Saturday, March 11, 2023

“Wedding Apparel” - March 12, 2023

Text: Matthew 22:1-14

There are those churches where people really dress up.  Men wear suits and ties, women wear dresses and heels.  At one time, a lot of churches were that way.  But it has been at least a few decades since First Baptist was like that.  Some of us may dress up, there’s a lot of what you might call some may wear jeans, some wear shorts when it is warm and few wear shorts even when it’s not warm, and it really doesn’t matter.  

A number of years ago I started a “No Tie July” campaign, and after going through more than a year of online only worship, I am now personally observing more of a No Tie or at least occasional tie from May-August rule.

We may not be too concerned about what people wear, but our scripture is all about somebody who shows up for a wedding with inappropriate clothing.  And it is a problem.  It is a serious problem.

The story that Jesus tells is kind of out there, to be honest, and it is troubling.  Now Luke tells this parable a little differently.  In Luke’s version, a man has a big banquet, but the invited guests don’t show up.  So the host says go out into the streets and just invites everybody.  All manner of humanity shows up for the big feast.  It is much more of a feel-good story.  We sang a hymn by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette just a moment ago, and it appears to me to be based more on Luke’s telling of this parable.

But Matthew takes it to another level.  It is way over the top.  A king invites the movers and shakers, the important people, leaders of society, to his son’s wedding banquet.  But they have no interest in going.  When they don’t show up, the king sends messengers to tell the invitees that the dinner is ready, come to the wedding banquet.  Some leave to do other things while the rest wind up killing the messengers.  Really?  Who kills letter carriers because you don’t like the mail?

The king retaliates by raising an army, killing those who had murdered the messengers, and burning their city to the ground.  

At this point, the king says, just go out and invite everybody to my son’s wedding.  And all kinds of guests arrive – the good and the bad, we are told.  The invitation to the wedding feast is not based on merit or personal character – everybody is welcome.  And they seem to be having a great time.

But one guy is not wearing appropriate clothing.  The king approaches him and says, “Friend, how did you get in without wearing a wedding robe?”  He calls him “friend” in a way that you just know he is going to lower the boom.  The way a police officer approaches someone that is going to be arrested.  The king has this guest thrown into the outer darkness – for a clothing faux pas.

This is clearly not a “go and do likewise” kind of story.  And it’s not a “think of the mustard seed” kind of story, either.  

This is not a story based on everyday life.  In the first place, nobody would refuse a royal invitation.  When there are royal weddings, everybody wants to be there.  The rich and the famous hope for an invite, and millions watch on TV.  Thousands and thousands of people line the streets just hoping for a glimpse of the couple and cheer as their car passes by.  Who would refuse an invitation from the king?

After all of that ugly business about murdering messengers and burning a city to the ground, finally, everyone is invited to the feast.  Of course, since the dinner was ready before the king even raised the army to deal with those who refused the invitation, it seems like the food might be a little cold.

We talked about parables being stories that you have to consider and chew on, and to be honest, I’m still chewing on this one a bit.

This parable can be seen as a picture of salvation history: the prophets proclaimed God’s invitation and were ignored and killed, and finally everyone is invited to the party, Gentiles included.  The immediate context is that in Matthew chapter 21, the chief priests and elders were opposing Jesus.  In fact, they were even then plotting his death.  They can be seen as those who are rejecting the invitation.  It is still a tough parable, but that helps a little, maybe.

Now keep in mind that this was a time in which many people did not have enough to eat.  Just getting by was a struggle for most of the population.  Nobody would turn down an invitation to a feast, at least no common person would.  A feast was a very appealing image.

Isaiah 25:6 says, “On this mountain, the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.”  Scripture is full of festive meals, and by the time of Jesus, the image of the Messianic Banquet had become a symbol of salvation.  

The Essenes were a group of devout people looking for the Messiah.  They believed that the banquet would be connected with the Messiah’s coming, but they believed that invitations would be offered only to those who were wise, intelligent and perfect.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were quite different from the Essenes, but they agreed that only a limited pool of people were acceptable before God.  There was a sharp line drawn between those who were in and those who were out.  If you had money and came from the right family and kept the law, you were in.  If you had a disease or were in the wrong line of work, or were of the wrong ethnic heritage, you were out.  

Jesus’ parable challenges those rules.  It actually throws out those rules.  The invitation is not simply for the few, it is for everybody.  It is almost scandalous: all were invited, the good as well as the bad.  Everybody.  After the A-list refuses, everyone else accepts.  Everybody comes, and the place is just packed for the great wedding feast.

