Sermon: October 15, 2017

Sermon Preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh

St. Luke’s, Portland

October 15, 2017: Proper 23 A: Exodus 32:1-14;  Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

            In the nomadic world of the desert, people were constantly on the move. Because of this, they carried their possessions with them, often literately wearing their gold on their sleeves or in their ears. Our reading from Exodus tells us that when the Israelites left Egypt, they followed this Bedouin tradition by bringing their money with them in the form of bracelets, earrings, and other jewelry. Today, we see them collecting all of these things and melting them down to make a golden calf. Why? Why would they put all that remained of their lifetime savings and family fortunes in an investment with zero return? Why would they place their trust in an idol they had made with their own hands? The answer to these questions is found in phrase: “when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain.”

“Delayed” is perhaps too mild a term. I have been to Mount Sinai and I can tell you that, even with modern conveniences like paved roads and a motel, the desert where it sits is a desolate place. In Moses’ day, after a brutal, near-starvation march through the wilderness, it must have seemed bleak indeed. The Israelites had followed Moses all the way to this spot so he could climb the mountain to meet with God. It sounded good but now he was “delayed.” As the days went on, I can just imagine the rumors that circulated in the camp. Some may have thought the old man had fallen off a cliff or something and was probably dead. Others probably reasoned that if Moses’ God didn’t save Moses, Moses’ God wasn’t about to save them and that the best thing to do was to go back to Egyptian gods for help.  To put it simply: Moses was delayed and the people were afraid. Research shows that when we are afraid, our frontal cortex ceases to function and we retreat to the reptilian, primitive, part of our brains. When it becomes a question of survival, the flight or fight mechanism takes over and we lose the ability for higher levels of consciousness. (Interestingly, in this reading, the same thing seems to happen to God!) Moses was delayed, the people were afraid, and in their fear, they retreated to a more primitive form of religion. In their fear, they forgot that Moses’ God brought them out of slavery into freedom, led them through the Red Sea, and fed them with manna from heaven and water from the rock. In their fear, they forgot that Moses’ God was their God… and that Moses’ God was right there with them, willing to literally change his mind, and waiting to work those miracles again.

I mention all this because we live in a time when God seems be delayed again. With everything going on, it is tempting to think that God isn’t there at all… and put our trust in idols of our own making instead.  A 2001 study called Bad is Stronger than Good[1] showed that humans seem to be hard wired for a “negativity bias.” In other words, we respond much more strongly to negative than to positive stimulus. Does that ring true for you? Negative and positive events activate different areas of our brains, with the negative events activating the amygdala, that reptilian primitive part I was talking about a few minutes ago.  Members of the early church would have known what this was like. In those first centuries, Christians were suffering under enormous persecution and issues of inclusion and leadership threatened to split their communities apart. Jesus’ coming was delayed, and members of those congregations were very much afraid. Without understanding the neurology underneath, Paul offers them some very practical advice.  Remember that God loves you. Focus on that. “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I will say, Rejoice. Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God.” Paul wrote these words from prison. He had experienced persecution and suffering himself. He understood what the people were going through. Still, repeating a message that occurs in the Bible again and again, he said, “Fear not.” “Do not be afraid.” Or, to quote the cover of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “Don’t Panic.” Instead Paul writes, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, pleasing, and commendable… if there is any excellence and 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 ”  This is hard to do. If I asked you to give a summary of the news over the past few weeks, you could probably tell me about several tragic events. Could you also tell me about the winners of the Nobel Prize? When people ask you how you are doing, do you say “fine” or “great” and mean it? I remember at a school board meeting at my parish in Maryland, when we had just finished a $4 Million expansion of our school but people were upset that we had finished a gym but had not completed the second wing of classrooms envisioned in the plan. As the negative complaints grew louder and louder, the chair of the school board started a refrain “We built a gym.” In that phrase, he recognized that we reminded us that we had accomplished truly amazing things. His response shows that the negativity bias of our minds does not have to dominate our lives or our view of the world.  Take a moment and make a mental list of in your life. Do the same for the honorable, just, pleasing, or commendable things at St. Luke’s. This week I had breakfast with a man who is moving and wanted to say good-bye. He asked me “Do you want to know why I am an Episcopalian and why I love St. Luke’s?” He told me of how he had grown up in a Christian family, knew his Bible and his theology, but experienced an angry God, a God who was always disappointed in him, and waiting for him to screw up to send him to hell.  He told me about coming here, how and humbling – he actually used the word humiliating – it was to kneel at the altar rail with his hands outstretched.  His eyes welled up as he told me that when he did that, he was overwhelmed with a sense of mystery – of not knowing yet knowing that God was bigger than he thought – and of truly knowing that he was accepted and loved. He gave me a hug good-bye and then as he walked away, he turned around and said “love you man.”

Yes, we live in anxious times. But God is at work in our lives, our families, our church, and our world. Lives are being changed, hurts are being healed, and huge numbers of the poor of this city are being served in the name of Jesus Christ because of this place we call home. We have a choice: We can choose to be victims who watch the world get worse and worse or we can be victors who transform the world into the Kingdom of God.  We can let the negative bias put our trust in false gods that will let us down, or we – like that man I met for breakfast — can be seekers of grace who put our trust in and our focus on a generous and loving God who will guide us through.

Today Jesus gives us two parables. The first, where people from the highways and byways are invited to a wedding banquet, sounds affirming and welcoming. The second, where one of the newly invited guests is thrown out because he wasn’t dressed right doesn’t sit well at all.  In our bible study this week, one of our participants told us about the custom of a host providing wedding garments for his guests. If this was the case, then the issue wasn’t that the guest couldn’t afford to buy a robe or didn’t have one, but that the guest had been given a robe but had refused to put it on.   In other words, the person is rejected because though he was welcomed into the kingdom, he refused to live in a kingdom way. Though he had been given a great gift, he had done nothing to use it or pass it on to others. Though he was invited in, he wasn’t willing to take the next step and walk the walk. Wearing the wedding garment means living a life of joy, of sharing and modeling good news and, when things get tough, of trusting in a God who is not just willing to change his mind but to help us change ours as well. Wearing the wedding garment means acting like we are forgiven, living like we have been given hope, and putting our money not into idols but into investments that reap eternal rewards. Jesus’ point is us that ‘to those whom much is given, much is expected.’  (Luke 12:48) God has honored us with an invitation to the heavenly wedding banquet and a garment to put on. We have a choice. What happens next is up to us.

[1]           Bad is stronger than good. RF Baumeister, E Bratslavsky, C Finkenauer, KD Vohs – Review of general psychology, 2001 http://assets.csom.umn.edu/assets/71516.pdf