Revised Common Lectionary: Exodus 32:1-14 or Isaiah 25:1-9; Psalm 23 or Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Matthew 22:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9

Exodus 32 continues the saga of a people who, having left the oppression of Egypt, have forgotten their cries to God for freedom and instead complain to God about the mess they are in. They have complained about food and water, and now, when Moses is delayed returning from the mountain, they go to Aaron and demand Aaron to make idols for them to worship. It seems that the people have forgotten that God is always with them, even if they no longer see the pillar of fire or the cloud that traveled with them as assurance of God’s presence. They want something tangible, something they can hold and see–a golden calf to be right in front of them.

In this story, God is so angry with the people that God tells Moses he will destroy the people and make a nation out of Moses–in other words, restart the covenant with Moses. But Moses reminds God that these are God’s people. As much as the people may have violated God’s covenant, God must hold up God’s end of the covenant.

How often have we turned away from God, and yet demanded that God still do what we expect, what we require? We turn to earthly treasures and worldly success and still demand that God not let us fall or fail. The truth is that we are allowed to fall, we are allowed to fail–it is part of the gift of free will in this world. We make our own choices, and sometimes we live with those consequences. However, throughout the Old Testament what seems to anger God the most is not the common people, but the leaders, the ones in power–they are the ones that fail the people, and fail to hold up their end of the covenant, thereby condemning the people as a whole. Aaron had the authority and power to say no to the demands of the people, but he relented. The priests and the kings and queens of Israel and Judah had the power to say no to worshiping other gods and the power to stop the corruption that robbed the poor, the widow and the orphans, but they relented. The priests in Jesus’ day had the power and authority to say no to the strict legalism that kept out the sick and the poor, but they relented. Pilate had the power and authority to stop Jesus’ execution, but due to the crowds and the priests, he relented.

Throughout the Bible, often those in positions of power and authority have the opportunity to stop the corruption, to bring good news to the poor, but often they fail to heed the warning and forget God’s covenant. However, there are a few exceptions. In Nineveh, the king and the leaders heard the word of God through Jonah and repented. In King Josiah’s time, the king and the priests heard the words of the Torah and remembered God’s covenant, and repented and reformed. In Jesus’ day, pharisees like Nicodemus and members of the council like Joseph of Arimethea did not stand with the others who shouted “Crucify Him!” Paul himself, a persecutor of the followers of Jesus, had an encounter with the Risen Christ and was transformed. All of these examples, including Moses, refused to be swayed by worldly power and success through oppression and following other gods, but turned back to God and remembered God’s people.

Isaiah 25:1-9 is a vision of the future–the vision is both near and far away–of a time when God will gather the people together after destruction and despair and give the people a great banquet. This vision for the people who have been led astray by priests and prophets of other gods, people who have been impoverished by a corrupt leadership, people who will witness the destruction of their city and temple. God will destroy that shroud of darkness, the time of the exile, and deliver the people. God will fulfill the needs of the people. But part of this vision is beyond the situation of Israel at the time–beyond the coming destruction, exile, and then return and rebuilding. Isaiah is speaking of a vision of God that will destroy the shroud of sin that is cast over us. If sin is what separates us from God, sin is also what separates us from each other–oppression, abuse, broken relationships–and God will destroy that shroud, meaning there is nothing that will separate us from each other or from God anymore, and therefore, death will be swallowed up forever (vs. 8), as echoed by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. The prophetic vision is for the people of Isaiah’s day, but there is a glimpse of a greater future beyond their time–and ours–in where that which separates us, sin, will be no more, and therefore, neither will death separate us from the love of God.

Psalm 23 we know well as a familiar psalm of comfort, words of assurance in difficult times. We often recite it at funerals, knowing that the valley of the shadow of death is something we all have to pass through, yet we do not have to be afraid. Even in death, we are not separated from God, as Psalm 139 reminds us as well. In contrast Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 retells the tale of the Golden Calf and the people’s forgetting of the covenant with God and how God had always been with them. Both of these psalms remind us that God is always present with us, that there is nothing that can separate us truly from God except ourselves. We sin, we cause disruption and distortion in our relationships, and therefore we separate ourselves from God’s ways. However, God offers forgiveness, restoration and healing–and God offers the opportunity to lift the shroud of sin forever, and therefore not even death can come between us and God.

