Harrowing Of Hell
October 11, 2020

Membership is free; Practice and Participation Required

The Rev. Ruth Anne Garcia

For those of you who looked at today’s bulletin letter, you probably noticed that I began with the telegram sent by Groucho Marx to a club from which he was resigning his membership. When the president asked him for a more detailed response about why, Marx sent back the infamous message, “I DON’T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WOULD ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER.” We love this line because he said out loud something that we actually believe. One of the biggest problems we seem to have as human beings and Christians is valuing our own normal experience — our own inherent goodness and worth. It isn’t that we don’t want our accomplishments noticed, our work valued or to be loved by another; we do. In fact, for our own self worth and happiness, we actually need it.  As human beings we are “necessarily gregarious.” Even Americans enamored of the notion of “rugged Individualism” cannot escape from this fact. We human beings are social creatures whose lives literally depend on others. We are interdependent.

Take a moment and think back on your day so far – even if the day has just begun. For most of us we might not be wildly optimistic about today. It’s not a special day unless it’s our birthday or anniversary. Because of the pandemic we may be tired of staying home. We may be fed up with our inability to go to a movie, or a concert, or out to dinner. And we certainly are tired of the fractures of our social, legal, and political systems. It is overwhelming. In fact, it is almost impossible to say anything without including the phrase “In these difficult times.”

But underneath all the difficulties and the many things around us that seem to be going terribly wrong, think about how many unnoticed things have gone right? Everything we’ve done this morning is fully dependent on the work of others – others we don’t often notice or even consider. We live in a physical house with walls, indoor plumbing, and electricity. Our mortgage, or our deed, or our lease designates it as “ours” to occupy and our laws make it unlawful for someone else to enter without our permission. If someone “breaks in” we have folks whose job it is to enforce these laws. The bed you sleep on – the mattress, the box spring, the sheets, and blankets—all crafted by others. As you get up and put on your slippers or put your feet on the floor or carpet— someone else helped make these things too. Putting on the light — from the switch to the electrical current…. Running the shower or brushing your teeth— and we haven’t even got you out of the bedroom yet…. Without a doubt these are difficult times. But each and every day those of us here are surrounded by the stability of the many, many things that are going right. We have food to eat and a home and so much more.  And yet with so many things going right, we only seem to notice when things go wrong. It’s a hard-wired part of our brains and nervous systems. Called negativity bias, it is our brain’s attempt to keep us from physical harm. In previous times, and in some places in the world today, this makes sense because paying attention to potentially dangerous threats is literally a matter of life and death. That is why fight, flight, and freeze reactions are the most basic programming of our brains. The amygdala serves as the “alarm” system” of the brain which gets it input directly from the physical sensory input of the thalamus. 65% of the amygdala’s work is scanning for the least hint of danger from any possible negative imprints our senses alert us to. While it works in tandem with the hippocampus, this region of the brain is emotion based and reactive too. So, once the amygdala’s alarm bell is triggered it launches a full-scale flight or fight response that shuts down the higher reasoning and pro-social neo-cortex of the brain. Which means, that the part of our brain which deals with how we function in community and helps us make sound and reasoned decisions is kept out of the loop.

So, to be clear, there isn’t anything wrong with us if we are worried and harassed and not sure what to do right now. But while we may not have power to change all that is going on around us – we do have the choice to change our reactions, where we put our attention and to whom we give it. These are difficult times but when it comes to stress – stress doesn’t really have to do with all that is going on around us. It has to do with how we perceive or react to it. It has to do with our response.

So while our larger society might be stuck in a biological response to “fake news” or even the real science of climate change or a mutating virus, if we have faith in our God we can escape the paralyzing anxiety of fight, flight, or freeze and use the whole of our hearts and minds to make reasonable, sound, and life-giving decisions. This is what today’s gospel parables are talking about.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells us two parables about a king who is holding a wedding banquet for his beloved son. In the first parable, we hear that when the date comes the king sends his servants out to the invited guests. However, they do not want to come. The invitees have a whole host of reasons why.  But they can be basically reduced to the same excuse we still use today: “They didn’t have time.” Regardless of their reasons, by refusing to honor this invitation they are, in fact, dishonoring the king. All the people to see and places to go will still be there tomorrow but this wedding is a one-time celebration and event. But, the king doesn’t give up. He sends his messengers out again but this time his invitation is not only rebuffed but it is met with violence. His servants are mistreated and killed. And in order to quell this rebellion, we are told that the king sends out his troops and kills the murderers and ruins their cities. 

