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October 11, 2020 is Pentecost 19A/Proper 23A/Ordinary 26A

Exodus 32:1-14 – The Hebrew people create a golden calf to worship while Moses is receiving the law and commandments from God on Mt. Sinai. Moses convinces God not to destroy them in response to their disobedience.
Isaiah 25:1-9 – On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast…and he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples…he will swallow up death forever. This is the Lord for whom we have waited.

Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 – Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have done wickedly. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God, their Savior.
Psalm 23 – The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.

Philippians 4:1-9 – Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Matthew 22:1-14 – The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

Prayer of the Day
Lord of the feast, you have prepared a table before all peoples and poured out your life with abundance. Call us again to your banquet. Strengthen us by what is honorable, just, and pure, and transform us into a people of righteousness and peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Gospel Acclamation
Alleluia. This is the LORD for whom | we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in | God’s salvation. Alleluia. (Isa. 25:9)

Bread for the Wilderness

We are in the fourth week of a 5-week series entitled, “Bread for the Wilderness.” This time of pandemic is like a wilderness experience. What night we learn from the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness?

ComplaintExodus 16:2-15September 20God provides manna/quail as people complain
ProvisionExodus 17:1-7 September 27Moses strikes the rock and water comes out
LawEx. 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20October 4Moses receives the Ten Commandments
IdolatryExodus 32:1-14October 11Moses finds the Israelites worshipping a calf
GloryExodus 33:12-23October 18Moses sees God’s back, not face

Week 4: Idolatry
Exodus 32:1-14

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

7The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! 9The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now 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.” 11But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

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Last week we heard the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. This week we jump to Exodus 32. Exodus 19-24 is called the Sinai Narrative, which jumps then to Exodus 32-34. The seven chapters in between are “an interlude of Priestly material” according to Bernhard W. Anderson in Understanding the Old Testament, 3rd ed.

The people in this Sunday’s reading likely think Moses has left them for good, or perhaps died on the mountain. Moses had brought down the Ten Commandments, then headed back up the mountain. He had been gone 40 days. It could be that his God has abandoned them.

The people are restless and worried, so they ask Aaron to make gods (elohim) for them. Aaron tells them to bring their jewelry, which is subsequently melted down and formed into a golden calf. Aaron builds and altar. They have a festival, complete with burnt offerings. This is clearly meant to mimic Canaanite fertility religion. Keep in mind that the Pentateuch was written, assembled and edited long after the people had finished their 40-year sojourn in the wilderness, and had crossed the Jordan into Canaan.

God’s wrath burns hot against the people, but Moses talks him out of destroying the people.

What follows in Exodus 33-34 is a restating of the Ten Commandments, but there are some changes, including warnings against graven images. Lawrence Boadt (Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction) suggests that these were two independent bodies of material. The editor of the Pentateuch found a creative way to get them both in, linked by the Golden Calf story.

Students of the Old Testament will recall that the Pentateuch has four sources of material that have been woven together, referred to as the Jahwist writer, the Elohist writer, the Priestly writer and the Deuteronmist writer (J, E, P and D). Exodus 20-24 is Elohist material, likely from the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Exodus 33-34 is Jahwist material, likely from Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Elohist shows a Northern distaste for the priestly pomp of Jerusalem, referring to Moses as a prophet, not a priestly figure.

What was the golden calf? What would a Jewish scholar say? Shlomo Chaim Kesselman engages this very question. It’s an interesting read, filled with some speculation and augmented with rabbinical commentary.

A National Geographic article says that the choice of this idol was no accident. The bull was a symbol of virility and strength associated with the Canaanite god El, and such idolatry would continue into the period of the divided monarchy.

There is a parallel story in I Kings 12:25-33. Jereboam I (922-901) is tired of his Northerners going down to the Temple in Jerusalem. He’s afraid they will depose him and throw in with King Rehoboam, so he sets up golden bulls at Dan and Bethel:

 If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, the heart of this people will turn again to their master, King Rehoboam of Judah; they will kill me and return to King Rehoboam of Judah.” 28 So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 29 He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan. 30 And this thing became a sin, for the people went to worship before the one at Bethel and before the other as far as Dan.[c] 31 He also made houses[d] on high places, and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not Levites. 32 Jeroboam appointed a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the festival that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar; so he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he had made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. 33 He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he alone had devised; he appointed a festival for the people of Israel, and he went up to the altar to offer incense.

Notice the similarities. Almost word-for-word:

Exodus 32:4 – “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 

1 Kings 12:28 – “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

Gaining human strength from the strength of the bull was alive and well in Jesus’ and Paul’s days. In the rite of Mithras, based in Tarsus, where Paul was from, worshippers would sacrifice a bull and drink its blood in order to fill themselves with the strength of the bull and its deity. Drinking blood was forbidden to Jews, but was a common pagan worship practice.

