Try the Decalf

Are we made in the image of God, or do we try to construct God for ourselves? Neither of today’s lessons are easy reads. They start off just fine, but then both take sharp detours into difficult territory. The road turns rocky, and the God whom we thought we knew does or says something we never would have imagined.

In Jesus’ parable, the great wedding banquet is the central image. It’s a fairly straightforward allegory. The original banquet guests are the stand-ins for the self-righteous religious leaders of any age; in Jesus’ time, imagine the Pharisees. The servants who are sent out represent God’s prophets, who, historically, have been ignored, mistreated, even killed. The king sends out the army to kill the murderers – a little revenge-y for God, but at least it’s a contained rage.

And then more servants go out, inviting anyone they can find. These guests are the riff-raff, the tax-collectors and prostitutes, the lepers and Gentiles. We seem to know where we’re headed, toward another “the first shall be last, the outcasts shall be called beloved, the humble shall be lifted up” moral of the story.

But then, there’s this guy…he shows up for the party because he was invited. But he’s not dressed right. And so he is seized and tossed out into that weeping and gnashing teeth place.

I don’t know how many of you remember our tagline for our “Come As You Are” worship this summer, but it was “God has no dress code…why should we?” Apparently, we were wrong, so starting next week, it’s black tie only.

OK – so, in this parable, what are we supposed to take away? That God is angry, exacts revenge, and invites poor people to parties in order to mock their clothes? Go and do likewise?

Maybe our Old Testament lesson can provide us some familiar relief.

Once again, we start off in familiar territory. Moses has gone to meet with God. It’s taking a little longer than expected, so the people get restless and fall into their typical pattern of short attention spans and grumbling dissatisfaction. We’ve reviewed this Exodus story each week, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of the key points. So far, God has freed them from slavery in Egypt (which they asked God to do, remember), helped them cross the Red Sea on dry ground, provided daily meat, manna, and water in the desert…I don’t know about you, but it seems to me like they’ve got a pretty good deal going so far.

Even so, no sooner had they gathered their miraculous morning meal than they turn to Aaron, saying, “Yahweh who? How about making us a real god out of gold and stuff so that we can follow them and get out of this place!” Aaron, ever the people pleaser, following in the proud footsteps of well-meaning but wrong-headed Biblical leaders, gives them the golden calf that they request.

Once again, it seems like everybody is stepping into the roles that made them. Like Leonard Nimoy as Spock, the Israelites have become typecast as the permanent ingrates, and Aaron the deeply flawed prophet.

And that’s where this story takes its turn. God gets wind of this betrayal. And unlike before, where God has seemingly been able to turn the other cheek and provide some kind of miracle to rekindle Israelite faith, God gives up. “Leave me alone, Moses. I need to destroy them.”

But Moses, who once claimed to be timid, stays put and pleads to God’s ego: “Don’t give up now! If you do, the terrorists win. Think about how bad this will look. What will this do to your reputation?” Moses’ plea works. The divine mind is changed.

OK: so our takeaways so far are: God has a strict dress code, and God gives up unless someone appeals to ego.

This isn’t the God we know, is it? But then, are we made in the image of God, or do we try to construct God for ourselves?

I have said before that it wasn’t until I became a father that I really understood the power and layered-nature of the image of God as parent. And this episode of the golden calf rings all too familiar.

There’s a new illustrated, tongue-in-cheek book for parents called Go the (Expletive) to Sleep. It’s kind of a Good Night Moon for the frustrated parent – not meant to be read to the child, but a much-needed release for parental angst.

The perspective is of someone who loves their child, but is at their wit’s end when it comes to enforcing bedtime. None of us can resonate with that, can we? There’s very little of the book that would be proper to read in an intergenerational setting, but I’ll give you a quick censored taste:

One typical two-page spread is of a beautiful desert scene with the sun setting, birds silhouetted against the night sky. The “goodnight” poem continues:

The owls fly forth from the treetops. Through the air, they soar and they sweep. A hot crimson rage fills my heart, love. For real, shut up and sleep.

This may be the God whom we face in these two lessons today, the over-tired parent who is simply burned out and frustrated beyond belief.

Do we ever get angry? Then why do we think that God is incapable of the same emotion? Are we made in the image of God, or do we try to construct the God we want for ourselves?

There’s a wonderful proof-text from Ephesians that speaks to this anger.

We are familiar with part of it: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Or, more familiarly, “Don’t go to bed angry.” Settle your grievance now. Don’t let it fester.

But do we know what comes before it?

This little nugget: “Be angry, but do not sin.” Be angry, but do not sin. It’s a commandment!

We treat anger like there’s something horribly wrong with it. Perhaps it’s a cultural vestige left over from the Victorian era. In any case, the text is clear. Anger isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with it.

If we want to fashion God for ourselves, then we’re likely to take out all the stuff we find distasteful: anger, rage, fury. And while we’re at it, let’s edit out God’s mind being changed. That’s just a sign of weakness. Isn’t it?

But if that’s our approach, where faith in the God who fashioned us gives way to our own version of idol-making, then we’ve completely missed the point. There’s something amazing to learn, if we allow ourselves to be re-molded into the image of God.

Our moral path is a pretty simple one. We know we are imperfect, broken vessels; but we strive to be better. So what can we learn here? Well, for one, anger isn’t a symptom of our imperfection. It’s something we inhabit naturally. Sin arises from how we deal with that anger.

Look at God’s conversation with Moses. God is the more powerful party. God is the wise one. God is, well, God. And yet, God comes down to Moses’ level, vents a little bit, and then…listens. God listens to Moses; the same Moses who said he was too ineloquent to confront Pharaoh is now arguing with God! And, eloquent or not, God is convinced. Amazing!

So the question for us is: what are we to do with this image of God within us, and with our tendency to construct idols of our own making? When it comes to anger, is it better to suppress it and pretend we don’t have it, or to give voice to it productively in order to deal with it? Are we ever willing to let ourselves be convinced that we might be wrong? And can we do this when the one convincing us is someone we think beneath us, whether because of social status, or age, or educational background, or political affiliation?

There’s not time enough today to deal with all of the questions these texts raise. We’ve still got this problem of the ejected wedding guest. The short version is that the lesson is not about dress code, but responding in gratitude. Even so, is it possible that they, too, might be allowed back in, that the divine mind might be changed?