A few weeks ago on the outskirts of Cheltenham we met an horrendous traffic jam. My wife and I were hoping to have a walk on Cleeve Hill and when we reached Cheltenham race-course at about 11.45 on that Sunday morning we were caught. Cars everywhere and we inched forward at a snail’s pace. Half an hour in a traffic jam and all because hundreds of people were trying to get into the Car Boot Sale held there every Sunday – all anxious to look through other people’s clutter in the hope of finding some treasure.
We human beings have found some intriguing ways to fill our spare time after the needs of work and our families, haven’t we? Those roads round the race course would, of course, be full at other times of racegoers and there we were going for a walk – another pastime – and when we eventually reached Cleeve Hill there were golfers on the golf-course. How sadly different this is compared with the millions of desperate homeless people in places like Syria and families in Sierra Leone terrified that Ebola may strike their family, living from hour to hour and day to day.
From marathon running to music making; from chess to bungee jumping; from reading to painting we have hundreds of ways to fill our leisure time – and even church-going is seen by some as a harmless hobby like going to bingo.
I wonder how Jesus, if he were alive today, would see our situation and whether he would change his parable of the wedding feast. Perhaps the guests who were invited would come up with a greater variety of excuses. As well as one going off to his farm and another to his business, a third might have said “I have a car boot sale to visit” or “I’ve got tickets for a Premier League football match” or “I’ve planned a shopping trip that day.”
The wedding feast is the heavenly banquet when the kingdom of God is finally revealed. God is the king sending out the invitations to his son’s wedding and he is greeted with surly replies. So he invites all and sundry and the hall is packed with guests. Remember St John’s words at the beginning of his Gospel: “He came unto his own and his own received him not.” The Son of Man was rejected as the invitations were.
How would we respond to the invitations? You could say, couldn’t you, that our rich and varied lives, as well as our work and bringing up a family, have at times got in the way of our need for God; that hobbies and interests have superseded a search for spirituality. Our affluent lives leave the spiritual dimension of being a human, of being part of the kingdom of God, to one side.
But it can go further than that. Sometimes our hobbies can take us over just as our business can. We can easily become obsessed with one thing or another. I’ve always felt sorry for wives of railway enthusiasts who see their gardens filling up with signal boxes and engine parts and for husbands of Bridge players who have to take part in post mortems afterwards. And yet we owe some aspects of our civilization to obsessed people – artists who could think of nothing but painting and inventors who pursued their ideas at the cost of their family life and their personal health.
In our first reading this morning we had a warning against creating false gods. It’s the story of the Golden Calf. Moses is on Mount Sinai communing with God and planning his next move. The people of Israel become impatient and restless and Aaron instructs them to bring all their pieces of gold which he melts down and uses to make an image of a bull-calf.
This immediately looks like an idol, a god in physical form like the neighbouring peoples had. And yet Aaron puts an altar in front of it to worship God who brought them out of Egypt. It is difficult to understand Aaron’s intention. Was he simply giving the people a distraction while they waited for Moses or did he make a false god? God’s interpretation is clear. It’s a betrayal. It’s a false image just like the bulls which were worshipped in those days and those parts. He threatens to wipe the people out, but Moses pleads for them and God relents.
It is certainly a strange story but there is one theme that we can focus on and that is the human tendency to produce our own gods in a familiar image. Some aspects of our work, our personal and family lives can almost become sacred to us and become a kind of Golden Calf distracting us from what is really holy.
So we do need to keep our lives open to God’s call and to beware of activities that close us down. We have to be able to recognize the invitations when they come. The parable of the Wedding Feast is a warning to us to keep a critical eye on our priorities in case our lives become clogged like the roads round Cheltenham race-course on a Sunday morning.