banquet, the celebration, the way of life.
Which brings me to Matthew’s troubling parable – a parable about an invitation. A similar parable is told in Luke’s gospel – but without the violent parts. In Luke’s telling, there is no murder, no trashing of the city – just people with other things to do with their time and so refuse the invitation to share in the celebration. In Luke’s telling, there is no-one left without a wedding robe – all are welcome at the feast and have a wonderful time. But in Matthew’s telling, the response of the invited guests is not only rude, it is violent. This parable names two places of darkness: the city that is laid waste after the invited guests refuse to come to the feast; and the darkness and pain experienced by the one who is caught without the right clothes.
Matthew intends to shock – Jesus intends to shock his listeners. The Pharisees and chief priests at this point have already decided that he needs to go – but they don’t want to arrest him in front of the crowds. So when Jesus names the violence, he is confronting their intentions directly.
At the same time, he is also naming reality. When we reject God’s invitation to participate in the life of God’s kingdom, the alternative is often a place of desolation. When we who have heard the invitation, who know the one who invites us, intentionally choose to do something else, we know the space of emptiness we find ourselves in. We also know that this invitation is not a once off – the decision to show up to the feast is not just for Wednesday or Sunday morning – it is every moment of every day – it is in every interaction with another person, it is in our response when we meet someone who is hungry or thirsty or cold, it is when we encounter another who needs comfort.
More than that, when we do turn up but bring only part of ourselves, or come in a half-hearted manner, we also know the pain that causes to our soul. As Paul urges, as I have experienced, when I try to lift my heart out of itself, when I enter into the joy of God’s vision for life with all that I am, God meets me and meets us right there: Paul describes it as the “peace that is beyond understanding”.
How often do we turn down an invitation to celebrate with Christ and Christ’s people? How often do we simply miss the invitation to be part of Christ’s vision for the world? How often do we make excuses? How often, when we do turn up, are we half hearted?
Rejoice! Give thanks! Lift up your hearts! The good news is that again and again, Christ’s invitation is placed before us and to all people. Again and again, we are invited to join the celebration. Don’t miss it, there is no better offer in the world!
God of the banquet, you invite us all to come to your table. So often we miss the point. But you continue to invite us and to welcome us with abundant hospitality. May we be ready to offer such hospitality to all who respond to your invitation. May our tables be places of fellowship, grace, compassion and love. In Christ’s name, we pray. Amen.