So Quick to Turn Away
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
October 15, 2017 — 19th Sunday After Pentecost
So it all comes to this. God sends God’s people a prophet who is humble enough to hear God’s call to deliver them out of bondage and into freedom. God changes Pharaoh’s heart...back and forth… to grant Moses’ pleas to free them… so many times it is hard to count them.
None of the changes hold, though, and Pharaoh has to suffer death of every firstborn and the destruction of his army… wholesale… before he finally turns back and lets the people follow Moses, their prophet and liberator, into freedom.
They grumble about their thirst and Moses strikes a rock to give them water. They complain of hunger and God provides manna along the way.
Moses is consulted when they have their disagreements, appoints others to hear the minor cases and now gives them a Code of laws to give them solemn assurances about their neighbor’s conduct and their own.
Today he goes up the mountain to get a copy of that Code…the Ten Commandments. He could have just come to the Flathead…we have many copies in front of us here anywhere we go…but it would have been a long trip and that was another day…pre-King James, even.
Moses is gone a long while and the absence of a man…a human being like them…makes the people anxious. So they go to Moses brother, Aaron, and ask him to make gods for them…they ask him ‘Give us something worthy to believe in’.
Aaron takes an offering of gold from his people and makes a golden calf and the people shift their attention from the brother who gave them the law…to guide them in all times and all places…to the brother who has given them something pretty to look at…here and now.
They get up the next morning and begin to worship it…instead of the God who has brought them out of Egypt and has commanded them…first…to have no other gods before them…and second…not to make or worship any idols. They are three for three and it’s not even lunchtime yet.
This is not a good sign and God tells Moses it is now time for him to get back to ‘his people’… God does not call them ‘my people’ anymore …they are now Moses’ people… and stiff-necked people at that.
It has taken them so long to be good, to show God that there is hope that something can be made out of them because of their faith, but now they have become a bunch of short hitters…in the time it takes to make an idol. And the person God has given Moses to be his helper is the mastermind of it all.
Jesus is having a bad day, too. He has come to Jerusalem as the Promised One, the one who is going to save his people. He is performing miracles and all the signs of God’s power are in him, but all that The Powers That Be can ask him is “By what authority do you do these things?”
Jesus tells a number of parables, and we are reading the third one today. They all point to the same conclusion…the priests and elders are too full of themselves…so full, in fact, that there is no room for God in their hearts…and no room for them in the kingdom.
This time Jesus tells of a wedding feast and the people who are invited …read ‘the priests and elders’ here…do not come, so the servants are instructed to go out and bring whoever they find.
One of them who comes in response to the invitation, however, is not wearing clothing that is appropriate for such a wonderful occasion, and he has committed the same offense as those who did not come at all. It would be like smoking in church.
He is also committing the same offense as the Nation of Israel in coming to Mount Sinai with Moses to receive the tablets of the law and then profaning the place by losing faith in God and making an idol which they worship.
The man without any wedding clothes has just come for the party, not to celebrate his great good fortune at being a witness to a great event. He could apparently care less to be watched over with love by the God of all creation.
I went to Course of Study at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. and I studied with many people who worked other jobs to support the ministry they were engaged in and some who tried to get by on that one paycheck.
I had a day job, though, and I had gone to law school in the city, so (a) I had a bit more money than they did and (b) I knew my way around. It was wonderful to have people from New Jersey and New York ask me to drive their cars around the city because –frankly — they were a little intimidated by it. Better ask the guy from Yellowstone to do it.
One afternoon we were out completing an assignment and I told them I wanted to do something special for them. We were close to a place near the White House, Kinkead’s, and they served the best chocolate desserts I had ever tasted.
Actually, the place was shone to me by an MSU classmate of mine from Valier, but that would have been lost on them. The thing she did that I failed to do, however, was to ask for menus without the prices on them.
They read down the price column and one of them asked where the desserts were. I told them that these were all desserts, and they were amazed at what it cost.
But they accepted my hospitality and goodwill and enjoyed their just desserts with some gusto. All of them except my dear friend from New Jersey who worked as a security guard at a casino to make ends meet between worship services.
His name was Barry Steinmetz and when he saw what was about to be spent for him to have some chocolate, he slapped his menu shut and would not even consider having a bite of someone else’s dessert.
This troubled me a bit, and I was sorry to have put him in such an uncomfortable position. But on reflection, it occurred to me that he was like Judas objecting to the ointment Mary poured out on Jesus shortly before his arrival in Jerusalem.
And then it occurred to me that Christ offers us the life more abundant…a feast so great that anyone who tasted the food would never hunger again and anyone who drank from that cup would never thirst again.
And we say, “No thank you. I will just have what I can earn, for I do not deserve a gift like that and I couldn’t possibly take it from the Jesus who suffered for me.”
It’s like the words of our Anthem today: How deep the Father’s love for us that he would send his only son to make a wretch his treasure.
