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Can we be thankful?

Proper 23A-20
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“The Lord changed his mind” (Exodus 32:14). It might be the most surprising sentence in scripture. God changed his mind. God the all-knowing, the all-powerful, the eternal, flew off the handle. God decided to wipe out the children of Abraham and Sarah where they camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. After everything they had been through together the children of Israel melted their jewelry and made for themselves a golden idol.

As they prepared to revel around that statue, God looked down at them and said to Moses, ‘This isn’t working. I have to start over. I’m going to start over with you and your children Moses. You’re going to be my new Abraham.’ Maybe a lesser man than Moses would have accepted that deal. But Moses knew God would regret it. So, Moses argued with God, as he had done all those years before at the burning bush, but this time, he prevailed.

What did Moses say to change God’s mind? Notice, he didn’t argue on behalf of the people. They were terrible. Moses knew it. God had every right to start over. Yet, Moses said, if you do then you will no longer be the God of hesed. Scholars still debate the meaning of this word Moses used to change God’s mind. It is most often translated with the phrase, steadfast love. It’s the sort of unconditional love God will later reveal on the cross. Christians call it agape. Suffice it to say if God had chosen to abandon the children of Israel that day at Mt. Sinai, agape would be just another word for love which not even God could live up to. Hesed or agape are words for a kind of love that means ‘we’re family and it lasts forever.

Moses won the argument with God by appealing to God’s own character. ‘I guess it all comes down to what kind of God you want to be’ Moses said. God relented, put away their sword of righteous wrath, because the Lord our God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, or hesed. (Exodus 34:6-7)

Remembering who God has shown us to be is important throughout our lives. But it is especially necessary in order to hear the good news in Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet gone awry. A people destroyed? Their city burned? A poor man bound and thrown into the outer darkness for wearing shabby clothes? The king Jesus portrays looks an awful lot like a tyrant, a great big bully. This is not how God behaves. This is not who God has shown God’s self to be.

Yet this is precisely the mistake many Christian readers, preachers, and theologians have made through the centuries. Turns out, making people afraid of a God as petty, vengeful, hotheaded, and thin-skinned as the king in this parable can be a good way to build churches. Making people get with the program and join the party – by threatening life and limb is pretty motivating. Yet it comes at a steep price. How are we supposed to call out the tyrants of this world when we worship one? Even worse, how can we call ourselves faithful if the God we worship is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses? We must take care that we do not fall into the same easy trap as Moses’ older brother Aaron and the people who worshipped an idol of their own making.

To find our way to the gospel, the good news in this parable, we must find our way back to the plain meaning of scripture. What did those who first heard this gospel understand? Our first clue is remembering who God has shown us to be, the God of steadfast love. A second clue comes from Matthew. Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king [of this world] who gave a wedding banquet for his son.” (Matthew 22:2). History is filled with examples of such self-serving and petty rulers. Our God is not one of them.

“What might we learn if we attempt an honest comparison between God’s coming kingdom, and our current one? Are our tables open to all who come, and does our love extend to those who initially refuse our invitation? Are we willing to extend a welcome to those who show up unprepared, unwashed, unkempt? Do we take offense when people shy away from our banquet, or do we listen as they explain why our invitation strikes them as unappealing or frightening? Do we really want to open our arms wide, or do we have a secret stake in seeing some people end up in the “outer darkness”? In the end, are we known for our impeccable honor, or for our scandalous hospitality?” (Debi Thomas, The God Who Isn’t, Journey with Jesus, 10/04/20).

The person in Jesus’ parable most like Jesus is the one who was thrown out. This is a third clue. This parable comes in his final week after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem as Jesus prepares to go to the cross. Christ the suffering servant will soon be brutally cast out of this world by the very sort of leaders this parable portrays. Yet, the stone which the builders rejected has become our cornerstone.

We are a living sanctuary not made with hands but called into being in flesh and blood by the one who sacrificed his flesh and blood for us and for all. We are clad in robes fashioned by the Holy Spirit and washed clean by the blood of the lamb. We were not made to dance out of fear, but for joy. Come you, all who are weary. I will give you rest. “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy, and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1).

Yes, God’s people do have a dress code. But don’t run out to the store. Put on the life of Christ. As St. Paul wrote, “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12). And again, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3.27). Receiving the gift of God’s love sets a very high bar for us to follow. Serving Jesus means striving to extend the same kindness and grace that God extends to us, even if we fall short. We are reckoned as righteous just by putting on the Spirit of Christ.

The project God began all those years ago with Abraham and Sarah down through Moses continues on in us today. The God who showed us their self also reveals to us who we truly are. Writer Anne Lamott once said, “We begin to find and become ourselves when we notice how we are already found, already truly, entirely, wildly, messily, marvelously who we were born to be.” (Becoming the Person You Were Meant to Be: Where to Start, by Anne Lamott, from the November 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine)