Weeping and Gnashing

Philippians 4:4-9, Matthew 22:1-14 and Equinox in Conflict Resolutions for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo

Hello and happy Sunday, thank you once again for being here and for connecting, however you are able. Thank you to my colleague Jackie for sharing such a thoughtful message last Sunday with us about how we are to respond in this wilderness time. You can now watch the full videos of our 10 a.m. worship services on cucclivestream.com so if you missed it, it’s not too late.

As we bring ourselves once again to hear beyond the surface, I invite you to take a deeper breath than you might normally and just let yourself arrive more fully. And as you are so moved, I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer. God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, wherever they are, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

What am I supposed to pray for God? This has been something I have asked out loud numerous times over these months. What are we to pray for? To ask for? To work for? When there is so much… What is our role? Where should we put our energy?

In the early months, many of us could just push through, keep going, try harder, but that only works for short periods. As psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota Ann Masten, PhD writes, we were all using “surge capacity” to operate. Thank you Jackie for pointing me to this concept! “Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters...” But that only works for short periods of time and at some point our systems start to fail. We aren’t designed to operate like this for months and months on end.

This week my back finally gave out from all of the sitting in Zoom meetings and I have found myself wrapped in ice and immersed in Ibuprofen and I realized my body had hit a breaking point.. Mental health professionals the world over are observing what this is doing to our bodies and our minds and it’s not good- and this is in the midst of a climate crisis and a crisis of our trust in American institutions. So it’s hard to know what to focus on when it’s just hard to focus. And it’s hard to know what to pray for when it can feel hard to pray for some. It’s hard to know what to work for, what to ask for, when there is just so much to do, so much hurt and heartache, where there is breakdown all around and in some places it feels too late…

What is our role right now, when we are barely hanging on? What are we supposed to pray for God? In a time like this, in a place like this?

When many in the White House were diagnosed with COVID-19 last week, some Christian leaders exhorted everyone to pray for all in the party to heal quickly. Citing, 1 Timothy 2:1–2, where we read, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”

And still others quoted the Great Commandment and Jesus’ core teaching about a love that compels all of us to put aside political partisanship and wish our leaders well no matter what!

But others argued it wasn’t so simple, proclaiming on social media that praying for those who had inflicted harmful policies on their lives was like praying for someone to keep punching them in the face.

The Bible is mixed- just as it is on many topics, offering calls to extend radical love and wild grace and also examples of prayers for the destruction of those who have caused harm.

Hear this surprising text in Psalm 137 we read of a prayer for God to tear it all down and to kill the children of the enemies, “Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!” 8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. 9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”

And in the story you heard from the Gospel of Matthew today, God’s realm, God’s vision, God’s hope, God’s kingdom is compared to a wedding reception that ends not with dancing and dashing off to a honeymoon, but instead with tears and terror. The kingdom of heaven is compared to a banquet where the host invites everyone, but then becomes enraged when not everyone shows up to his satisfaction.

Instead of an abundant feast of breads, fruits, and cheeses of every kind, live music and laughter, toasts and joy and ever after, as we approach the end of the story, we read of the king’s unhappiness that one guest is improperly dressed, in fact the royal host is so infuriated that we read this, “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."

Shannon Craigo-Snell writes, that “Christian tradition honors examples of prayers for unconditional healing, but also for a tangible display of heaven’s judgement on those who have done evil.”

She reminds us that when Harriet Tubman learned of the slaveholder who had tortured her became sick, she prayed, “Oh Lord, if you ain’t ever going to change that man’s heart, kill him, Lord and take him out of the way.”

Jesus uses the word Kingdom, over fifty times in the Gospel of Matthew and as Jonathan T. Pennington, writes, “Each of the Synoptics clearly portrays Jesus’ ministry as one that focuses on the kingdom, but Matthew stands out among the Evangelists. At the basic level of vocabulary, we see that Matthew uses basilei, kingdom, some fifty-five times in a wide variety of phrases, including “kingdom of heaven,” “kingdom of God,” and simply, “the kingdom.”

