Proper 24A: Transcendence

OLD TESTAMENT:  Exodus 33: 12-23

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

As we have seen, the possibility of Israel’s future survival and well-being depends on Yahweh’s promise and presence.  We are given two speeches by Moses.  They follow the story of the golden calf both in our lectionary and in the Scriptures themselves.  Remember that at the end of that passage, we hear that God has had a change of mind.  Now that is a surprising if not powerful notion.  This omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent Creator of all just changes God’s mind!  So, where, then, are we supposed to put our faith?  In what are we to believe?

In Moses’ first speech (vv. 12-13), the verb translated “know” is used three times.  Moses wants certitude.  He wants to know about the future and the way that God intends on being present for Israel.  Israel is, in effect, having a “crisis of presence.”  They need a sort of guarantee.  So, are you with me or not?

In the second speech (vv. 15-16), Moses’ response seems more insistent, as though he had not been satisfied before.  Without the evidence of continued presence, Israel will appear to be abandoned.  Essentially, Moses wants more from God than what he has gotten.  He wants absolute and unequivocal assurance that God is there.  I suppose we all want that on some level.

YHWH responds again and seems to give over to Moses all that has been asked.  He assures Moses that he has “found favor”.  YHWH is fully committed to Moses and the future of Israel.  The old promise is still intact, even after the calf episode!  The amazing response of God is at the heart of faith.  Because God continues in fidelity, Israel must continue in obedience.  The final verses depict that Moses does get to see God—but not God’s face.  The seeing is “dimly”; the knowing is “in part”, but it is enough.

Now remember in last week’s passage, we are told that God “changed his mind” in response to Moses’ insistent pleading.  Moses tries his hand at the same thing this time, probably pushing his luck a bit.  But God does not fully fill the request of Moses’ to see God.  Instead, Moses is allowed to see only the back of God because seeing God would mean the end of one’s life.  The point is that God does choose to abide with humanity and to be in relationship with humanity.  But God is still God.  God is not our buddy.  God is not our chum.  God is God.  We are not meant to fully understand God.  We are not meant to see all that there is to God.  Perhaps we can only handle the backside of God’s glory.  The rest is, I guess, left up to faith.  But what we come to know of God’s presence is enough.  But, then again, maybe it’s meant to NOT be enough.  Maybe that’s why we keep longing and searching for oneness with God.  And maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be.  After all, what good, really, is a God that we’ve completely figured out?  What faith do we need for that?

And God is described here as one who will be made known not by “seeing” (the usual revelation, I suppose) but in proclamation, in the proclaiming of God’s name.  Hearing the Word of God, then, IS the revelation.  So, what does that say about how real we are?  God is not dependent upon what God looks like.  God’s Presence is made known by hearing the Word of God; hence the language of God—Word, speaking Creation into being, and proclaiming truth and justice.  How comfortable are we, then, with the true revelation of God?  Or are we staring blindly into the abyss as God backside stares back at us?  True meaning comes from hearing and listening and witnessing to the Good News and then being quiet enough to hear the Word again.

 

a.      What is your response to this passage?
b.      In what ways do we demand to see or know of God’s presence?
c.       What does that say about our faith?
d.      Is the God’s Presence that we know enough?  Is it meant to be enough?

NEW TESTAMENT:  1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=279615541

The two letters to the church at Thessalonica are powerful witnesses to the early church’s struggles with the sufferings of its members.  The letters make it clear that separation from leaders, alienation from former friends and family, and ongoing threats of persecution and even death were present in the early church.  Paul’s powerful thanksgiving in the first half of this reading speaks appreciatively to God about a richness and a productiveness in the lives of the Thessalonian believers.  Paul’s goal for these believers was not the “good life” (i.e. material goods), but the “life that is good” (providing meaning).  He cites three evidences of “the life that is good”:  Responding positively to the loving initiative of God, welcoming and accepting caring leaders who cared about them, and tranformation in the lives of the believers.

As he continues, Paul begins to describe events in the more distant past.  It is a way of remembering how the community came to be—receiving the “word” (of God) in spite of persecution.  A meaningful life, for Paul, requires reliable resources, things that can hold and remain through time and testing.  It means that even when things seem to be falling apart, God’s promises still provide us with a center that holds.

