Sermon for the Sunday between October 9-15 Year A
St John’s Upper Norwood_ Isaiah 25:1-9, Phillipians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14
One of our young people, Eden, answered Fr. John’s call to write about someone who had shown an inspiring contribution to Black History, and the image on the front of the Mass Booklet today shows the sculptress and teacher Augusta Savage whom Eden chose for her project. Eden was inspired by Augusta’s determination. She refused to give up on her gift for sculpture despite being thrashed regularly by her Methodist minister father as a child, because he was horrified that she should want to make what he called ”graven images,” Savage finally became a pioneer for young artists in New York, working with others to create what became known as the Harlem Renaissance. Augusta is in her studio, working on a commission for the World Fair of 1939 in New York. It was designed to celebrate the contribution made by African Americans to the nations musical life. Augusta wanted to depict the immense legacy made by Negro Spirituals and hymns with a work entitled “The Harp”. She found inspiration in a poem by James Weldon Johnson’- ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ This poem, originally written in 1900 to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, was set to music by Johnson’s brother and became part and parcel of the school repertoire for black children in Jacksonville, where both Johnson and Savage had grown up. Later it was sung across the Southern States by children in what were then segregated schools. Augusta spent almost two years completing the sixteen-foot sculpture. At the fair it received much acclaim. It depicted a group of twelve stylized black singers in graduated heights that symbolized the strings of the harp. The sounding board was formed by the hand and arm of God, and a kneeling man holding music represented the foot pedal. Sadly, after the fair closed along with all the other art work it was demolished. Augusta wanted to represent the undying hope of the African American slaves and their descendants as they faced what the poem calls “ the dark past, ..in the days when hope unborn had died, until our weary feet came to the place for which our fathers sighed, over a way that with tears was watered.”
This prayer/poem ends with a plea to God that he keeps his people in the path that leads to light. “Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee.” It is this determination that Eden saw in Augusta, and which, in turn, Augusta would remember from the spirituals her people had always sung to comfort and encourage themselves. Often these songs picked up the longings and the sighs of the people of God in exile and slavery in the Psalms and Prophets. Am I wrong to think that the image of the harp harks back to Psalm 137, where the Babylonians ask the Israelites to sing one of their songs, and the exiles answer “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? We have hung up on our harps on the willows by the waters of Babylon. The time for singing is over.”
‘Babylon’ is of course the name often used in black communities to describe the powers that be, who still oppress and marginalise and discriminate. But Isaiah is singing- it is almost as if the joyful banquet of God’s Kingdom has already arrived. “The city of chaos” which he has already spoken about, an image of all that is corrupt and evil has been destroyed, and God himself will be the shelter and refuge from the storms of life not only for his people Israel, but for all who are poor and the needy; protecting those who cannot protect themselves. And this banquet is for all comers, unlike the banquets of earthly rulers, for which only the privileged will get an invitation. Slaves, forbidden to dance or to drum, would meet secretly to support one another, learn to read and pray, and, to sing, even, some think, hiding clues about how to escape in the text. Like Isaiah nothing was going to silence them in their determination to survive and to change their circumstances with the help of God. They determined to sing the Lord’s song in this strange land. The harp was hung up no longer.
It is this vision of the heavenly banquet that Jesus places before his listeners in this morning’ Gospel- A parable we find both in Luke and Matthew. Their versions differ, as each evangelist addresses their own particular circumstances and community. Whereas Luke speaks of a posh, but everyday wedding feast, Mathew, somewhat clumsily, makes it into a royal banquet. Both of them need to manage the fact that Israel has rejected their Messiah, and the church is increasingly made up of Gentiles, many of who are new to the values and aspirations of the Kingdom of God, which Paul commends to the church in Phillipi.
Jesus always sees God’s judgement and our response as something very much about making decisions and performing actions in the present moment. The Kingdom of God arrives today, or nowhere. The early church had expected that Judgement Day would be just around the corner, but when that didn’t happen they had to deal with the uncomfortable fact that while some were living out a daily, and immediate, practice of the faith, others seemed to be using the time of waiting as an opportunity for delaying any attempt to build lives of holiness. Matthew is impatient for discipline within his congregation. For him to delay right living will mean coming to a sticky end!
Luke, on the other hand want us to realise that once Israel has rejected its Messiah, the way lies open for the good news of the kingdom to be extended to the gentile world. Matthew has reworked the story, adding a second layer of unexpected guests, commoners, outside the usual royal social circle, late comers. The King makes every effort to welcome some very unlikely guests, but even then this rag, tag, and bobtail bunch include some who have made no effort to dress properly for the occasion. Matthew is speaking within a different historical context, a different Church setting. He wants his congregation to realise that as the prospect of judgement day and the final banquet of the kingdom recede into an ever more unpredictable future, the present community needs to face the fact that they are a very mixed bunch, some of whom may need to be brought up short.
We need to retrace our steps to explore the spontaneous reaction Jesus wants to create in us with this story. Jesus constantly breaks down the strict demarcation line between the righteous and the sinful. Why else at the last Supper does Jesus say that the banquet of God’s love is not only for the disciples, but for “the many.”
Jesus’ uses calculated stories to, ‘play with his audience’s sense of order and values.” He calls us to venture further than we ever imagined into the ways that we relate and care for each other, a path that the focus of this month underlines.
Jesus’ concern was caring for the many, so in his tale the landowner, or the King in Matthew’s version, goes out of his way to invite all comers to his banquet, to sit down and feast together, irrespective of their wealth or social status before. Things have to change. We have to change. It is this model of equality and openness that we see the early church struggling to maintain as they met each week for the Eucharist, and it is this open, generous way of celebrating the Mass, and the communal life that we are called to now, here. Bringing in the Kingdom, redeeming the time, simply going about the business of making life better for others and ourselves, will involve us in a process. This work will call on our wit and wisdom as much as our desire to be helpful, but it also calls into question our values and presuppositions. It will lay bare our soul. There is a road to travel, and a cost to be paid for our engagement with others if our relationship with each other here is to be genuine, and we begin to sing from the same hymn sheet!!!.