Year A: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (October 12, 2014)

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Teaching the Text
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Exodus 32:1-14
I used to relish picking arguments with a few of my more “fundamental” brethren (rarely are any of my “sistern” fundamental, for some reason) —  over the statement “God never changes.” Sputtering, they would assert vehemently that, if God could or should ever change in any manner, then surely the fate of the world as we know it would hang in the balance! Supposedly, the created order depends on God not being able to exercise an option available to each and every one of us weak mortals — the ability to change one’s mind.

Of course, I would then cite Exodus 32:14 (which — being part of “the word of God” — is unassailably inerrant and infallible.) There proceeded much gnashing of teeth, and of course, there was no real purpose served by any of it. (I did eventually reform my ways and give up on such exercises.)

All of this to say, just what are we to make of the idea that God sometimes needs input in order to make up God’s mind? I’m probably glad, if the truth were told, that God has not acted instantly upon every stupid decision I have made in my lifetime — I have had my share of “golden calf” moments. 

Doesn’t this have something to do with the concept of God’s grace?

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Truer words have never been spoken than those in v.6 — we have sinned, as have all those who have come before us (and, presumably, will those who come after us.) And thus, we have a problem!

I am thankful for those who answer the call of Moses and “stand in the breach.” Parents, teachers, preachers, friends…all of these at one time or another are found in the role of intercessors on our behalf. Sometimes, their intercession comes in the form of a swift kick to the behind — for us, not for God. Anyway, thank God for the “breach-fillers!”

Isaiah 25:1-9
Later preachers and seers would echo Isaiah’s bold words from this passage. Paul found his image of “death is swallowed up in victory” here (see 1 Corinthians 15:54) and John’s Apocalypse brings the message that “God will wipe away the tears” from all eyes (see Revelation 21:4.)

I am a bit partial to the images of “rich, marrow-filled food” and “well-aged wines” as avatars of God’s graciousness. But, it is only fair to note that, sometimes, God’s work takes the form of fortified cities reduced to ruin — and the abode of “aliens” resigned to the midden heap. 

Those final words are the kind of things “that make you go, hmmmmm….” (Kudos to Arsenio Hall.)

Psalm 23
Okay, you know me well enough by now to know that I don’t really try to add to the commentary available for passages like Psalm 23. What else can I say?

I do love the image of the “darkest valley” — perhaps I hear strains of Marvin Gaye or Diana Ross on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” — to remind me that there is nowhere I will ever be, that God is not already there.

Philippians 4:1-9
Two godly church women in a squabble — who says the Bible isn’t true to 21st-century life? (A pastor’s life, anyway!)

Euodia and Syntyche were fomenting division in the church. (There is a nice play on words in the Greek here — their names mean “pleasant aroma” and “dwelling together” — and the fight they were having was distinctly odorous and unharmonious.) What is the antidote to such church-rending?

Rejoice in the Lord…let your gentleness be known…don’t worry; instead pray. Think on the kinds of things that are honorable, true, pure, just, et cetera. You’d be surprised how the peace of God can fill a space when we are willing to back down, chill out, and invite God in!

Matthew 22:1-14

Remember what I just said about the handiwork of God sometimes resulting in leveling the town? Well, here you go…here’s a parable for you!
The requirements for being “chosen” in the kingdom of God are beyond mysterious sometimes.Anybody remember the old commercial from American television in the 1970’s — “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature?”
Whatever else may be said, the invitation to come to the Lord is not to be taken lightly or trifled with. That’s about all I’ve got to say about that.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

As a Lutheran pastor serving an Episcopal parish, I sometimes found myself wearing the wrong liturgical clothes.  It’s nothing important, just little variations.  Like at an installation – Lutheran pastors would normally wear their alb and a stole the color of the season, red being reserved for the ordinations of pastors and consecrations of diaconal ministers and commissioning of associates in ministry.  Not so in the Episcopal Church.  If you’re just attending and not serving, you wear a black cassock and white surplice with red stole.  An irreverent Episcopal layperson of my acquaintance refers to the resulting processional as the “penguin parade.”  I fairly quickly caught on and thank goodness the Episcopalians were very understanding and didn’t throw me out.

The man in our gospel lesson was not so lucky.  This is one of the more peculiar and puzzling plot twists in all of Jesus’ parables. He was just standing on the street corner when someone comes by and says, “Hey, do you want to go to a party?”  He says, “Sure, why not?” and so he goes.  And before he can finish his salad, somebody comes by and says, “Arrest that man, he’s not wearing a tux.  Throw him out of here!”  It leaves us scratching our heads and wondering, “What was that all about?” Most of us end up muttering “I don’t get it, I really don’t get it.”  Well, let’s see if we can sort this out.

Three of our lessons today refer to celebratory meals: Isaiah 25:6 “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich foods.”  Psalm 23: 5 “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” And our Gospel lesson all about the wedding banquet the king was giving for his son.  Throughout the scriptures such meals are an image of the kingdom of heaven.

In Isaiah it is vision of what God is aiming at, what God’s plan and hope for all humanity is, where life is leading us. Did you hear, “for all peoples?”  In the next verse, Isaiah goes further and talks about God destroying death – not just for some, but for everyone “And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations, he will swallow up death forever.”

This hope of a safe place with God is reflected in the psalm’s use of “prepare a table before me.” While the psalmist is not likely to have thought of this in quite the same universal way that Isaiah did, the image, coupled with the next line about dwelling in the house of the Lord forever, is a reflection of the deep awareness of the Hebrew people that their life and death were all in the hands of God and that God’s love and provision were to be trusted.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us very clearly that this is a parable about the “kingdom of heaven.”

This is perhaps best understood as the community of those who have given themselves completely to following the will and way of God in the world.  To paraphrase Paul in Philippians; wherever you find folk who are pursuing, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable . . .” there you will find the kingdom of heaven. It is something God creates and that we human beings participate in at God’s invitation.  It is very clear in both Isaiah and Matthew that everyone is ultimately invited.

But, not everyone accepts the invitation.  This is the subject of the parable. It is an exploration of two basic facts; not everyone who is invited decides to come and, not everyone who comes is really ready to be there.

Jesus is telling this parable in Jerusalem and he is pointedly telling it to the chief priests and elders,  people who have turned down the invitation to the kingdom first issued by John the Baptist and then by Jesus.  Throughout the gospel of Matthew, Jesus has been saying what he started saying way back in chapter 4, verse 17, “From that time Jesus began to preach saying, ‘Repent, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’”

But a lot of people didn’t want to repent, they didn’t want to turn around and go in a new direction, they didn’t want to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, they were very happy going about their business as they were.  They were much too busy with their financial and cultural and familial obligations to respond to an invitation to get involved in dangerous things like justice and mercy and caring for the poor and the suffering.

As the parable unfolds, the king responds to their snub with fury, and then he says, “Well, if the supposedly good people won’t come, let’s open the doors to everybody.”  Now, this is a message we in the modern world want to hear.  The kingdom of heaven is inclusive, everybody’s welcome.

But, actually there’s a catch, and it’s a catch most of us don’t like to think about.

My old friend Ellenita Zimmerman put it best I think, “It is true that God loves you just the way you are. It is also true that God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”  While the going out and gathering together everyone “good and bad,” and bringing them in to the banquet is a clear proclamation of the fact that God invites all to come; the expelling of the man who did not have a wedding robe is an equally clear expression of the fact that those who come to the party are expected to respond to the love of God by changing their lives.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, there is a world of hurting people around us in desperate need of a touch of the kingdom of heaven in their midst.  There are needs crying out from across the world and across the street.  Homelessness, poverty, hunger, war, environmental disaster, etc. etc.  We have been invited to carry the kingdom to these people, we have been called to go and get them and bring them into God’s banquet of love.  And the question is, what are you going to do?  How are you going to respond?

Amen and amen.

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