In the second parable about the king, we find the king with this sumptuous feast and elaborate celebration all ready but with no one to attend. So, this time, the king sends out his servants with the charge to go out into the streets, into the crossroads, and invite anyone they meet — good and bad alike. The newly invited guests arrive and finally the party can begin—the banquet hall is filled and the feast commences….but as the king comes out and welcomes his guests, he finds one without a wedding robe. Asked why he is without one, the guest does not reply, and we are told he is thrown into utter darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth….

Jesus uses parables to teach his followers spiritual lessons. Familiar images and themes are used to help illustrate his teachings. In today’s gospel two related parables, following on the heels of two others, are Jesus’ response to the chief priests and elders who have approached him as he is teaching in the temple and ask: “By what authority do you do these things?”   Jesus’ response is to ask them to respond to his question first before he tells them of his authority. So, he asks, “The baptism of John, where was it from? From heaven or from men?” When his critics refuse to answer his question, Jesus, likewise, refuses to answer theirs and instead responds with four teaching parables: the Parable of the Two Sons, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants, and with today’s two parables about the Wedding Banquet and the Wedding Robe.

In these parables Jesus answers, for those with ears to listen, not only by whose authority he teaches, preaches, and heals. He also explains why Jesus is willing to associate with tax collectors and sinners rather than the observant middle and upper-class Jewish folks who upheld “the laws” and “prophets.” In today’s gospel what Jesus is telling us is that while God did and does choose the people of Israel as the people of God, God also blesses others who follow God’s commandments and ways. Why? Because God’s children bear a responsibility to respond – to actively work towards living a God-centered life of real love and compassion. If they choose not to others including those who they might think to be unworthy will be invited too… good and bad alike.

Talk about our negativity bias, though, whenever I read our second parable, instead of noting that the king invites everyone and welcomes them all, my mind immediately goes to the king’s reaction to the guest without a wedding robe. I can think of lots of reasons why this seems wrong. What if this man didn’t have a wedding robe? He left his at home or he is too poor to buy one… Isn’t it enough that he is there? He showed up after all and he hasn’t hurt anybody.

And in my distress, I forget that the king invited EVERYONE good and bad alike. He has shown no favoritism. He has invited everyone to partake of his feast — to eat, drink, and celebrate. All the good and bad folks are there – some may have brought a little plastic container to put food in for later. Some might be drinking more wine that advisable. Almost no one bought anything on the registry – and there might even have been some re-gifting. But the king, as we have seen in the previous parable, is slow to take offense and doesn’t seem to notice any of that. Folks have come to the wedding feast, and he is happy to have them share in this celebration. So, what is with the wedding robe? The answer is, of course, that the wedding robe is about our chosen response to God’s invitation to live in communion with God in God’s kingdom. Verse 14 tells us as much: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” Now for those of us who hear this and think in terms of exclusive clubs and extraordinary events and, therefore, are skeptical of any feast that would put us on the guest list. I am sorry to disappoint you. Through Jesus Christ, everyone else has been invited too. But here’s the thing. There is an expectation that all those who show up are to respond to God’s grace-filled invitation with gratitude and love and hope. That when we are at the wedding feast, we will rejoice with those being joined in marriage and with the community gathered. Friends, we may not be able to change everything going on around us, but we can change our understanding and reactions to it. While some may say prayer and engaged and loving responses to our world are “worthless,” the science tells it differently. Our brains can be rewired through neuroplasticity and can think more clearly when we stop acting out of fear and act out of our faith and trust in God and one another. God first chooses us so that we can choose God. So, put on that wedding robe. Look at all the things that are going right and all the helpers and front-line workers AND the good politicians. And then put on your Sunday best brain and heart. Look at this world and this life we have been given through God’ eyes. We are Christians. We are asked to choose the ways of the Kingdom of God and believe in ourselves for we are made in God’s image.