Aaron . . took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless.
Watcha Gonna Wear?
The story of the golden calf and Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet stand together in today’s readings as a gift to that part of ourselves that feels wise, intelligent, and more worthy when we focus on those who really mess things up.
I like to think that if I had been in Aaron’s place, I would have counseled patience to the people who waited for Moses to return from the mountaintop. Maybe pull out the guitar, sing “Here I Am, Lord,” while we wait. Not that silly Aaron. No, he starts fundraising to diminish his anxiety. “Give me the gold rings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters,” Which, of course, were plundered from the Egyptian masters on the way out of Egypt.
One of the most telling verses in this story comes several verses after the end of today’s reading, in verse 24. When Moses asks Aaron what happened, Aaron answers, “I threw the gold into the fire, and out came this calf!” Things just happen, you know?
And, there’s a part of me, when I hear Jesus’ parable of the people invited to the wedding banquet who made light of it and refused to come, that feels like being in a class when some other kid calls out without raising his hand or uses some word he has heard at home that is not acceptable at school.
Glad it’s not me.
Focus on that guy’s transgressions and maybe you’ll forget to collect the homework I forgot to do.
The church has used these passages in just that way through the centuries, sometimes standing in smug judgment of those who were invited to the banquet but refused to come, those who worshiped the golden calf, all those people of Israel who rejected Jesus. Matthew, however, won’t let us get away with turning the focus of these parables away from ourselves.
As much as I might like to separate out today’s parable into two parts, and ignore that enigmatic addendum about the guy the King confronts because he’s not wearing the right clothes, I can’t seem to shake that image. I can’t shake that image of the guy standing there with a pile of food from the buffet line piled up on his plate, fig preserves dripping off his chin onto his dirty t-shirt, speechless when the King asks him what he’s doing there without a wedding robe.
It’s like a bad dream, that dream of showing up at church on Sunday morning and realizing you are the one preaching today but you forgot and you have nothing prepared.
What, you’ve never dreamed that one?
It’s like the bad dream that you’re in a play, you walk out on stage, and you have no idea who you’re supposed to be playing or what your lines are.
Or, you dream that you find yourself at an elegant party, but you have been working in the yard, you’re hot and sweaty in shorts and a t-shirt with dirt on your knees and everyone else is dressed to the nines, and you can’t manage to slip away to clean up and change clothes.
That’s how this parable feels.
Wedding garment? What’s that? If the King sent his servants out to invite everybody from the streets, why would he be picky about what I’m wearing? That’s the nature of parables – they don’t really work at the literal level, so they push us into the language of symbol and imagery.
Whenever we interpret either the Exodus story of Israel’s idolatry, or Jesus’ parables of judgment as being about “that other guy,” we have surely missed not just the challenge of the passage, but its blessing as well.
If we let the parable push us, however, into that realm of symbol and imagery, we can begin to see ourselves not only in the wedding guests who have put on the wedding robe for the occasion, but in the speechless man without a wedding robe. We can see ourselves not just in the servants who have gone out to call guests into the wedding banquet, but in the people who have more serious things to do than attend some party.
In his commencement address at Stanford in 2005, Steve Jobs told the story of his brief college career before he dropped out. He began on a degree plan, but dropped it after six months when he realized he was spending all his parents’ money and had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. It just wasn’t a good investment in his mind. After he dropped out, he dropped back in to audit classes that he found compelling. He didn’t have a dorm room, so he slept on the floor in the apartments of different friends. He returned glass bottles for the deposit to have enough money to eat. But, he started exploring.
One of the classes he took just because it looked interesting was calligraphy. It had nothing to do with anything he thought would lead to a career. He had just seen the beautifully lettered signs around the campus of Reed College and wanted to take a class in something beautiful. He learned about “serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and [he] found it fascinating.
None of this had anything to do with any practical application in real life.
But, ten years later, when he and his friend designed the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to him. They designed beautiful typography into the computer. He said, “If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would never have had multiple typefaces . . . and since Windows just copied the Mac, it’s likely that no personal computer would have them.”
When I heard that story again this week, it reminded me of this parable – how following the invitation to do something joyful, like attending a wedding banquet or taking a class in something beautiful and compelling means lifting one’s nose from the grindstone. It means opening up our hearts to things beyond the script that the world would write for us. Steve Jobs called it following his heart; Jesus and Matthew call it following the Spirit.
The point, for all of them, is that the call to live as God intends is not a call to drudgery. It is a call to joy, to beauty, and to meaning.
It’s also a call to love.
In today’s Philippians passage, Paul tells the young church to think on the things that are true and honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, and excellent and worthy of praise.
It’s not an exercise in denial.
It’s not the same thing as refusing to think about unpleasantness; rather, it is Paul’s way of telling his friends not to let go of all those wonderful and beautiful and joyful things that come with faith even though they are engaged in a very difficult struggle against forces inside and outside their community.
Paul points them toward what is pleasing and commendable even as he sits in prison. It is his way of saying, “don’t let the struggles of life and faith keep you from enjoying the wedding banquet.” If we need an image, a symbol to understand Jesus’ parable of the guy without the wedding robe, Paul provides it for us. Put this on, he says. Think on these things.
When we do, we show up, whether we can invest in a fine worsted wool suit or our cleanest jeans, wearing Christ.
We show up looking like somebody in love.
John Prine wrote a song for his wife, Fiona, that he performs with such joy and energy it makes everyone in the audience smile and sing along. He turns up the electric guitar and sings out,
“She is my everything!
From her suntanned shoulders
Down to the freckles
On her wedding ring
Her feet are so warm
They can melt the snow
in the early Spring. . . .
She knows everybody
From Muhammad Ali
To teaching Bruce Lee
How to do karate
She could lead a parade
While putting on her shades
In her Masaratti . . .
[My wife Nancy says John Prine must live his life kind of like a preacher hears a story and asks, “will it preach?” John Prine asks, “Will it rhyme?”]
When you hear John Prine perform that song, you know without seeing his face that he’s smiling a big old goofy smile because he’s just crazy about Fiona. He wears it, not on his sleeve, but in his voice, on his face, in his guitar-playing fingers, in his whole being.
Putting on Christ, wearing the wedding garment, thinking on the things that give peace – it’s like being in love. You can’t hide it, it just fills you up and spills over.
When we put on Christ, when we think on the things that are excellent, our invitation to the banquet is hard to resist. Anyone who sees us would know; not because we talk about Jesus so much we wear them down, but because of the joy that comes with serving a God so loving, so creative and beautiful, so merciful.
Thanks be to God. Amen.