In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
You can still see the flowers that grace our church from yesterday’s wedding, a beautiful day. There’s nothing like a wedding to bring joy to a community. In the wedding we see, of course, a sacrament of joy. It reminds us in the Epistle readings of the joy found between Christ and his church and that marriage itself is a sacrament, according to a deeper mystery, the relationship of God and His people.
In today’s Gospel lesson we’re reminded once again that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a wedding feast. First and foremost, we are reminded that in this faith of ours we have joy, the kind of joy that our Lord says can’t be taken away. It’s not just happiness; it’s not just feeling good; it’s not self-help. It’s joy, deep joy, joy that comes in the midst of darkness and all the struggles that we have in life. It’s the joy, based on the Resurrection. that tells us no matter what happens and no matter how bad it gets, Christ Has Risen and we with him are risen. As we are in the church, we share in this Paschal joy. Every Sunday is Pascha, and the hymns proclaim it, and the readings proclaim it, and as you heard from the Resurrection account, every Sunday we enter into this joy. We’re reminded by Fr. Alexander, if Christians are to have one thing, first and foremost, they should have joy. People should see us and be able to say, “There's joy!”
I know a priest who, everywhere he went, didn’t necessarily solve people’s problems, but he was joyful. Whatever people were going through, maybe they were disappointed, or things didn’t work out, or even upset with him -- whatever issues or problems they were wrestling with -- what he brought to them first and always was joy. In all the different contexts, bringing them joy set the table. Let us, first of all, my brothers and sisters, gather the joy that we have in faith.
In today’s Gospel lesson, the paradox is that people don’t want to share in this joy. They have other things to do. They are caught up. They have business they attend to -- their farm. They have a regular life. In other words, they are too busy. This is perhaps the great hurdle of our time. We are in a culture that completely robs us of time for joy. Now everything is “24/7.” There is always something else to do. Even the thing that is most important -- just coming in to be able to rest and to receive the joy that is ours in Christ – there is something else to do. It is so easy to be able to get caught up and to forget.
In today’s world I think we have to be realistic; we have to bob and weave. We do not live in an Orthodox culture. The world’s not going to make it easy for us. This isn’t 19th century Holy Russia, where the whole country was geared to attempting holiness (there were also imperfections in that culture, too!). We live in a world that doesn’t even understand this kind of joy; they think that they know but they haven’t experienced it. Even when we’re trying to do the right thing in our world, we often rob ourselves of the most important thing: the Joy in coming to know God. In today’s world it’s important to be able to navigate. It’s not all or nothing, but we need simply to start where we are, start where others are, and to bring us all slowly.
I know a family at another parish where I served. They were always being asked to do things in the parish, but they were always too busy. Some of the people that were carrying a lot of the weight would get frustrated. The thing about it is, though, that on the very important feast days, this family would make sure that they had their kids in church. They wouldn’t be seen all the time: they weren't some of the people that made sure every box was checked, but, you know, in that mother’s heart, she knew the most important thing. On those most important feast days, those kids were there because they sensed in their mother’s heart that, while she was trying to do everything else that she needed to do, trying to keep them together in this frenetic world, she loved the faith. She wanted to make sure that on those very joyful times, even if she had to come rushing in here, with her kids in their uniforms on from their sports teams, at least for those moments they would enter a place where there would be this joy. It wasn’t so much quantity, but it was quality.
Which brings us to the last part of our parable this morning: there are some who go to the wedding feast and don’t have their wedding garment -- what does this mean? Well, there are layers to this. On one layer, everyone who shows up isn’t necessarily participating in the joy, and so this is a reminder to us that just to go through the motions, just to be present, isn’t going to substitute for the relationship with our Master who wants to bring us this joy. We need to prepare.
How do we prepare for this kind of experience? The Church gives us basic advice. At least 8 hours before we receive Holy Communion, no eating, no drinking, no relations. Also, before we receive Holy Communion, the Church gives us tools and walks us through them. This morning we had General Confession; we got help; we entered a little early; we heard certain prayers; and we heard those questions that enabled us to examine our conscience. We want to prepare for this experience. How do we do that? We clean our conscience. It’s like any relationship. We want to be able to renew it and say, “Where do we stand?” and in this book (holding up the little red prayer book) you can see, you can take it with you, take it home. Before every Liturgy where we receive Holy Communion, we should at least read some of the questions and make one of those prayers before receiving Holy Communion.
If we can’t abstain from eating and drinking, and, by the way, let me say -- sometimes we have a medical situation. Sometimes with children you have to bring them gradually to the ideal -- they’re not going to get there overnight. When that’s the case, see your confessor, see your priest, and ask, “What should I do?” Sometimes when we do things ourselves, we are either too hard or too soft, and we hurt ourselves or others. We want to be able to have it just right: we need help. If in fact those things are too difficult this week, we can come and make the prayers this Sunday. We don’t have to receive Holy Communion every week. We’re meant to do so, but there are many circumstances in places, in faith, and in times of our history when receiving every week was not paramount. We want to prepare.
Finally, I want to say this. I remember one time serving another community when I was just exhausted from all the things that had to be done as a priest. There was a Sunday when I had a certain rule, (priests have a certain rule too, we have to do certain things in addition to those things I mentioned). And on that particular Sunday, because of circumstances of life, I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do. I couldn’t keep my rule. And I remember one of the reasons was that I was dealing with a person who had some troubles and difficulties and some questions. In the midst of all that I realized that, in helping this person, I wasn’t fulfilling my own personal rule. At that point I heard someone speak to me -- he said, “Father, is this ok: I read the canon that you’re supposed to read before receiving Holy Communion.” (The Church has a whole set of prayers that you could read before receiving Holy Communion -- it’s a whole mini-service.) And this person coming to me at this moment was reading that whole service this set of prayers, and I remember thinking to myself, “Wow, that’s a great lesson.” Sometimes in the Church, we never get it all perfect individually, but, thank God, we have a community, a Church. Maybe one is serving one way and one is serving another; one is keeping the Faith a little bit fuller over here, another one is keeping it a little bit fuller over there. As the Fathers say, “no one is saved alone. We’re saved together. “
I offer this final word. One person said to me, “It’s precisely the Sundays when we know we are not prepared, when we really sense with awe what we’ve been invited to, and how we are really not prepared for the ultimate Joy. It’s precisely on those days, in those services, perhaps when we’re most prepared.”