A Stiff-Necked People

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All that way through the desert. All that wandering. All that sand! All those rocks stuck in the sandals. All those camels and all those smells. The text says that the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert, but of course, they didn’t know it was going to be 40 years! They didn’t have the benefit of a calendar with tabs they could pull off to show them they were that much closer to arriving.

“Only 17 years and 26 days until we reach the Promised Land.”

“Well, in that case, I think I can make it,” they might say to each other.

No, they didn’t have that.

What they did have was a situation they couldn’t control. They had an experience where they were promised a life of fullness and promise and hope—in a land of their own—after being in slavery in Egypt for all that time. They had a promise…

But now all they seemed to have were camels, and sand, and tents, and days of journeying under the hot sun.

So imagine their frustration when Moses didn’t return when they thought he would. He had gone back up on the Mountain to learn from God, the God who had promised to bring them out of Egypt—and who had kept that promise.

The Israelites looked for Moses to return, but he was late. So, they get anxious and go to Aaron, his brother. “We have no idea what Moses is up to. You’re going to have to do something about this.”

And, then, for some reason, Aaron comes up with an idea to alleviate their anxiety: let’s gather all your earrings and make a little statue to worship. And so they did. And, then God of course knows about it, and he furrows his divine eyebrows and tells Moses, “You need to get down their right now. Your brother and the rest of them have gone completely insane. They’ve made a golden calf now and they’re worshipping it, saying THAT is the god that brought them out of Egypt.”

And then there’s this wonderful description when God tells Moses, “They are stiff-necked people.”

It’s a rich image for us to consider: being stiff-necked, having our line of sight locked into one angle, of being rigid…not seeing the bigger picture, not being open to new insights…surprises from God.

It’s a perfect image for the Israelites: only able to see in one direction. They had lost the ability to see the past: the way God had brought them out of slavery. And, they had lost the ability to see the future, if you will: the hope that was promised to them in a land of their own. Rather, they are locked in a warped view of the present, a present devoid of both promises fulfilled and promises made. They were spiritually myopic, and their anxiety takes control and they act out of their fear. They are focused on themselves, reacting out of their own anxiety. They demand an idol, something they feel will alleviate this angst, this uncertainty. God sees what they are doing and is so frustrated that they have become stubborn, returning to old patterns of life that they think will make them feel better and more secure in their uncertainty.

He wants to “consume them,” smite them, burn them to a crisp, but Moses talks God down and—in an interesting moment—reminds God of the broader vision, of the whole story…of how God had saved them from slavery and had promised them a land flowing with milk and honey… The text says, “And the LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” (But between you and me, I think God wrote it all down in his journal so he wouldn’t forget.)

So much of the spiritual life is about receptivity: being receptive to what God is doing in our lives, of how God is leading us, guiding us, challenging us…to grow, as our Baptismal covenant says, “Into the fullness of Christ.” Receptivity in the spiritual life, in our practice, demands that we look outside of ourselves…that we develop an awareness of the bigger picture of grace…of God’s Presence. We are called to a space of openness to the Spirit’s life among us and within us… we are called to open our hearts to welcome the Gracious One into our lives, what the mystics see as a “little incarnation,” and what we celebrate as the Advent of Jesus in our hearts…. “Be born in us today.”

But it takes a degree of receptivity to enter into such a space of spiritual practice and embodiment. We aren’t going to “get there” or be brought there if we always run back to the old ways, to whatever our particular flavor of golden calf is in our lives in times of uncertainty.

In today’s Gospel reading, we have this wonderful story about a king who plans a wedding banquet for his son. He sends out invitations to folks, but they wouldn’t come. Their calendar was already filled with appointments. They rejected the messengers—killing some—because they couldn’t see past their own agendas. Their vision was constricted…they were not receptive….they could not see past themselves…

So, the king sends the servants out to find folks from the street to come. They are overjoyed for the invitation. And, they party begins and everyone has a wonderful time. They even have a chocolate fountain…

And, then there’s this strange moment when the king sees a man there without a wedding robe. The king notices him and confronts him, having him thrown out of the party all together.
At that time, it was a common practice to wear a special robe at weddings to show your respect and gratitude for the host… some scholars believe that it was even a way to protect the newly married couple from the ‘evil eye.’

The man hasn’t put on the wedding robe, and he stands out among all the folks have gathered there out of respect for the king and who are focused on the joy of the occasion…

This man apparently is still focused on himself…

He is not receptive to the space…

He is not receptive to the invitation to participate fully in the banquet…in the joyful feast laid out for the community by the generous king.

Our lives are so full. Full of agendas and schedules and appointments…of demands and lists and tasks….and we become full of fears and anxieties so quickly…

I was with a friend this weekend who was sharing how she feels that so much of our “Americanized Christianity” is focused on scarcity. That there isn’t enough…of whatever….

And, we begin to focus on ourselves, on what we can get for ourselves… and we react and posture and position and compete…as if there’s a scarcity of grace..

All the while God continues to invite us to this amazing feast, this space of grace and peace and joy…and love….

God reaches out God’s arms and invites us in…

And we struggle:
We slip back into old patterns of behavior, the idols we know and love because we feel we know what to expect out of them…
We look at our spiritual calendars and decline the invitation to a more profound space of grace…
We continue to focus on ourselves rather than having our attention focused on gratitude…

Yet….yet…..
There is always abundance! God always invites us in….always prepares a feast for us…for all of creation….
An unbelievable wedding feast….with a standing invitation to step out on the dance floor…

Are you going to the party?!

The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Proper 23, Year A
Exodus 32:1-14; Matthew 22:1-14
October 12, 2014

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