Thursday, September 22, 2011

Proper 23 Year A

Proper 23 A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Exodus 32: 1-14; Psalm 106: 1-6, 19-23


Isaiah 25: 1-9; Psalm 23

Philippians 4: 1-9; Matthew 22: 1-14

The narrative about God's relationship with God's people (after seven intervening chapters of cultic law), continues with Moses unseen and unheard from for forty days in the smoke and flashes of fire on the mountaintop.  The one who had lead them out of slavery and into the wilderness disappears and the people turn to his older brother and deputy, Aaron, to "make gods for us" to lead us.  Aaron instructs the people to bring to him all their gold jewelry, which he has melted down and cast in the form of a "calf."  In direct contradiction to the Commandments God has given, Aaron tells the people, "These are your gods who brought you out of the land of Egypt...."  Aaron declares that the next day will be "a festival day to the Lord."  The people  offer "burnt offerings" and "sacrifices" and celebrate.  The narrative at this point returns to the mountaintop where the Lord tells Moses what is happening and instructs him to, "Quick, go down, for your people that I brought up from Egypt has acted ruinously."  Specifically, "they have swerved quickly fro the way" that I laid out for them.  The Lord is ready to wipe them out when Moses "implores" the Lord to spare the people the Lord has already rescued once before.  The Egyptians will feel vindicated and say that "the Lord brought them out of slavery only to destroy them in the mountains."  Moses then invokes the covenant/relationship the Lord initiated and nurtured, repeatedly, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel.  And the Lord "relented."

Recalling past infidelity, the psalmist confesses "We offend like our forefathers...."


This collection of writings from several
centuries gathered into one narrative called "Isaiah" careens between doomed judgment and transformtional hope. This excerpt reaches a pinnacle of hopefulness. Right on top of the debris and waste from humankind's war and greed, God will put on a feast and invite all nations. God will eliminate death, wipe away tears, blot out disgrace. "This is the Lord for whom we have waited."

Drawing from
everyday, first-hand experiences in a pastoral society, the psalmist makes the Lord's tender intimacy and care palpable in concrete, specific images.

Concluding what appears to be an insertion (from Paul or another?) into the body of the letter to his favored community of believers in Philipi, the writer acknowledges the assistance of several women by name and then begins a series of exhortations to help people sustain themselves. He urges gentleness, patience, prayers of supplication and thanksgiving. He then lists virtues which he has taught and, he says, tried to exhibit. All this rests on one crucial hope, "The Lord is near."

Engaged with the issues of the emerging church in conflict with
Jewish leaders and the curiosity of non-Jews, Matthew tells a story he says was told by Jesus. A king issues an invitation to a wedding banquet for his son. When those invited do not show up, he sends representatives to issue the king's invitation personally and urgently. They still do not come. They just go about their business. The king resents their ingratitude and sends troops [Romans] to destroy their city [Jerusalem]. Now the king sends his "slaves" [followers of Jesus the Christ] to invite literally anybody off the street, "both good and bad." At the party, the king noticed one who did not have on the proper attire and ordered him thrown out. "For many are called but few are chosen."


Hopeful narratives in the Bible push right up against the outer limits the human imagination. Isaiah presents in salivating detail the menu for an extravagant all-you-can-eat-and-drink banquet God will host right on top of the ruins of human war and greed. The psalmist describes God's longing for intimacy using at hand experience form the fields where sheep graze.

But the biblical narratives also record that the fulfillment of such hope can be in jeopardy. Despite God's infinite generosity and repeated wooing, we offend, just like those who have gone before us, the psalmist reminds us inconveniently. God's patience can even reach its limits and God considers giving up. Although many show up believing they can succeed where others have failed, we are rudely told, many are invited but few actually make it.

Disappointment on both sides make for a tumultuous relationship between God and us, the biblical narratives insist. The temptation is to domesticate this wild, untamed relationship; to mold an image of god/God more to our needs; to nuance God's commandments; to limit open-ended expectations.

Many postmodern writers have taken up the banner "let God be God." And they also embrace this tumultuous relationship of unmet expectations on both sides.

Consider for one example Emmanuel Levinas. In
Alterity and Transcendence, Levinas embraces God's command, knowing we can never fulfill it totally. He writes: "This face of the other, without recourse, without security, exposed to my look and in its weakness and its mortality is also the one that orders me: 'Thou shalt not kill'. There is in the face, the supreme authority that commands, and I always say it is the word of God. The face is the locus of the word of God. There is the word of God in the other, a non-thematized word." (p. 104) Earlier, discussing the specific problem of Jewish-Christian relationships, Levinas insists that to take God's commands seriously solves nothing, on the contrary it sets in motion a series of "insoluble problems." He writes: "The presence of persons before a problem. Attention and vigilance: not to sleep until the end of time, perhaps. The presence of persons who, for once, do not fade away into words, get lost in technical questions, freeze up into institutions or structures. The presence of persons in the full force of their irreplaceable identity, on the full force of their inevitable responsibility. To recognize and name those insoluble substances and keep them from exploding in violence, guile or politics, to keep watch where conflicts tend to break out, a new religiosity and solidarity-- is loving one's neighbor anything other than this? Not the facile, spontaneous elan, but the difficult working on oneself...." ( pp 82-83) Commenting on the earlier excerpt in his explanation of the influence of Levinas on Marion, Kevin Hart reaches the conclusion that "I find that me desire to persist in my being... has always and already been interrupted by the trace of the infinite that signifies the other person. A claim is registered in me, one that I cannot satisfy either de facto or de jure and that therefore denies me the option of retiring from the field of ethical action with a good conscience." (Counter-Experience, p. 27)

Commands we cannot meet if we take them seriously lead to impatience on both sides of the relationship between God and us. There is also mutual disappointment, occasional moments of intimate tenderness, and falling in and out of love just like two lovers who cannot live without or with each other. This is the relationship the biblical narratives describe that gives life, but fails only when we do not maintain our side.