Last night, many of us parishioners went to see a screening of The Ides of March, the George Clooney film shot, in part, here at Christ Church Cranbrook. I love movies, and every time I go to a theater I think about great movie-going experiences I have had. Today’s readings are largely about parties, and in thinking about the readings and the movies, I remembered one of my all-time favorite pictures: Blake Edwards’s 1968 film, The Party, starring Peter Sellers. In The Party, Sellers plays a bit part Indian actor in Hollywood who is so inept during the shooting of a battle scene that he destroys not only the scene but the whole set when he blows up the fort under attack. The studio head becomes so furious when he learns what this will cost him that he writes the actor’s name on a piece of paper, intending to blacklist him. Instead, the piece of paper he uses becomes the guest list for the A-list dinner party he will throw that weekend, and so the bumbling Peter Sellers character is set loose to wreak havoc on an exclusive Hollywood evening.
One of the best things about The Party is the way it makes fun of a certain kind of exclusive evening. My father was an actor, and he used to say that Hollywood is the most socially stratified society in America. Blake Edwards’s movie The Party shows us the comic side of social pretension when a bumbling low level guy comes in to a high class evening and wrecks absolutely everything. It’s a mess, but you can’t help but love watching it happen.
Our readings this morning give us snapshots of two parties, each of them very different. The first, from Exodus, shows us what happened while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai getting the Ten Commandments: the Israelites down below grew fearful in their leader’s absence, reverted to their pagan ways, and danced around the golden calf. The second, from Matthew, recounts Jesus’s parable of the king who throws a wedding banquet for his son and tells what he does when the invited guests fail to show up. The king responds by turning away from the elite guests and inviting everyone he can find on the streets to the party.
Two books of the Bible, two parties. One is a self-serving revel of wretched excess thrown in fear and anxiety to pacify a false idol, the golden calf. The other is an open, inviting, welcoming celebration offered in thanksgiving for life’s abundance. Which one would you rather go to? More importantly, what does each party say, literally and figuratively, about what it means to be human, about what it means to be in relation with one another and God?
Let’s talk about the first party. In our culture, the golden calf has become a symbol of the world and its glittering lures, but in the context of the Old Testament, it represents the Canaanite deity Baal who was represented as a bull or a calf. In the course of the exodus from Egypt to Palestine, one way the people show their flagging faith in Yahweh is to revert to their old pagan habits, especially when they are anxious or fearful. So in the terms of the story, worshipping the golden calf suggests not only pursuing bad values; it indicates unwillingness in hard times to trust in a God who will make good on promises.
However you understand it, the party the Israelites throw for the golden calf is an image of the world at its most materialistic and faithless. In a world where people have forgotten or ceased to trust in God, it is natural to turn to things as the source of ultimate value and to try to fill one’s deep needs with material excess. Like the wild Hollywood party in the Peter Sellers film, the dance around the golden calf is a picture of desperate people seeking to fill their internal void with too much stuff. And like all such attempts, the quest for too much always results in a feeling of not quite enough.
The story of the dance around the golden calf is a tale of the unsatisfactory result we get when pursuing excess. The contrasting parable in today’s Gospel is Jesus’s account of the inclusive invitation to a wedding banquet. The antidote to human excess is divine abundance. The king’s party is a banquet of oxen and fat calves, cattle used not for ritual animal sacrifice as in Baal worship but to satisfy human physical hunger and amplify a celebration of marriage and community. The party Jesus describes doesn’t come off the way the king in the story envisions it; but the recalcitrance of the invited guests does not stop him from living life to its fullest. The king makes short work of the invited guests and brings in everyone he can find on the street—“both the good and the bad”—to his joyous celebration.
Two parties, two celebrations: one of scarcity and excess, one of abundance and inclusion. The first kind of party is the one our modern, consumerist, materialistic culture regularly throws for itself—in fact, increasingly it’s the only one our culture knows how to throw. The second kind of party is the one always given by authentically grounded human communities. It’s the kind of party thrown by just societies, functional families, and—when we’re faithful to the vision of us proclaimed by Jesus—the wedding banquet is the kind of party given by the church.
So what we have this morning is two contrasting visions of human society. The first, golden calf, vision is organized around the fear of scarcity that can only be assuaged by excess. The second, wedding banquet, vision is organized around a trust in the world’s abundance, a faith that always expresses itself in generosity. And one way to read the Bible is to see it as the constant play between these two visions. God has made the world, given it to us, and blessed it and us with abundance. But we, in our fear and faithlessness, fail to trust in that abundance and worry that there will never be enough to go around and that we must therefore get ours first. Faithful people learn to trust in abundance. Fearful people are driven by the fear of scarcity.
Today is Stewardship Sunday. It is important, when talking about giving to the church, to discuss the parish’s vision and goals, its financial needs for the coming year, the ministries and services we hope to enable and enact. But today, in church, we need to remember first the biblical basis of what we mean by stewardship. We are asked to give to the church for many good institutional and practical reasons, but we give to the church primarily because of those two contrasting party images we see this morning. Do you want to live your life in a fear of scarcity or in a celebration of abundance? Do you want your values to be shaped by an endless quest for too much or by a fulfilling vision of generous mutuality? God knows that the best way for us to experience the deep abundance God offers is to practice real generosity ourselves. Giving generously—to the church, yes, and to the alleviation of human need beyond the church—giving generously is important because it helps us become the people God is calling us to be. The more tightly we hold on to what we have and try to protect it from others, the less we are open to God’s transforming love and purpose. We give generously because we know in our hearts we would rather be guests at the king’s wedding banquet than dancers around the golden calf.
The Eucharist, the ritual meal we enact each Sunday, is the way Christians for centuries have made real the inclusive, open, generous, abundant wedding banquet offered by the king. For each and all of us this has become the weekly way we remember who we are and what we hope for as we gather around God’s table. In many ways, the Eucharist itself is God’s answer to the dance around the golden calf. Week after week we make our way forward, assured in this moment of feeding and blessing that there will be enough, even and perhaps especially, for us. And not only enough food: enough love, enough purpose, enough meaningful work, enough compassionate friendship.
During the shooting of The Ides of March here, many people asked me why I hadn’t gone into the motion picture business as my parents had. The answers to that question are layered and complex, but the truest answer I can give relates to the two parties we see on offer in the scriptures this morning. I grew up in Hollywood. I’ve been to that first party. I know how empty it is. I knew even as a child that the golden calf party was not for me, that I was drawn to this second party, the one we enact weekly in church, the festival of abundance and generosity that Jesus talks about in the parable and offers us in the gift of communion. All my life I’ve felt drawn to the second party and not the first. That’s why I gave my life to God’s service, and that’s why I give money to the church.
God calls you and me, once again, to come forward to the table, to come to this party of abundance. There is enough for you. There is enough for me. There is enough for the world. We can celebrate and make that truth real by letting ourselves be fed, together, in this meal that knows no limit or boundary. And we can continue to celebrate and make that truth real by giving generously for the spread of God’s kingdom through the life and ministry of Christ Church Cranbrook. Say no to the golden calf. Say yes to the wedding banquet. Be fed at the table. Serve each other and the world. Give what you have to extend the blessings of God’s abundant party to all. Amen.