Jesus tells the Parable of the Wedding Banquet in Matthew 22:1-14, in which invitations are sent to the chosen invitees, but few respond, and some even mistreat and kill the servants (slaves) of the king giving the banquet. God has invited all into relationship with God but few respond–some laugh, some seem to busy, and some react violently. So therefore God has gone out and invited everyone off of the streets and fill the hall with guests. God has opened the invitation to everyone! Yet one guest gets in without wearing a wedding robe, and he is thrown out. God has extended this invitation into relationship to all people–but some think just because the invitation was sent, they don’t need to change their lives.

This parable really speaks to me, especially now living in the South, to those who say that all one needs to do is ask Jesus into their heart, pray “the prayer” of conversion, and be saved. That’s it for them. It’s all about getting in the door to heaven and not about being transformed by relationship with Christ. Unfortunately, many people do not get it. Many people come to church on Sunday morning and have no interest in changing their lives. They have no interest in working on behalf of the poor or seeing the structures of sin in society that our lives benefit from, systems of injustice and oppression, where the poor remain without healthcare and the rich don’t see the need for healthcare reform, for example. When we enter into relationship with Christ, we are called into a deeper relationship with others. We are called to see the needs of our neighbor and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Christian faith is not something you can pay lip service to; it requires a transformation of our lives. When we follow Jesus and look to helping our neighbors, our wedding robes are put on, and we accept the invitation fully, not just to attend and see who’s there, so to speak.

Philippians 4:1-9 are Paul’s words of encouragement to the church in Philippi to live the transformed life, to turn away from trying to be better than the other, to turn away from paying lip service to the faith but to living out the faith in love and peace with one another. Paul goes as far as to urge Eudoia and Syntyche, two women in the church who must have been struggling in their relationship with each other to be of the same mind. In other words, they needed to remember that they are both followers of Christ, both called to live for Christ and for each other. Paul gently reminds them to look to God and to not worry. When they keep on doing the things that they have learned and received and heard and seen in Christ (through Paul), they can know God is with them, always.

God is always present, from birth to death, from dawn to dusk, and beyond. It is we that forget God’s presence, we that forget we were created to be in relationship with each other, and we that sin, distorting and destroying relationship, but God always offers healing, hope and forgiveness, and that we ought to offer the same to each other, in hopes of having the shroud lifted, and knowing that death will be swallowed up forever and relationship will be eternal.

Call to Worship:
Leader: Welcome to this place of worship.
People: God’s presence is all around us.
Leader: Greet the stranger near you with the love of Christ.
People: God’s presence is all around us.
Leader: When you leave here, remember God never leaves you.
People: God’s presence is all around us.
Leader: As you worship, feel God’s presence in the embrace of your neighbor, in the sound of the congregation singing, in the quiet meditations of your heart.
All: God’s presence is all around us as we worship God.

Prayer of Confession:
Loving Jesus, You called us friends, but we have failed to be true friends. We have gossiped and spread rumors; we have lied and failed to keep promises; we have betrayed and denied our responsibilities to others. We have failed to care for our loved ones in need and at times have turned selfishly inward to our own interests and desires. Forgive us, dear Jesus, for failing to love our neighbors as ourselves. Forgive us, dear Jesus, for failing to be the friends and family we ought to be to each other. Forgive us, dear Jesus, for not following Your ways of love and trust. In Your name, our Savior, Redeemer and Friend, we pray. Amen.

Assurance of Pardon:
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, when we trust in God’s ways. Rejoice in the Lord, do not worry, and follow the ways of Christ, knowing you are forgiven, renewed and restored to Christ. There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Holy One, we gather today with our church family in Your presence. We have learned, we have heard, and we have read in our Bibles that You are always with us, Your presence is always near; yet at times we forget. We should know You are always beside us, within us and beyond us, and yet at times we feel alone and abandoned. Help us to remember Your covenants of old are renewed in our hearts. Help us to know Your peace that passes all understanding and help us to trust in Your presence. When we walk through the dark valleys in our lives, help us to remember You are beside us, comforting us, and holding us close. May we seek Your presence in the lives of those around us, our family and friends, our church family, and in those we encounter in the world. May we seek Your face in the face of others, and may our hands and feet be Your hands and feet in this world. In the name of Jesus, our companion on this journey of faith, we pray. Amen.

Music Suggestions:
“What a Friend We Have In Jesus” comes right to mind in thinking of the scriptures today. There are several versions of the 23rd Psalm that are also appropriate. “Peace Before Us” is also a great hymn for this Sunday: “Peace before us, peace behind us, peace beneath our feet. Peace with in us, peace over us, let all around us be peace.”

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