Rev. George Miller
“The Good, the Bad and the Hungry”
Oct 16, 2011
Earlier in today’s service, we sung “God’s eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” Later, we’ll sing “What a friend we have in Jesus.”
God watches me. Jesus is my friend. What does that mean?
When we say that God watches us, is this an image of fear, as if God is going to punish us for every wrong thing we do?
Is this an image of discomfort, as if God is a stalker watching our every move?
Or can this be a source of comfort that can become be a catalyst for positive change, knowing that if God is watching over us, if indeed we have a friend in Jesus, then we should want to be better people?
Paul writes in 3 Colossians that we should clothe ourselves in compassion, kindness and patience. But to do so involves change.
Change can be scary. Change takes time. Change comes with no guarantee.
Yet change will always be a part of life, like it or not. Nor are we the only ones who experience change.
Last week we heard in Exodus 32 how God was furious at the people and wanted to consume them with fiery wrath, until Moses talked him out of it, and the Lord changed his mind.
That was a powerful theology to grasp; the thought that God can change God’s mind. If God can change God’s mind, does it mean that God changes too?
If God can change, and we are created in God’s image, what does that mean for us in regards to change?
I would like to venture out and say that our willingness to change or to not change when encountering the Good News is one of the spiritual hearts of this parable.
In regards to change, I think back to myself in 1994. Back then I was worshipping at an inner city in Minneapolis where I learned about God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
I remember how I use to go to services wearing whatever I wanted. I’d show up in sneakers, shorts and chewing bubble gum.
It didn’t matter to the folks at the church what I wore; I was welcomed and I was loved.
However, eventually I noticed that I was the only one in shorts; everyone else was dressed up in what seemed to be their best.
No one told me I had to change what I was wearing, but on my own I started dressing up. I put on long pants, stepped into shoes, saved up for an Easter suit.
Somehow it changed the church going experience for me into one of wonder and awe.
The next change came when the church held an anniversary meal. I sat at the table and enjoyed plates filled with good food like smoked turkey, black eyed peas and sweet potato pie.
That day, my name changed. People called me “Brother George.” With that name change can new responsibilities: requests to help lead worship, to pray, to bless the offering.
Eventually those changes lead to attending seminary. Years later, after graduating, I returned to visit and my name changed once more.
No longer was I Brother George, I was Rev. Miller. The pastor invited me to sit right beside her during the entire worship service.
Every few years I go back to Grace Temple, and although I’m older and ordained, I still feel like that 24 year old kid, filled with reverence and awe, aware of the Holy Trinity’s presence.
But the truth is that I have changed. It may not have been immediate, it may not have been automatically detectable, but it has been real.
So, it is with delight that I get to witness the changes I see in people here at Emmanuel as they continue to grow in the Lord.
Those who felt lost in the wilderness become found. Those who’ve encountered death experience resurrection.
Those who cried at night find joy in the morning. Those who were meek become bold. Those who sat on the side line step into the light.
All of those are gifts of the Spirit, elements of change that says one has indeed accepted the invitation from God to banquet with Christ.
But what happens when we have an encounter with Christ, and for some reason, we do not change?
I think that’s part of Matthew’s retelling of Jesus’ parable.
A King holds a lavish wedding banquet for his son. No expense is spared; there’s BBQ, steak, sweet potato pie.
Invitations are sent out but those who receive them do not wish to attend. The gracious King gives them another chance to enjoy his hospitality. Everything you could want is there and there’s space for all.
They decline again, opting instead to go to their farm and business. Apparently they did not want to stray from what they knew or to change their plans.
So the King, however changes his plans. This time, he opens his invitation to include anyone who wants to attend.
Forget the farmer, forget the business man, the doors to the wedding hall are thrown open to all: the good, the bad; they are all welcomed to experience the joy, the community, the celebration.
But the King sees this one man. He’s still wearing his regular clothes. Here is he, the recipient of a wonderful, unexpected invitation, surrounded by so many others who received the same gift and acted accordingly by changing into wedding clothes.
But he hasn’t.
For some unknown reason he has refused to change. As a result, he ended up being on the outside, weeping and away from the joy inside.
How could this be? What power, what hold could his current, familiar clothes have that he would not want to don the wedding robe?
Perhaps because it would have meant change; perhaps for this man, like so many others, the thought of changing scared the heck out of him.
I think of this parable, I think of this man. I think of the garments we hold on to. The things we do not want to let go.
I think of myself and how I dress myself up in deadlines and tasks that I do not wish to stray from even if it prohibits me from building up relationships with others.
I think of family members who have so wrapped themselves up with issues of grief that they have weighed themselves down to the point where they can’t step forward.
I think of friends who have donned garments of fear, thinking it would protect them from further harm, when all they’ve really done is prohibit them from truly enjoying life.
I think of how those dressed up in anger at another for something that was done accidentally or purposely, how they’ve allowed it to cover them.
Or those with garments made out of chaos. They do the same thing again and again and seem surprised by to the same results.
Some party goers have become so attached to those garments that they hold on tighter, unsure of how they would behave if they could no longer continue to be sad, angry or scared.
Then there are those who come to the wedding and somehow the joy of the banquet allows those garments to slip away so they can be clothed in new threads of happiness, forgiveness and hope.
As a Christian who proclaims the Red Sea parted and Christ resurrected, I’m a big believer in change.
I believe that when people experience the Red Sea parting, when they have an encounter with Christ, when they feel the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, there is the chance for change.
I don’t believe it will always be instantaneous. I tend to think of it more as slow and progressive, kind of like changing from one outfit into a new one.
First a sneaker for a shoe, then a pair of shorts for a pair of slacks, the t-shirt for a collared shirt, a wad of gum for a delicate mint.
That’s how it was for me oh so long ago; change continues in me today.
If, as Exodus 32 implies, God can change, then we can too.
As Christians, Jesus Christ becomes the means, the path, and the way for that to happen.
It doesn’t matter if we start out as part of the good or the bad, the hungry or the rich, if we open ourselves to the wonder and the awe of being in the Lord’s presence, then we too have an opportunity to change and to grow.
In the beginning of today’s message I said that change can be scary and come with no guarantee.
This is true, but I would like to make one clarification.
When we experience a change in Christ we do receive at least one guarantee: there will always be a place for us at God’s table.
And before we know it, during the course of the Kingdom’s banquet, we’ll discover we’re not wearing what we use to wear and that we too will get the opportunity to help usher in the next batch of wedding guests who are waiting to be changed.
And for that, we can all say “Hallelujah” and “Amen.”