Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Come as You Are

Matt. 22:1-14[1]

As you’ve probably figured out from my references to him in my sermons, my Grandpa played an important role in my life! One of his favorite sayings was that it didn’t matter if your clothes were new or old, if your shoes were shined you were dressed up. Some of you may remember that kind of thinking. He was pretty “old school” about things like that. And so you’ll understand why for years I always shined my dress shoes before Sunday morning church. Somewhere along the way I quit doing that—I don’t know if it was kids or career or age or all of the above. But I still do at least run a dry brush over my shoes most Sundays!

Back in the day, it was fairly clear to everybody that “clothes make the man.” Of course, that whole way of thinking came out of a male world, so it’s no surprise that the very phrase is sexist. But even in our more inclusive world, we still judge people by their clothes. A white frock coat means that you’re a medical professional, and you can answer any question about health. A badge and a gun belt mean you’re a law enforcement official and you don’t put up with any bull. A black robe and a clerical collar mean that you’re a priest or a minister, so you must be holy. You get the idea.

Even outside the professional world, clothing distinguishes us. Just ask any high school student. Local gangs have their colors, and if you happen to wear the wrong color and run into the wrong gang, you just might get beaten up—or worse. The “jock” crowd has their athletic gear on. The “preps” are wearing the most expensive clothes in school. And if you want to make a statement rejecting all these artificial distinctions, you dress all in black and you’re a “goth.” Or, if you’re a “nerd” you really don’t care what you look like because you’ve got the latest version of the Android tablet. In a very real sense, “clothing makes the person” still applies in our world.

In our gospel lesson for this week, Jesus tells a story about how “clothing makes the person.” But we have to be careful here, because this is another ironical parable. It’s a story about the way the world works, and if you want to know how the “Kingdom of Heaven” operates, you have to think the opposite.[2] In this story, a king throws a wedding feast for his son. Now, in the Mediterranean world of Jesus’ day, any “king” in that neck of the woods was nothing more than a “stand-in” for Caesar. It would seem that the people he ruled knew that this man was no real king. And apparently, he wasn’t even very good at being a “stand-in” king, because when he threw a party, none of the “movers and shakers” of his kingdom would come. It would seem that they didn’t care for him very much. But the problem is that a royal wedding is very much about demonstrating the ongoing legitimacy of one’s rule. And that means that when the wedding guests refused to come, they were repudiating his rule over them. Not a very polite way to RSVP to a wedding party!

So the king responds the way any petty ruler of the day would—with force. He sends his soldiers in and they attack them and kill them and burn them out. No surprises there. But then the king does something strange—he decides to invite all the “riff-raff” to the party. After all, he’s throwing a party to celebrate his rule and it’s continuation through his son. When you throw yourself a party, and nobody shows, it’s not much of a party. So he decides to save face and fill up the banquet hall with anyone and everyone his servants could find on the streets.

Just in case you’re beginning to think this guy must not be all bad if he’s willing to throw a really inclusive party, the story includes his not-so-friendly interaction with one of the guests. When the king sees one of the people who have been whisked off the street to fill the party not dressed in the appropriate attire, he flies into a rage and throws him out. After all, perhaps the fact that he didn’t have the right wedding garment on was a blatant reminder to the king that his “guests” were really just there to make the party look like a success. And so he vents what’s left of his anger over being snubbed by the original guests on this unsuspecting fellow.[3] And the justification for his temper tantrum sounds reasonable enough: “many are called but few are chosen.”[4]

That’s the way the world in which we live works. Clothing makes the person. Appropriate attire is required; and if you’re not dressed appropriately, don’t bother showing up. Although that has eased up a bit in recent days, it’s still very much the way we live—we judge people by outward appearances. But in the strange kingdom of God that Jesus envisioned and proclaimed, there is no dress code. In this strange kingdom, everyone is welcome at the table.[5] In this strange kingdom, everyone is accepted.[6] In this strange kingdom, “all are called, all are chosen.”[7] In this strange kingdom, everyone is invited, all are welcome, and you can come to the party just as you are.

[1] © 2011 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/9/11 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Daniel Berrigan, “A Parable For Today, If Not Tomorrow - The Parable Of The King's Banquet,” in National Catholic Reporter (May 4, 2001): 10-11. He says, “The parable of the king's banquet is brutally secular. It tells of the domestic misbehavior of the powerful and the victimizing of the powerless, of war and retaliation.” Contrast the many other commentators, exemplified by Ulrich Luz and Helmut Koester, Matthew 21-28, 57-58, who say this parable illustrates the principle that the church must prove its calling by good works.

[3] Cf. Berrigan, “Parable,” 10-11. He points out the disconnect in the king’s reaction by saying, “Imagine a homeless person in New York rounded up to appear at a wedding and then berated for not being clothed in a tuxedo!” Contrast Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2.588 (along with many others), who says, “he who does not obey and come accordingly, and therefore festively, declines and spurns the invitation no less than those who are unwilling to obey and appear at all.”

[4] Berrigan, “Parable,” 11, says, “These are not the words of Jesus; they are the words of the worldly host and warrior, the one given to eviction and slaughter.”

[5] Cf. Mark 2:15-17; Luke 15:2; Matt. 11:19; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 112-115. He says that in these meals Jesus was “demonstrating in his own person what acceptance by the merciful God and forgiveness of sins means.”

[6] Cf. Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 153-163; Cf. also Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness, 192: “When we can accept our acceptance, the texture of life changes. The fear that has held us hostage will release its stranglehold on us.”

[7] Berrigan, “Parable,” 11.

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