Scottish Episcopal Kalendar 2024

For years now, I’ve produced a Kalendar for the Scottish Episcopal Church with all the bible readings set out for the year.

This year’s Kalendar is available online so that anyone can download it and print it out for themselves.
It is available right here: Kalendar 2024

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“If God shows up in the guise of a tyrant, no-one should wear his uniform” – Sermon 15 October 2023

That was quite the wedding banquet…

So, there’s an Ox roast going on over there and the fatted calfs have been slaughtered and cooked. There doesn’t seem to be a vegetarian option at this wedding, but that’s the least of our worries at the moment. For the host has taken umbrage because not enough guests have turned up. Not only that, but the guests have seized the Big Man’s people and beaten them up and killed them. And so he sends in the heavies, destroys the murderers and burns the town down.

Now that’s quite a wedding.

Even for Glasgow, that’s quite a wedding.

This little story has been around for two thousand years and my guess is that it has never been particularly easy to hear read aloud and has never been particularly easy to preach on.

And in the version of the story that Matthew offers us,  Jesus isn’t prepared to let it rest. He keeps adding bits that make it all the more difficult.

The king, the host of the wedding banquet sends out additional invitations. Go into the streets and invite everyone you see, he says. And the slaves go out and gather in everyone they could find, both the bad and the good.

And lots of preachers have seized on that moment in the story as a moment of grace. Everyone gets an invitation in the end! Hurrah! It must be about how inclusive and expansive the love of God is after all.

But Jesus goes on…

Someone turned up not wearing a wedding robe and the Big Man saw him and wasn’t mightily impressed. How do you get in looking like that? He says.

And he looks to his enforcers and says, “bind him hand and foot and put him oot!” And off he goes to be thrown into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The sound of the gnashing of teeth is a terrible thing and I suspect that Jesus could foresee (or forehear) the sound of thousands of preachers for thousands of years, collectively gnashing their teeth at the prospect of interpreting this story.

That inclusive expansive benevolent host never appears in this story, does he?

So, what are we to make of it?

As I think about what I think about this parable this week, I’m reminded of a reaction I once had to a well known painting.

I was at an interview for something in Keble College, Oxford. And I popped into the chapel there, which is very fine. Now, that chapel contains the painting called the Light of the World by William Holman Hunt. It is a painting that a lot of you will be able to imagine. Jesus stands outside in the darkness knocking on a door that is behind a patch of briers and brambles. He wears a crown of thorns and wears a long silk robe and carries a lamp from which the light shines.

Now, I know that painting is an object of devotion to so many people – there’s queues to see it still. But I remember looking at this spooky depiction of Jesus and instantly thinking, well if Jesus comes knocking on my door in the night looking as weird and as creepy as that, then I know I’m never going to open the door from the inside. Indeed, I’d look for ways to keep him shut out.

The way we picture God matters. Matters enormously.

Going back to the parable, I think my problems start right at the beginning if we presume that the Big Man, the King is the same as the God whom we worship.

For I know I’m not much interested in a God who is involved in slavery. I’m not much interested in a God who engages in vengeance. I’m not much interested in a God who provokes acts of terror and burns down whole towns in his anger. I’m not much interested in a God who compels people to come to feast on the threat of violence if you don’t turn up. I’m not much interested in a God whom you have to dress up for. And I’m not much interested in a God who consigns people to hell.

And I find myself reaching for things to prop up against the door. I’m not letting that image of God anywhere near my spiritual life. I’d rather set up a barricade against him.

So, what do I make of it as I read it today.

Well, I recently spent nearly fifteen years of my life trying to get access to weddings for those who were told that they were not welcome at the feast. And perhaps it is that which sharpens the way I think about this little story today.

As I mull it over, it just doesn’t work for me to see the Big Man as God. The God I know doesn’t behave like this.

(Though the God that some people seem to think they know seems to do far too often).

Instead I find myself thinking of the ways in which religious communities try to get over the message to people that they are welcome at the feast of life.

For the experience of preparing a banquet and then no-one showing up is all too familiar in many parts of the church these days.

And the response of many Christians is grumpy. “We put on everything for you” they shout into the darkness and still no-one turns up.

But people don’t turn up to the feasts that religious people put on for perfectly good reasons. Religion (including our religion) has been responsible for acts of terror and violence. Religious people have lashed out through the centuries at those who are different and lashed out at those who are indifferent too.

God’s mission in the world is a mission of love but God hasn’t always had terribly good representatives on earth.

There are still plenty of people who instead of receiving the news that God’s love is expansive and generous and wonderful, have received the news either that they were never invited or that they wouldn’t fit in even if they did turn up.

Going back to the parable and taking another look, I find myself reading the story of the man who turned up not wearing the right robe as the story of an act of defiance.

When either God or the church gets dressed up in stories in tyrannical garb, we should not wear the uniform but resist.

We need to read the story of the man being thrown out into the darkness then in the context of Jesus’s other tales which seem to paint a picture of a God who is on the side of the victim, the God who weeps when the terrorist reaches for the gun, the God whose heart breaks when war seems inevitable, the God who is on the side of the oppressed. The God whose only response is to keep on loving much those who need love most.

There is nowhere we can go where God is not present.

There are different ways of understanding the place of darkness and exclusion. Some would imagine God consigning people to that place for all eternity. But there are other ways of imagining eternity open to us from scripture. Maybe hell is of this earth and is our own making. Certainly, some will be living it today.

The God I believe in wipes every tear from every eye, reconciles the seemingly unreconcilable and proclaims a kingdom of justice and joy. The invitation to the feast from such a God is an invitation of love not compulsion or violence.

Such a God is a God of peace and joy and love.

For such a God, I’ll open the door.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.