Year A Proper 23: come to the feast

There have been two weddings in this church in the past ten days, and three within three months. Each was its own blend of nervousness, family friendship, family friction, love, hope, and joy. Each of them was noticeable, in the end, for its joy – never but at a wedding do you see so many people smiling from ear to ear from the first note of the prelude to the dying note of the postlude.

Not everyone remembers to smile. Over the past few months, I have heard and read more times than I can remember the sentiment of my clergy colleagues who “would rather do ten funerals than a wedding.” I wrote a blog post on it a week or so ago, frustrated by our apparent ability, facility, even talent for denying ourselves joy, for shutting ourselves out of the feast, those of us who really should know better. After all, if we do not believe that love is a good thing, that family is a God thing, that relationship is the work of the Holy Spirit, why are we in this business in the first place?

“Rejoice!” says the letter to the Philippians. “Again I say, rejoice!” Hold onto whatever is true and pleasing and excellent. Let those things fill you with joy. Rejoice.

The Bible – actually the Bible doesn’t have a great track record on preaching marital joy. From the squabbling and blame games of Adam and Eve to the curmudgeonly instructions of the bachelor Paul – marry only if you have to; better to marry than to burn, at least – with trickery and adultery and polygamy and political matches, the Bible is hardly naïve about the nature of our attempts to make of one flesh two whole, individual, independent people.

[It is also, let’s just be clear for a moment, entirely inconsistent about who should be permitted to marry whom, so that when the politicians and pundits feed us lines about biblical marriage, we should be tasting the distinct flavour of red herring.]

So the Bible doesn’t view marriage through rose-tinted glasses, but it does celebrate it. At the wedding in Cana, despite arguing with his mother, Jesus did supply enough wine to keep the party flowing. The one guest, out of the good and bad gathered from the sides of the streets, thrown out of this wedding, in this parable, was the one unprepared to celebrate, to rejoice; the one unwilling to acknowledge the joy of another, the joy all around him. He was thrown out to wail and weep with the other misery guts, so as not to bring the whole party down.

A few years ago, before I was ordained, I assisted at a funeral followed by a wedding for one family in one week. It was hard, on everyone. And yet when the day of the wedding dawned, even the widow set aside her grief and her widow’s weeds and dressed up instead in the outfit she’d planned to dance in at the wedding of her son, and everyone smiled to see the young couple make their vows, those ridiculous, marvelously, gospelly, naïve promises to love one another for a lifetime when none of us knows even what tomorrow will bring. Everyone rejoiced, even through tears, to see the celebration, to participate in the start of something new and blessed by God, something loving, something true.

The Lord God will destroy the shroud and the winding sheet; God will swallow up death forever. Instead, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast, a banquet. This is the Lord for whom we have waited, let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation,

says the prophet.

Rejoice. Again I say, rejoice. Hold onto whatever is true, and whatever is pleasing, and whatever is excellent. Let those things fill you with joy. Rejoice.

There is plenty in this world that threatens to rob us of the joy that God intends for us. We know all about disease and suffering and death and war. We know about racism and sexism and Islamophobia and homophobia. We know about selfish, petty people and we know about divisive politics. We know violence and we know hunger and we know all too much about all too many things that threaten to rob us of the joy that God intends for us.  We do not need to rob ourselves of joy that is offered to us on a plate full of wedding cake. We do not need to deny the joy of others. That is too easy. Rejoice, says the epistle. Again I say, rejoice.

A friend reminded me this week of the difference between happiness and joy. Happiness, she said, comes from happenstance; stuff that happens. It is irregular, it is conditional, it is unpredictable.

Joy does not depend upon circumstances so much as on decisions. We can choose to be joyful even in the face of fearful things. (That is not to say that we always can choose joy, on command, on demand. We are prone to suffering, and when it takes us by surprise, or it wears us down with its persistence, it can take an effort and it can take time to return to joy.)

But joy depends less on happenstance than on the knowledge that whatever happens, God is with us. Joy is a choice. The choice to rejoice. To hold on to whatever is true, honourable, pure, just, pleasing, commendable, excellent; those things that speak to us of God, and communicate the joy with which God made us and invites us and blesses us. The joy which God promises us, after death has been destroyed, even in the midst of life.

And here is the promise of that joy, that feast, to which all are invited, the good and the bad found along the roadside, you and I, and the only wedding garment with which we are ordered to adorn ourselves our grateful hearts, and the joy that comes from within.

In the older versions of our prayerbook, there was an exhortation for the priest to use when giving notice of Communion and inviting the parish to its celebration:

Dearly beloved brethren, on — I intend, by God’s grace, to celebrate the Lord’s Supper: unto which, in God’s behalf, I bid you all who are here present; and beseech you, for the Lord Jesus Christ’s sake, that ye will not refuse to come thereto, being so lovingly called and bidden by God himself. Ye know how grievous and unkind a thing it is, when a man hath prepared a rich feast, decked his table with all kind of provision, so that there lacketh nothing but the guests to sit down; and yet they who are called (without any cause) most unthankfully refuse to come. Which of you in such a case would not be moved? Who would not think a great injury and wrong done unto him? Wherefore, most dearly beloved in Christ, take ye good heed, lest ye, withdrawing  yourselves from this holy Supper, provoke God’s indignation against you.

It is an easy matter for a man to say I will not communicate  because I am otherwise hindered with worldly business. But such  excuses are not so easily accepted and allowed before God. If any man say, I am a grievous sinner and therefore am afraid to come; wherefore then do ye not repent and amend? When God calleth you are ye not ashamed to say ye will not come? When ye should return to God, will ye excuse yourselves, and say ye are not ready? Consider earnestly with yourselves how little such feigned excuses will avail before God.

Those who refused the feast in the Gospel, because they had bought a farm, or would try their yokes of oxen, or because they were  married, were not so excused, but counted unworthy of the heavenly feast. Wherefore according to mine Office, I bid you in the Name of God, I call you in Christ’s behalf, I exhort you, as ye love your own salvation that ye will be partakers of this Holy Communion.

Rejoice always; again I say, rejoice. Come then, let us keep the feast.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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