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First Presbyterian Church

Dr. Stuart R. Gordon

August 25, 2019

A New World

Matthew 9:14-17; Revelation 21:1-5

“The meeting is now in order. We all know that the McGillicuddy girl is having a party today, and not one of us was invited. Now, what do you say we form a new club and call it . . . ‘The He-Man Woman-Haters’ Club’?”

So begins a classic episode of The Little Rascals, from 1937. Spanky is the speaker to a room full of boys, and he proceeds to nominate Alfalfa as club president, in absentia. Unbeknownst to Spanky, Alfalfa is, at that very moment, writing a love letter to the winsome Darla, and having Buckwheat deliver it. A comedy of errors ensues.

You don’t have to look very far, certainly not all the way back to 1937, to find examples of clubs founded on the basis of common enemies. Alan Jacobs notes in his recent book, How to Think, “People who can’t stand one another will form powerful alliances if by doing so they can thwart their . . . enemies – and they will pursue that thwarting with a vigor and resourcefulness that would arouse Napoleon’s envy . . .” (74).

Politics, indeed, makes for strange bedfellows, and resentment fuels many a convocation. Judging by the way our society behaves these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that the world is spinning off its axis, and all of us are bound to be flung into space. With the advent of social media, it’s easier than it was in 1937 to find a community of like-minded people, even if that community is simply virtual, not actual. It’s easier to find people who hate the same people you hate, though one must admit that certain people in 1937 and the ensuing decades were frighteningly effective at stoking hatred, creating scapegoats, and perpetrating violence against them.

Jacobs makes an interesting point about this phenomenon: he says that many a person who creates his own version of the He-Man Woman-Haters’ Club is actually a utopian dreamer. He says many such people believe that whatever is broken in this world can be fixed, once and for all. And, if other people don’t share such a utopian optimism, then it becomes one’s duty to get rid of them. As Mickey Rourke said in the movie Barfly, “I like other people; I just prefer it when they’re not around.” And to follow the news these days, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that everyone would be a lot happier if other people would just go away.

The Bible offers a very different vision. The goal is not utopia, and the means to getting where we are going is not to get rid of other people. As the Bible tells it, whatever is broken in this world is not going to be fixed simply by human effort. Further, we are headed toward not a great devolution, with the earth spinning off its axis and its occupants being flung into space. No. We are headed toward a big, fat, joyful wedding between heaven and earth. The Bible’s vision of the end, the vision that shapes how you and I are to look at life now, is a vision of a wedding. No he-man woman-hating; but a great gathering of family and friends to celebrate a joyful union. That makes sense, if the neuropsychologist Paul Pearsall is right. He says, “Our most basic instinct is not for survival, but for family” (quoted in The Week, 08-16-19).

Have you ever noticed how many times weddings come up in the Bible? It’s one of the Bible’s favorite metaphors for God’s relationship to the world. Revelation’s vision of the end is of new heavens and a new earth, the marriage supper of the Lamb, and the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. A loud voice says, “the home of God is among mortals.”

So, it’s no wonder that Jesus refers to himself as a bridegroom. He makes a remarkable retort, to be honest, in reply to John’s disciples. They go to Jesus all glum and serious, wanting to know why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. And Jesus dares to reach into the Bible’s bag of metaphors for a very big one. He says, “You don’t fast when the bridegroom is around. You feast.”

You know, I’ve officiated at enough weddings over the last twenty-six years that I know how complicated they are. No matter how much love engenders a wedding, and how much joy occurs therein, every wedding is complicated, because every family is complicated. Every guest list is a minefield. Every rehearsal carries with it the possibility of a big meltdown. God bless the bride and groom who just want everyone to make it through the weekend on their best behavior! So, why on earth did God pick a wedding to describe where we’re headed?

Maybe it’s for lack of a better alternative. You’ve heard it said, “Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good.’” Don’t let utopian dreams be the enemy of God’s good vision. Don’t fall for the instinct that there is nothing wrong with this world that a few funerals won’t fix. Don’t join the He-Man Woman-Haters Club, or any other club based on your dislike of someone else. The Christian commitment is to a great wedding banquet, a big celebration with a huge guest list. Though there will be plenty of people who don’t care to attend this wedding, and there will be plenty who are unworthy, and plenty who will be disqualified in the end, Jesus always surprises us, with who is on the list. Jesus has this remarkable way of creating a new community of love, not unlike what happens when a man and a woman make promises to one another, and seal them with rings. The world’s future is founded on commitment: God’s commitment to us, and God’s invitation for us to commit to God and each other. The Bible’s vision of a wedding pictures this in a way that you and I can understand and remember. The world’s future is a wedding feast.

David Brooks has written a good book that is getting justly-deserved attention, a book called The Second Mountain. In it, he identifies our nation’s hyper-individualism as a problem to address. He worries about the culture that baby boomers have bequeathed to their children and grandchildren. He thinks that the pendulum has swung too far toward autonomy and freedom. He urges us to use our freedom for the sake of community, toward concrete commitments in family, vocation, religion, and city. All four require a vow of dedication, an investment of time and effort, and a willingness to close off other options (53).

While reading this book in groups of mostly middle-aged people, I’ve often wished that the groups included young adults. Brooks offers wise counsel to young adults, who are “climbing the first mountain” of profession. The people in these groups have much experience and wisdom to share. But what is missing from the groups is the perspective of a younger generation, for whom life hasn’t yet come through on the promises made to them. They’ve experienced an unfair share of broken commitments in their lives: high rates of broken families, great losses of accrued wealth for their parents just as they approached retirement, great difficulty buying homes after the bubble burst. Maybe most importantly, they experienced a loss of security in the time after 9/11, a time when school shootings seem ubiquitous.

I guess I’m saying that it’s understandable why young adults today might be skittish about commitment. And it would be understandable if people today were skeptical about the Bible’s vision that the end will be a great wedding banquet. So much of lived experience doesn’t look like that.

So, I’ll say this: I don’t know if it’s simply an article of faith or if it might be a defensible theory, but a people with a vision can live into a new reality. A body of people who believe that we’re headed toward a big, fat, wedding feast can demonstrate joyful community in a way that people with a different vision can’t. If you think the world is spinning out of control and we’re all going to fall off, it’s really hard to commit yourself to community – to families and jobs and the church and your city. But if you are persuaded that God is in charge and God is good; if you are won over by the vision of a joyful union between heaven and earth; if you hunger and thirst for a response to our problems that doesn’t simply get rid of people who disagree, then you just might be willing to give commitment a try. You just might be willing to respond to Jesus’ invitation to this banquet by committing to be there, and showing that commitment in real ways right now.

If you’re a parent, you can show that commitment by raising your children in the church. A recent study of children and teens by the Harvard School of Public Health “found that those who attended religious services at least once a week were 18 percent more likely to report being happier in their twenties than those who never attended services” (American Journal of Epidemiology). They also are more likely to do volunteer work. Why is this? I honestly can’t claim to know. But it certainly makes sense that if you raise a child in a community that envisions a great banquet at the end of time, and practices that banquet in a ritual meal, then the child will be shaped by joy. And if you raise a child in a community grounded in the summons to serve others as God in Christ has served us, then the child will be able hear the call to service. In an era when an alarming percentage of people report being downright lonely, how could such a body not be appealing?

When you arrive at a wedding, one question sometimes asked is, “Friend of the bride or friend of the groom?” You get seated on one side of the aisle or the other, based on your response. When you meet people at the reception, you talk about how you know the bride or the groom. In other words, people who don’t necessarily know one another become a joyful community because they are drawn together by the bride and groom. Everyone there got invited to share someone else’s joy.

Is it unreasonable to conclude, given the Bible’s frequent use of this wedding metaphor, that we’re all invited to be guests at God’s great banquet, to share in God’s joy? And is it unreasonable to conclude that, like certain disciples of another, we would be insulting the Lord Jesus were we to fast while everyone else is enjoying the party?

It wasn’t just at the wedding of Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, that our Lord talked about joy. He likened his ministry to new wine, and he likened us to wineskins. He says, essentially, that his joy will practically burst us at the seams if we’re not careful! Frederick Buechner made that joke a long time ago, how John’s disciples wondered, while they dutifully fasted, why Jesus and his followers were “winos and chowhounds.” I’ve always kept in mind the possibility that the church faces the same temptation. We’re ever tempted to be so serious, so glum about the world around us that we dishonor the One who is inviting us to a feast. Maybe the world needs this from us as much as anything else.

Craig Barnes just celebrated his stepson’s wedding. He says, “I am still amazed by this moment when flawed young adults, nurtured in love by their even more flawed parents, make vows to be bound together for the rest of their lives. . . They’re dependent on the grace of God if their marriage is to survive, and even more so if it does not.”

Is it too much to hope for, too much to expect, that in a world in which young people still take the risk of making marriage vows, the church might be a joyful community grounded in a vision of a whole new world?

Barnes says, “As a pastor, I’ve always knocked myself out to convince couples in premarital counseling that it’s not about the wedding – it’s about the marriage. And I have often rolled my eyes at all of the production that gets woven into weddings. But having been through a couple of weddings as a parent, I have to say that I understand now why there is so much fuss over the dresses, caterer, music, photographer, flowers, DJ, and even the deluxe portable toilets.

“What we want [at weddings] is an experience of abundant joy. And sometimes the grace of God, which is ready to carry us through the deepest of dark valleys, can also give us sheer delight. It’s not promised, and it certainly doesn’t depict the depth of God’s grace in our lives, but there are fleeting moments when by grace we get to have a party” (The Christian Century, 08-28-19).

Here, fellow Christians, is the even better news: though moments of sheer delight aren’t promised in this life, that is exactly the promise for the world to come. Those fleeting moments of joy we experience at weddings are the very foretaste of joy that God promises for the world to come. It’s what John means when he describes new heavens and a new earth. It’s God’s abundant joy to the world. It’s about evil vanquished, sin conquered, and death defeated. It’s almost too good to be true, so good that if we aren’t careful with it, we could burst at the seams.

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