Based on Exodus 32:1-14, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14
In 2014, the Pew Research Forum surveyed the level of activity of people across Christian denominations. In 2015, they reported in their findings that Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists had the highest level of member participation and that Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics had the lowest level of member engagement. Their metric was three-fold, membership in a faith community, worship and small group attendance. They found that a small percentage of members of Mainline denominations across racial divides were highly active (defined as weekly worship attendance and at least monthly small group attendance). United Methodists had 27% of their cohort fall into the highly active bundle and 12% in the low activity group. This is not surprising as other groups have found that United Methodists attend worship slightly less than twice a month on average.
That’s sobering information on individual members, but what about churches? Gunderson, et al, studied the activity of churches in a metropolitan area and found that only 10% to 20% did all of the “heavy lifting” in areas of social justice, community engagement and outreach. This is consistent with a well-known truth in human group behavior known as the 80-20 rule. Anyone who has worked on a group project knows that there are always those who go above and beyond, and those that lag or never fully participate. To put it another way, 80% of the output from a group is accomplished by 20% of the members. It has been true of every group that I have belonged to or managed since High School. The overwhelming majority of a group of any size will never fully participate. This is the conundrum addressed by our scripture readings today. From the wandering Israelites’ anxiety that the God they followed into the wilderness has somehow abandoned them; to Paul exhorting the believers in Philippi to continue to be fully engaged in the work of Christ and in being loving to one another; or Jesus telling the chief priests and elders another parable about what happens if they fail to fully participate in the banquet feast of God. Yes, there is much to consider here with regard to whether or not we choose to fully participate in the mission and ministry for which we were created, gifted, called and to which we have given our vows. Let us go to God now in prayer that God might transform us into full participants in God’s work in the world…
The Israelites are getting nervous because Moses has been up the mountain of God for 40 days. They are certain that he is dead or gone forever with God, and they want someone or something to lead them out of this accursed wilderness. If Moses and his God will not do it – then they might as well return to worshipping the other gods that they knew in Egypt. You see, even though God had done great things for them, their hearts had not been transformed yet and the people were not ready to fully participate in a future with that God. They accosted Aaron and browbeat him until he agreed to make them a new idol to worship. Aaron had them bring all the gold they acquired from the Egyptians and he cast a metal calf. Aaron tried to make it better by telling them that “tomorrow is a festival to the LORD” (using the very name of God), but it was not to be. God, on top of the mountain saw what was happening and without the intervention of Moses, God would have destroyed the Israelites. Moses helped change God’s mind by reminding God of the promises made to Abraham and his descendants.
The summation of Paul’s letter to the believers in Philippi is an exhortation to them to keep doing what they have learned. He reminds them of their place in society and their behaviors that reflect their full participation as followers of the Christ. Rejoice, be gentle, don’t worry – trust in God, do whatever is true, just, honorable, pure, commendable…by engaging in these things no matter the circumstance or degree of persecution they will know the peace of God who is with them always.
Jesus is finishing his parables to the chief priests and elders. This final one is possibly the most difficult one for them and for us to hear. A king throws a wedding banquet for his son and invites all the well-to-do to come. They blow him off and even go so far as to kill the king’s slaves who were sent to bring them to the party. The king then sends troops and wreaks revenge upon them. The wedding feast will now continue, but there needs to be a crowd. The king orders the slaves to go out into the streets to collect people, “both good and bad”, so that the wedding hall was filled to capacity. However, one of the guests chose to not fully participate and he was tossed into the night for his choice.
While I was in seminary, after I left full-time work as a pharmacist, I managed a group of four Arlington-based 9Round kick boxing gyms for a friend. This friend had been in the personal training and fitness world most of his life. He told me the truth about gym memberships that a minority of people who sign up for a membership ever fully commit to using the gym regularly (defined as 3 times a week, every week). The corollary to this is the number of folks who belong to a diet plan (Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, Atkins, etc) and duly pay their money and yet only 1% of all members ever lose any weight – or if they do lose weight they fail to keep it off long-term. There is no commitment to fully participate in changing the habits that lead to getting in better shape or in losing weight…we would rather keep doing what feels comfortable to us – even if it is killing us.
This is what’s happening as the chief priests and elders continue their dialogue with Jesus. Jesus tells them a third parable about how God’s kingdom really works. In this story the king (God) is throwing a party but none of the upper echelon people who are invited choose to come. In fact, they even openly flaunt their contempt for the king by killing his slaves. Retribution is swift and terrible for them. The king then has his servants go out into the streets to gather those who originally could only dream of being invited to such an event. Everyone was gathered, both those that lived within the law and those that did not. All was well and the hall was filled. The king came in and noticed that one person was not dressed appropriately and had him bound and thrown out of the party. This person had decided to not fully participate.
To fully understand this parable one needs to know that in that time the host of the party provided appropriate robes for all who attended. Something akin to all the wedding party nowadays dressing to match. Thus, the person who was singled out had decided not to wear the robe given to him – a clear affront to the host. Why he makes this decision we are not told. Suffice it to say that for whatever reason, the robe-less man was conspicuous in his decision to not fully participate in the celebration to which he had graciously been invited to attend. This is just like the chief priests, elders, Israelites – and many of us, if I might be so bold to say. Through the grace of God we are invited to fully participate in all that God is doing throughout our world. This is not our doing, nor did we earn it, it is a pure gift and unconditional invitation. Yet, just like the unnamed man in the parable, we choose to participate in our own way as it suits us. We find excuses to not attend worship, Sunday school or small group activities. Per the survey results, this is true of so many members of all the churches in America. Members who decide to not fully participate in the life of the church into which they were baptized and are professing members – treating church like they treat their gym membership; allowing someone else to do the heavy lifting. This is the point of the parables that Jesus told to the religious leaders of his day. They have lost sight of what it means to fully and joyfully participate in the work of God in the world. They have focused all their attention on the Temple and its function and have forgotten why it was built in the first place. The “house of God” had become a “den of thieves” rather than a house for all of God’s people to gather. They have forgotten that the Church is not a building – it is the people; all the people both “good” and “bad” who are invited to fully participate in what God is doing in the world. Brothers and sisters in Christ, every day you have the choice to become a full participant in the work God is doing – what is standing in your way? When you choose to keep God at arms-length you risk being left out in the cold to gnash your teeth instead of being inside enjoying the party. Thanks be to Jesus who always speaks truth…amen!