St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the 11th Sunday of Luke

Sermon Preached by Dn. Jeffrey Smith on Sunday, December 11, 2005

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today we heard the “gospel of excuses”, which strikes a note of sobriety as we approach the birth of Christ. I urge us to be watchful, to take care, and be attentive to our lives. This time of preparation, this “Winter Pascha” brings to mind the week before Pascha, during which we sing the gospel from Matthew 25:6 :

Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching, and unworthy is the servant whom he shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, oh my soul. Do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the kingdom. But rouse yourself, crying, Holy, Holy, Holy are thou O God.

The gospel parable we heard today is a banquet within a banquet. Jesus was the guest of a Pharisee, and he speaks about banquets, where to sit (in the lowest place – so you can move up – not down). He says that when you give parties, don’t just ask your friends, family and your rich neighbors, but invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the cripples and the blind, (a vivid crowd).

This reminds me of a Luis Bunuel film, Viridiana, about a nun who inherits an estate and returns home to dedicate her life to this particular gospel. She invites all the outcasts to a great feast, the cripples, the dwarves, all the grotesque of her village. And when they arrive, they proceed to tear down her estate and trash it with no gratitude or comportment at all. We see a nightmare of broken furniture, thrown food, and swinging chandeliers. What are we to make of these beggars? At first I thought it was an attack on the church, but then it struck me: they are not wearing wedding garments. They have no reverence or fear of God. Their lamps are not only empty, they are broken. Right here. Beware, therefore, oh my soul.

Everyone in this Gospel has excuses and ‘good reasons’ not to come to the banquet at all. Let us think about our own excuses. Perhaps we are too tired on Sunday. Perhaps the church is too full of hypocrites. Perhaps the banquet is too dull, and our own affairs promise more happiness. So many of us are ready to decline the invitation, and we send our regrets. But isn’t this where the hypocrites belong in the sheer light of reality? And who among us is not a hypocrite? If the banquet seems dull, isn’t that just a reflection of our own dullness? Our sight is dim because we are locked inside ourselves. Perhaps we believe that we are already saved. We are chosen, therefore we don’t need to attend the banquet. I’ll stay home. But God is not bound to our infidelity. He can always baptize another movement with his Grace and use it for his purpose.

Let us look now more carefully at the three specific excuses in this parable:

  1. I’ve just bought a field. (notice the immediacy) Please excuse me. The farm: a piece of ground = Property = wealth = possessions and investments (Not I)
  2. I’ve just bought Five Oxen = power = technology (Not I)
  3. I’ve just got married. I can’t come. I choose the comfort and excitement of a new wife.

Of course, we need farms and machines and families, but in themselves, these things are like wells without water. They are means without an end and they are idolatry. Nothing fails us like our successes. Nature without transcendence is death.

So the master was angry at all the excuses, and he told his servants to go into the alleys, the streets and highways, and compel those to come in that his house might be filled. This is clearly our great commission to go out and baptize all nations.

You have just been guests at a great banquet. Here is the banquet table behind me. God did not coerce you to come here. Instead, this is where we find joy. Psalm 36: For with you is the fountain of life, and in your light shall we see light. Continue your love to those who know you.

So go out and invite the sinners and the outcasts. Go out into the lanes and the streets. No one will be denied. At the last moment, come. But compel your guests (unlike Bunuel’s beggars) to put on the garment of righteousness, to Put On Christ. In his paschal Sermon, St. John writes, “If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of her delay. For the master is gracious, and receives the last even as he received the first.” Thankfully, Our Father’s mercy is wider than the ocean, and greater than the heavens. Glory be to God.