Answering God's Call
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. October 11, 2020
As we celebrate Thanksgiving this weekend, our readings speak to us of banquets and feasts. In the first reading, we hear Isaiah’s promise of “a feast of rich food and well-aged wines” for all peoples and nations. The Psalmist describes God as a Good Shepherd: One who leads us to abundant pastures, who prepares for us a table of plenty, where our cups are overflowing. Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus tells a parable of guests invited to a royal wedding-feast, where, we are told, the prime rib is ready for carving! Very fitting readings on this Thanksgiving weekend: where we are accustomed to a bountiful feast of turkey or ham, followed by pumpkin pie or apple crisp, or whatever special food and drink we happen to enjoy when we gather for a feast with family and friends to give thanks.
What a different Thanksgiving we are going through this year! As the number of Covid-19 cases soars daily, as the province plunges into the red zone with the consequent restrictions on gatherings, whether for worship or for family gatherings, we are having to find other ways of giving thanks. Luckily, most of us will at least not go hungry. Yet many will not sit down this weekend to a bountiful table, surrounded by family and friends. We think especially of those who are sick in hospital, those who are lonely and isolated, those who are poor, grieving, or homeless. For what will they give thanks this year? And how can we find, in these unique times, new and creative ways to reach out, to show that we care?
Fred Rogers, the Presbyterian pastor turned children’s TV show host, tells the story that when he was very young, he asked his mother where God was, with so much suffering in the world. Her response was, “Look for the helpers.”
I found some of their stories in the Gazette this Saturday: Marina Boulos of Chez Doris, whose volunteers will deliver Thanksgiving dinner to over 100 women and their families, and then serve a turkey dinner the next day to the women who have no homes. Similar stories emerged from Welcome Hall Mission, and the Old Brewery Mission. Quietly, without fanfare, Marcelle and our food pantry volunteers have been delivering food to those who usually come to our monthly Food Pantry. Front-line medical workers and essential services continue in spite of the lockdown, making sure that we are warm and well-fed, that our children are educated and the sick and elderly cared for. Where is God in the pandemic, you ask? Look for the helpers! And thank God for them!!
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew once again presents us with a parable intended to help us recognize and welcome the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God among us. It speaks of people who are too busy going about their daily occupations to attend a wedding-feast to which they have been specially invited: since they fail to turn up, their places are taken by the poor, who come in from the highways and byways. In Luke’s version, it ends here: a hall filled with delighted guests, experiencing God’s abundant bounty.
Matthew’s version of the parable is considerably darker. It foretells a violent end for those who reject the King’s invitation. It then adds on this strange reference to a guest caught without a “wedding garment”, who gets thrown out of the party, cast out into “the darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” So much for the happy ending!!!
You may well be wondering: what’s going on here? The message of the first part of the parable is quite clear. God has called each of us to something important, challenging, beautiful, life-giving. So not surprisingly, God expects us to show up! With our busy lives, we can come up with all kinds of excuses – family responsibilities, business commitments, aches and pains, other priorities – for not giving a positive answer to God’s invitation. But for Jesus, the Kingdom of God is THE most important thing. It is the reality against which everything else needs to be measured.
Excuses are not justifications. If we refuse to answer the call, we should not be surprised when those who do respond more positively to God’s invitation find their way in ahead of us.
What, you might ask, is the significance of the guest without a wedding-garment? Is it merely a fashion faux pas? Or is something deeper going on here? At such a banquet, unexpected guests would have been provided with something appropriate to wear for the occasion, much as some upscale restaurants might provide suit jackets and ties to men who show up without one. This guest received the garment, but removed it and refused to wear it. The message here seems to be that even when we receive a wonderful and totally undeserved invitation, it’s not enough to just show up to the party. We need to come prepared. With some gift to offer, some evidence that we take God’s invitation seriously, and are grateful for it.
This is, after all, a wedding feast! So what is this mysterious “wedding garment” that each of us is being invited to put on? In a text frequently proclaimed at a wedding Mass, St. Paul gives us a clue: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, you must clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, patience, and forgiveness, bearing with one another lovingly. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony; and the peace of Christ will rule in your hearts. Always be thankful.” (Colossians 3:12-15)
Compassion – Forgiveness – Kindness – Gratitude: this is the one-size-fits-all wedding garment given to us by God in Christ. And God expects us to wear it! To truly feel at home in the banquet that is the Kingdom of God, we are invited to strip off the outer garments of envy, discord, jealousy, greed, pride, indifference – and especially, the compulsive busyness that blocks us from accepting and rejoicing in Jesus’ invitation to life. We are called to put on the garment of love and thanksgiving.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul is writing from prison to his beloved friends, the Philippians. He is sad to be away from them, and yet he does not despair. Why? Because he has learned to be content with whatever he has: hungry or well-fed, having plenty or being in need, in the company of friends or alone in his prison cell.
The “secret” behind Paul’s happiness is his grateful spirit, and his firm conviction: “I can do all things through God who strengthens me.” Though grateful for all the external blessings in his life, Paul knew that if he let his happiness depend on any one of these, or even on the sum of them, he could easily be disappointed. In his relationship with Christ, in his firm conviction that his life now belongs to Jesus, he is empowered to choose joy and gratitude, even when times were hard.
So too can it be for us. Even during this time of pandemic, when we are missing family and friends, missing being able to come to church and worship as we are accustomed to, missing many of the activities which give us joy and satisfaction, we can choose to be grateful. We can not only find God in the helpers, but we can ourselves be those helpers. We can call someone who is housebound, deliver a meal to someone who is lonely or feeling unloved, or as I did with my family on Zoom yesterday, speak aloud what I am most grateful for, what I thank God for, even in these challenging and uncertain times.
In his new encyclical published last week, “Fratelli Tutti”, Pope Francis reminds us of the bonds of fraternity and social friendship which unite all of us as God’s children. He challenges us to build a world where all are welcome at the table, where none are excluded, where we are truly “Good Samaritans”, helping and caring for one another, brothers and sisters all. So for all that we have already received, for all that we will receive in the future, and for all that is in our lives here and now – may the Lord make us truly thankful. Happy Thanksgiving!