FIRST READING Isaiah 25:6–9
6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. 7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; 8 he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. 9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
PSALM Psalm 23
1 The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. 2 The LORD makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. 3 You restore my soul, O LORD, and guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake. 4 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, and my cup is running over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
SECOND READING Philippians 4:4–13
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. 10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
GOSPEL Matthew 22:1–14
1 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2 The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4 Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5 But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6 while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8 Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9 Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then 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.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”
BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATERS
In the animated movie Shrek, as with many cliffhanger action movies, there was a point where Shrek and Donkey come to an enormous chasm that suddenly appears, and the only way forward is to negotiate an old wood and rope bridge. This very basic and dangerous bridge is the only route to get to the castle and for Donkey the way forward looks terrible. But the way back means that they will never achieve their goal. Of course things get worse when they encounter the fire-breathing dragon and have to return by the same bridge. On the return they only have two options, cross the dangerous bridge again or face certain death by the angry fire-breathing dragon. So, of course, our heroes bravely choose to go forward and race to cross the abyss on the frail and shaky bridge. It’s a part of the movie that’s appropriately named and provides the audience with added tension as the movie progresses.
These points in a movie are known as “Cliffhangers” even though the results are pretty predictable. Although the hero always manages to make it across the bridge, the passageway itself always collapses, is burned up by the fire breathing dragon or is cut down by the bad guys, and the way across is lost for all time. There’s a reason writers of movies and books use these scenes in their work; bridges, for many reasons, strike fear into us at the thought of crossing over on them.
Over the years I’ve found that I have no problem driving a car across a bridge going 50-60 or even 70 mph. When I’m going across I know there are huge drop-offs on either side of the bridge, but I never once have hugged the guard-rails or bumped into an iron barrier on the way across. I’m never tempted to get close to the edge, and when a car edges me to the side, I negotiate the side of the bridge as if there were no safety rails. However, take away the guard rails, the concrete and steel side girders, the bumper-barricades on the bridge — and I’m now a different driver.
I find that I’m much more likely to crawl across the bridge at 5 or 10 mph at best. Without any protection to keep my car from driving right off the edge, I’m not sure I could even make it 100 yards across any bridge. We all need guard rails and barriers to help guide us and make us feel safe.
Those safety devices help us get across the chasms and abyss of life. But the guard rails and barriers work best when they aren’t noticed, or celebrated, or even acknowledged. If they’re there, you don’t need them. If they’re not there, you and I can’t move; many become frozen in fear, or we risk going off the deep end. Paul wrote this week’s letter to the Philippian Christians to warn them that they were worshiping the guardrails and safety barriers rather than the bridge that was carrying them across.
We all need principles and propositions, doctrines and dogmas. They are considered the guardrails of our faith, but not the Guardian of our faith. Their function is to keep us on the path of Truth, but the Way, the Truth and the Life is Jesus. The Way, Truth and Life is found in a relationship with Christ, not in brandishing propositions about Christ. In fact, Paul warns the Philippian church of a fatal flaw that lurked in the teachings of those who insisted they must first become good Jews before they could become good Christians.
These teachers, the so-called “Judaizers,” believed that all the tenets of the Old Covenant must be met by believers before the gifts of the New Covenant could be received. Jesus didn’t come to abolish what came before, but to fulfill it and complete it. Of course, St. John says it best, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). But even the law was more about relationships than we often think.
Consider the 10 Commandments; all are about relationships. The first three commands deal with our relationship with God: the vertical dimension. The second seven commands deal with our relationships with each other: the horizontal dimension. And the first of the remaining seven is “Honor your Ma and Pa.” The rest have to deal with how we interact and treat others. And Jesus in all His wisdom made these commandments even easier to understand when He reduced or summarized them down from 10 to 2: Love God, Love Others. Of course, when you really analyze it, love is a relationship more than it is a commandment.
But in the Philippian church Gentile followers of Jesus were being told they had to become “Jewish” before they could become “Christian.” There were being told that there were laws to follow; hoops to jump through; painful procedures to endure; commandments to keep; provisions and proscriptions that must be met before they could enjoy full membership in the body of Christ. But Paul would have none of it. By way of an example of what Paul was referring to here is the laws concerning the Sabbath.
These Judaizers insisted that the rules concerning conduct on the Sabbath had to be observed by the new Christian converts. The problem was the Jewish laws concerning the Sabbath had been taken to extreme, it had for all intents and purposes become a god, little g. The other pastors and I were discussing this subject the other day and I ran across a resource that listed the 39 prohibited activities on the Sabbath.
The first 11 categories of the 39 prohibited activities are actions required to bake bread. The next 13 categories are undertakings required to make a garment. The next 9 categories are actions required to make leather. And the final 6 categories are activities required to build a structure or building. All these prohibited activities sound like reasonable actions to avoid on Sunday, if one is to follow God’s example of rest. The Third Commandment says we are to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy. The word Holy means, to set apart, or to treat differently. The amusing thing about this study was how these simple 39 prohibited activities were abused and in essence they turned the Sabbath from worship of God, to worship of the Sabbath.
