Exodus 32: 1-14/Matthew 22:1-14
Where are you? It’s a question from God that runs throughout the entire Bible, sometimes implicitly stated, but at other times the question is quite explicit. In the book of Genesis, for example, where the story goes that God was walking in the Garden of Eden, and Adam, having eaten of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, was hiding, God calls out, Where are you? God wanted to know where Abel was, when Cain, out of jealousy, had murdered him. And then there was the time God called out for Abraham, when he told Abraham to journey to a place, where a sacrifice was to be made. Where are you, Abraham? And Abraham answered, “Here I am!” God, it seems, has this habit of calling on his prophets, people like Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah: Where are you, and sometimes, as in the case of Jeremiah and Elijah, people do their best to hide.
More often than not, however, this question of one’s whereabouts is not directly asked by God, but rather it is implied, as it is in today’s story from Exodus. Moses, who has been leading this unruly and whiney people through the wilderness, has gone up the mountain to receive the commandments that would bind God and the people into a covenant: I shall be your God and you shall be my people. We are with you, God. That was supposed to be the people’s answer to the question, Where are you? But where were the people, really? No sooner had Moses been absent for a while, the people grew restive, and demanded that Aaron make them a god whom they could see and worship. And so the golden calf was built, and the story goes that God’s wrath fiercely burned against the people, and Moses had to talk God down, convincing God that if He destroyed the very people he had just liberated, his god image would be tarnished. In a sense we could say that Moses was bold enough to ask the same question of God, Where are you, O God? Are you to be found in wrath or in mercy?
Well, here we are once again in the parables of Matthew, and this parable, the third parable of judgment, raises the same question of both the religious leaders as well as God: Where are you? Matthew has Jesus telling this parable to the Jewish leadership, who has become really quite sick and tired of this Jesus character undermining their religious authority, grounded as it was in the Temple and the entire system of sacrifice. These leaders saw themselves as the righteous ones, the ones who lived by the Law, the ones who knew the Law because they fervently studied it. But in Matthew, Jesus is the new law; he is the one whom God has chosen, and so the choice for or against the Son is the decisive choice. The religious leaders, who at this point in the gospel, were conspiring against Jesus, were certainly not at the wedding feast to which they had been invited. Instead they had chosen to be in darkness, where there was, according to Matthew, much weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Now in many respects this is another unpleasant parable, following two other parables told to the religious leadership. It begins with the wedding feast as a symbol of salvation, and indeed, the feast is a very common symbol of redemption in the Bible, as for example, in the book of Isaiah, where the day of redemption is described as a great feast, when “the Lord shall make for all people a feast of rich food and well aged wines.” Isaiah also references the people of God “as brides and grooms, decked out in the garment of salvation.” In the New Testament we have in the Book of Revelation the gathering of the redeemed at the end of historical time, compared to a wedding, the marriage feast of the Lamb of God. And remember the story of the Prodigal Son and the forgiving father, where the dinner party the father throws for his wayward son, who had finally returned home, is a sign and symbol of redemption.
So this king sent out an invitation for his son’s wedding, and notice that the invitation had two stages, something quite common in Jesus’ day. The first invitation would go out well in advance, a kind of save the date notice, and then on the day of the event, a reminder was sent. While the first invitation was ignored, the second one elicited a violent response with some of the slaves being mistreated and killed. And this mistreatment is what really angered the king, who responded with his own form of violence, sending his troops to destroy the people as well as their city. Of course on the surface this does not make God, who is symbolized by the king, look very good, because God here is behaving just as most people do, being vengeful when He does not get what he wants.
But the story is symbolic, not literal, and Jesus is using exaggeration to get the point across that the refusal of God’s grace and redemption is serious business. It has real consequences for one’s life, not necessarily because God punishes in a cruel and eternal way, but because the rejection of the redemptive party is itself a cruelty that makes life smaller and meaner. Sadly, the religiously sophisticated do not get it, because their comfort and their privilege blind them to what is really important. In fact, the religious leaders focus on details, which are not essential to the kingdom. Looking in the wrong direction, they also travel in the wrong direction, and so they arrive at a place, which is at a distance from God. And they do not notice where it is they really are. They are lost, but they do not know it.
One of the messages here is, “Do not be careless with the gifts of the kingdom,” and in this case one gift that apparently matters is the wedding garment. Of course, this is not about the necessity of wearing fine clothes to a wedding. We might wonder how it is that people, some of them poor, and invited to the feast at the last minute, would have the means to procure the proper wedding garment. But wedding garments were provided for those who could not afford them. This was the custom, so we can conclude that if a guest was not wearing one, it was because he just did not bother to put it on. He was careless, inattentive to the requirements of the feast. And what are the requirements? Well, this is the redemptive feast, and since Jesus stood in the prophetic line, like the prophets Micah and Isaiah, Jesus asked people to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God; to love God with the fullness of heart, mind and soul and to love neighbor as self. It isn’t that anyone can do this perfectly; it is simply that when the invitation to the party comes, don’t take the invitation lightly. Come on in, clothed in righteousness, because that is where you are called to be. So where are you? Where are we as a church community? Are we clothed in the garment of righteousness, or are we so careless that we do not even take the time to consider what such righteousness means.
I don’t know how many of you know the name, Robert Coles. An Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, he became famous for his multiple volume work, Children of Crisis and for teaching one of the most popular courses at Harvard, which examines the lives of people who tried to stand for justice and righteousness. Coles tells this story about the time he was a young medical school student, and he went to New York to meet Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker’s Movement. For years Day helped to run these Catholic Worker houses, which tried to feed, clothe and house the most dejected of the poor. When Coles arrived at the house, he immediately noticed that Dorothy was involved in a conversation, if you could call it that, with a woman, who was clearly mentally troubled. The conversation did not make much sense, because the poor woman could barely articulate her thoughts, but there Dorothy was, giving this woman her time and full attention. And then finally, as the conversation wound its way to an end, Dorothy Day approached Coles and asked, “Were you waiting to speak to one of us?” And Coles said with that one question he suddenly understood that Dorothy Day lived in a very special place. She was humble enough NOT to assume that Coles was there to speak to her. She did not assume that she was the important person.
There was something in Day’s question---Were you waiting to speak to one of us--- that Coles found Christ-like. She was in a place, where power and success and education, while worthy goals, were not the most important goals. They are not the keys to the kingdom, not the material out of which the proper wedding garment is woven.
So where are you? Where are we as a church? Are we in a place like the scribes and elders, who have much knowledge, but not much wisdom, much pride, but not much humility. Are we in a place, where we can see what truly matters to a God whose invitation goes out to all, including the lowly, the poor, the rejected, the different, not because by definition they are more worthy, but because the high and the mighty have ignored the invitation to the feast? The gospel reminds us that the act of ignoring is serious business, because when we ignore he do not even take the time to consider what is actually being placed before us for consideration.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!