The Adventurous Lectionary – The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 15, 2023
Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:4-9, Matthew 22:1-14
Today, we will focus on spiritual practices to keep us on the right path in relationship to God and our neighbor. The lectionary contains one of my favorite passages from scripture, Philippians 4:4-9, a short primer on personal and community spiritual formation, in the context of the challenges of choosing to follow Gods way or the devices and desires of our own hearts or the worst examples of religion and nationalism.
This week is a theological and spiritual treasure chest, and – as I have said elsewhere – good theological reflection involves the interplay of a vision or world view, the promise that we can experience that vision, and practices that awaken us to our spiritual vision.
For the spiritual reflection of preacher and congregant alike, we might ponder questions such as: What happens when we turn away from God and follow the devices and desires of our own hearts? How does God respond to our waywardness? Are there ways that we can stay on the path, knowing from time to time we will miss the mark? As a spiritual guide once said, the path of faith is a constant falling down and getting up again! While there is a harshness in the story of the golden calf and the wedding banquet, I believe this threat is meant to tell us that our behaviors have consequences, and not that God is out to get us (although at one point Exodus suggests divine retribution), to dominate and destroy us if we fall of the path.
Beyond the threat for infidelity, Sunday’s lectionary readings challenge us to orient ourselves toward God’s way rather than pathways of our own making. As John Calvin says, the human mind is a factory of idol making and whether our idols are gun ownership, the flag and anthem, prosperity, consumerism, or the worship among many Christians of a prevaricating politician they are all grounded in ideologies that put our interests ahead of God’s and the well-being of others.
Certainly, the realities of Christian nationalism and racism as well as the baptism of Donald Trump as protector of the faith are contemporary images of our proclivity toward idolatry, especially in authoritarian and traditionalist faiths. In contrast, God relativizes every viewpoint, including our own. Moreover, God treasures innovation and creativity, even coloring outside the lines; yet true creativity – true freedom – emerges when we blend our vision with God’s vision for the well-being of ourselves and the world. Letting God be God, aligning ourselves with God’s vision, enables us to go beyond self-interest to promote the well-being of our communities and the world.
The reading from Exodus invites us to consider the objects of our worship. Are we worshipping the right God or false gods of our own creation? Many of us found Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith pivotal in our theological formation. Tillich, as you may recall, spoke of faith in terms of our ultimate concern, that is, what is most important to us and the realities around which we center our lives. Tillich noted that our ultimate concern asks for ultimate sacrifice and promises ultimate fulfillment.
The question of religious experience is not whether or not we will have faith, but is the object of our faith able to deliver what it promises? Will it be there for us when the foundations of our lives shake and crumble? Will it remain after the gods of our own making disappear in ineffectuality? Is it ultimate or relative and passing? Neither Christian nationalism nor Trump church can deliver on its promises!
The children of Israel once more have a failure of trust not unlike today’s America, tempted to follow the way of fear, incivility, and violence, and tempted to find security in false promises, race, and the love of power over others. When Moses disappears on the mountaintop, they become anxious. The God who delivered them is too abstract and distant, so it seems, and not tangible enough to satisfy their need for a concrete object of worship; and Moses isn’t there to reassure them. The people become anxious and calm their anxiety by creating their own god, a golden calf, finite, observable, and able to be manipulated by their worship. To ease their anxiety, they create a divinity less, rather than more, than themselves. Their behavior eventually evokes divine displeasure. The God of Exodus wants to destroy the people, but is persuaded by Moses to give them one more chance.
While we can rightly question such all-too-human images of God, too finite to be worshipful in their wrathfulness, we can recognize that worshipping creatures rather than the Creator leads us from life to death. Is today’s Christian nationalism or identification of Christian values with political leaders an example of our failure to trust and willingness to calm our anxiety in the face of a changing world?
What is really important to you? Do our behaviors follow our values? Life involves choice and sacrifice. What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve your highest values. For example, most parents say that family comes first; but often family and relationships come a distant second to our professional lives. Moreover, though we speak of cultivating positive relationships with our children, we often spend more time on the I-pad or cell phone than playing with them at the local playground. We want to protect innocent people but we balk at meaningful firearms regulations that would provide greater protection for those we hold dear. To be whole, our values and behaviors need to be in synch. Practically speaking, the word “god” answers the question, “What is really important to you?” and this can be a matter of life and death, spiritually, emotionally, and physically.
