Sunday, October 09, 2005

October 9 Sermon: The Proper Attire

Sermon Text: Matthew 22: 1-14 and Philippeans 4: 1-9

Sometimes the Good News sounds fine and dandy until Jesus tweaks the story just a little bit. We have come to expect the Kingdom of God to include the last and the least. This is a familiar refrain in the stories of Jesus. It makes us feel really good about ourselves since we have claimed the invitation, and are on the inside. Today’s lesson follows the general rule to Kingdom parables. That is, until the end—when we perk our ears up and wonder if we had accidentally fallen asleep and made up the ending. Luckily, I read this scripture earlier in the week before I had my oral surgery, and therefore did not attribute the odd behavior exhibited in this scripture to my pain medication.
The King sends out the messengers to tell of the wedding banquet for his son. If we interpret the story as Matthew’s followers probably did, we hear in the symbols the familiar setup. God is the King, and the Good News of Christ is the Banquet for his son. The messengers are the prophets who have been sent by God to his people—to spread the news of the coming of Christ. The people refuse, and so the King, feeling somewhat rebuffed, sends out the messengers again, in order that they have sufficient notice of the announcement. This time they kill the messenger/prophets, which is a common accusation of Jesus against the people of Israel, especially in Matthew. Think for instance of Matthew 23: 37, where upon arriving at Jerusalem for the first time in his ministry, Jesus utters the famous phrase, “"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Matthew was writing his gospel in the midst of the downfall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70AD, and he believed this was a punishment for the people of Jerusalem’s unbelief. This aspect of the story is different from the perhaps more familiar version of the story in Luke 14:15-24 where the King is simply rebuffed by the townspeople and therefore sends invitations to the people in the highways and the hedges.
Also unique to Matthew’s version of this parable is the King’s response to the wedding guest who is not properly dressed. This being so unique, it caught my eye and became the focus of my preparations for today’s sermon.
Why in the world would Jesus tell us that God cares about what clothes we show up to the banquet in? Doesn’t Jesus usually tell us that God accepts us no matter who we are or what kind of mess we usually show up to the banquet of his Grace in? Doesn’t this seem to chafe against our common understanding of the Gospel? What could this possibly symbolize, that could justify the King telling his servants to “bind this man hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth?” Matthew clearly thinks there is something more to the Christian life than just “showing up” to the invitation. Contrary to the Jesus of our popular conceptualization, Matthew tells of him reporting that “many are called, but few are chosen.”
So what do we do with this text? Do we move it over to the category of scriptures that may have had some use at some point, but clearly don’t belong in our repertoire of favorite scriptures for “making disciples.” After all, how many “Matthew 22:14” posters have you seen at football games. Perhaps this scripture just belongs with the Psalms about bashing babies’ heads against the rocks, or the Levitical laws about selling your son or daughter into slavery for misbehaving. Or perhaps we should try and parse out what it may be saying to us behind all the rough veneer.
Perhaps instead of always focusing on why we are accepted to the party, we should pay attention to what kind of attire we are wearing.
The Bible speaks quite frequently about clothing. In the Genesis story, we are told that God made “garments out of skin” for Adam and Eve after they ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Joseph draws the jealous rage of his brothers for wearing the “many colored coat” that his father gave him. Jesus is said to have worn a seamless robe that the soldiers gambled for at the foot of his cross. A woman was also healed by touching his garment.
So what about these wedding robes that seem so important to the host of the banquet? In this story, the “wedding robe” is a symbol of something. Isaiah 61:10 tells us about “garments of salvation, and robes of righteousness.” In 1st Thessalonians, Paul tells us to put on the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of hope and salvation. What is it that a wedding robe symbolizes anyway? This is a symbol that has been somewhat lost to us because we no longer observe the practice of wedding robes. A wedding robe was given by the host to all who attended the banquet in order to “level the playing field.” Weddings weren’t an opportunity for the wealthy guests to show off their wealth and the poor guests to feel bad about their shabby attire. The host of the wedding provided beautiful robes so that everyone in attendance would be focused on the joy of the festivities instead of who had what. Viewed through this lens, the person who took off his wedding robe is trying to draw attention to himself. He is accepting the generosity of the host, but he is trying to do so on his own terms.
I believe today’s epistle lesson fits quite nicely with today’s Gospel lesson. Paul repeats over and over again in his letter to Phillipi to “Rejoice in the Lord, Always.” As I’ve mentioned before, this is Paul’s happiest letter, and it is written from a prison cell. Paul has tapped into the well of Christ in a way that he is now overflowing with the peace and love. He declares that this joyful exuberance surpasses all understanding, yet it guards our hearts and minds.
At the beginning of today’s reading, he pleads with two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to put their disagreement behind them and “be of the same mind.” Perhaps Paul is familiar with the “wrong attire” and is assuring his fellow banquet guests of the proper attire. Perhaps we can also hear Paul beckoning us toward the life of the light today. Perhaps when we let grudges over hurt feelings or petty jealousies stand in the way of joyful fellowship, we are wearing the wrong attire for God’s banquet! Perhaps when we allow our disagreements about the particularities to blind us to the larger truth of God’s grace, we are wearing the wrong attire to God’s banquet! Perhaps when we infect our church family with spite against someone we have a personal disagreement with, we are wearing the wrong attire to God’s banquet!
Christian friends: showing up to the banquet with an invitation in hand is a wonderful first step to accepting God’s grace. We as Wesleyans however, believe that grace continues to grow and bloom and bear fruit in our lives through the miracle of “sanctifying grace.” This is the art of living lives of personal and social holiness to be a joyful witness to the world about God’s grace and salvation. It is basically “donning our wedding robes” for the entire banquet, not taking them off after we’ve made it through the door. The idea that “many are called, but few are chosen” is Jesus’ way of telling us that the work of salvation continues in our life even after we’ve accepted the invitation. In case you haven’t done so yet, I will once again remind you to take a copy of the Book of Discipline’s paragraphs on church membership.
Church membership means we are accountable to one another, and we have the privilege to be so. It is about choosing a life of reconciliation and love over gossip and grudge matches. Sisters and brothers, I will tell you as Paul told the church at Philippi, if there are two of you who are harboring feelings against each other, please put away your ill feelings for the sake of the Gospel! Paul tells us to “be of the same mind.” This mind is the mind of Christ, and Paul assures us that “we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.”
Did you know that in the early church, when converts to the faith were being baptized, they removed all their clothing and went down into the water, then after being baptized in the name of the Trinity, they walked up out of the baptismal chamber, stomped on their old clothing, and were given new bright white robes? The act symbolized shedding the constraints of this world and even participating in the death of Christ. The waters were entered naked to symbolize our rebirth into the Kingdom Life. The new white clothing clebrated the purity of Christ that Christians were then privileged to put on and wear with joy and righteousness. New Christians stomped on their old clothing as a symbol of rejecting the sin they had left behind on the other side of the baptismal waters.
We are invited to a great feast - a wedding feast. Let us not make light of the invitation and refuse to come. We are not required to provide our own gowns and tuxedos. It is not up to us to fashion our own garments. Instead, we are to look to God, who saw to the needs of Adam and Eve, who covered their shame and made them to shine like the sun. We have a tailor of awesome reputation, one who, quite literally, fashions the stars and clothes the lilies of the field. In giving us Christ Jesus, God fashions for us a garment of great praise, a robe of eternal worth. We ought not be so proud as to insist on clothing ourselves, but rather humble our hearts, put on love, and clothe ourselves with Christ!

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