Old Testament: Exodus (32:1-14)
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel. The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
The Response: Psalm (106:1-6, 19-23)
1 Hallelujah! Give thanks to the Lord,
for he is good, *
for his mercy endures for ever.
2 Who can declare the mighty acts
of the Lord *
or show forth all his praise?
3 Happy are those who act with justice *
and always do what is right!
4 Remember me, O Lord, with the favor
you have for your people, *
and visit me with your saving help;
5 That I may see the prosperity of your elect
and be glad with the gladness of your people, *
that I may glory with your inheritance.
6 We have sinned as our forebears did; *
we have done wrong and dealt wickedly.
19 Israel made a bull-calf at Horeb *
and worshiped a molten image;
20 And so they exchanged their Glory *
for the image of an ox that feeds on grass.
21 They forgot God their Savior, *
who had done great things in Egypt,
22 Wonderful deeds in the land of Ham, *
and fearful things at the Red Sea.
23 So he would have destroyed them,
had not Moses his chosen stood
before him in the breach, *
to turn away his wrath
from consuming them.
The Epistle: Philippians (4:1-9)
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
The Gospel: Matthew (22:1-14)
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Today’s first reading presents one of the best known scenes from the book of Exodus: the making of the golden calf. It is obviously a highly dramatic moment. In response to the people’s actions, God is pictured as ready to annihilate all of them and to start all over again, making a new chosen people from Moses and his descendants; but Moses talks God out of it.
So what’s the big deal with what the Israelites did? Despite the way that this situation is often portrayed, they weren’t really making another god. To celebrate the forming of the golden calf, Aaron announced, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” Apparently, the golden calf was intended to be not a different god, but as a representation of, and a tribute to, the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, except for violating a newly given commandment about making any images of God, what’s so wrong here?
Essentially, the issue is the question of what we mean by the word “God.” What do we mean by “God”? Doesn’t the term basically come down to who or what we hold to be the ultimate reality, the source of all that is, the person or thing in which we place our greatest trust?
Israel wanted to follow the God who had released them from bondage in Egypt and who would now lead them into a land of promise; but they also wanted a god that they could make do exactly what they wanted. Then, they thought, they would have security.
And YHWH just didn’t give them that security, at least in the way that they wanted it. YHWH, the God who had set them free from their bondage in Egypt and who had revealed himself to Moses on the mountain, was and clearly always would be a God whom they could not control, a God who was radically free; and that wasn’t what they were looking for.
Instead, they wanted a god whom they could see and reach out and touch, a god whom they could pick up and move around wherever they wanted that god to be. They demanded a god who could never leave them, but who would always be with them and who would do exactly what they wanted him to do. Their own wants and desires would be for them the ultimate reality; and God’s job would be simply to follow their instructions, to make sure that they got what they wanted.
Some things never change. If we listen to and look behind the words and approaches to God by many people, including many Christians, we find a similar attempt to reign God in, to bring God under our control. The issues confronted by Martin Luther, 500 years ago this month, were, in many cases, attempts to say that, if I did these things and followed these religious practices, then God would necessarily give me what I want, up to and including eternal life. The practices, the rituals themselves had become for many the ultimate realities; they were people’s gods.
In the centuries that followed, human beings have found many other ways to tie God’s hands – at least in their own minds. In one part of the church, for example, people became convinced that they would be guaranteed life after death if they attended a particular religious service on nine consecutive first Fridays of the month or if they wore a particular medal around their neck. For the wider public, less than 20 years ago, a best-selling book that was based on a single verse from First Chronicles and that mentioned a man named Jabez, who never appears anywhere else in the entire Bible, had people thinking that, if they recited a brief statement (just 13 words in Hebrew), God would grant their every request; it was guaranteed. There are many other examples in Christians of all different backgrounds and denominations of attempts to reign in God and to guarantee that God will do whatever they want God to do. But any such god is merely an idol and is not the God revealed to us in the scriptures.
But whether it is the authentic God or some pitiful substitute, everybody has a god, whether they use that term for their ultimate reality or not. The late author, David Foster Wallace, one observed: “In the day to day trenches of adult life… [t]here is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” (as quoted by Philip Gorski, American Covenant, page 14).
The fundamental question that we have to answer for ourselves is the same one that the Israelites faced as they waited for Moses at the foot of Mt. Sinai: when you are faced with the most difficult times of your life, what do you worship, who is your god, what is the place in which you put your ultimate trust? For some people, the honest answer is “in my savings and investments.” For others, it is “in my ability to defend myself.” For others, it is “in my own talents and skills.” For still others, it is “in my idea of how the world should be or of what God should do.”
One factor that all of these have in common is that, to one degree or another, we can control each and every one of them, just like the Israelites could control a golden calf, making it do whatever they wanted it to do. But the real God, the God of the scriptures is never like that – which is probably the basic reason that people are always looking somewhere else for their own ultimate reality, for their own so-called god.
The God whom we proclaim is radically free. Our God is not one who somehow fits into our lives, there to do our bidding and to give us whatever we want, like a golden calf that we can carry around. Instead, our God is one who invites us to enter into God’s life, offering us the gracious possibility of sharing in that far greater reality.
But in order to enter more fully into that gracious possibility, in order to allow ourselves to enter more fully into communion with the God whom we profess, our prayers need to include more listening than speaking. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, asked what he has learned about prayer in his life, responded this way (in a 03/11/10 NPR interview, part of their “The Long View” series): “I am learning to shut up more in the presence of God,” he says, laughing. One model of prayer, he acknowledges, is that “you have a kind of shopping list that you bring to God” — and even Desmond Tutu confesses that “I still do.”
But more and more for him, he says, communion with God is about “trying to grow, in just being there. Like when you sit in front of a fire in winter — you are just there in front of the fire,” he says. “You don’t have to be smart or anything. The fire warms you.”
Maybe instead of rushing off and trying to make our own golden calves, we need simply to follow the psalmist’s advice (46:10): “Be still, and know that I am God!” Be still, and know.