Psalm 106 proclaims God’s steadfast love. God does great things, refreshing and reviving us, making a way where there is no way. And, yet, we exchange God’s glory for objects of our own making. While we can love the Creator in our love for the creatures, we put ourselves at risk when we confuse the two. Indeed, we love creation rightly when our love for the finite in its wonder and beauty is understood in light of the Infinite and Universal.
Both the Psalm and the Exodus story raise two key theological questions. Does God’s patience ever wear thin? Is God destroyer as well as creator? Killer as well as healer? God is so angry with the people that God wants to destroy them, according to the story of the Golden Calf, recounted in Psalm 106. The people are saved only by Moses’ intercessions on their behalf. Can we imagine a God willing to destroy a whole nation or flood the earth knowing the suffering this will cause? We can appreciate the Golden Calf story while challenging violent and vindictive view of God.
Second, God “changes God’s mind.” God is changeable in God’s behavior, and shifts God’s behavior in relationship to our actions. Moses implores God to save the people and God changes God’s mind, just as God does in relationship to the Ninevites. God’s vision is not predestined, God’s actions are not deterministic. What happens in the world alters God’s decisions. God’s love is both creative and responsive. (For more on this vision of a relational God, see Bruce Epperly, “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed” and “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God,” and Thomas Jay Oord, “God Can’t”.)
Jesus’ parable is brutal and violent, if taken literally. Its vision of the realm of God lacks inclusion and gracefulness and leaves no room for error. The king is easily angered and vindictive to those who are unable to attend his banquet, some of whom may have good reasons not to attend. In anger, the king reaches out to invite the whole community, regardless of status or standing. But the king is still peeved; his ire extending to those who have said “yes” to his invitation. Indeed, if you aren’t dressed properly, you will be beaten and thrown out. (Such actions are not worthy of a gracious god, but more like those of an imperious and immature national leader.)
We dare not worship such a king, nor imitate his behavior. Still, saying “yes” to God’s realm opens us to an array of possibilities; saying “no” closes the door to the fullness of divine generosity. Is there hope for the “naysayers?” The realm of God must always be a place of second and third chances. Consequences are real, but the deeper judgment of God’s love makes a way to wholeness for those who have failed time after time.
Philippians 4:4-9 is a primer on spiritual formation and a pathway to worshipping the right kind of God, aGod of relationship and possibility. It begins and ends with turning toward our Creator and Companion. Gratitude, intercession, praise, and joy orient our lives to the Holy One. They connect us with the larger enduring realities by which we live and move and have our being. Our faith is nurtured and shaped by living affirmatively. In a world characterized by polarization, negativity, and scarcity thinking, Paul advises his listeners and us today to live affirmatively. In focusing on the affirmative, they awaken to God’s movements in their lives. The Philippians, like churches today, face the reality of limitation and scarcity, but they need not be spiritually stunted by limitations.
Concreteness, another word for limitation, is the womb of possibility. We need to be realists about issues of time, talent, and treasure, and we also need to awaken to a deeper realism, the open system in which we live, permeated by the subtle – and occasionally dramatic – movements of divine providence.
Following his counsel to “think on these things,” that is, the positive aspects of life, Paul makes two bold affirmations: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and “My God will supply all my needs.” Connected with God, new energies and possibilities emerge and while we cannot do the impossible, what seemed impossible is now within our reach. (For more on Philippians, see Bruce Epperly, Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide, Energion.)
This week’s readings invite us to consider both our values and our spiritual practices. Philippians gives a guidepost to faith formation, which can transform our lives and experience of reality. Trusting God and opening through spiritual practices opens us to us to surprising energies and lively adventures as companions in God’s realm.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, spiritual guide, and author of over seventy books, including JESUS – MYSTIC, HEALER, AND PROPHET; THE ELEPHANT IS RUNNING: PROCESS AND OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY AND RELIGIOUS PLURALISM; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; MYSTIC’S IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; WALKING WITH SAINT FRANCIS: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MESSY INCARNATION: MEDITATIONS ON PROCESS CHRISTOLOGY, FROM COSMOS TO CRADLE: MEDITATIONS ON THE INCARNATION, and THE PROPHET AMOS SPEAKS TO AMERICA. His most recent books are PROCESS THEOLOGY AND THE REVIVAL WE NEED and TAKING A WALK WITH WHITEHEAD: MEDITATIONS WITH PROCESS-RELATIONAL THEOLOGY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.