Sunday, October 9, 2011

"Dress Code" (Matthew 22:1-14)

Good morning! This is a big Sunday for us. I’d like to thank all of you from Brethren Christian for being here today, and blessing us with your wonderful music. You all welcomed me and a bunch of other pastors last Wednesday, and today it is our pleasure to welcome you here. However, I really got the better end of the deal, because you didn’t make me stand up and sing in front of everyone.

However, I did work hard to prepare the best message I could for you this morning. When I prepare to preach, I usually begin by consulting the lectionary, which is a schedule of scripture readings for each Sunday of the year. There are so many scriptures I could preach on, and this helps me narrow it down.

I was directed to the scripture passage we just heard – the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew – but I wasn’t sure. I’ve found that the parable of the wedding feast is a great scripture to refer to in other sermons. It’s great to highlight how, in the kingdom of God, even the people out in the streets have a place at the table: the “poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame,” as Luke puts it in his version of the story.

That preaches well. It can be thrown in almost anywhere. I could have used that last week, on World Communion Sunday, when I talked about Alexander Campbell, and how we Disciples of Christ see ourselves as part of the one body of Christ, welcoming all to the Lord’s Table, as God has welcomed us.

But there is a darker side to this parable, as you may have noticed. Preaching a whole sermon on this parable would force me to acknowledge that darker side, to deal with it, wrestle with it … and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that, especially since I knew that we were going to have a large number of guests with us this morning.

But in the end, I went with it anyway.

If you were listening closely when the scripture was read, you probably noticed parts of the parable that made you uncomfortable. First of all, those who were invited refuse the invitation. Then they seize the slaves who delivered the invitations, mistreating them and killing them.

Then, the king who sent out the invitations is so angry that he launches a war. An all-out war! He sends out troops, destroys those who killed his slaves, and burns their city.

All while the food sits on the banquet table, waiting to be eaten.

Finally, there is that bit at the end about the man who was bound hand and foot and thrown out into the darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth… just because he wasn’t wearing the right outfit!

And you kids think that your school has a tough dress code!

The gospel is good news, but much of this story seems like bad news, especially for the invited guests and for those who don’t dress right. And just who are the invited guests and the shabbily dressed?

In Matthew’s gospel, this parable is one of several that Jesus tells while in the temple, talking to the chief priests, the elders, and some Pharisees. After Jesus tells the first two parables – both of which focus around the image of a vineyard – the chief priests and Pharisees become angry with Jesus, because they realize that he is telling these parables about them; he is telling these parables against them.

Then Jesus tells this story of the wedding banquet. As soon as he is finished, the Pharisees go and begin to plot against Jesus.

So clearly, this parable was told against the leaders in the temple: the Pharisees, the chief priests, the Sadducees, the elders, and so on. The invited guests in this story are the Jewish leaders; they are the invited guests, the ones who have refused the invitation and have murdered the messengers.

Unfortunately, it is passages like this that have been used to justify anti-Semitism and hatred against Jews. Even though there is nothing Christian about hatred, Christians through the years have hated the Jews, who they saw as the bad guys.

However, this forgets that Jesus and the earliest believers were Jews and considered themselves Jews. The apostle Paul even lists his training as a Pharisee as a positive thing.

It’s easy to say that those who refused the invitation are the Jews. But it’s not just that they were Jews; it’s that they were Jewish insiders, the elite, those who had the authority, wealth, and power.

So really, it is more appropriate to interpret this not as a story of Jews vs. Christians, but as a story of insiders vs. outsiders. It’s a story of the wealthy elite vs. the poor. It’s a story of the powerful vs. the powerless.

Those who are on the inside, those with wealth and power, those who often shut others out, feel no need to attend the king’s banquet. Why should they, especially if the king is willing to invite the poor and other people of all types?

But for those poor, those outside the locked gates, this story is indeed good news. And that should not be surprising: the king is, after all, one who brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. He proclaims that the poor in spirit, those who are meek, are blessed, because the kingdom belongs to them. Where others lock the chains, he breaks them and sets people free.

So, one thing we should ask today is: who’s in? Who’s on the inside? Who, in today’s society, holds the wealth and power? Who holds the keys to the locks? And why do they hold on to their wealth and power, rather than share it with those who are poor, those who lack power and influence, and those who suffer?

The message of the gospel is clear: those who possess wealth and power but do little to help their neighbor who is in need, they will find it hard to enter the kingdom of God. They will be left outside, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The reason for this is that God cares very much about the world he created. And when scripture talks about the kingdom of God, it talks about a kingdom that exists on earth, in our own time. It is the healing and salvation of the world – this world that God has made. It is a misguided version of Christianity that is concerned only with the world that is yet to come. Because God so loves this world, and all who live in it.

And so, God does not like it when some think they are better than others, when some are allowed in, and others are locked out. All people are precious in God’s sight, and those who are poor or who suffer have a special place in God’s heart. As the prophet Isaiah says, the God who created you and formed you calls you by your name, saying to you: you are my beloved child, precious in my sight. You are my beloved child, and I love you [Isaiah 43:1, 4].

Which brings us to that poor man who showed up without the proper wedding attire. Seems harsh, doesn’t it, to throw him out? If he came in off the street, how can he be expected to have nice clothes? How can a loving God just toss him out like that? God comes across as harsh, arbitrary, mean. I do not like this God.

But wait a minute… This is a parable. Parables are metaphors. They aren’t meant to be taken literally. Maybe this man’s clothing is symbolic of something deeper…

I flipped through the pages of scripture, looking for other passages that deal with clothing. And I discovered the truth about God’s dress code.

In Ephesians it says: “Clothe yourself with the new self, created according to the likeness of God” [Eph. 4:24]. OK, we’re on to something here. Clothing refers to more than what we wear on the outside. It refers to our whole self, our whole being, which is created according to the likeness of God.

So one way the image of clothing is used in scripture is to symbolize one’s inner self.

Flip over to Colossians, and it says this: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience;… above all, clothe yourselves with love” [Col. 3:12, 14].

And then back in Galatians in says: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” You have clothed yourselves with Christ. Therefore, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” [Gal. 3:27-28].

So there it is. That’s the real dress code: we need to clothe ourselves with kindness, compassion, humility and love. If you’re on the inside, holding on to your wealth and power, not sharing it with those who are less fortunate, then you’re not clothed with kindness, compassion, humility and love. You’re not dressed properly.

It may be just a bit of conjecture on my part, but I believe that that is what the man who was thrown out was lacking. He was not clothed with kindness, compassion, humility and love. Maybe he thought himself better than everyone else. Maybe he thought that some of those who had been welcomed to the banquet table didn’t belong. Maybe he thought that they didn’t earn their way in, that they didn’t deserve to be there.

It’s important that we as Christians don’t go around thinking that we are better than anyone else. We’re not. Each one of us is a beloved child of God, precious in God’s sight, but that is true of every person God created. Every person is created in the image of God.

So many people are turned off to Christianity because it seems to them that Christians go around thinking they are better than everyone else. That may be one of the biggest roadblocks to sharing the gospel. So it is important that we are properly dressed, that we clothe ourselves with kindness, compassion, humility, and love.

It is when we humble ourselves before God and our fellow human beings that Christ lifts us up by welcoming us into the banquet hall, to take our place at the table.

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