Tough Lessons – Oct. 12, 2014

Tough Lessons – Oct. 12, 2014

Tough Lessons

The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin
Sermon for Oct. 12, 2014
St. Matthew’s Episcopal Parish
The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin

 One Sunday morning a man came down to the kitchen in his pjs and said to his wife. “I’m not going to church today.”
“Yes, you are,” she said.
“Well,” he replied, “give me one good reason why I have to go.”
His wife said, “Last time I looked you were still their pastor.”

So here we are on the Sunday we launch our stewardship drive. I’m happy to be in church, but I have to tell you I’ve been unhappy all week knowing it was my turn to preach. Ordinarily I would have looked ahead and handed these lessons off to someone else.

Why? You ask. Well in particular I think we have some lessons, that on the surface, don’t make God look to good.

We’ve been following the story of the Exodus as Moses led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And yes there was some grumbling and loss of faith when they were thirsty; and yes they thought about going back to Egypt before God provided daily bread with manna from heaven. Those stories turned out right. But today God has had it with his people.

Moses had been gone, up that fiery shaking mountain for 40 days. Feeling lost without Moses, Aaron, Moses’ brother, asked all the people to make an offering. He asked for their gold ear rings. And that’s where the Golden Calf came from. And when God saw it what does he say? I almost hate to repeat what’s there in the passage.

God said to Moses, “He had to go back down to “Your People.” Note not “My people.” But “Your people.” “They are a stiff-necked people” Then God said, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them…” God wants to sulk and hold on to his anger?

Fortunately the story from Exodus and we heard doesn’t end with an image, an angry God. It doesn’t change the fact that the theology of an angry God, false in many respects, has been around for a long time in different places.

And it doesn’t get any better with today’s gospel. In fact it gets worse. The parable begins with a good picture: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” Nice beginning. Not exactly a vegetarian menu, more like a Texas barbecue. Then look what happens with the invitations: the people invited snub their noses at the King. But it gets worse. There’s violence in this story. The slaves of the King are mistreated and even killed by those invited. It’s an insurrection. A rebellion against the king. This story has gone way off track.

And then the part that I really don’t like — why I was open to someone else preaching — it is the rage of the King who destroyed the murderers and burned their city.

I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but at least for this first part of the parable, I cannot believe it really was something that Jesus taught. Part me says there has to be a link to Jesus here, but how? There are scholars who tell us that Matthew’s gospel was written after the year 70 according to our calendar. That means the Matthew community knew about the destruction of the temple and entire city of Jerusalem, as well as the massive crucifixion of many of its citizens. Living in the Roman Empire those early Jesus is Messiah people knew full well just how vicious and violent kings and emperors could be. This parable may be hidden code language for what a king (think emperor) is like that world, as those early Jesus messiah people remembered the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman army that belonged to Emperor Vespasian? Maybe.

We know aspects of that world. Our news is filled daily with wartime atrocities and fears of it all getting worse. The natural tendency seems to be to use violence to fight violence. But those early Jesus people didn’t take up arms. Except they looked to one who was a failure, whose arms had been stretched on a cross. A cross to any sensible Roman citizen was failure.

Failure? We measure our place in the world by the word “success.” There isn’t time to unpack the idol, or the golden calf of success. Allow me though to confess that success is something we clergy struggle with and that’s because many times in this world the measures used to judge us are the ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash. We should add the letter “D” because that gets us to discipleship, and that might lead us into the second part of this parable, and maybe even an even deeper muddle.

[Note credit for this example comes from the Fail: Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure by J. R Briggs, 2014.]

 

Today’s Gospel parable has a second part. Does it help? The wedding feast invitations went out again, and this time both the good and the bad were inside. That’s a good picture isn’t it? We’re all inside. Well, except for the one guy who wasn’t wearing a wedding robe? He was tossed out into the outer darkness, where there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Opps. It got worse. Can we find something redemptive here?

 

For the moment, though, lets go back to Moses. And we see another side to God. Moses will be the one who helps us commission our stewardship callers. You are not being sent out as representatives of an angry God, or a stern God. But of a God who remembers.

 

Each of you are sent out with a message of promise and hope rooted in a faith grounded in God’s love. Remember how special this story is when Moses talked to God: “Remember,” Moses said, “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 promised I would give to your descendants and they shall inherit it for ever.”

 

Moses implored God for the sake of the future story that was to be told. And that is a story of covenant and how a people live lives that keep the faith that was given to them. They wear the faith. And God walks with them.

 

And walks with them in a special way. The lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.

 

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, (of failure)
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

 

 

 

 

No we don’t talk about an Angry God at St. Matthew’s. We know there is a world measuring everything by success, maybe even power and fame. But here failure is a possibility, because there is a walk called discipleship. No one has to wear the robe of discipleship. That’s the meaning I think of that man in the parable who was given the robe to wear, but took it off. If you come here and want to know this Jesus Messiah, there are certain expectations.

 

I believe the second part of that parable may really be Jesus, because he was so insistent that the disciples live a Kingdom life in which they shared as a family of equals. And it was a welcome to any and all who were hurting, lost, lame, blind, and even those who were failures. I still don’t like the aspects of an angry God in this parable, but I discern that this is to be a community which feeds and nourishes “all sorts and conditions of people” and which involves certain expectations.

 

I wish we read the epistle. There we would have heard;

“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.… Keep on doing the things that you’ve learned and received and heard and seen… And the God of peace will be with you.” From Phillipians.

 

We practice forgiveness. We emphasize mutual upbuilding of one another and serving one another in Christ. And we will talk about making meaningful sacrifices of ourselves, our time, our talents, and our treasure. Yes it involves making and keep pledges. Yes it means we spend less on ourselves, and make sure that our gifts keep this ministry going. It means coming to worship on a regular basis. Growing in our faith. It’s that “D-word”—Discipleship.

 

Now I’d ask that all of those on the team for this year’s Stewardship Program come forward for a blessing.

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