But hearing the Word of God is not an individual thing.  It is in community that that Word is affirmed, interpreted, and lived out together.  Otherwise, even the words themselves can become idols.  Living them out in community makes them real, gives them meaning.  But it is a costly meaning.  Being a Christian is not meant to be easy.  This early church had indeed fully committed themselves to this community and to spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.  They were open and available to wherever the Spirit would take them.

You’ll notice at the end of the passage that there is no promise of salvation in some far off future life.  Rather, Paul tells this struggling community of believers that Jesus “rescues” them.  The verb is present tense.  In other words, just by BEING the community of faith, just by BEING the Body of Christ, just by BEING who they are called to be, the Word of God, the very Presence of God, becomes real.  Jesus rescues. Jesus saves. Jesus delivers.  Jesus redeems.  So what are you waiting for?

a.      What meaning does this passage hold for you?
b.      How are Paul’s words relevant today?
c.       What does this say about the faith community and what, as a community, it is called to be?
d.      What is different about recognizing Jesus’ presence and Jesus’ redemption as a present 
reality?  What meaning does that hold?
e.       What sort of letter write to us? To our church? To our society?

GOSPEL:  Matthew 22: 15-22

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Continuing with the questions and discussion having to do with Jesus’ authority, those against Jesus once again tried to trap him.  After all, if Jesus chose God, defying Caesar, he might be arrested.  But if he chose Caesar, he was not who he claimed to be.  But in the same breath in which he declares that paying taxes to support secular and pagan governments is not against the will of God, Jesus goes beyond their original question, declaring that what is God’s must be given to God.  The Kingdom of God embraces all of life.  You cannot pit the “secular” against the “sacred”.

While the writer of Matthew is clear that loyalty to God is a different and a higher category than loyalty to Caesar, this text is not instruction on how people who live in a complex world of competing loyalties may determine what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.  The writer leaves it to the readers to figure out what that we means.  Are we called to be part of this world or the realm of God?  (The answer is YES)

Governments are necessary.  Taxes are necessary.  But the point is that Jesus does not set the two on the same level.  God always has priority. Dorothy Day said this: “If we were to render unto God all things which are God’s, there would be nothing left for Caesar.” As hard as we try, Scripture and God’s Kingdom does not acknowledge a “two kingdom” view.  There is no “earthly and heavenly”, no “secular and sacred”, no “body and soul”.  God is here; God is now.   So if everything belongs to God, then what belongs to Caesar?  That would be the point.  But this is not a treatise trying to get us to ignore government or taxes either.  As we said, they’re necessary.  We humans cannot really function without them.  The question is to whom do we belong?  Whose are we?  Yes, THAT is what you give to God.  Yourself…(And that includes treating each other the way God calls us to treat each other which, I’m afraid, includes paying your taxes.  I’m sure we are called to live responsibly and compassionately in both perceived realms of the world.)

It’s not just a matter of prioritizing; it’s a matter of BEING the Body of Christ.  It doesn’t mean “giving” to God what is God’s.  It means letting go of what is not ours.  It means letting go of the success and the accumulation of wealth for which we have worked so hard.  It means allowing God to be God and becoming the very image in which we were created.  It’s hard; it’s tiring; at times it may even be somewhat dangerous.  In fact, it’s probably easier to pay taxes.  I think Jesus probably knew that.  So, with a sort of nonchalant shrug, he left it up to us to figure it out.  God doesn’t want our tax dollars. God could care less. God wants us–absolute obedience, total commitment, a complete denouncement of all other loyalties.  It means that all these idols surrounding us must be broken, all these distractions must be pushed away.  It means that we let God be God and, even harder, we let ourselves become the image of the one true God.

a.      What meaning does this passage hold for you?
b.      What does that say about our political life and our faith?
c.       How does this change our view of the world?
d.      How does this change our view of our lives?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

My ego is like a fortress.  I have built its walls stone by stone to hold out the invasion of the love of God.  But I have stayed here long enough.  There is light over the barriers.  O my God…I let go of the past.  I withdraw my grasping hand from the future.  And in the great silence of this moment, I alertly rest my soul. (Howard Thurman)
In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t. (Blaise Pascal)
Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world.  But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two.  Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars. (Barbara Brown Taylor)
Closing
In order to be truthful, We must do more than speak the truth.  We must also hear truth.  We must also receive truth.  We must also act upon truth.  We must also search for truth–the difficult truth, within us and around us.  We must devote ourselves to truth.  Otherwise we are dishonest and our lives are mistaken.  God grant us the strength and the courage to be truthful.  Amen  (Michael Leunig) 

Proper 23A: You Are Cordially Invited…

"Parable of the Great Banquet", Brunswick Monogrammist, c. 1525, National Museum in Warsaw, Poland
“Parable of the Great Banquet”, Brunswick Monogrammist, c. 1525, National Museum in Warsaw, Poland

OLD TESTAMENT: Exodus 32: 1-14

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

For forty days and nights, Israel is without Moses and, for them, without access to God. (Now remember that Moses is up there on the mountain trying to hammer out what God intends for the people to do, what God intends for the people to be. Moses is up there working hard to understand. And so he leaves Aaron in charge. And, apparently, he has lost control at the foot of the mountain! I guess they just thought Moses was taking too long!) The people are so anxious about Moses’ return that they seize an initiative of their own to have access to God, without reference to Moses. They appeal to Aaron, who, for them, is probably the next best source of theological authority after Moses. So, one could argue that the idol was in place of Moses rather than God.

And yet, without access to God, they desire to make gods for themselves and Aaron obliges. He authorizes the offering and the religious act of building the calf. Now some would characterize this as the anticipation of a rival to YHWH. But maybe Aaron was trying his best to maintain order, to show that God WAS still there and just made some slips in judgment. Don’t we all? I mean, back away from it a bit. Aaron was the consummate “people pleaser”. He was just trying to make everyone happy.

The “great sin” here, though, is to substitute an available, produced God for the one who is not, in their view, immediately available. The first and second commandments require receiving, accepting, and obeying God. All of that is broken with this act. This is their attempt to domesticate God into something manageable, something they can control. It reduces faith to something palpable. They wanted a visible substitute for God.

We, too, neglect sometimes to sense God’s presence. One could say that it is because we are not looking in the right place (but then, isn’t God EVERYWHERE?); one could say that it is because we are not approaching God in the right way (but, then, what happened to that grace thing?); or one could say that we are turning our backs on God (but, again, isn’t God EVERYWHERE?). Maybe it’s because this God in which we believe is not merely a far-removed deity but is rather a God of relationship. God wants a relationship with us. So perhaps the reason that we do not sense God’s presence has nothing to do with God at all. Perhaps we are just not willing to do what it takes to be in relationship. It takes openness; it takes willingness to change; and it takes seeing beyond ourselves. Rick Morley, in a blog on this, makes the observation this “the root of the problem in Exodus 32 isn’t idolatry. It’s patience.” (available at http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1025?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=proper23a-gospel-2) I think that may be our biggest problem too. We understand that God means the best for us. But we’d rather have it now!

Well, can you imagine what Moses’ reaction was when he came down from that mountain? After all, he was tired. He was looking forward to being back with his people and was excited to relate this newfound knowledge of God to them. And there they were—burning fires, melting jewelry, a half-baked golden calf, and Aaron in charge. Geez! So, he begs God to forgive them. And God does. The plan for disaster is thwarted. You see, even God is open to change, open to the future. Sign me up for a relationship with that God any day over this golden calf thing!

Albert Outler defined sin not as falling short of God’s expectations but rather the act of “overreaching”, of trying to get in God’s business, so to speak. He speaks of it as “our unwillingness to be radically dependent upon God “for life and breath and all things.” It is, therefore, the idolatry of preferring to be “gods” rather than truly human.” (Albert Outler, in Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit, p. 40) We all do it. But once again, God does not give up on the people. God just moves in their direction. You see, God truly WANTS to be in relationship with Creation. Just be patient…

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this passage say about Aaron?
  3. What are our “golden calves” today?
  4. Do we have “visible substitutes” for God? How does that play out in today’s church?
  5. How does this passage speak to you about “sin”?
  6. What does patience have to do with our faith?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 4: 1-9

