It has been a hard, hard week. So many of us are reeling at the terrible
violence happening in Israel and Palestine, so many thousands killed
and so many more injured or missing or homeless in this intractable
war. It is always hard to hear news of violence and suffering, but this
war in particular touches so many people here in this city. Many of our
Jewish friends and neighbors have loved ones killed or kidnapped;
others have Palestinian friends and family members caught in Gaza; the
violence has exposed fault lines in belief and ideology that seem
absolute and irreconcilable. And all of it happening in what we call the
Holy Land, a place of history, faith, and pilgrimage. It is not just another
In this city, everyone knows someone affected by war and violence
somewhere, whether it be in Ukraine, Venezuela, Ethiopia, Artsakh – or
the subway station down the street. We live surrounded by news of
horror and violence, and we see a lot of it on the media and scrolling
through our phones. We struggle in our own daily lives with such
‘smaller’ things as health issues, the high costs of inflation, parenting
troubled kids in an unfair world. But if all that weren’t enough on our
plates, the news will make us anxious for sure. There is a lot of human-
caused suffering in the air.
I was in this state of mind as I started to think about this sermon this
week. So it was no surprise to me that two of the readings today have a
strong whiff of God ready to throw in the towel on us humans. I felt
about ready to do that too. The Exodus story of the golden calf and
Matthew’s parable of the wedding feast both carry a heavy dose of
impending judgment. Can you people not get it together? No, it doesn’t
seem that we can.
The golden calf story is one version of it, the Old Testament version of
the judgmental God. The people are in the desert meandering their way
from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, and they’re
camped out, stalled out, waiting for Moses to come back down from the
mountain and his face time with God. It’s taken so long. So they’re
growing impatient with God’s timing, maybe even panicky, thinking
they just have to figure things out themselves. They surround Aaron, left
in charge while Moses is away, and he doesn’t know what to do. So he
says, let’s make something you can see and hold onto, a reassuring object to help you trust that you aren’t alone out here. And the people
throw their jewelry together and make a calf, and then say, great, let’s
party. God is angry that they’re so quick to pretend an object of their
own making is their god. Let me at ‘em, he says to Moses. I’ll start over
with you. Wait! says Moses – is that really how you want to be known?
Let’s cool down here. And so God does. Crisis averted.
But then in the parable it’s another version of the same story: the people
are again displeasing the one who’s trying to gather them in, this time a
king who’s prone to violence. A wedding feast for your son? Nah, they
say, I’ve got other things to do. Some of them even kill the ones bringing
the invitations! So first the king violently destroys those people, and
then sends his servants out to invite everyone else, obviously something
he should have done in the first place, and gathers the wedding hall full
of guests. Violence over, back to party mode, except here’s a guy without
wedding clothes on, and bam, out he goes. Not the most reassuring
If the king is God, and the people are the same people carousing in the
desert around that golden calf, then this is just one long sad tale of
people turning away and behaving badly, and God coming down hard in
response. Which is easily one way of looking at the world these days.
We are in the presence of so much evil and suffering, right in the midst
of our parties. And so much of it is what we are doing to one another.
Someone does need to put a stop to it.
This desire for judgment is so strong right now. Fueled by social media
and the adolescent tone of our culture, we’re all hearing these absolutist
statements: if you don’t ally yourself completely with this side, then
you’re supporting terrorists. If you don’t fully support that side, then
you’re on the side of the oppressor. If you fly the wrong flag, you
deserve to be beaten. No room for nuance and context here – it’s graphic
imagery, snap judgments, hashtags and loud voices. We’re not waiting
for God to bring the judgment – we’ve already got plenty of it here
How are we to live, when catastrophe is underway and the world is
incapable of helping? Maybe it all really is as bad as it seems.
Sometimes scripture seems like a mirror to our worst behavior. But
sometimes it really does give us just what we need. This time I see it
there in the letter to the Philippians. Paul offers an idea, in this letter
written from prison. He’s writing to the Christians at Philippi, a mostly
Gentile group of believers who have supported Paul in his mission. He’s
been imprisoned for preaching about Jesus, and a Roman prison is no
pleasant place to be. Yet over and over in this letter, he talks about joy –
claiming that even his imprisonment has helped to spread the gospel. In
these last lines of the letter, he gives the Philippians a whole stream of
practical advice, to which we should listen carefully:
– First of all, rejoice in the Lord always. Always. Practice joy, no
matter what is happening. Joy doesn’t depend on happiness, on
everything going ok in your life. Joy is a willed spiritual discipline.
– Treat others with gentleness. They’re carrying a lot. You’re
carrying a lot too, so cut everyone some slack. Life is hard. Be
– The Lord is near. You are not alone. God, who is deeper and more
powerful than you can imagine, is present, now and always. You
are not abandoned.
– Say your prayers, and in them, name what you’re scared of and
worrying over – share all of that with God. Don’t pretend
everything’s ok if it’s not. But share your gratitude too – stop to
find some if you have to.
– Take the peace that comes from God despite it all. Allow that
peace to pervade through your spirit. The Spirit’s peace comes at
all kinds of times and places – let it in.
– And then turn your attention to what is true, honorable, just, pure,
pleasing, excellent. Focus on that. Look for the good. Stop
doomscrolling, for goodness’ sake. Write down the good that is
happening – tally it up, Paul says.
In the midst of pain and imprisonment, Paul tells us to look for joy. In
the midst of all that is suffering and evil, he redirects us toward peace.
This is not escapism. This is the teaching of one who knows what it is to
suffer and be persecuted, as well as what it is like to persecute others.
He knows human evil firsthand, in others and in himself, and yet he
says, rejoice. Like so many of our spiritual ancestors who lived through
harsh and terrible times, and yet who carried on in faith. They would
remind us to nourish ourselves now with what God is feeding us. Take
in the good; feed on it; taste and see that what God is offering is good.
Because that’s how we keep going in this world. Whatever it is that will
We want to judge. But even in those scripture stories that seem to be
leading toward God’s terrible judgment at the end, this mysterious grace
appears. Everyone is invited into the feast, the good and the bad. The
difficult wayward people of God make it to the Promised Land and
somehow through all the faults of history survive and expand to include
all peoples. God sends rain on the just and the unjust alike and makes
the sun rise on both the evil and on the good. We are commanded not to
judge, but to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, love our enemies. In
the end, it’s God who will determine if we have lived the way we were
created to live. And the prerequisite God seems to want from us is to
love – that we put on the wedding garment of love for all of God’s
children in this world.
So we pray and ache and grieve for all of those killed and hurt and
damaged by this war right now, and for those whose hearts are torn
apart by it. And we pray and ache and grieve for those broken and
damaged in all wars, and in all acts of violence and trauma in this world.
But at the same time we stubbornly insist that such suffering and evil is
not all there is, that it does not have the last word. And instead, we
rejoice, we love, we root ourselves in God’s deep compassion and mercy
and love for us and for all people. Whatever is true, whatever is just,
whatever is worthy of praise, think about these things. Again we will
say, rejoice. And the God of peace will be with us. Amen.