Give and Take

9 October 2011
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 23A (RCL)
Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Last week, in my sermon, I said I wish I could use a razor blade to remove the parable of the vineyard and the tenants, with its idea of Christianity superceding Judaism, from the Bible. The same goes for Matthew’s telling of the parable of the wedding feast. I like the impulse to invite people off the street to fill the banquet hall, but the retribution in the story just seems un-divine. And, it breaks the original story — how long would it take to besiege and conquer the city? How long is that food sitting around before the feast? Matthew allegorizes Mark’s parable and turns it into an accusation against Israel, blaming them for the destruction of their own city.

The Exodus story tells a very different story about the interaction of God and humans around the issue of disobedience. Of course, the story is a retrojection of Jeroboam’s construction of two new temples at Dan and Bethel back into the Exodus story. But, where God had planned on the full destruction of the people, Moses talks God out of the plan. I love the way the conversation takes place. God says to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt have sinned.” Moses replies to God, “Your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt.” Essentially, Moses says if you carry through with your plan, it will look bad for you. God repents of the evil God had planned.

We don’t like the idea of God planning evil and then changing God’s mind, but at least the story gives room for the give and take between God and God’s people, where Matthew simply forecloses any hope for reconciliation. I prefer the Moses story — when God’s justice demands punishment, we at least get the chance to appeal to God’s mercy. We get the chance to figure out if there isn’t some other way of restoring the health of the community.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians ends with a very touching passage. This is Paul’s last letter to his favorite community. He is on his way to martyrdom, and wants to give them one last word. It’s a beautiful letter, a tender expression of the relationship of pastor to people. And here, in the last paragraph, he asks Euodia and Syntyche to be reconciled. These two women, who had worked side-by-side with him are at odds. The community life is torn because of it. He begs them to be reconciled, and his partner in the community to help them. And then he lists the things they should focus on. Rather than focusing on the disputes, the things that separate, he begs the whole community to focus on whatever is true, and good and lovely. This is the way we know God’s peace.

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