Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Ever-expanding circles: a sermon (Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14)

There is a wealth of material in today’s lessons.  I had a wide range of choices from which to draw.

For example, if I focused only on our lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, there are numerous choices just in that reading:

·        The call to “Rejoice in the Lord always” is one that has been frequently set to music.  It was the basis of one of the greatest anthems by the English composer Henry Purcell, and it was also the source of one of the more popular Sunday-School “choruses” of recent decades.

·        The reference to the “peace of God, which passes all understanding” has found its way into one of the best-loved traditional blessings in the church’s worship life, a blessing which will conclude today’s service.

·        The call to the reader to note “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure …” etc. and to “think about these things” is a healthy corrective to the sort of Christians who are far more concerned about the things they are against than the things they are for, and who, as a result, have frequently allowed themselves to develop very dirty minds, and (sadly) have wallowed in this mental gutter in the name of their faith.

Then, if I focused only on our gospel lesson from Matthew, I could have mentioned that Jesus’ parable of The Great Banquet is found both in Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s gospel.  While it’s obviously the same story in both gospels, there are real differences in the detail.  Matthew shares the story in more detail than Luke, and Matthew’s details are mostly what we’d call “gory details”.  Matthew passes the story on in a much darker, and a much more violent, way than Luke. 

And that’s typical.  Frequently, if Matthew and Luke tell the same story, or similar stories, Matthew’s version of the story is much darker – and much more violent - than Luke’s version.  The best-known example of this contrast is in their different accounts of the birth of Jesus.

But, with that all, we remember that a parable is not an allegory.  In an allegory, every part of the story has a meaning beyond itself.  In a parable, there is a single core meaning to be drawn out of the whole story. 

In both versions of this parable, this core meaning is that God continually expands the circle of God’s hospitality, fellowship, and love; just as the host of the banquet eventually extended the invitation list far beyond the original “A-list” of preferred guests.

And then we come to our lesson from Exodus.  It reflects an important moment in our understanding of God, both within the Hebrew Scriptures, and within the whole story of the peoples of God.

The story begins when Moses has been up the mountain talking with God for a long time.  The people at the foot of the mountain were getting impatient.  Many assumed that Moses had died up there on the mountain.  They asked Aaron to make them something to worship.  So Aaron, … Aaron the brother of Moses, … Aaron the priest, … Aaron gave in and organised the making of a golden calf as a focus for the people’s devotion.

The rest of the story is about God getting seriously annoyed at this action, and about Moses talking God out of taking action from his annoyance.

In a real way, this story is about a crucial turning point in the history of the peoples of God, a crucial change in our understanding of what the One God is like.  Prior to this, the people who followed the One God understood this One God as a god of wrath, a god primarily to be feared.  This story moves this understanding of the One God much more in the direction of a God of grace, a God primarily to be loved, and to be thanked.

But, you know, this issue did not resolve itself in the time of Moses.  Today, there are still people – people who are worshippers in Christian churches – people who are worshippers in other faith communities – people who emphasise a belief in a small-g god of wrath and who declare that those of us who worship a big-G God of grace and mercy are somehow less than faithful.  This issue did not resolve itself in the time of Moses.  It is still with us today. 

As people of mainstream faith, we are still called to struggle with those who would limit the goodness of God, with those who would substitute a petty little small-g god of wrath for the real God, the universal big-G God of grace and mercy.  The struggle is unending.  But I believe the struggle is worth it. 

And, as we struggle, we continue to hear Paul’s words of hope, that 

" the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

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