A Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
October 12, 2014
(Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 20-24; Philippians 4; Matthew 22:1-14)
The story is told of a young man fresh out of business school who answered a “Help Wanted” ad for an accountant.
A short while later he found himself being interviewed by nervous small business owner. “I need someone with an accounting degree,” he began, “but mainly, I’m looking for someone to do my worrying for me.”
“Excuse me?” the young accountant said.
“I worry about a lot of things,” the man said, “but I don’t want to have to worry about money. Your job will be to take all the money worries off my back.”
“I see,” the young accountant said. “And how much does this job pay?”
“I will start you at $85,000.”
“$85,000!!!” the young accountant exclaimed. “How can such a small business afford a sum like that?”
“That,” the man said, “is your first worry.”
Worry. Although we never intend to make it our companion, worry can so easily creep up on us settling into our every thought…and our every action. How wonderful it would be if we could outsource our worry.
Worry is anything but a new. The sorry account of the ‘Golden Calf’ grows from a simple observation on the part of the Israelites: Moses has not returned.
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. (Exodus 32:1). Moses – the one they wrongly credit with releasing them from the oppressive arm of Pharaoh – is missing. And the people are worried.
In fact they are so worried that when Aaron suggests giving him all their gold, they comply. All too soon they are presented with the shiny, lifeless, image of a calf. And moments later they begin preparation for – of all things – ‘a festival to YHWH’.
It is a sobering thought that these recently freed slaves had no intention of changing from one God to another. They only moved from a Moses mediated relationship with God, to a more convenient, and present – moulded-gold mediator.
Or so they think. YHWH’s anger, and Moses’ intervention suggest they have drastically underestimated the significance of their shifting allegiance. Gold is no substitute for God.
What started as a minor concern has blown out into what the Bible calls ‘idolatry’. Their fear, their worry, caused them to make plans to abandon the very one who was busily instructing Moses as to how they might maintain their freedom. As our Psalm suggests: ‘they exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats hay.’ A sad trade indeed.
Fortunately our Bible contains alternate stories. If anyone has reason to worry, it is Paul. He writes to the Philippians while languishing in a Roman prison. Life or death will be his at the pleasure of Rome’s officials.
But Paul is not thinking about himself. He is busy writing to, in his words, ‘my joy and my crown’. He sees this persecuted community as his prize.
As a result, Paul urges their reconciliation and implores his readers to rejoice. He imagines them oosing gentleness and, by prayer and petition, gratefully offering all their concerns to the God Paul insists is ‘near’ (not lost on a mountain). Essentially Paul wants the Philippians to trust the living God.
Paul, it would seem, has every reason to believe God is far from his prison cell. Yet there is a deep awareness of the presence of God permeating this little letter. From his presence of mind and concern for others, I suspect that his assurance of the guarding ‘peace of God which surpasses all understanding’ is not just an exhortation – it is surely also experience.
From death row, Paul is urging his brothers and sisters not to fear, or worry, but to trust and love. Even as he expresses gratitude for their gift to him he is looking to encourage them. It is just not about him. God, he claims, has taught him – perhaps over many years – to be truly content even at the extremes of plenty or none.
As I read I am persuaded that in that cell Paul is utterly convinced of the closeness of God. Perhaps we could say he has outsourced his worry to God.
And then there is our Gospel reading. Matthew’s telling of this kingdom parable is the only record that includes the final confrontation between the king and his poorly clad guest. For many it is an uncomfortable addition. Where is the now expected Gospel grace?
I find it helpful to remind myself of where this story sits in the wider context of Matthew’s gospel. There is an ever increasing conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. This story is both aimed at them and on target.
Fiction writer Flannery O’Connor penned the following words regarding her hard hitting, uncomfortable, parables:
Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable…To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.
I think Jesus is doing something similar here. He is shouting at the deaf Chief Priests and offering an oversized sketch to the Pharisees. He has previously been gentle. He is now being direct.
I suspect that the exclusion of the undressed merrymaker is the pointy end of the story as far as the Pharisees are concerned. Jesus’ parable first celebrates the generosity and the breadth of the gospel invitation. It also insists that there is a proper garb to be worn.
If I am correct, and the story it is targeted at these religious leaders it amounts to an insistence that they, despite their religiosity, are inadequately dressed for the Kingdom even in their immaculate and flowing robes. They are, as Jesus suggests elsewhere, similar to ‘whitewashed tombs’ – beautiful but full of rotting bones.
It is a strange topic to address standing before you clad in these robes. I am aware that such symbols are helpful to some and a hinderance to others. For what it is worth this white robe is a symbol of baptism, the joining with Christ in both death and resurrection. This stole’s colour points to the liturgical season and indicates the role you have asked me to undertake among you. They are symbolise the reality I seek to live among you. I sincerely hope, no matter how you feel about such things, that it helps to hear that in the Kingdom of Heaven such outer displays count for very little.
And of course, it begs the question: What does count?
I am quite convinced there is only one answer: faith. It is our trust in God that counts in the kingdom and clothes us appropriately for the eternal wedding banquet. Nothing more and certainly nothing less. Reliance on anything else is as idolatrous, dangerous, and absurd as the Israelite’s ancient trade of the living God for the shiny, stone dead image of a cow. Like our worry, faith has all the potential to permeate our every though and action.
May our lives before God be permeated with a life-giving trust in the one who is both closer than the air we breathe and preparing heaven for our arrival.