The incident of the worship of the golden calf is narrated in the second chapter of the Quran, named The Heifer, and other Islamic literature. Also important, in Episode 79 of Batman the Golden Calf was nabbed by The Riddler. Just sayin’.

When people have left the familiar, even if formerly enslaved there, and are in the unfamiliar and frightening wilderness, fear and desperation can set in. They can start murmuring. They can turn on their leaders. They can abandon life-giving allegiances for the next best thing that comes along.

Luther said, your god is that which you turn to in times of trouble. A pandemic is a time of trouble. To what are you likely to turn for a sense of safety and security? What idols might we be tempted to set up, hoping they will deliver us from evil. Wealth? Solitude? Conspiracy theories? Hydroxychloroquine? What do you turn to in times of trouble?

Luther would encourage us to let God be God. Times like this are the perfect opportunity to set our focus on the faith that sustained us in our baptism. Faith, Paul Tillich said, is ultimate trust. To have faith in God, is to put our ultimate trust in God. To have faith in Christ is to put our ultimate trust in the Way of Jesus. My professor of systematic theology, Walt Bouman, used to say, faith is trusting in Jesus’ way of being in the world, as my way of being in the world.

What was Jesus way of being in the world? He came as a servant of others. He did not demand his rights, but emptied himself for the sake of the world. He offered care and healing for those who were quarantined in his day, lepers. He ministered to the sick, the poor, the sinners and the outcasts. The challenged the dominant religious authorities for their self-righteous attitudes. To trust in Jesus is to follow Jesus. It is to take up our cross and follow him into a wild, wilderness-like world of uncertainty, trusting that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Matthew 22:1-14 – Are All Welcome?

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe,12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”

RCL gospel texts overview

  • September 6: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
  • September 13: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
  • September 20: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
  • Septmeber27 : Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
  • October 4: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
  • October 11: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
  • October 18: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
  • October 25: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)

We’ve just come through the vineyard parables. The vineyard owner needs workers for the harvest. Some workers clearly feel superior to others, because they arrived earlier and worked harder and are more worthy. But the vineyard owner loves them all the same. That was a parable of grace.

The two groups of people listening take note, the chief priest and Pharisees on the one hand, and the tax collectors and sinners on the other. Let whoever has ears listen.

One group is like a son who refuses to work in the vineyard, but finally goes. The other group is like another son who agrees to go but doesn’t. Jesus: “Truly I tell you, the prostitutes and tax collectors go into the kingdom ahead of you.” Ouch.

Imagine a beautiful young girl. She is smart, but she is not allowed to read or write, go to school, vote, or own property, and she has her whole life ahead of her. She is able to marry. But then, this growing girl is sexually abused by her father. Over and over, for years. She develops dissociative disorders. Her self-esteem sinks to unbearable lows. She tries to take her life. She lashes out at her father, makes seemingly absurd accusations, and is thrown out of her home. In an honor/shame society, she is without status. She has no visible means of support. Men, however, will pay her for sex and pay her well. She finds a way to survive.

She is shunned and shamed by the upstanding of society. She is the bad girl that everyone loves to hate. Men want her, crave her, but denigrate her. Her father, meanwhile, seems like a spotless, upstanding citizen. Society is sleeping around too, just quietly. She is the counterpoint to their imagined self-righteousness. She is jeered, and when in the wrong place, her life is in constant danger of stoning by the “righteous,” some of whom are her clients. She is treated with contempt. She has few options.

Then along comes one who “sees” her. He is neither client nor threat. His angle is not judgment, but compassion and understanding. He understands that life is complex, and sometimes leads us to places we never wanted or intended to go, by forces beyond our control. He treats her as a person. She is welcome to fellowship with him and his followers, even though they will draw contempt and scorn for associating with her. Rule number one: Never show kindness to society’s outcast.

Imagine this beautiful, young girl-turned-woman is transformed by love, acceptance and grace she never experienced at home, by a Jesus who understands that grace transforms, while law cannot. Imagine this woman with no options (but sufficient resources) now provides a safe home for abused or runaway girls. Suppose she supports orphans, cares for widows, and welcomes aliens. She does not go to the Synagogue or Temple because she is not welcome there. She is a sinner, but she cares for the sick, even those who are outcasts. She feeds the hungry. She invites the homeless poor into her house. This sinner embodies Isaiah’s kingdom values (see Isaiah 58).

“Which of these two do you think did the will of the father?”

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom ahead of you.”

They are not blinded by illusions of their own self-righteousness.

In the third vineyard parable, the tenants attempt to take over the whole vineyard, killing the vineyard owner’s servants/slaves and, in time, his son. In the end, the wicked tenants are destroyed. Could this be a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem? We might balk at this theology, but it is in line with the theology of Isaiah’s Vineyard Song (Isaiah 5), which gives the case for Judah’s destruction. Sour grapes. Jesus tells the religious leaders that the kingdom will be taken from them and given to a people who produce the fruits of the kingdom. (The preacher might give some clarity as to what Matthew and Isaiah might say those fruits are.) This is a parable of judgment.

