Proper 23, Year A ~ The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

September 28, 2017 | by Bruce Epperly

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Exodus 32:1-14 Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14

This week’s lectionary possibilities are wide-ranging and provide the preacher with a variety of entry points as well as creative syntheses of homiletical perspectives.  Embedded in this week’s scriptures, the creative preacher will find foci on spiritual formation, theological reflection on God’s nature, faith and idolatry, the impact of human behavior on spiritual growth, and the scope of divine hospitality.

The Exodus reading, focusing on the Golden Calf, is well-known in popular as well as congregational circles.  Simply put, the reading invites us to consider, “Whom do we trust in times of uncertainty?”  Anxious at Moses’ absence, the Israelites pool their resources to create a Golden Calf, a god of their own making.  Theologian Paul Tillich once asserted that our god is our ultimate concern and the many gods of our own creation vie with the One True God, Divine Wisdom and Maker of Heaven and Earth.  Idolatry, Tillich observed, is found in substituting penultimate and false deities, the projections of our desires and needs, for the God of the Universe.  While penultimate gods offer fulfillment, power, pleasure, and victory, they can never fulfill their promises.  They fail us when the going gets rough.  In contrast, the One True God is faithful in all the seasons of life.

These days there are many candidates for “god” in our culture.  We have recently seen images of football players kneeling during the USA National Anthem coming to center stage and eclipsing issues of health care, nuclear threat, natural disaster, and ecological collapse.  Our attention has been focused on small issues and diverted from key issues of survival and stewardship.  Those who, in the language of my mother, “make mountains over molehills” bound on idolatry, making a symbol, as important as it may be, the ultimate test of national loyalty and faithfulness to God and country.  John Calvin once noted that the human mind is a factory of idol-making and our own focus on consumption, defeat of our enemies, success and security, race, and political correctness bound on idolatry, and prevent us from experiencing God’s emerging possibilities for us in the concreteness of this moment and the long-haul of human and planetary history.

Exodus, like the story of Jonah, presents in one sentence, a radical reorientation of divine imagery – “and God changed God’s mind.”  In case of the Israelites and Ninevites, their behavior placed them on the road to disaster.  Yet, the Exodus passage asserts that God “changes” God’s plans, putting to rest any images of God as unchanging and immutable or omniscient in terms of knowing the future in its exactitude.  The future is open, for us and for God, because God changes God’s perspective.  To be clear and to respond to critics of process theology, God’s moral nature remains constant, but as Lamentations asserts, God’s mercies are new every morning.  God is alive, moving through our lives and the world, and responding, dare we say adapting, to changes in our behavior.  Moses prays, and God alters God’s course.  The Ninevites repent and God changes God’s plans.  God is alive, doing a new thing, inspired by God’s vision of beauty, goodness, and truth.  A relational God responds to our lives, joyfully bringing forth new possibilities, aiming at new adventures, in concert with changes in our behavior, values, and intentionality.

Psalm 106 rejoices that God’s steadfast love endures forever. It also makes the radical comment that Moses’ intercession has an impact on God’s own behavior.   While the passage may be overly anthropomorphic to some of us, the meaning is clear – there is a divine-human, divine-creaturely, sympathy such that changes in the world to bring new openings for divine action and changes in God’s vision open new possibilities for humankind and creation.  Though we are mortals and God is God, there is a divine-creature synergy, constantly changing, bringing forth new futures based on the intimacy of God and the world.

Emerging from Paul’s counsel to two female church leaders in Philippi, the words of Philippians 4:4-9 are a primer in spiritual formation.  Paul is giving us a set of spiritual practices that will transform our lives, and bring forth a “harvest of righteousness” (Phil. 1:3-11) in our individual and corporate lives.  Spiritual formation involves both life-orientation and repetitive practice. In fact, these are two sides of the same coin.  Joy emerges from our prayer lives, gratitude, sense of God’s nearness, affirmative thinking, and kindness.  All these behaviors are transformed by an attitude of joy.

Paul reminds the Philippians that what we focus on, what we think about, is soul food that will add or subtract from our experiences of peace, wholeness, and community.  “Think about these things” – justice, purity, honor rather than divisiveness, scarcity, and polarization.  This is a hard counsel today, when we are bombarded in the 24/7 news cycle by the bloviations and bellicosity of political leaders, who sow chaos, anxiety, and fear and promise the ones who will save us.  Affirmative thinking is not denial but looks beyond the boasts of those who promise everything and can deliver nothing.  Fixation on the latest utterings of erratic political leaders plunges us into despair and polarization.  In contrast, Paul’s words invite us to become agents of a better world by imaging and living by a different set of values than those who counsel fear and hate.  Perhaps, we might focus on some crucial affirmative statements from Philippians and invite the congregation to consider them:

  • God is doing a good work in our lives, bringing forth a harvest of righteousness.
  • We are stars shining in the sky.
  • God will supply all our needs.
  • We can do all things through and with Christ who strengthens us.

We need to provide of us to combat the negativity of those who advocate racism, sexism, hatred, chaos, nation-first, and war.

Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast is spiritual ambiguous, at best, and requires a good deal of homiletical nuance.  It speaks, first, of rejection of God’s way, leading to the inclusion of unexpected guests.  Divine hospitality is not limited to the “best people” and often these “best people” have better things to do than follow God’s way.  The king moves on to the community at large, inviting people indiscriminately to his banquet, but then ejects someone who isn’t properly dressed, moving the spirit of the parable from inclusion to exclusion, and giving small minds reason to be inhospitable to persons experiencing poverty and homelessness.   Still, perhaps the words of threat can have a salutary impact on today’s congregants as well as the preacher.  Do we come spiritually dressed for the party?  Do we reject God’s invitation to celebration because we have better things to do, and different priorities from God’s realm of Shalom?  Are we preparing to meet God in unexpected as well as expected places?  What values and behaviors would make us out of place at a divine banquet?  Perhaps, this passage completes the circle, initiated with the story of the Golden Calf – idolatry has its costs and though God is merciful, we have the choice of saying “no” to God’s vision in our economics, worship, politics, and lifestyle.  Our response shapes God’s future possibilities for us such that even though God loves universally, God’s vision is always local and related to the concrete realities of our lives and the world.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA.  and a professor in the D.Min program of Wesley Theological Seminary.  He is the author of over 40 books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians; and Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Global Healing.