Homily prepared for Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Richmond Virginia
Proper 23, Year A
October 15, 2017
If it was up to me to write a list of, “things I think the Kingdom of Heaven is like,” I can assure you that nothing involving “weeping and gnashing of teeth” would make the cut for me. I prefer metaphors that are a bit easier to digest, perhaps something like a shepherd gathering sheep or a vine with many branches. But, in today’s Gospel, we find ourselves tossed into the midst of a challenging parable, set in the context of Jesus challenging the status quo of the temple leaders. Jesus’ challenge…even in the linguistics of the Greek used to convey it…is indirect and subtly subversive. This parable is conveyed through a story, relayed in the passive voice in Greek ( Ὡμοιώθη = “has become like…”) which is meant to shed light on how things have become (and thus, may continue to be) rather than actively stating how they will be. Or, put another way, “if you keep on doing what you’ve been doing, here’s what that ‘kingdom of heaven’ you talk about it going to end up looking like!”
Jesus’ parables are intended to challenge us, especially parables like this one. Encountering today’s Gospel, our first challenge is not to limit our understanding of God’s providence based on our human experiences. We know only what we can see…but God’s perspective is broader and wider than the confines of our human lives and limitations. So, in presenting the temple leaders with an improbable and frustrating scenario that magnifies their own biases and injustice, Jesus breaks open their assumptions about who gets invited, and who is welcome. The questions and conundrums raised by Jesus’ parables have a timeless quality, though. So, we are also invited into this same conversation with our own questions, our own pondering, and our own doubts about what this Kingdom of Heaven is really all about as we consider how it applies to our lives.
Both in Jesus’ day and in our own, the structures of power in this world send many people the message that they don’t belong. It’s a challenge to accept an invitation when we’ve been barred from the banquet because we’re not the right gender, or we don’t earn enough money, or we don’t have the right amount of education from the right places, or because of the color of our skin, the orientation of our attraction, or the limitations we face from our physical, mental or emotional health. The list of things that cast people out into the social margins of this world goes on and on and on. There are so many ways to be rejected, and so many situations that make us second guess whether or not we truly belong, even when we receive an invitation.
I wonder how many of us, when we hear this parable, instantly identify with the person who gets found out, and tossed out. I know I do. I begin to feel a little frustrated and more than a little defensive. I want to ask Jesus, “but what if the person didn’t know the dress code? Or couldn’t afford the wedding attire? Or there was nothing the right size? Or, what if the guest took the invitation at face value and just came on in?” What I’m really wrestling with in all these questions, though, is the same fear: What if this is me…what if I am the impostor…will I get thrown out, too?” We ask these questions, I believe, because our human minds are incessantly focused on the worry that we are the impostor, the one who may be cast out for not belonging.
It turns out that this fear of being “found out” as an impostor is very deeply human. In spite of earned degrees, titles, experience…research into human behavior suggests that many of us have an implicit tendency to believe we’re not worthy, so much so that we may even convince ourselves we have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. This inward second-guessing of our impostor status is so common that several decades ago, psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the term “impostor phenomenon.” In their 1978 paper that has been cited well over 1,000 times Clance and Imes apply this term to their study of high-performing but inwardly anxious female professionals that have been seeking therapy to address this debilitating self-doubt. To quote Clance: “…they fail to experience an internal sense of success; they consider themselves to be ‘impostors’ ” despite scoring well on standardized tests, earning advanced degrees, and receiving professional awards.” The article goes on to say, “Self-declared impostors fear that [in spite of all of evidence to the contrary] eventually some significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual impostors.” (Clance & Imes, 1978).
Once again, we find ourselves wrestling with this parable through the lens of our human experience.
If we stand staring at the guest who doesn’t belong…whether it is because of social marginalization or the imposter phenomenon that makes us second-guess ourselves…we entirely miss the beauty of this wedding banquet and our place in it. People from all walks of life are gathered together, mixing across social margins, joyfully celebrating across all our human boundaries of difference. This scene is filled with people of God, dressed in the garments of that heavenly realm who otherwise may never have come together. People off the streets are dining at the King’s table, celebrating and feasting together as one big family. All are welcomed. This is a crazy beautiful scene, if we keep our focus on the heavenly realm.
Throughout Jesus’ teachings, we are repeatedly offered reminders to set aside the things of this world, including the social marginalization and the self-deprecation that get in the way of understanding our identity as members of God’s beloved family. That, my friends, is what the this realm of God is really all about. We speak this reality each time we hear and repeat the words of our Baptismal Covenant. We renounce all that keeps us from the knowledge and love of God, and commit to seeking and serving Christ in each other. Perhaps it sinks in a little more deeply each time we say it together.
In the realm of God…as we are reminded in the Epistle to the Philippians…we are invited through grace and bound together through our mutual belovedness by God. I invite you to hear the exhortations of this letter, directed to two female leaders of the early church, as the remedy for the impostor phenomenon that keeps us second-guessing rather than accepting the invitation of grace:
-Rejoice in the Lord always;
-Let your gentleness be known to everyone.
-Do not worry about anything,
-Let your requests be made known to God.
-Think about what is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise.
-Be of one mind, doing these things that you have learned, and seen, and heard and received.
Once the imposter of our human second-guessing is cast out, we can finally see the Kingdom of God with open eyes: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
This vision of the Kingdom of God is palpable to me on Fridays. When our Red Door congregation is gathered here for the 12:30 Healing Prayer Service, it is a most interesting and diverse group of God’s people. I wish I could convey the wonder in the eyes of people as they are greeted at the door and welcomed into this space. When we say, “Come in! Welcome! Sit wherever you want!” people are overwhelmed in the best possible way. It may take them weeks to move from the back pew into the center of the nave. That’s OK. Sometimes, they find a window whose colors and radiance offers them a view of the world that is otherwise inaccessible in their lives on the streets. Sometimes, they fall asleep from the sheer gift of being safe, and comfortable. For all, this is Church. There is a lavish generosity given by this parish in the support of the Red Door Healing Service and Lunch, a ministry that is so much more than just addressing physical hunger. The generosity of this parish through the hospitality of Red Door allows God to move through us, speaking directly to the souls of people desperately craving to feel belonging in what can be a cruel and harsh world. And every Friday, God meets us here in profound and amazing ways, to remind us that we…all of us…are beloved people of God.
Perhaps this parable breaks us open and helps us to see the ways in which we have been blinded to our own yearning for belonging. The structures that oppress God’s people in this world…as well as our own pride and our own impostor syndrome…these are human limitations that keep us from the knowledge and love of God. These are what need to be cast into darkness. We are invited and welcomed by a generous and gracious God, called and chosen if we have ears to hear. The waters of baptism invite us to put on the garment of salvation and to be welcomed to this banquet of thanksgiving at God’s table not because of our own merits, but simply because we are invited. We aren’t impostors; we aren’t outcasts; we are, all of us, beloved and welcomed guests.
Now, with gracious and grateful hearts, we can accept that invitation and celebrate together today.