Monday, October 13, 2014

The Sunday Sermon: Dressing up for God's Banquet

Last Monday the Supreme Court of the United States opened the door much wider to marriage equality in this nation. It was a day of astonished rejoicing across the land. One of my clergy colleagues, the Rev. Hilary Smith of the Diocese of Virginia, stationed herself at the door of the Richmond, Virginia, courthouse, with a poster proclaiming our motto: The Episcopal Church welcomes you! It was a bit like Ashes to Go, except she was offering Marriage to Go. A slew of couples who heard the Supreme Court news came to the courthouse to get their marriage licenses; when they saw Hilary, five couples decided to be married on the spot and Hilary was honored to preside. I haven't seen pictures of them all, but I'm willing to bet that none of those people were wearing wedding apparel. What they brought instead was joy, love, and determination to make a lifelong commitment. Unlike the unfortunate guest in our Gospel parable, these couples were coming in from outer darkness, free at last to participate fully in one of our culture's most central institutions.

The parable of the wedding guests is troubling to many of us. It's clear that the King in the story represents God and that Jesus is the bridegroom. The people initially invited to the wedding are the religious establishment, the scribes and Pharisees who saw themselves as the gatekeepers of faith and who refused to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah they were waiting for. The messengers who go out with the invitations are presumably the Prophets, the faithful servants of God who proclaim good news and call God's people to account. Many of the prophets were persecuted by the people in power: imprisoned, ridiculed, exiled, or killed. Given all the hostility that the scribes and Pharisees demonstrate towards Jesus, it's not surprising that the story has them rejecting the invitation and offering violence to the messengers. So the messengers go out again - those who are still able - and invite the outsiders to the feast. Everyone they meet, good and bad, rich and poor, deserving and undeserving, is invited to the party.

This is the God we have come to know and to love through Jesus Christ, a God who welcomes the outsiders, those without a vote or a voice, those who have lingered in the shadows because they were afraid of the rejection awaiting them in the full light of the community. This is the God who cares for the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the immigrant, the wounded, the inadequate, the ones who don't have the resources to pass as acceptable in the establishment. And they come: they accept the invitation and they show up in droves, rejoicing in their acceptance and in the richness of community, just as all those couples showed up at courthouses across the land on Monday.

But this is where the story takes an unwelcome turn. Who is this guest who isn't properly attired? What is this wedding garment that he lacks? And, if these people are the have-nots, why would the king expect him to have a wedding garment? Doesn't Jesus accept everyone just as they are in rags and tatters? Does this mean that we shouldn't come to church unless we can wear the right clothes, speak with the right accent, give the right donation?

A little perspective helps here: It's only very recently that people in our culture have had multiple choices of clothing. I was bemused to learn, when we moved to the US, that our friends in New Hampshire would take time on Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends to switch out their wardrobes, putting the off-season clothes in the cedar closet. And then, when Christmas approached, people had sweaters decorated with Christmas themes that they only wore for that seasonal celebration. It was one of many cultural adjustments. I have far more clothes than my mother did, and my working-class English husband and I had many arguments early in our marriage about my desire for him to wear what I perceived as the right clothes to various events. You know, it's that conversation that begins, "Is that what you're wearing?" (I got over it eventually).

Go back 100 years and most people had two outfits to choose from: one to wash and one to wear. Only the very wealthy could afford to have many options, let alone specialized clothing like evening dress or riding wear. So, in ancient times, the vast majority of people wouldn't have owned a special garment for weddings. In fact, when someone high up the greasy pole of social status gave a party, they demonstrated their wealth and status by providing special garments at the door for their guests to wear. So the wedding guests didn't have to bring their own; it was a bit like us at the church providing vestments for the altar party (although that is more to provide a non-distracting, uniform view than to demonstrate the status of the church!). After the 8:00 service today a couple with family in India told me about attending a wedding there recently where the female visitors were given saris to wear.

If a wedding guest refused to wear the clothes the host provided, it was like saying that the guest didn't acknowledge the status of his host; it was a serious insult in fact. Now we can better understand why the King lost his temper. This wedding guest was not only refusing a garment; he was openly demonstrating contempt for the King and his son.

This parable paints a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven, the eternal celebration in which we briefly participate when we gather for Communion. As members of the Church, as the insiders, as stewards of God's house, we extend an invitation to all, and we need to be ready for the people who accept. It isn't just the usual suspects, the in-crowd, the people who we owe something to. It's a motley crew of all sorts and conditions, people we walk past in the street without even noticing, people who don't have time for parties, even people who we wouldn't usually welcome into our homes. The Kingdom of Heaven is full of unlikely people, and if we are serious about building it, we had better prepare ourselves: it won't just be the people we like and approve of.

The Kingdom is extraordinary in that everyone is invited. God is not picky. But if we accept the invitation and show up, there are a few standards expected of us. We don't get to show up and then show contempt for our host. Once we accept the invitation to be God's people, people who represent divine love and hospitality and generosity, we are held to a higher standard of behavior. We are expected to clothe ourselves in spiritual garments of compassion, kindness, joy, and peace. Paul sums up the Christian ethic beautifully at the end of his letter to the Philippians: "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you."

Christian life isn't always a party, but it is always a celebration. We are called to proclaim good news to the world, to celebrate the reality that through Jesus Christ we have been saved, once for all. This weekend our stewardship committee got rolling for the season ahead. You will be receiving invitations this week to a number of special celebrations, times to come together and celebrate St. Paul's, who we have been, who we are now, and who we are called to be in the future. We have much to celebrate: God has given us all that we need to pursue mission and ministry in this city, to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to fulfillment with incremental acts like the Supreme Court's decision, to push back the shadows and bring ever more people into the full light of love and acceptance. Clothed in truth, excellence, and love, we can extend the celebration to those who haven't yet heard the invitation.

The Eucharist is our own little tiny bit of the wedding feast, our local moment of joining in on the eternal banquet. We are called together today and every day to celebrate God's victory over death, to have a party, to rejoice in the new life that is so abundantly before us, and we give joyful thanks for the invitation. Alleluia, Christ our passover is sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast, Alleluia.

The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges 

October 12, 2014

No comments: