By R. William Carroll
I have a confession to make. Perhaps to some of you it won’t appear to be a confession so much as a brazen attempt to bolster my street cred with other nerds. But here it is: as a teenager, I loved to read science fiction. I wish I could say I read only the good stuff. But I read schlocky, hokey stuff too. Occasionally, in a moment of regression, I still do. But I don’t have much time for that these days. If I’m lucky, I see the movie instead.
One of the books I wish they’d make a movie about is Piers Anthony’s Split Infinity. The story is about a man named Stile. Stile is a serf on planet Proton, a planet where the citizens are incredibly wealthy because they control the galaxy’s supply of fuel for interstellar travel. There’s also a parallel magical universe, from which the book takes its title, but that’s not what interests me. What fascinates me about the book is what it refers to as “the Game.” Stile excels at the Game, which is actually an infinite number of tests of physical and mental prowess, as well as games of chance, overseen by a giant computer. In the Game, serfs and citizens compete together. There is a whole culture of gambling built around it. The Game is the great equalizer. In fact, Stile eventually wins the “tournament,” with its coveted prize, citizenship.
The story resonates with me, I think, because it coheres with some of the deep myths about America—myths which are just true enough to capture our imagination and just false enough to leave us restless and unsatisfied, wanting something more. The Game connects with our deep, abiding belief in equality and social mobility. It is the stuff of Horatio Alger novels. The Game is the guy who works his way up from the mailroom and marries the boss’s daughter, only to take over the whole company. It is Anne Hathaway, being raised by a single mother, suddenly discovering that she is, in fact, a princess. It is Julia Roberts, the hooker with a heart of gold, being swept off the streets by Richard Gere. (I apologize for the problematic gender politics, but that’s the way this particular story often gets told.)
The Game is like the lottery and reality T.V. shows, as well as our belief that any one of our children could grow up to be president. (How many adults still believe that about themselves?) In a society like ours, there is both an unprecedented degree of social mobility and the lie, reinforced by a great deal of denial, that we are all somehow middle class. The Game is our belief that, if we hit tough times, we can all pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. It is both the best and the worst thing about the American people. We are incredibly tough, creative, and resourceful, but we are also unaware of our real limitations.
Now I wouldn’t trade the positive side of the American dream for anything, but I do have to ask us how it might be transformed by the Gospel. Perhaps, if we looked more closely at today’s Gospel, we might rediscover forgotten parts of our heritage as Americans. Maybe it would call us back to interdependence, sacrifice, and seeking the common good. Our ancestors lived these values out through cold New England winters, in urban ghettoes, reservations, and pioneer farming communities. They exemplified these values during the fight for Independence, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Civil Rights movement. They struggled together side by side in Grange Halls, picket lines, and churches.
In the parable of the wedding feast, which we heard earlier this month, we learn that the invited guests are not all respectable people. If the ministry of Jesus provides any clue, they include tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. They are certainly not only the people who “work hard and play by the rules.” None of them has earned a place at the table. They aren’t even the first round draft choices. Rather, they are only invited at the last minute, when the real guests—the red carpet people— send in their regrets. What does the king say? “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” And so his slaves go, and they gather all they find, both good and bad alike, that the hall might be filled with guests.
In God’s Kingdom, we have no status, except that which is given us by our host. We have no privilege, save what is conferred by God’s mercy. We are invited into the Kingdom only because we are the kind of needy, broken, imperfect people who would come when God called. Some few of us may be winners by the world’s standards, but even those are filled with doubts and fears. The rest of us, frankly, are losers. The victory that assures us of citizenship in the Kingdom is not our own—but GOD’s.
We see God’s Kingdom lived out, week by week, in the Eucharist. From ancient times, this meal has been seen as an anticipation of the heavenly banquet. Here, all kinds of people, bad and good, all are gathered together. If you don’t believe me, take a look around you! In the Kingdom of God, all kinds of people are welcome. Constantly, they feast together at God’s abundant Table. One of the Church fathers, John Chrysostom, put the matter this way:
“Week by week you come to the Lord's table to receive bread and wine. What do these things mean to you? Do you regard them merely as some kind of spiritual medicine, which will purge your soul, like a laxative may purge your body? Or do you sometimes wonder what God is saying in these simple elements? Bread and wine represent the fruits of our labor, whereby we turn the things of nature into food and drink for our sustenance. So at the Lord's table we offer our labor to God, dedicating ourselves anew to his service. Then the bread and the wine are distributed equally to every member of the congregation; the poor receive the same amount as the rich. This means that God's material blessings belong equally to everyone, to be enjoyed according to each person's need. The whole ceremony is also a meal at which everyone has an equal place at the table.”
Brothers and sisters, this is our mission as the Church, to create a foretaste of God’s coming Kingdom. This lies at the heart of one of our baptismal vows, which we often use as an informal mission statement in the parish I serve: “Seeking and serving Christ in all people.”
We seek and find Jesus, and God’s Kingdom draws near, whenever we welcome the new friends God sends our way, including them in the life of our community of faith. We seek and find Jesus, and God’s Kingdom draws near, whenever we feed the hungry, house the homeless, or clothe the naked. We seek and find Jesus, and God’s Kingdom draws near, whenever we speak out for the voiceless and stand in solidarity with those who have none but God for their helper.
Beloved, we are the Church, because, in Jesus, God’s joy has entered our world. And we, even though we are not worthy, we (even we ourselves!) have been invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb.
The table is spread. The invitation is God’s. And ALL are welcome here!
The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson.