The readings this morning can be interpreted as conveying a wrathful and violent God hell bent on consuming and burning down a city or a people that reject or offend him. In Exodus, as the Israelites worship the golden calf, God says to Moses, “Let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” In Jesus’s parable of the wedding banquet, the king (who is often understood to represent God) becomes deeply enraged with those whom he initially invited to the party and orders his troops to burn down their cities. This interpretation of a wrathful and fire-y God is deeply troubling, especially as many of our friends, family members and loved ones are suffering tremendous loss and trauma as a result of the many devastating wildfires that are burning through the North Bay. Fortunately, we know that this ‘fire-and-brimstone’ interpretation of a wrathful God is not only superficial but also antithetical to the God who is revealed to us in a loving, self-giving and vulnerable healer and teacher named Jesus of Nazareth. In light of God’s self-revelation in Christ, we see that these readings are actually about God’s relentless invitation for each of us to be in friendship with him.
As we continue reading through the book of Exodus, we see God as vulnerable and deeply hurt by his people’s rejection of him. Moses reminds God of God’s loving commitment to his people by doing some very effective “name-dropping.” Remembering that the book of Exodus, in Judaism, is called Shemoth, the Book of Names, we are wise to look at and attend to the names mentioned, especially in Moses’s dialogue with the divine. Moses says to God, “Remember your servants and your friends, Abraham, Isaac and Israel; and remember the promises you made to them.” This is where Moses again lives up to his name (which means “drawn out of the water”). Like Noah’s Rainbow that was drawn out of the water after the flood, Moses functions as a living reminder of God’s promise to always love and protect his people, no matter what. Moses and the Rainbow remind us and God of God’s promise of love and protection; and Lord knows we need a reminder like that now, in the midst of all the devastation here in California.
Moses reminds God of his love by specifically naming his friends Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Abraham’s name means “Father of many people.” Do you remember what Isaac’s name means? Isaac means “laughter.” Do you remember what Israel means? Israel was the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with God by the river Jabbok. Israel means “struggles with God.” So by dropping these names, Moses reminds God not only of his intimate friendship with these patriarchs but also of his commitment to his people in times of joy, laughter, disbelief and struggle. Now we might be wondering, “Wait a minute. Isn’t God all knowing? Does God really forget his love and actually need reminding?” If we are wondering that, then I would remind us that this is the Bible’s poetic and engaging way of communicating, through narrative, God’s relentless commitment to God’s people; and God’s consistent and persistent invitation for us all to enter more deeply into friendship with him. Through baptism, we are all children of Abraham, Isaac and Israel and even if we temporarily snub or reject God, God remembers his commitment to us. God remains faithful because we are children of his closest friends and he longs to grow in friendship with us as well.
In Jesus’s parable, we see God’s invitation to friendship presented as an actual invitation to a wedding party. After the first guests reject the invitation, the host invites everyone off the streets, both good and bad, to the wedding banquet, so that the banquet hall is packed full. When the host notices a man not wearing a wedding robe, he approaches him and calls him “Friend.” However, the man remains unresponsive and is thus thrown out of the party, “into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus does make clear that there are indeed consequences for rejecting God’s invitation and friendship. It’s not that God desperately wants friends and punishes everyone who refuses his friendship, like a violent and spoiled little boy. It’s more that God respects our free will and our choice to reject a relationship with the One who is our source of being. We remember that God revealed his name to Moses as Eyeh Asher Eyeh (“I am what I am”), which for Christians has meant that God is not just another powerful being, but rather God is Being itself or what Paul Tillich called “the Ground of Being.” So if we reject God, we are actually rejecting the gift of existence; and the Bible again uses poetic imagery to describe this state of non-existence: darkness, weeping, gnashing of teeth, etc.
However, the Gospel of Christ makes clear that even in the state of non-existence, God remains relentless in his invitation to friendship. That is the meaning of Holy Saturday, when, as we say in the Apostles’ Creed, Christ descended to the dead to continue extending his invitation. Psalm 139 also makes this clear when the poet says, “Even if I make my bed in hell, you O God are still there” (v. 8). God’s invitation is eternal, extending all the way to the darkest pits of hell. And Christ remains in perpetual, loving solidarity with all who suffer, including those who suffer in hell or in what feels like hell.
Although Christ’s love does indeed extend to all (no matter what), we still want to know how we can accept God’s invitation to friendship; how we can emulate God’s dear friends Abraham, Isaac and Israel; and how we can join the wedding banquet, appropriately dressed in the wedding robe.
The great early Christian theologians (St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Gregory the Great to name a few) all essentially agreed that the wedding robe represents love, specifically love for God and love for neighbor. And we embody that love through prayer and service to those in need. That is how we begin and deepen our friendship with God, by spending quality time with him, daily in prayer and consistently in service to those in need.
We formally accept friendship with God at our baptism, which makes us heirs and children of God’s buddies Abraham, Isaac and Israel. And at our baptism, we vow to cultivate that friendship by praying and serving Christ in all persons; and also by gathering here, every week, as the Body of Christ. As Anglican lay leader Robert L. Neal from the diocese of Chicago says in a little book titled 101 Reasons to be Episcopalian, “Anglicans do good deeds to increase understanding of God [and to grow in friendship with God], not out of fear or to earn admission to heaven.”
The Scripture readings this morning call us to grow in friendship with God, to respond to God’s relentless invitation to friendship by praying and serving those in need. Many of our neighbors up north are in desperate need. I imagine many of them felt like and still feel like they have been in hell this last week, in the midst of these terrifying infernos. We can respond to God’s invitation to friendship by praying for them and then by taking action, taking action like Nachshon, our old friend Nachshon, who stepped boldly into the Red Sea before the waters parted. And let us also remember to pray before taking action because taking action without first drenching ourselves in prayer can sometimes do more harm than good. Remember what happened to Moses when he tried to protect the vulnerable before making himself at home in God’s presence? It did not work out well for him.
The more I have worked with professional relief organizations, the more I have learned from them how overwhelming and difficult their job becomes as a result of people who are so eager to take action and help but not necessarily willing to do what really needs to be done or to give what really needs to be given, which is most often money. So what actions are we called to take in order to help those in need, after we have first made ourselves at home in God’s presence and prayed for his direction? Are we as eager to take action, am I as eager to take action, if that means opening up my wallet?
We deepen our friendship with God through prayer and service to those in need. This is how we participate in the wedding feast and wear the wedding robe and become God’s buddies along with Abraham, Isaac and Israel, deepening our friendship with him in the midst of joy, laughter, sorrow and struggle and even during times that might feel like hell. It is in these difficult times that our friendship with God often grows stronger and deeper as we remember, in the words of St. Paul, that “the Lord is near.” And it is St. Paul’s closing words to the church in Philippi that perhaps most beautifully describe how we can respond to God’s relentless invitation to friendship by praying and serving those in need. He says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone…Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, 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. Keep on [taking action and] doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and [your friendship with God will deepen and grow, because] the God of peace will be with you.” The God of peace will be with us. May it be so. Amen.
 Louie Crew, 101 Reasons to Be Episcopalian (Morehouse Publishing: Harrisburg PA, 2003), 9.