This is a parable of the wonderful, expansive, inclusive grace of God.  Everyone is invited.  Everyone is welcome.  You don’t have to be perfect; you don’t even have to be “good.”  You are invited.  The kingdom is like a big party.

But then, we have the problem of this guy who is not dressed appropriately.  What is up with that?

Just reading the story, the thing that seems out of place is not this person who is not wearing a wedding robe.  What is out of place is that everybody else was wearing a wedding robe.  These people had just been pulled off the street and taken to the banquet.  Where did they get their robes?  Even if they had time to go home, a lot of them no doubt did not own that kind of clothing in the first place.

Some scholars have suggested that hosts of such a wedding provided dressy robes to those who did not have any.  Kind of like if you go to a fancy restaurant where a coat and tie is required and if you are not wearing them, they will have some jackets and ties on hand that you can wear.  (I don’t think we have that kind of restaurant in Ames, but I understand they exist.)

If it is understood that robes are provided, the spotlight shifts from the king who is put out about this guy’s clothing to the wedding guest who arrives for the feast but who in a sense rejects the invitation as well.

He is there – he is at the party.  He shows up, but he refuses to celebrate.  He refuses to honor the king and the couple being married.

You may have heard that “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”  I’ve always liked that quote.  There is something to be said for simply being there.  But the reality is, it can take more than just showing up.

Just “showing up” at class might make you a student, but it is not going to write your paper or complete your project.  Just showing up is not enough to earn a degree.

Just “showing up” at your wedding might get you married, but it doesn’t build a living, loving, caring, relationship.

Just “showing up” at the birth of your child might make you a parent, but it does not make you a diaper-changing, up-all-night, helping with homework, enforcing curfews Mom or Dad.

G. K. Chesterton used to say that “Just going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.” It takes more than just showing up.  To be a Christian involves action – it involves the way we live.  It takes a day-to-day commitment to follow Jesus wherever that leads.

The guest at the wedding didn’t have to show up.  But if he was going to attend, he needed to truly be there.  His nonchalant attitude about the celebration showed that he was not all in.  

Going all in with God is not an easy choice.  Not today, not in our culture.  The culture really doesn’t care.  Turning to God has become a fairly counter-cultural choice.  So the question is, in a time where more and more people give God little if any thought, is God happy just to have guests at the wedding?  Are we doing God a big favor just by showing up?

Tom Ehrich wrote,

It turns out that choosing God is, as always, a matter of going all in.  Not just the easy commandments, but the hard ones.  Not just loving friends, but loving enemies.  Not just good times, but suffering.  Not just going along with the crowd, but standing for justice and mercy.  Not just praying for oneself, but for others.  Not just the pleasing rituals of Sunday communion, but confession, remorse, lost certainties, new ways of being, mission to the world.  Not just hot coffee, but the winds of change.

Most of Jesus’ parables can be put into two categories:  parables of grace and parables of judgment.  Which is this?  I’m not sure; lie I said, I’m still chewing on this.  But I think the answer is probably both.  The doors are flung open wide and everyone is invited to God’s great feast.  The good, the bad, and the ugly are all welcome.  God’s grace and welcome are offered freely, to all.  

That is fantastic news for us.  The flip side is that when grace is ignored and refused and squandered and mocked, again and again, there will be consequences.  If there weren’t, then grace really wouldn’t mean very much.

We want to skip the judgment component, but judgment is about God’s love too.  It is meant as a warning, meant to steer us the right way.

Those who refused the invitation to the wedding, and the one who showed up but then refused in his own way to join the celebration, failed to recognize the incredible gift they had been offered.

We are all invited to God’s party.  We are all offered God’s wonderful, marvelous, gracious invitation.  Every one of us.  To accept the invitation requires showing up, yes, but it requires more.  

God is not just looking for warm bodies.  God is looking for guests who will honor the son.  We can do that in t-shirts and running shoes as well as we can suits and dresses.  Because the wedding robe that God cares about is made up of the whole fabric of our lives.  It is made from the patterns God has given us – patterns of goodness and mercy and justice and compassion and forgiveness and care and service and peace. (1)

In the parable, the guests needed to change clothes.  In God’s kingdom, we are to change our lives.  We are called to not just be there but to be truly, fully present, to change our hearts and minds and spirits.  That happens when we understand the incredible invitation God has offered to us all.  Amen.

(1) Thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor for the fabric and patterns motif.

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