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Toshiki Toma

Grace in paradox

9. október 2016

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. -Amen.

Today’s gospel is called “the parable of wedding feast”. It is not difficult to follow the text, but it might not be easy to understand the point of the parable. So let me do a very rough summary first.

The king invited people whom he knew to his son’s wedding feast. But those who were invited were not willing to go. So the king invited strangers in the town instead. They came as guests, but among them was a man who hadn’t dressed appropriately for the feast. The king got angry and punished the guy.

Putting it simply, the king is God and the wedding feast is a symbol of Jesus’s coming to the world. Those who didn’t want to go to the wedding feast are Jewish people at the time, the guests who were invited later were the gentiles, namely non-Jewish people like us, and the guy who was not appropriately dressed is someone who doesn’t try to answer to God.

And the message of this parable is that we are invited to the kingdom of God, but should answer God in an appropriate way, thanking him for his grace.

This is the original meaning of the parable, but what does it mean to us, who live in the 21st century? We need to digest this parable for us ourselves to find the message for us today.

If we simply compare going to the wedding feast to attending church, we have to admit that so many who are invited, but don’t attend. Why don’t they go to church?

A young refugee boy in Iceland told me a year ago, “Mr. Toshiki, I like to go to church, but when I told my friends at school about it, they were all surprised and asked me, ‘Why do you go to church? It’s boring!’ What should I do?”

If young people think that going to church is boring, ok, that’s largely the responsibility of us priests, and I feel sorry about that. But maybe attending church and believing in Jesus are not really the same thing. There are certain people who don’t partake in the holy eucharist even though they believe in Jesus.

There are also people who don’t want to believe in Jesus as our Savior. Some people ask, “What good is it to believe in Jesus? What can I get by going to church?” All right, this is a fair question. How do we benefit from believing in Jesus and following him?

The other day I read news about our brother, Ali Nasir, an Iraqi asylum seeker who was baptized here in Iceland and then deported to Norway, then from there to Iraq. He is now in Iraq and facing a very difficult time, since his family has abandoned him because of his conversion to Christianity. I feel so sad, hearing that. How did Ali Nasir benefit by becoming Christian?

And I know many of you understand his situation through your own experiences. Some of you have experienced even worse things, like having your lives threatened. Being a Christian can even confront us with more terrible situations than just asking the question, “What’s in it for me?”

Nevertheless, we believe in the God of the Trinity, the Father, the Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. And our faith in God brings us so many good things. But I would like to single out one example of a benefit from our faith. It is that we can recognize the good things in our lives as grace from God.

When the news about Ali Nasir appeared on the net, an Icelandic man wrote a commentary saying, “Maybe he should return to his previous religion.” I have to say that this is a comment by someone who does not understand what faith can mean to a person, or the value of faith.

Unfortunately, this attitude is quite common among those born into Christian society, and never had to reflect upon what it means to be a Christian, or to become a Christian. These things were granted to them from birth.

But when we begin to take everything for granted, and begin to see everything as a matter of course or inevitable, we are caught in a trap. This trap blinds us, and makes us incapable of perceiving the grace of God. We see things just as “a matter of course.”

Things that are good for us in our everyday lives come to us through the grace of God; and we should be thankful for them to God. But once we begin to think our blessings are naturally granted to us, we lose the feeling of gratitude.

We don’t understand the value of those blessings we enjoy any more. Being able to recognize the grace of God as grace is one benefit of having the faith: but in the trap of taking things for granted, even our faith can be weakened.

Five years ago, Japan suffered the immense disaster of earthquakes and a tsunami. About 20.000 people lost their lives. The damage was wide spread over the country, affecting people geographically, materially and mentally. People had to face difficulties whether directly or indirectly.

After this disaster, a strange trend occurred among the Japanese people. It was that the rate of marriage took a sharp increase. At first, I thought that this was a kind of joke. What connection can there be between natural disasters and the rate of marriage? But it was not a joke.

Many young people said, “I don’t want to be alone anymore. I want to be with my family. That’s why I decided to get married”. Many Japanese people had thought that everything they enjoyed in their everyday lives was “a matter of course”. Food, water, electricity, roads, subways, houses, telephones, and so on and so forth.

They didn’t notice that they had lost their understanding of the value of family in such „blessed“ daily lives. “What’s the good of getting married and having a family? It would just tie me down. I lose my freedom!”

But when they were forced by the disaster to understand that those things were not “a matter of course”, these young people recognized the value of the family, the value of connection with other people whom they loved. In a way, Japanese people were rescued from the trap of taking things for granted through the sacrifice of precious lives.

Jesus often teaches us by the use of paradoxes such as, “So the last shall be first, and the first last.”(Mat. 20:16); or “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”(Mk.8:35) Again, paradoxically, it may be that we can understand the value of faith, the value of grace from God, more clearly in times of crisis than when we are enjoying our blessings in a secure environment. If this is true, why is it so?

One answer may be that we can distinguish the importance of things better when we are in need, than when we are satisfied. We can recognize the value of things better when we are impoverished, persecuted or facing injustice. To be able to live as a human being, to be able to enjoy our freedom, to be able to spend a day without hearing the sounds of bombs and missiles; this is more important than having a fortune or becoming famous.

When I see the people seeking asylum here in Iceland, I have never heard someone say, “I want to become a rich man”. No, everybody says, “I just want to live an ordinary life”. And there is wisdom in this.

On the other hand, those who live in a blessed situation always run the risk of being caught by the trap of taking things for granted. I think that here in Iceland we should be especially aware of this risk, whether in the church or outside the church. We need to recognize the grace of God as grace.

We receive so much grace every single day. We enjoy so much privilege as the children of God in a safe country. If we cannot see these blessings as grace, then we risk losing our souls.

Jesus says: “For many are called, but few are chosen.”(Mat. 22: 14) But it is not a difficult thing to be chosen. We just need to answer for the g race from God in the appropriate manner.

A discussion has been taking place in the church in recent days, concerning how best to support people seeking asylum. That’s a good thing, people are thinking! But we must always bear in mind one simple truth through the discussion.

It is that those who are seeking for asylum here; you who had to leave your home countries in order to be Christians, those who were forced to flee your home countries because of war, tyranny or injustice; you know the real value of freedom, peace, democracy and the Christian faith, much better than we know.

So I ask you, help us. Help us by telling us about the value of the faith that you have found through your experiences. Help us by sharing your gratitude for freedom and peace. Help this church to see the grace of God as grace. You do not only receive support: you also help our church. And when the people come to understand this grace, they might even feel more attracted to the church, and enjoy attending.

So when the church tries to support the refugees, indeed it could be that the refugees are supporting the church. This is also a paradox of Jesus, grace in paradox.

The Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Amen.


Matthew 22:1-14

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. And he sent out his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding feast, and they were unwilling to come.

Again he sent out other slaves saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited, “Behold, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and my fattened livestock are all butchered and everything is ready; come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went their way, one to his own farm, another to his business, and the rest seized his slaves and mistreated them and killed them. But the king was enraged, and he sent his armies and destroyed those murderers and set their city on fire.

Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main highways, and as many as you find there, invite to the wedding feast.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered together all they found, both evil and good; and the wedding hall was filled with dinner guests.

“But when the king came in to look over the dinner guests, he saw a man there who was not dressed in wedding clothes, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without wedding clothes?’ And the man was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”

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