Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23, Year A), 2017.
Our Collect this week dates from at least the 8th century, and it is the shortest, most concise of all the Sunday Collects used throughout the year. But despite its brevity, it contains in concentrated, devotional idiom what has been called the first principle of sound theology. And because of its brevity, it can be easily memorized and used throughout one’s life, almost as a mantra or personal refrain.
That first principle of sound theology is found in the first half, in these words: “Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us.” What that says is, God acts first, and anything we do is a response to grace manifest and present, rather than being of our own design and origin. Earlier in the church year, we acknowledged to God that in our weakness we can do nothing good without Him. It is grace before, during, and after each and every godly encounter in which we participate in our lives, from the most mundane to the most grand. It is for that reason that we must evermore be praising Him, and saying, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts (of power and might). We can do nothing good without God, without grace. What a humbling fact!
The body of the Collect concludes with these words: “that we may continually be given to good works.” Continually, not sporadically; continually, not intermittently; continually, not just on Sundays or when we are in a good mood, or when our athletic team wins. We are asking God for the grace of unceasing sacrifice offered to Him through our works, our actions. It sounds like a tall order, but it is God doing all this, not us: God making this happen, not our great effort or skill. Through God all things are possible, things that manifest through us when we place an absolute priority on prayer, as well as humility before the maker of all things, seen and unseen.
Among the things unseen yet firmly attested by the biblical revelation, and our Old Testament and Gospel lessons today, is that God has made for us a marriage feast for His Son, a feast for all peoples. And to this feast are invited people from all walks of life. The marriage feast is Heaven, the third dimension of the Church, called the Church Triumphant. All are invited, which is the biblical ways of expressing that all persons have an innate awareness of the divine reality, all are capable of hearing the voice of the Good Shepherd. All are capable, but many ignore their conscience, and thereby live their lives dead to God, dead to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, dead to whom God has intended them to be.
In a shocking moment, Saint Matthew records Jesus saying that the king giving the marriage feast sent troops to destroy those who reject Him and burn their city. Let us allow this passage to remind us of the story of Jonah, but in the opposite way: for God is said to do to this city what He decided not to do to the city of Nineveh. God’s threats are not empty, and to choose to ignore God, and then to not return to God with contrition, carries a steep price.
In a still more shocking moment, God banishes a man who came from the streets and was present at the feast but without wedding garment. Matthew, throughout his Gospel, places the highest priority of faith translated into action, and this is what the image of wedding garment means—that the faith of lived, taught, and passed on to us by Jesus Christ is not merely a sentiment to which we say, “sounds good,” but truths that we make our own, work out actively in our lives—in effect, clothes that we actually wear, not look at in a catalog or keep pristine in our closet.
The garment of Jesus Christ, we learn at His Transfiguration, is dazzling white, brighter than the sun. We are to put on these clothes through our prayer and growth into Christian maturity so as to be agents of Christ’s Light in Tazewell County. God always sees us for our highest potential, and our highest potential in this life is to shine, that others we meet palpably recognize this light, and through it (paraphrasing the late Bp Moorman) are made aware of the existence of God, the existence of His goodness and love towards mankind, made aware of the demands on us His children, and of the joy of serving Him—that the Light that shines through us brings those around us to face both the guilt and the grandeur of the human soul.
Brothers and sisters, we must always be chastened by the fact that many are invited, but few are chosen. This is a solemn warning to us, the Christians who come to the Altar to be fed with love for Mission in the world. We must never feel safe in anything but our trust in God, and we must ever be seeking to comprehend His will for us. God rejoices at the sight of those who have responded to the Lord’s invitation to join Him at the Supper of the Lamb. We must show ourselves having put on Christ, and this is attested by our good works. May we act in our lives so that people in Tazewell County become aware of the invitation to the Lord’s meal. If by grace we do this, let us be assured that we will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. Amen.