Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Clothe Yourselves

This sermon was delivered by President Stuart McMillan for the Samoan National Conference at St John’s Uniting Church in Essendon, Victoria on Sunday 15 October 2017.

Talofa - It has been my delight to be here for the Samoan National Conference over the last few days and to share this morning with you all in this combined worship service and baptism.

I wish to acknowledge the sovereign First Peoples of the lands and waters were we meet the Wurundjeri-Willam Clan Nation - the “white gum people” of the Kulin Nations. I pay my respects to their elders past and present and all descendants of these nations together with all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples here today. These lands and waters were violently and illegally ceased and for this I apologise. I pledge to work for “just terms” treaties for all First People of Australia.

The gospel passage from Matthew is titled in some translations as ‘The parable of the Wedding Banquet’ from which our theme for this worship comes: ‘The Kingdom of God is like a Wedding Banquet’.

My reflections on the Scripture and your theme I have titled: “Clothe Yourselves”. My thinking about the kingdom is shaped by Jesus who is recorded as saying in Luke 17:21: “The Kingdom of God is within you”. Therefore I will reflect on this kingdom within us and not some heavenly banquet which is remote from our faith journeys, our cultures or our earthly existence as the followers of Jesus.

Weddings in most cultures are significant occasions as are baptisms and have many rich cultural connections which is why Jesus chose to tell this parable.

For you who are Samoan I understand a little of the cultural significance of all that is part of your wedding traditions. Your culture more generally I understand to be communal, you do things as a community. I can to some extent relate to this through my adoption into the Birrikili, Gupapuyŋu Clan Nation of the Yolŋu Peoples of Arnhemland who are also communal in their life focus. Relationships between clans are all important. This I guess is in the Samoan culture why the bride will choose a dress from the groom’s family and one from her own for the wedding and banquet. It’s why everyone in a village pretty much is invited to the wedding and the banquet a mark of generosity, hospitality and the valuing of others. So friends, as we look at what God may be wanting us to understand today, please have your cultural understandings and images before you.

The first thing which stands out to me in Jesus parable is that people for one reason or another make excuses and deny the generosity and hospitality of the hosts invitation to the banquet.

The passage we read from Exodus talks about the Israelite people being “quick to turn away”. They turn from the generosity and hospitality of God who has guided them protected them and fed them in their journey.

They turn, it appears because they are so self-focused, even though they are a communal people – it’s all about what they want! Or indeed perhaps what they fear!

What are the things which cause us to turn away from the generosity and hospitality of God? What do we fear?

Is it as in the parable, work commitments our busyness that causes us to turn away? Or might it be our indifference; or our focus on our needs ahead of the needs of others? In communal cultures and societies have we put personal desires ahead of the desire for harmony in the community? Something I understand to be all important for the Samoan culture.

You might expect as in the parable that the host, be it the king, or the bride’s family in the Samoan culture, or God as in the true understanding of the parable, you might expect they would be angry. However the final verse of the Exodus story is: God relents and does not bring disaster on people. The Psalmist begins: God’s love endures forever.

In the parable the King has his servants go out and invite anyone they find to the banquet which is prepared. God like the king continues to invite people, all humanity is welcome to the banquet.

Unlike the King’s anger however, God’s sadness at those who reject the invitation or who are quick to turn away, does not stop God’s generosity and hospitality continuously being offered to all. The late great Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon wrote a book titled: “Grace: God’s unmerited favour”. That is, grace is the undeserved favour of God for all humanity.

However this parable seems contradictory at the point when the King rejects the guest who is not properly clothed for the wedding banquet. As Samoans there is I understand appropriate customary clothing to be worn to the banquet.

What is Jesus getting at, the servants have done as they were told and invited all they found in the streets, surely they would not all have wedding clothes?

Spiritually I would suggest the “clothing” that is appropriate for the Banquet in the kingdom of God is what Paul refers to in his letter to the Church in Colossé in 3:12-14: “Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bear with one another, forgive any grievances and over all these virtues put on love.”

God we read in the Hebrew Scriptures “looks at the heart”, this then is what truly is clothed, i.e. the heart filled with these virtues for this is the “clothing” appropriate for those invited to the banqueting table of the King.

Bearing with one another and forgiving grievances is also the subject of the exhorting, the urging Paul makes to the faithful in our passage from Philippians. The Church in Philippi like most human communities had some issues and Paul was addressing these pastorally. In Chapter 2 he had referred very forthrightly to: “selfish ambition, conceit and preferring others ahead of themselves”. He urged unity and agreement rather than being in dispute.

He then sets out the “how to” achieve this: rejoice, always rejoice. And friends this is the joy we share at a wedding or in our community gatherings, indeed in our worship today and Henlee’s baptism.

Be gentle he says i.e. to yield to God and in so doing yield to one another i.e. put the interests of others ahead of your own interests.

He says don’t be anxious rather you have been given the peace of Christ, a peace within which is beyond understanding, a peace that will guard your hearts and minds. And then in all things; by prayer and petition with thanksgiving bring your requests to God.

I conclude my remarks today with the closing beautiful verses of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi and noting it is our hearts to be clothed for the kingdom of God is within us, in this we prepare for the banquet with the King when all things will be made new.

“Finally sisters and brothers whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard or seen in your mothers and fathers of the faith put it into practise. And the God of peace will be with you.”