Matthew 22 & Exodus 32

Golden Calves and Wedding Garments

By The Rev. Carol Cook

Anyone read the paper this morning? Yesterday, the top headline was “International Money Fund warns of worldwide meltdown as financial crisis rages.” It certainly didn’t fill my heart with hope. Are you, like me, watching the papers every day? Like most Americans, are you worried about your future, your job, your survival? It sort of fills our cognitive horizon, doesn’t it? Hold that thought for me while we explore our Gospel lesson, and we’ll tie it all together in the end.

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a king, putting on a banquet for his son’s wedding. He sends out messengers with cars to bring the guests back to the party, but people are either too busy or too mean to be bothered.

Notice the attitudes here, because it turns out that attitude is important. Two of the guests are too busy with their work to come celebrate with the king. That’s like Queen Elizabeth offering to send the private luxury jet to Fremont to pick you up so that you can come to a party at Buckingham Palace, and you begging off because tomorrow is trash day and you want to clean out your garage. And what about the mean guests? They actually grab the messengers, beat them up, and stuff their bodies into the trunks of cars. I do not want to be sitting next to one of them at a banquet.

So the king burns up that part of town, and sends more messengers out to the street to invite everyone they find to this party. That’s everyone. The people waiting in line for the ATM. The people at the laundromat. Everyone in all the cars ahead of you on the freeway on the way home from work. Look around you at a bus-station or an emergency room. That’s who the king declared to be worthy of this banquet. Cool.

So here we are, us regular people, all settling down to tuck into this fine banquet when the host comes by and sees somebody not dressed for a wedding. Well are we surprised? I mean I assume that nobody was particularly dressed up. I don’t put on my best vestments when I go to the gas station. In Livermore, where I live, the uniform is shorts and a tee-shirt. See? Casual. So why does the host pick on this particular poor guy? And why tie him up and throw him into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. I mean, doesn’t that seem a bit severe to you?

If the king’s feast is meant to stand for the heavenly banquet, where all of us gather in the presence of God and of each other to be fed and redeemed and resurrected and held in love, well sign me up. I want to be there. I want to be here whenever we re-create that heavenly banquet with our corporate communion. I want it all.

But is Jesus telling us that if we’re not careful to get things right, we’ll be cast into outer darkness? What if, with the best intentions, we accidentally get it wrong? Are we doomed? Well, no. And I think that the good news lies in our having good intentions in the first place.

Whenever the Bible tells us that there are gnashing teeth, it always refers to the wicked. Remember this: It is only the wicked who gnash their teeth. When the host decided that this guest belongs where teeth are being gnashed, it is because he has discerned that this person is, in fact, wicked. Imagine a guest at a wedding feast who throws food, tells off-color lies about the bride, has nothing but negative things to say about marriage, and shows no respect for either his host or his fellow guests. When the host asks where is your wedding garment, it’s possible he is asking not about clothing but about attitude. He could as easily say “where is your respect? where is your joy? where is your gratitude? where is your spirit of celebration?”

See, I think we’re all responsible for what we bring to God’s party, and I think it should be our very best. I’m also pretty sure God is not worried about how we dress. I believe the kingdom’s call to us is to clothe ourselves in gratitude and love. We can choose to put on a spirit of eager expectation, loving hospitality, gratitude, and gracefulness every morning. That way, when we are called to God’s table, we will be absolutely ready with the garment God intends for us to wear, which is face-shining delight in God and in each other.

Jesus is telling us that every one of us makes a difference. Our attitude can bless or curse. We know from our own lives that this is true. Scorn, superiority, condescension, disdain can scald like boiling water. And that is true whether we are the scorned or the scornful. We are responsible for every attitude we bring into every situation just as surely as we are responsible for the clothes we wear and the expression on our face. And we are responsible not just to God and to ourselves. We are equally responsible to the one who sits next to us at God’s table.

Okay, let’s get back to the Israelites in the wilderness at the mountain waiting for “that Moses guy who led us out of Egypt” to come down from the mountain. They were lost, they were worried, they were a little panicky, so they told Aaron that they wanted him to make them a God like the Egyptians had gods, so that they could feel more secure. So Aaron took their gold; standing for all their savings, all their worldly wealth, all the symbols of their security and put them all together into one golden calf, so that they could look at that and feel secure.

Now I can actually muster some sympathy for the Israelites. I sort of feel the same way every day right now, watching my security and my wealth slide into memory as the economy crumbles. But then God reminds me that these people were like the guest without the wedding garment – he calls them ‘hard necked’, we might call them ‘unbending’ and they are quite attached to their grievances.

They watched as God parted the Red sea to bring them across. They were led by a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. The saw God provide manna every day and quails every night. They watched as God brought forth water from a rock for them. And they still complained. They still failed to trust God. They still wanted to take their salvation into their own hands, and gaze every day on the golden calf that represented their security.

These people are sitting at the wedding banquet and they have no wedding garments. They have missed out on the serenity that comes from trusting God in every circumstance. They don’t have the spirit of pleasure and delight that comes from a daily encounter with God. Human beings were created for joy. They simply cannot grasp it. Perhaps they are just too afraid to look to God for joy.

We started out remembering that thing that’s filling our horizon every day. How different are we from the Israelites sitting at the foot of the mountain, waiting for yet another sign that everything will be okay? They still have the manna and the quail. They still have the pillars of fire and smoke. They still have water from the rock. But they’ve somehow forgotten to trust in God.

We still have the beauty of creation. We still have the love of our community. We still have God’s declaration of our worthiness, and his invitation to a banquet of celebration and joy every day. But even as we try to raise our hands in worship and our hearts in ecstasy our little practical eyes keep sneaking over to the newsstand to see how our Golden Calf of Wall Street is faring.

It’s understandable, and it’s hard to resist, but if we wake up every morning and ask God just for today to help us keep our eyes and hearts on the Reign of God, we are being obedient and good wedding guests, even if we slip. We’re all here today, right? That’s the perfect wedding garment and the best attitude.

I’m not much for snappy sayings on church signs but when I was riding my bicycle around town a while ago, I came across one on Grace Church’s sign. It said “If you have Jesus in your heart, please inform your face.” I laughed out loud. It’s great advice. Jesus in our hearts is the invitation, and the smile is our wedding garment.

Think. Pray. Love each other. Keep coming back. Amen.

Copyright 2008, Carol Cook. Used by permission.