And there Jesus stands…holding out the cup…offering the food… and being told to take them away. It all makes perfect sense, and sitting in church on a Sunday morning we can see the prefect logic of it. But we would prefer to do it our own way, and we would rather die forever than to accept this divine gift from him…or anyone else.
Why would anyone want to triumph over death anyway? Why would they want to spend their whole life loving God and their neighbor and ushering in the kingdom of God into a world that is lost and filled with sin?
God gives us these rules so that we can thrive…so that our families will flourish and become a great nation. We keep thinking we are unworthy of them…and that is the obstacle.
Is it that we don’t want to feel unworthy…or is it that we don’t want to be grateful for what we are being offered?
But what I don’t understand is: If you think you are unworthy to accept this wonderful gift, why do you think you are worthy to refuse it? Who are you…who are we…to dare to say ‘No, thank you.’
Someone in the Disciple class this week made the observation that the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount were a restatement of the Ten Commandments.
But the Beatitudes are stated as affirmations. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of God’… Instead of ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before thee.’ ‘Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth’… Instead of ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness.’
It isn’t that hard to do. You just have to accept it and abide by it. You have to believe in the goodness in it…and want the goodness of it for all people.
But there is a little hook in the Ten Commandments. They are written as prohibitions. They tell you what not to do, while the Beatitudes simply tell us what we should do.
If you have a goal in mind, shouldn’t you focus on that goal? Shouldn’t you seek it as your highest good and not turn back to see what else you might have had?
It’s like telling someone…well, let’s try it here…close your eyes and… don’t think about the Statue of Liberty. You see what happens?
If I say close your eyes and think about Christmas or think about spring, you think about what your goal is. But if you try to think about something you don’t want, it pops up in front of your goal.
You are putting an obstacle in your path by focusing on what you should not do. You are drawing closer to your goal envisioning it instead.
And sure enough, the Nation of Israel… Moses’ people…were trying to have no other gods before them, and they were trying to make no idols to worship…but the more they tried not to do that certain something, the more irresistible that it got.
Paul strikes on this secret in his words to the Philippians and us this morning. “(W)hatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”
People in Paul’s day may have had an easier time of it than we do today because our experience is so mediated now…we talk to a smartphone instead of a wise friend, and the atmosphere we are in is saturated with invitations to have a little fun and enjoy a little mischief between times of prayer.
But still, there are good things to think about and beautiful things to see. The walk I took with Amanda and Caleb and Ollie a couple of weeks ago along the north shore of St Mary Lake was wonderful because we were in the wild…sort of…and we had fresh air and a clear sky, and we could hear an elk bugling from the other side of the lake. We were having a real experience of real life together.
It was like being in the presence of something that is all around us, but we have built up all these amusements and entertainments to distract us from the beauty of the place we are in.
It would be extravagant, perhaps, to dwell on such beauty all our days, but it is a sin to live here and never get out to immerse ourselves in it.
And God wants us to have the best. Maybe not a great fortune, certainly not a golden calf, but something lasting that cannot be taken away from us, like walking through the wilderness with your family…the people you know and the people who know you the best.
We saw people who had come from Asia while we were there. We got, for the cost of a tank of gas, what they had saved up for a lifetime to see. It was just like being rich. We could have wowed those people with a walk up the Wild Mile of Swan River, too, or one of the shows at our Summer Playhouse.
It doesn’t have to be chocolate to be wonderful. As someone once said…and I can’t remember who now… God said that it was not good for a person to be alone, but sometimes it is a great relief. To be where it is quiet…no music…no talking…no whirring motors…only the sound of the wind in the trees and the waves on the rocks…and an elk bugling across the lake. That is the magic we have at hand.
Jesus told us to spend some time alone with our Creator, the one who gave us earth and sky and wind and rain and mountains and vast prairies stretching farther than the eye can see. God asks us to pray for the good things that they might come to pass.
Moses prays for Israel this morning, even though God has stated an intention to do away with them and start over with Moses, as he had tried to do with Adam and Eve and with Noah, and has he has done by sending Jesus Christ to walk among us.
God heard Moses’ prayer and because it was good and selfless and true, God granted the prayer. Israel was spared. I am not your Moses, although I pray for you and our church every day…
But we can be Moses to the surrounding community. It is a wonderful place, but it could be better.
By putting the shortcomings behind us and working toward the great vision of ministry we can claim, we can make this a better place, even more wonderful than it is now.
Accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Don’t mess with Mr. In-Between. Or as John Wesley put it: Do none harm. Do Good. Stay in love with God.
We can be so quick to turn away from the great promises we have received, but if we are steadfast in our prayer, “Lord, what do you want to do through me today?”, and if we listen with our heart and mind and soul and strength to the answer we receive, we will continually draw closer to the prize Christ offers to us freely this day and every day.
Let us be quick to turn to the Good and to work to make it an everlasting cornerstone of the world in which we live. Let us share this hope with everyone we meet. Let us be quick… quick, to turn back whenever we see ourselves turning away. Help each other in this small and great work of your soul. Amen.