Learn from these things

Sermon; Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost; 11 October 2020; Proper 23A (RCL); Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23′ Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14.

     Groan.  Matthew ruins a perfectly good parable.  Luke has a version of this same parable.  A man throws a feast, but when he sends his servants to tell those invited that the feast is ready, they beg off, one after the other.  When the servants return, the host tells them to go out into the streets and lanes of the city, and invite those they find.  When they have done that, there is still more room, so he sends them out again, to invite in more, including the lame and the blind.

     Rachel Held Evans used this story in one of her blog posts.  She said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”  It’s a great image.

     But Matthew needs to throw in some vindictiveness.  The King becomes enraged with those who bowed out, and sends his army to destroy their city.  Matthew turns this story into a story about Jewish unfaithfulness.  Because the Jews refused to come to the feast, God destroyed Jerusalem.  Of course, the story no longer makes narrative sense – by the time he has sent his army, the feast is no longer worth eating.  And then there’s the poor guy not wearing his wedding garment.  Scholars think that Matthew is talking about baptism here.  The way to get in to the kingdom feast is by baptism.  Matthew has to have weeping and gnashing of teeth in the story somewhere.

     The Exodus story also highlights God’s vindictiveness.  When Israel and Judah split after the death of Solomon, Jeroboam, the king of the northern kingdom worried that people would go up to Jerusalem for sacrifice, and the would lose the loyalty of the people of Israel.  So, he built two sanctuaries, on at Dan and one at Bethel, and placed at each of them a golden calf.  He then proclaimed, “Behold your Gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  The authors of Exodus wrote this event back into the story of the wilderness – it makes no sense for Aaron to say, “Behold your gods, O Israel,” when there is only one calf.  God threatens to destroy the people and start over with Moses.  Only Moses remind God that God is God changes the divine mind.  It seems Moses is better at mercy than God.

     I suppose it’s good that stories like these are in the Bible.  They remind us just how easy it is to think our version of God is the only correct version.  If our God is the right God, then vindictiveness makes sense.  Everyone else must think like us to be right.  But, then there’s a story like Luke’s version of this parable also in the Bible, reminding us that we have to use our own imaginations and sense of justice to come to understand God.  Dorothy Day once said, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.”  Ouch.

     So, Paul gives us a different perspective.  I think this is his last letter, written as he was on his way to his death.  Other early Christian martyrs imitated this letter in their final missives, so it seems like they understood it as his last letter.  Last week, we heard him say he desired to stay in the body, rather than go to Christ, so he could continue to teach the Philippians for their joy.  By these lines, it seems like he knows he won’t, in fact, be able to come to them.  So, he gives his final instruction.

     Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I’ll say it, rejoice.  And then my favorite verses in the Bible: “Finally beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, set your mind on these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

     Our translation said “think about these things.”  The Greek really means something more like “learn from these things.”  Paul can’t teach them anymore, but he is convinced that they can learn what they need to on their own.  They can determine whatever is true and just and good.

     As you are probably aware, I’ve been in Colorado packing up my mom’s house for her move to Bellingham, Washington, to a two-bedroom cottage on my sister’s property.  My parents built that house in Arvada, and we moved in in early 1962.  My mom has been downsizing for years, and my sister and I were out there in early September getting rid of the last bits.  As you can imagine, it was hard for both my mom and me to empty out that house and pack it up.  Fifty-nine years is a lot of memories.

     My mom talked about being a forward-thinker.  Hard as it is to close a chapter, you have to do it to look forward.  We reminisced about all the memories we would carry with us from that house.  When we moved in, there was no development behind us.  We could go right out the back door into wide open fields, and we played in hose fields for years.  The freedom, the exploring, the adventures, were all a part of my growing up.

     We talked about the amazing gift the house had given us, and how we will carry that gift with us as we go forward.  I think that is what Paul is telling his Philippian congregation.  Grief is always hard, but Paul wants them to hold on to the true and beautiful in the world.

     Perhaps we need this in this polarized times.  Matthew wants his God to be right, and in consequence, everyone else to be wrong.  Then God can punish all the others.  Paul, on the other hand, calls our attention to whatever is true, whatever is beautiful, and just, and excellent.  He is confident that he has taught us enough that we can find those things and then learn from them.      As we get closer to this election, I hope we can focus on those excellences and virtues we can all agree on.  I will always treasure the gifts I take from family and from a fortunate growing-up.  I hope to learn from those things, and learn how to share them with others.  That is a much more expansive vision of who God is than Matthew’s vindictiveness.  I think Rachel Held Evans is right:  then kingdom is just a bunch of misfits at the table because they were invited.  My growing-up was just plain lucky, a gift given for no good reason.  When we are given much, I hope we build a longer table, rather than erecting a fence.