Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sermon, Proper 23A, Exodus 32:1-14 & Matthew 22:1-14

Two of our delegates and I spent all last weekend doing the business of the church.

We attended the annual diocesan convention, which was held in Billings this year. During the convention, we worshiped together, served out in the community, waded through resolutions and the budget, and witnessed the ordination of Jed Fox to the diaconate. It was both good and exhausting at the same time.

At the closing Eucharist, the Bishop spoke about the paradox of Christianity. It is through losing ourselves that we are found; in emptying ourselves that we are filled; in serving that we are served; and in dying that we find life.

Implicit in this paradox is that we need to give our best so that we can realize the full nature of God's gift. If we want to be a part of the kingdom of heaven, then we need to participate fully. We shouldn't go about this half-heartedly.

If we want to lose weight and get in shape, then we need to participate fully in an exercise and diet program. And walking to the bakery for a piece of pie is not the exercise and diet I'm talking about. If you want a better relationship with your spouse, you need to invest in the time and effort to make it work. And if you want to live fully into the kingdom, you need to empty yourself to be filled and die so you can live. We need to give our all for the kingdom of heaven.

This whole idea of giving our all, of putting God first, of dying to self so we can live fully in God, of responding to God in kind, is prevalent in both Exodus and Matthew today. In Exodus we hear the story of the golden calf. In this story, the people have fled Egypt and find themselves at the base of the mountain where Moses receives the law.

Before we go too far, think back to the call of Moses. God calls to him from the burning bush, tells him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt in where? Into the Promised Land -- a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. At their departure, the Israelites plunder the Egyptians, taking jewelry, silver, gold and clothing. According to the story, God makes them rich AND promises to lead them to a fertile and bountiful land. And all they had to do was to follow God completely.

They needed to empty themelves of their doubts and trust God totally. They needed to die to the sin of selfishness and greed and live into the life God had prepared for them. They needed to remember that God had provided for their needs and wasn't going to let them die. But they didn't.

Throughout the story of Exodus the people continually doubt and challenge God -- we need water, we need food, we need meat. They let their doubts and fears control them. And when you let your doubts and fears control you, you begin to focus on selfishness and greed. You get shortsighted.

The result of that is a golden calf. That calf represents our doubts and challenges to God. That calf represents the desire to control our riches, our gold, into something we can say belongs to us.

There are people who only donate to the church if they can keep control of the funds. People who will donate to the building fund as long as they get to pick the color of the paint; or earmark their donations for specific choir robes. At what point do we donate or tithe to the church simply because it's the right thing to do? And when do we trust in the long-term mission of the church as opposed to the short-term projects which we idolize?

Don't get me wrong. Christ Church needs a paint job, and St. Paul's needed new carpet. But none of the people who donated to these improvements tried to specify the color or brand. My point is that we shouldn't donate to control the mission of the church, but that we should give trusting that our funds will be used to fulfill that mission.

Dying to self and putting God first is one aspect of the lessons today. The other is responding to God in kind. This is in the Exodus story, but it's more obvious in the gospel. A king gives a wedding banquet for his son, but none of the invited guests bother to come. So the king invites the common folk, the street people, tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes. These are the people he invites to partake of the banquet. But there is one guy who arrives without the proper clothes, and the king has him cast into the outer darkness.

This story always used to bother me: if God calls the man just as he is, why doesn't God accept him just as he is? Why does this poor street person have to be punished for wearing the wrong clothes?

The answer is because the man didn't respond in kind. God is giving us a great gift, a heavenly banquet. Part of emptying ourselves is to respond to that gift with the best we have to offer. If we choose not to respond fully, if we choose not to empty ourselves, then we remain in a position where we put ourselves before God; we remain unaware of the paradox of Christianity; we remain lost.

This is budget season. You will receive a letter this month outlining where we've been, where we are and where we need to go. To be honest, our diocese and our parishes are in a financial crunch. I urge you to prayerfully consider how you can support this parish and our mission in the Ruby Valley. I urge you to not build a golden calf by trying to limit and control God. I urge you to respond to the banquet invitation in kind. But most of all, I urge you to give your best to God and to participate fully in the life of the church and in the kingdom of heaven.

Because it is only by giving of ourselves that we can go about doing the business of the church.


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