Pentecost 19 ~ Authentic and Messy

October 15 2017 ~ Pentecost 19

READINGS: Exodus 32: 1-14 ~ Philippians 4:1-9 ~ Matthew 22:1-14

“Difficult”, “troubling”, “confusing” and “intriguing” are just some of the words used to describe this morning’s readings; readings that require us to dig a little deeper into what the writer is trying to tell us.

After three months of trekking their way from one wilderness to the next, Moses and the Israelites find themselves at Mt. Sinai.  After some initial time with God, Moses introduces the people to the Ten Commandments and then goes back up the mountain to converse some more with God.

In Moses’ absence, Aaron is left to deal with the day to day issues on the ground.  But as the days go on, the people start to get anxious.  And that’s understandable.  After all, Moses is both their leader and their intermediary with God. What if he’s not coming back? Then what happens to them out here in the wilderness? The people want something to alleviate their anxiety and ask Aaron for a statue like they had in Egypt.  Poor Aaron. He now finds himself caught in that priestly gap between being faithful to God and giving the people what they want.  Finally, he decides to create a statue of a golden calf.

Now, some consider this calf to be a visible seat for our invisible God. Others see it as idol. Whatever the case, the people are thrilled because it’s like the gods they left behind in Egypt – until recently, the only ones most have ever known. Aaron attempts to correct the theology saying, ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.’  But the next day, things get out of hand. God sees and reacts by telling Moses to ‘Go down at once!’

And notice the shift in language. God says, Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.  (I’ve heard one parent say that to the other when their child is misbehaving!) But then God ramps things up, saying to Moses, Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.’  Now that’s quite the offer.  Let God destroy the people and start again with Moses’ family.  It’s reminiscent of the time of Noah.

But, in spite of all the grumbling he’s endured, Moses intercedes for the people saying, what will the Egyptians think of a God who rescues the people only to destroy them when they disappoint you. And then in a gutsy move, Moses reminds God of God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.  For me, this is Moses’ finest hour. And its enough that the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned for the Israelites.

So, this is not a story of an angry, vengeful god reeking mass destruction. It’s a story that speaks to our evolving understanding and relationship with God; a God who not only tolerates but listens to human input.  How different that is from the gods of the day who simply smite anyone who offends or disappoints them.  God is not amused by the actions of Israel but, in the end, God does not give up on Israel, and makes allowances for the underlying fear and anxiety.

 Over the years, the Church has added a few golden calves of our own – signs and symbols of God’s invisible presence – like church buildings, altars, prayer books and various traditions. And sometimes, as with Aaron and the golden calf, theology has been compromised; ‘fudged’ as one writer calls it. Sometimes the gap between being faithful to God and trying to please the people has been blurred so that it’s not always clear if we are worshipping God or our building or a prayer book or a tradition.

Which brings us to today’s gospel, the parable of the wedding feast, or, what one commentator calls “a bizarre little story in Matthew’s gospel”.

In case you missed it, the story is directed at the Scribes and Pharisees. It is part of Matthew’s version of Jesus’ commentary on the religious establishment of his day. It”s written sometime after the Romans destroy Jerusalem around 70 CE.  Some interpret the destruction of Jerusalem as God’s judgement on the heresy of following Jesus.  Others interpret it as God’s judgement on those who reject the way Jesus.  Same event, two different interpretations.

Seeing themselves as faithful Jews who believe that God is doing a new thing in Jesus, Matthew’s community finds itself in conflict with synagogues that take the opposing view.  Conflict within the people of God is nothing new – especially when God invites us into the next chapter. This morning, Matthew seems to be using this parable to assure his community that they are on the right side of salvation history.

So, God is the King and Jesus the bridegroom.  The expected guests, Israel, are invited to God’s kingdom banquet but some ignore the invitation and some even kill the messenger (for example, John the Baptist) That’s when the king extends the guest list to include those once considered outsiders, like outcasts and gentiles, both good and bad.  And that sounds like really good news – except for that harsh ending that tends to bring everyone up short. With the wedding feast underway, the king enters the banquet hall and finds one of his guests improperly clothedWhen the offender has no explanation, he is thrown into “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. Suddenly the king sounds more like a mafia boss than God.

But this is where one really needs to keep in mind that this is allegory.  This has nothing to do with wearing your Sunday best before God. The king provided the robe and we don’t know why the man chose not to put it on.  We don’t know if he thought that having arrived he could enjoy the benefits without participating, or if he disapproved of some at the guests, or if he just couldn’t be bothered.

Matthew allows us to fill in the blank, for this is Matthew’s caution to his community, a reminder that it is God who invites us and willingly robes us in righteousness – that is, in the values of the kingdom. But once we accept the invitation and join the party, we are expected to put on the robe, celebrate and authentically try to live the way of the kingdom. A sense of self-righteousness or complacency has no place here.  We aren’t invited because we belong to the right denomination or use the right prayer book or sing the right kind of music. We arrive here by the grace of God and that’s why we celebrate.

There is much good new for us today, starting with a God who does not give up on Israel and will not give up on us. What’s important is that, having responded to the invitation, our focus is on God and our task is to stay rooted and grounded in the gospel in every aspect of our lives – not just on Sunday morning.

And sometimes that gets messy. But at the end of the day, that’s what enables us to produce the good fruit of the kingdom – like peace, justice, compassion, generosity and faithfulness.

As for the guy who got tossed out, I like to think that the weeping and gnashing of teeth was his realization of what he had lost and that the God of second chances gave him one too.

The kingdom of God is at hand. And when we respond, **the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. And that will get us through the anxious times.

Amen.

Pat Martin +