Now we arrive at this coming Sunday’s parable, fully briefed to hear it. Now the image shifts from a vineyard to a wedding banquet. (You’ll want to choose the Isaiah 25 reading to compliment this gospel text.) The king has very specific guests to invite to the party (Scribes and Pharisees), but they can’t come for some reason. He makes a second attempt to invite them to the big party, but they still won’t come, so he gets furious, and destroys them. Scholars like to count Jesus’ predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, but these very subtle ones sometimes get overlooked. Some take it for granted that this “destruction” is hell, a place where God tortures people forever. You decide.

It fascinates me that, more often than not, the kingdom of God is portrayed as a party. Those who aren’t at the party generally choose not to come for their own reasons. They are not locked out; they are invited guests. But in this parable, they choose not to come. They are like the older brother in Luke 15, who refuses to come into the party because he doesn’t want to be in the same room with his sinful brother. He won’t dignify the Father’s gracious generosity. God’s forgiveness and lavish generosity is the theme in the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, and other parables.

When the invited guests can’t (or won’t) come, (they are “unwilling” in some versions), the doors are thrown open to all. The doors to the kingdom are open: Come on in and join the party. Even you who are unrighteous can come in – eat, drink, serve, love…

Then the parable shifts from one of judgment to one of grace. The kingdom is open to all now. The church is a corpus mixtum. Wheat and tares. Tax collectors and Levites. Pharisees and prostitutes. The appointed ones didn’t get the job done, so now the doors are open. Just as anyone who is willing to work in the vineyard is welcome, regardless of the hour, likewise, all who are willing to celebrate in the feast are welcome. Come one, come all.

One could see this as a critique of the Judean leaders who refuse to come to God’s lavish party, who choose self-righteous separation. As a result, Jerusalem gets sacked. Consequently, the kingdom’s doors are opened. All (including the Gentiles) are now welcome to the party.

This new community in Christ will not be built around purity, but instead around faith in Christ and his vision of the coming reign breaking in now. It will be a community of those who fall short of the law, fall short of God’s righteousness, but who trust in God’s mercy nevertheless. This new community will be marked by love, not by moral superiority.

Then, there is one last puzzling wrinkle in the story. If you’re not wearing a wedding garment (an extra-long, whitewashed robe for special occasions), you’ll get thrown out. Good news though: The host/king will provide one for you for free, since most people can’t afford one (just like most people today don’t own a tux). You don’t have to provide your own robe of righteousness, you only need wear the one given to you. Don’t get caught without the robe of mercy and grace. Beware if you think you can get by with your own self-righteous duds. They won’t do. You’re likely to get thrown out on your… Well, you know.

You will be thrown into the “outer darkness,” a phrase only used by Matthew (chapters 8, 22, 25), where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, this phrase used seven times in the New Testament, six times in Matthew and once in Luke. Some read this literally. Other point out that just about everything in Matthew 20-22 has been clearly metaphorical (see 22:1, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”).

We once had a consultant come to our church to meet with a fellowship hall full of key leaders. “Who is welcome at this church?” he asked. “Everyone!” someone replied. “Really?” he said. “REALLY?” The group conceded that while they’d like it to be true, it probably wasn’t entirely. “Well then,” the consultant said, “you’re lying in your bulletin.”

Who is welcome at your church? Who is welcome to serve the poor with you? Who is socially qualified? Unqualified? Who is theologically appropriate? Who a good enough? Are you ready to throw open the doors to the riff raff, and invite them to join the dance? How will you do that? Who will invite them? Are you inviting them to a ritual on Sunday morning, or to be part of God’s transformation of the world? (Hint: They’re more interested in the latter, but if they engage, they’ll come to recognize how much they need the former.)

How might we engage those outside our churches in what God is doing in the world, without expecting them to believe everything, or without expecting them to join or become card-carrying members? What if the paradigm shifted from making members to engaging entire cities around life-affirming, kingdom-focused, Spirit-breathed community efforts?

Why not engage in hurricane relief this month, and invite the community to join you? Let in the riff raff. 🙂 No doctrinal examination required. Just join us. Share your plans to serve the world in Jesus name this year. Peru? CAR? Habitat? ESL? The hungry? The homeless? Have online sign-up sheets. Recruit people to help. Even non-members. Especially non-members. Have children’s events. Publish it in the paper. Have a fall or Halloween theme. In worship sing “All Are Welcome” (ELW 641). Sermon theme: “What if God really needs everyone?” Or “All Are Welcome. Robe and Wine Provided.”

Throw open the doors. Stop wringing your hands over the self-righteous who have left your church, mad at your grace. Throw open the doors. If the self-righteous don’t want to come to your party, I bet there are plenty of others who will.