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

The genre of this writing could be characterized as a “friendship letter”. The Philippians are dear to Paul (who is indeed probably the writer of this letter). They have been generous in supporting his ministry. And yet, not everything is great. They have numerous challenges to their faith. Paul mentions first “opponents”, which have apparently caused them great suffering. Whatever it is, Paul is concerned that the church might divide in the face of this conflict. There is also a concern that the people are being subjected to alternative teachings that would pull them away from the teachings of Jesus. The third struggle in Philippi is a conflict between two female leaders of the congregation named Euodia and Syntyche. (Regardless of the fact that they were in conflict, it should be noted here that there WERE female leaders in the church, putting aside interpretations otherwise.) I think the sad part is that we don’t even know what the conflict was about and yet the ONLY reason these women are remembered is that they were having an argument. Ouch!

But Paul is very careful not to take sides and he pushes for unity in the name of Christ. He urges the Philippians to rejoice and he does so himself. What he refers to is not a superficial cheerfulness but a deep joy in what God has done in Christ and is continuing to do through the saints. The fact that this joy is “in the Lord” reminds us not only that it derives from the Lord, but also that it is shared by those who live in Christ. How else do you experience the joy of the Gospel?

Paul is very concerned about the relationships of those within the Christian community, but he also contends that consideration of others is to be shown to everyone, not just to fellow Christians. He is urging the Philippians to live their lives as a proclamation of the Gospel. It is this way of living that gives us the composure that we get from relying on God. Karl Barth claimed that this joy of which Paul wrote is a joy “nevertheless”. It is a joy that takes root even in darkness. This does not mean that Christianity or living the life of a Christian is unrealistic or unaware of the hardships in life. It is, rather, a way of living by seeing everything that has been made as good, just as God created it to be. While it is clear that Paul never gave up on the idea of the Parousia, the second coming of Christ, there is also a real present tense in the tone of this letter. Paul is reminding the Philippians that God is indeed here and because of that, we should truly rejoice.

Joy is probably pretty elusive for us. In fact, we probably confuse it a bit with happiness. Joy does not mean that all is right with your world; it does not mean eternal happiness. It’s about embracing life; it’s about living the life that is here; and it’s about being able to see beyond yourself. Joy is about relationship with God, with life, with Creation, with others, and with yourself. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said that “joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. Sometime true, unadulterated joy is difficult for us. Why is that? What stands in the way of our “rejoicing in the Lord always”?
  3. What does joy mean for you?
  4. Do you think joy is possible in this life?
  5. What gets in our way of that actually happening in our own lives?

 

 

GOSPEL: Matthew 22: 1-14

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

This parable is packed with many different levels of understanding. You have to remember that for the writer of the Gospel According to Matthew, this was sort of part of an indictment against the religious and cultural establishment and their hypocrisy. There is another version of what is probably the same story told in the fourteenth chapter of Luke’s version of the Gospel that not only does not include anything about the wedding garment, but also is missing any statements of violence and harsh judgment. Most contemporary scholars would say that it is probable that those sections were not in the original story and were added by later redactors because they’re not really in line with our image of the non-violent Jesus.

But, that said, the writer of the passage that we read today places this parable after Jesus has already announced the arrival of God’s rule. In effect, Jesus has already announced the great messianic banquet and the onset of God’s rule in the world and has invited everyone to follow him to it. And there was probably some disappointment and frustration at the number of people who had not gotten on board.

So he uses the very tradition of the time to tell a story. The custom was that you announced that you were having a party on a certain day. When all of the planning was done, you sent word to those who had been invited. It would be mortifying if no one came. And that’s what happened here. The king had prepared an incredible feast for the wedding of his son and it was all going to go to waste. So, the host decided to invite anyone in the village that he saw. The hall is filled and the party begins.

But then a guest shows up without the proper attire. (Apparently, he had not read the small print on his invitation!) Now, there’s another cultural norm that we need to know here. It was not that everyone was required to own a garment appropriate for this occasion. Wedding hosts provided garments to their guests in much the same way that an upscale restaurant provides coats and ties so that everyone will be dressed for the occasion. From that standpoint, the focus changes from what we thought was just a snobby host to a guest that didn’t respect himself or the host enough to prepare to come.

Well, as I’m sure you’re already figured out, this story is not a treatise on how to dress but is rather another allegory about the Kingdom of God. The king, of course, is God. And the wedding banquet is the great messianic banquet, the incredible Kingdom party to which we’ve all been invited. And God, the perfect party planner, provides us the garment to wear.

Dressing, of course, has a lot to do with identity. When you and I read this story, most of us probably have the image of the guest as someone who was a bit underdressed for such an auspicious occasion. But it doesn’t say that. What if the guest was a bit overdressed (overreaching, again)? What if the reason the guest refused to don the wedding garment was because he or she did not want to cover up a new and expensive outfit that really looked good? What if those trappings of the material world had so taken over the guest’s life that the person that he or she was called to become could not be. The garments that we choose to wear depict who we see ourselves to be. They also affect how others see us.

This parable has nothing to do with dress codes as we know them. It has to do with being who you are and who you are called to be by God. It is not merely limited to emulating what Jesus would do. It is painted on a much larger canvas than that. We are made in the image of Christ and we are called to be and to become the Body of Christ. That image is the garment that we are asked to wear to this incredible banquet that God has planned. It’s about more than us.

But most of us come a bit dressed down. Most of us come clothed in the trappings of our lives, holding on to those earthly things that we have so carefully collected and continue to hold onto for security or safety or just to look good. But look at what God has done. God has set the most incredible table you could ever imagine. God has invited every single one of us to come and celebrate at the party. And as we enter, feeling a bit humbled, a bit like we don’t really belong, we are handed a garment that is made just for us, a garment made in the image of Christ. And then God waits. God waits for us to respond. All we have to do is put it on.

Now don’t get me wrong…it’s a hard thing to wear. The buttons sometimes do not line up easily and many times we step on the hem and rip it. And it’s heavy. Because, you see, grace is heavy. It’s hard to wear. And it’s hard to move around, much less dance, when you’re having to worry about carrying justice and righteousness and everlasting peace. But the garment and the banquet hall are so incredibly beautiful, that you will want to stay. And the garment gets lighter and lighter as it becomes more and more a part of who you are. It takes a little work. Change always does. But it is meant to fit. And after all, the word is that the host dances with each of us forever.

The image of this party is a truly incredible one. It is because it was not planned haphazardly. It’s been God’s plan the whole time. We have been moving closer and closer and closer to the great celebration from the very beginning. And now Jesus has shown us how to wear the garment.

R. Paul Stevens says “the last thing we do is the first thing we think about.” He goes on to say that “if we want to have a party with a cake, we first think about the party, then the cake. Then we obtain ingredients and turn the oven up. We do not first turn on the oven, go out to buy the ingredients, and then plan the party. God envisioned the final party and then “thought up” Creation. [God envisioned your place at the table and then created you and the garment that fits.] The whole of our human existence makes sense in the light of the end.”

You see, the party is not in full swing yet, but we have the invitation and we hear the music wafting over our lives. And there really is no fine print. Here…here is the garment for you to wear. Wear it so that you will be what God calls you to be and so that when you sit down to the feast, you will be dressed to experience the joy of the occasion. So, now, “go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.”

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Where do you see yourself in this story?
  3. What are our excuses today for not having time for God?
  4. What, for you, is your wedding garment?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Patience is the companion of wisdom. (St. Augustine of Hippo, 5th century)

 

Joy has no name. Its very being is lost in the great tide of selfless delight—creation’s response to the infinite loving of God. (Evelyn Underhill)

 

Functionalism is lethal when it is not balanced by a sense of reverence. Without reverence, there is no sense of presence or wonder. (John O’Donohue)

 

 

Closing

 

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me!

I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.

We come here in search of a God we know,

whose expectations we anticipate,

whose demands we can tolerate.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed!

Here we encounter a God unknowable,

with an intensity that is both blinding and liberating,

with a pervasiveness that is inescapable.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come;

‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, And grace will lead me home.

Now we proclaim a God experienced

in the hints of ecstacy found in human love,

in the haunting challenge seen in vulnerable eyes.

The Lord has promised good to me, God’s word my hope secures;

God will my shield and portion be, As long as life endures.

 

 (By Katherine Hawker, written for the Union Church UCC of Tekonsha, MI, 1996, available at http://liturgyoutside.net/Pr23OT28P21Outside.html, accessed 4 October, 2011.)