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Pentecost 17 Proper 23, October 9, 2011

Pentecost 17   Proper 23A RCL   October 9, 2011

Exodus 32: 1-14
Psalm 106: 1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4: 1-9
Matthew 22: 1-14

Last week we stood with Moses and the people of God as they received the Ten Commandments. Now, we are twelve chapters later into the Book of Exodus. Moses is involved in a series of trips up and down the mountain to receive from God further amplifications of the law. What happens? The people get impatient. They want a God they can see, so they ask Aaron to make them a god.

Aaron collects their gold jewelry and fashions a golden calf. God sees what is happening and tells Moses to go down from the mountain and get the people to shape up. God is very angry. This account is from the Jahwist writer, the text dating back to about 950 years before Christ. The view of God then was quite anthropomorphic. In some parts  the Hebrew scriptures, God comes across as what I call a bad parent. Part of our study of the Bible is seeing humanity’s increasing understanding of the nature of God, and there is even a hint of it here. Moses reasons with God, and God shows mercy to the people.

We know that the story of God’s people in the wilderness is our story. No sooner has God come to us and given us a framework for our lives and for our community life than we revert to our old gods. Back then it was a golden calf. Now it’s money, power, prestige, getting to the top of the ladder no matter what the cost.

Our gospel for today is Matthew’s account of the wedding banquet, which is quite different from Luke’s account. A king is going to have a wedding feast for his son. This is complete allegory. The king is God and the son is Jesus. Back then you would send out your invitations, the people would accept, and then you would remind them the day of the feast. Well, the king’s slaves go out and the invited guests will not come. He sends out other slaves and the guests still will not come. On top of that, they mistreat the slaves and kill them. This symbolizes the killing of the prophets by the Jewish people. The king sends his army out and destroys these people, and burns their city.

Then the king invites everyone to the banquet, both good and bad people. The people throng into the banquet. This symbolizes the gentiles who are joining the church at this time. But there is one fellow who does not have a wedding garment. We can sum up scholarly comment on this by saying that, if you were invited to such a feast, it was common courtesy to wear a wedding garment, and those garments were easily available. Either you had one in your closet, or they were handed out at the feast. More to the point, in the New Testament, garments symbolize other things, In this case, the wedding garment symbolizes an attitude and behavior in harmony with God’s kingdom, God’s shalom. The person does not have the proper attitude, so he is thrown into the outer darkness. Pretty grim. Scholars tell us that this parable as it stands does not come directly from Jesus. It has been edited and augmented.

Matthew’s gospel, remember, was written about 90 C.E., about sixty years after Jesus’ ministry. The Jews have rejected Jesus. Gentiles are flocking in to follow Jesus. Once again, it would be totally contrary to our Lord’s teachings to interpret this in an anti-Semitic manner.

What we really need to ask is, now that we have been invited to the banquet, do we have the proper attitude? Are we getting a little smug? Thinking back to out first lesson, are we drifting toward some of our old gods, our old priorities, our old ways of thinking and of behaving? Are we doing it our own way instead of taking the time to seek and do God’s will? Easy thing to do, but it gets us off the track.

Charles Cousar writes, “Matthew’s version presses an ancient issue about the quality of our lives, whether in the ordinary dimensions of our relationships we manifest a genuineness, a trustworthiness.   What matters is a life without pretense or guile, that takes seriously the grace given in Jesus Christ.” (Texts for Preaching, Year A, page 524.)

Philippi was a city in Macedonia, a major stop on the East-West road through that area. The congregation was the first community which Paul had founded on European soil. Paul had had a warm and happy relationship with this community. He loved them dearly. This letter dates back to 62 C.E., and perhaps earlier, so a bit earlier than Matthew’s gospel. We are getting a bird’s eye view into the formation of a Christian community.

Paul begins, “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand fast in the Lord in this way, my beloved..” Then comes a direct and intimate bit of pastoral counsel. Euodia and Syntyche are two women in the community who have been at odds. We do not know why. Paul is urging them to be of the same mind in the Lord. Paul asks the whole congregation to support these women, who have worked faithfully with Paul  to spread the good news. What great insight there is in these words. Yes, we are going to have disagreements, but we can always work them out. We may have to agree to disagree, but nothing can get in the way of the love of God for us and between us and among us. Gentleness is so important. The Lord is near, as close as our breath. Don’t worry, pray. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will be with us. Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, do these things. Paul tells the people to keep on doing the things they have learned from him, and God will be with them.

I know that Paul has gotten a bit of a bum rap. We have to remember that he, like us, was a creature of his own age and culture. But this letter shows us a loving and wise pastor.

We are in the kingdom, the shalom of  God. Paul outlines for us some of the key values of that shalom. Gentleness, respect for each other, and compassion for each other, are central to our life together and to our ministry.

Matthew’s gospel says that everyone, good and bad, is invited to the feast.  His congregation was a mixture of Jews and gentiles learning to follow Jesus together. Many of the early congregations were going through the same process. Today, we face other issues which can threaten to divide us. But they will not divide us, they will not cause rifts such as that between Euodia and Syntyche, if we focus on being people of the kingdom, people of God’s shalom, people of compassion.

Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, that we may continually be given to good works, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

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