Here’s some examples of how this simple command, “honor the Sabbath and keep it holy”, has turned into the guardrail or the object of worship: ripping up a piece of paper was forbidden since it resembles “cutting to shape” or could be confused with it. Similarly, agreeing to buy something was prohibited, because most agreements are confirmed in “writing” and writing is forbidden; climbing a tree is forbidden, because it may lead to breaking twigs or tearing leaves, which could be construed as “reaping”. Other activities that by extension are prohibited on the Sabbath include the following: Adding fresh water to a vase of cut flowers (sowing). Making a bouquet of flowers (making a sheaf). Separating good fruit from spoiled fruit is seen as winnowing, selecting, sifting). Brushing dried mud from your boots or clothes (grinding). Adding cold milk directly to hot tea or coffee (baking). Cutting hair or nails (shearing sheep). And for you ladies, no make-up on Sundays, it’s considered dyeing. Braiding hair is seen as weaving. And we can’t bathe either.
Rubbing soap to make lather, applying face cream, polishing shoes, using scouring powder for utensils or other surfaces (scraping or grinding). Libby broke this one last week when she sharpened a pencil (cutting to shape). Opening an umbrella or unfolding a screen (building). Using the telephone or turning on a light switch (kindling a fire). And no wearing eyeglasses, (carrying from private to public domain and vice versa). These are, of course, just some of the ways rules can become the object of worship rather than the guide of worship.
Paul deemed such worship of the guard-rails subversive of Jesus’ sacrifice. Righteousness for Paul was a right relationship with God, and this had never been achieved through the workings of the Law. The history of Israel had proven that. A new way of salvation had been incarnated and inaugurated in Jesus Christ, a way that put a person above propositions; a way that put personal relationship above written principles. And Paul didn’t mince words.
He told the Philippians that all the advantages and accomplishments he had in his life before the Damascus Road were “trash,” “garbage,” “worthless.” The only thing that mattered to Paul was the fact that he now “knew” Christ. He was on the most sure and secure bridge ever built to cross over to the other side. He didn’t need the scaffolding of being an Israelite, or a Hebrew, or a Benjaminite. He didn’t need the supports of pious Pharisaism, or zealous persecution, or the crutch of legal righteousness. Paul dismissed any focus on the safety features of faith and jumped out onto what looked to others like a rickety, unsupported, dangerous way across the chasm between human sinfulness and divine redemption. But Paul had no fear, no faltering, no hesitance. He dashed out on the bridge that was his personal, saving relationship with “Christ Jesus, my Lord.” Paul knew that it wasn’t observance of the law that saved him. It was faith in Jesus Christ, the bridge itself, that saved him.
Two millennia later we’re still more comfortable with the safeguards than with the security of the bridge. While Paul fearlessly ran out over the apparently rickety bridge of an itinerant Galilean preacher executed by the Roman authorities as a criminal, we still seem to be more comfortable hanging onto the guardrails we have built up over the centuries. Of course, we don’t call them “guardrails”; we call them the dogmas of faith: Doctrines, laws, propositions, principles. It’s not that they’re bad safeguards to have around us. We need guidance in how to live our lives as Christians. Our challenge is to remember that they are not the bridge. They cannot offer the Way across, or the Life once we get across. Only Jesus is the Way. Only Jesus is the Bridge from this world to the next. Only Jesus has created the path across the chasm between humanity and heaven. Only Jesus offers the possibility for a right relationship between our own broken lives and God. I guess you could say that Paul was a “myth buster.”
On the Discovery Channel series the “MythBusters” people do stupid, crazy, dangerous things in order to “prove” that things we take for granted as “true” really are or not. That was Paul. He drove a semi-truck through his genetic legacy as a Jew. He detonated his life-work as a Pharisee “defender” of the faith. He deconstructed all the careful constructs that had been put in place by those seeking to be faithful to the Law. Instead, he placed all his bets on a single person.
The good news is that God didn’t send up a statement but a Savior. The good news is that God didn’t send us more Rules and Regulations but a Redeemer. The good news is that God didn’t send us a principle but a Person. And that person was Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, Son of God, Redeemer and our Friend. This same Jesus was crucified on a cross, convicted by Rome and Jerusalem, rejected by His people and mocked by the world. The bad news, if you want to call it that, is that choosing Jesus isn’t always the “safe” bet.
In our society choosing Jesus doesn’t always look like the smart thing to do. Then again, in 1989 which bridge would you have chosen to cross . . . if you knew a major earthquake was imminent? In San Francisco on 17 October 1989 those who chose the big, burly, concrete Oakland Bay Bridge journeyed onto a hugely safeguarded span. Yet within a few minutes of a significant earthquake the upper deck of the Oakland Bay Bridge collapsed, killing 42 people. The other bridge, the more picturesque and famous span known as the San Francisco Bridge, was delicate, flimsy, and swayed with the wind and shifting land. But it was this bridge that offered safe passage in the midst of an earthquake, and conveyed all of its travelers safely across.
I mentioned this last week with the Simon and Garfunkel analogy, Jesus is the Bridge over all our Troubled Waters. But Jesus isn’t about that which is cast in concrete or barricaded with iron buffers. Jesus is the Bridge because Jesus is our advocate with God. Jesus isn’t a safeguard to the ground. The greatest moment in our life after Baptism comes when we acknowledge from the innermost depths of our being that, “Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the son of the living God.” When we believe that, and mean that, we will have discovered the pearl of great price. We will have found the buried treasure we’ve been searching for. We will have fulfilled our fondest hopes, our wildest dreams. We will have found the bridge that will take us safely across every chasm, every challenge, every problem of life.
Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians to help them in their relationship with Jesus, stay in love with Jesus, and die in love with Jesus. For Jesus, Love is the love that determines our destiny, both in the here and now and in the world to come. The rules, dogmas and rituals are given to help guide us in our walk of faith and in our travels across the Bridge, but they are not the path. Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life and He is the only way to the Father and eternal life.