This is more often than any of the other Gospels and it also occurs more frequently in the Gospel of Matthew than the rest of the New Testament documents combined. And Pennington goes on to point out that “throughout Matthew, the 9 (word) kingdom appears at crucial points in the story, such as at the introduction of John the Baptist (3:2) and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (4:17). In both of these cases, the message preached is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. And when Jesus subsequently sends his own disciples out they are told to preach the same message: the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

Some have argued that the Kingdom of Heaven is about God’s judgment in the afterlife. And some have said it’s about the Creator of the Universe dealing with us here and now when we go off track. Theologian Sharon Ringe contends that in this version of the story the Kingdom of Heaven is about both “the boundless generosity and inclusive reach of God's grace, but...also affirms that for us to be "worthy" of God's gift requires nothing less than our whole life.”

She goes on, “The final invitation that will fill the banquet hall is inclusive in the extreme. In that sense it mirrors other instances of Jesus' table community that embodied the hospitality and inclusiveness of the divine project … he proclaimed. Questions of social status or observance of Torah regulations, or even one's ethical behavior are set aside in favor of the urgency of the host's plan. That radical inclusiveness comes to a sudden halt, however, when the king encounters a guest who is not properly attired (verses 11-13.)”

What are we to make of this story? What are we to pray for? To ask for? What does it mean for the Kingdom of God to be at hand?

When Jesus use a story where the first round of wedding guests chooses not to attend and in fact they mock what is expected, what are we to take away? Why does Jesus tell us about the Kingdom of God with a parable that ends with weeping?

I wonder if it is because the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven is not just about grace and love and welcome, but about accountability? What I mean is that everyone gets the invitation and it is made clear what will be needed for a fantastic party, but not everyone is willing, not everyone can show up, out of fear, out of anxiety, out of control. And this is so perfectly aligned with one way I understand Spirit/God working among us here and now- just like the wedding banquet, we all receive an invitation, an abundant joyous life is offered freely to each and every one of us, but we don’t have to say yes to it. And sometimes in life our unwillingness to do what is right, simply because we don’t want to or because it isn’t profitable, has consequences.

Christians have spent a lot of time being focused on a judgment that will come beyond this life, but what if Jesus is speaking of the Kingdom as being near in terms of love and justice, grace and accountability- the possibility of clarity about what is good and reconciliation here and now?

So what if this is also a story about boundaries? What if Jesus is saying that not all behaviors are okay- that not everyone should get to come to the party once they have shown who they are?

What if he is saying that love is wide and wonderful, but also accountable to what it says it is about, accountable for when harm is caused? What if Jesus is saying that the Kingdoms within us, our minds, our bodies, our communities and congregations need boundaries too or they will break- boundaries around what supports us and nourishes us, boundaries around relationships and environments that are toxic, boundaries around those that aren’t able to show up properly?

What if Jesus is saying that radical love isn’t just about being nice, but being just? What if he is saying that it is okay to draw lines sometimes, even if it leads to weeping? What if he is pointing to the fact that doing what is good, protecting what is precious within us and around us, will sometimes lead to tension- to gnashing and lashing out?

So what is our role right now, when we are barely hanging on? What are we supposed to pray for God? In a time like this? Nothing less than the Kin-dom of heaven… The Spirit is sending all of us an invitation. In the words of poet Joy Harjo “I will make my stand Before the jury of destiny. Yes, I will answer in the clatter…” Because everyone gets the invitation and it is made clear what is needed, but not everyone is willing, not everyone can show up the way God wants, out of fear, out of anxiety, out of control, but we all have the chance to answer yes. Even amid weeping and gnashing, we can answer yes.

Jesus says in different ways on different days, with different faces in different places, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, but not everyone will show up. We need not put our prayers and energy to those who mock what is expected, so let us: care for ourselves and our community by paying attention to what is nourishing our bodies, our families, our communities and the earth, let us give our energy to those who show up dressed with compassion, let us do and look for what gives us meaning, let us be okay with the tension that comes with those who refuse to hear, let us sit in silence to listen beyond the clatter, let us say no when we need to.

For many are called, but few are chosen. Really I think that means we all get the invitation, but we still have to choose whether we show up and how. Even amid weeping and gnashing, where not everyone will come, let us answer yes. May it be so.

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