What Are You Wearing to the Wedding?

Matthew has Jesus telling three end-time parables about worthiness when he enters the Temple and his authority is questioned.  

In the first, Jesus talks about a man who had two sons—one who said he would work in the vineyard, but didn’t; the other said he wouldn’t, but did.

The second is the parable of the talents, in which the Kingdom of God is taken away from renters who were supposed to sow and reap its vineyard to yield a harvest.  When they didn’t, the landowner rented his vineyard to others, who produced fruit.

Wedding Garment2In the third parable, we’re told of the king planning a wedding banquet for his son to which many people have been invited but refuse to come.  The king sweetens the invitation by describing the scrumptious food he’s planning to serve.  But still they won’t come.  So, instead, the king invites everyone – good people and bad – to the banquet. 

People come from near and far and enjoy the feast, but one person who’s there isn’t dressed appropriately.  The king asks him why his appearance doesn’t show the proper respect due under the circumstances, but the man has no reply.  He’s thrown outside and banished from the kingdom.

A similar parable is told by Luke; but this particular story appears in Matthew whose audience were Jewish people in an effort to introduce them to Jesus and get them to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.

In that context, at least the beginning of the parable makes sense to us. 

God had called a special people to be a nation of priests, witnesses to the one and only God … encouraging others to follow them, mindful of the way. But, despite the cries of prophets, time and again their focus shifted from the Holy One of Israel to their own self-centered desires and idols. 

Then, one day, the Holy One of Israel became one with them … yet, still they rejected Him and his voice.  Ultimately, the stone the builders rejected became the cornerstone and foundation of faith for others.

Understanding the meaning and intent of this parable up to here isn’t all that difficult.  It becomes more challenging, however, when we get to the part about the wedding garment.  And it gets even more confusing with its footnote about many being called but few chosen.

It’s passages like these that almost make me wish I had a Baptist or fundamentalist perspective, because it would make the meaning of this parable so much easier for me to translate.  

Gay people, especially, “get it” when it comes to dressing appropriately for the occasion, wearing white when invited to white parties and leather when going to certain clubs or bars.  There’s a time and a place for “drag,” just as we know when and where we’re expected to wear a suit and tie or business attire.  Personally, I’m more comfortable wearing my bright, bold “street clothes” than priestly garb and vestments, there are times and places you’ll see me with a clerical collar.

The guest invited to the king’s wedding banquet also knows what he’s expected to wear; but, evidently, he deliberately chooses not to.  In effect, he’s looking at the king and spitting in his eye or slapping his face. 

“Yes, I’m here enjoying your food and the festivities,” his attitude seems to be saying.  “But I’ll be damned if I change clothes or what I’m wearing!  I’m here on my terms, not yours.”

From my perspective, this invited guest — who’s been affirmed, included, and welcomed with love and compassion by his host — has committed the unpardonable sin and blasphemed the Holy Spirit. 

Which is why he’s been thrown out and no longer resides in God’s Kingdom.

Whether or not he had a wedding garment to wear really is besides the point.  Some theologians say that kings often provided their guests with wedding garments, while other scholars will tell you that the king only required those invited to come in clean — not dirty — clothes.

Cleanliness, at least, is a badge of honor and respect if not a Christ-covered life of spotless spiritual sacrifice.

Pitying the improperly dressed man and questioning the king’s severe punishment, some of you may ask: does it really matter?

After all, the king’s servants had urged him to come to the banquet: even though he was at the edge of town, on the fringes of society, they still wanted him to join them.  Should a man like this be expected to dress fancily?  And should the king really care so much about what his guests were wearing, as long as they came to the party?

Isn’t God’s banquet, the wedding of the Lamb and the church … the Kingdom of God … all about grace?  And are we not meant to come, “just as we are?”

When we hurl these questions at Matthew’s gospel, an uncomfortable truth stares back at us: There is more than one way to respond unworthily to God’s gracious invitation.  There is more than one way to dismiss the Kingdom of God. 

This is where my Baptist and fundamentalist friends would probably chime in, insisting that the wedding garment represents the blood of Christ, the garments of salvation. 

God’s chief desire, I bet they would tell you, is to gather worthy guests for his Son’s banquet.  The one who arrives without the right clothes, without repentance and righteousness, is just as unworthy as the one who rejects the king’s invitation outright.

And, you know something?  Maybe they’re right!

Isaiah 61:10 uses the clothing image beautifully: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

Despite their tattered clothing, the others at this wedding understood the nature of the king’s invitation.  Honored by the summons to celebrate with him, they took time to find something to wear, maybe even begging or borrowing to do so.  Doubtless, some still looked like people off the streets; but they rejoiced with royalty because they came prepared to celebrate with their lord at the banquet.

Yet this one guest and his clothes betrayed indifference to the king. 

No, it’s more than indifference … it’s sheer contempt! 

He is there eating the food, drinking wine, enjoying all the mirth and merriment.  But he is just as bad, some would say, as those who rebuffed the king’s rule with a last-minute refusal … maybe even worse.  He is declining to celebrate with the king and he does so while standing in the king’s presence! 

And here, then, is the difficulty:  If we’re honest with ourselves, we’d agree that we sympathize with the improperly dressed man, because we identify with his easy-going frivolity.  We know God’s grace is wide and welcoming.  We know God’s generosity is endless and that God’s mercy endures forever.  Why not just relax and enjoy the benefits of the Kingdom?  Why not come to God’s party just as we are, rather than worry about wearing robes and clothing ourselves with a banner of righteousness and a covering for our sins?

The answer, I believe, is in the parable: The wedding garment is a tribute to the king.  Without it, we are  unworthy wedding crashers, fit more for a trash-lined alley. Because, in the banquet of God, our clothing indicates our understanding of the celebration.  What we wear reveals that we have accepted the invitation and are willing to join the King in his joy. 

Yes, God invites us to come to the wedding just as we are; the invitation is a free gift of grace.  But we’re also expected to remember who invited us and why we are there … and that means we should dress accordingly and appropriately.

This parable confronts us with the paradox of God’s free invitation to the banquet with no strings attached … and God’s requirement of “putting on” something appropriate to that calling. 

It’s the quintessential dynamic tugging between grace and works, of our faith as expressed through our deeds. 

As with all paradoxes, both are true … and concentrating only on one is unhealthy.  The trick is learning to manage the two extremes and, of course, to wear the right clothes and accessories.

Let’s not forget that this passage, as written, was directed at the Jews of Matthew’s time.  But what about today?  Is there some additional “take-away” we can glean from the Scripture?

Perhaps it’s something as simple as stated by motivational speaker Wayne Dyer and amplified here:

“When you change the way you look at things, the things that you look at change … and you change the way you look.” 

Then, again, maybe it means that our church bells continue to ring, calling many to worship and follow the Lord … but that it’s no longer the choir robes, shawls, or outerwear garments that matter, but the fruit of the Spirit that signals who we are and what we’re wearing to the Lamb’s wedding? 

After all, Matthew 7:16 says that, “by their fruits, you shall know them.”  Maybe love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – the gifts of the Spirit that Paul mentions in Galatians – are the garments that distinguish us now from being just plain ordinary.

In the end, I submit, it won’t really matter whether we’re gathered in church or at a wedding–but that we’ve changed our clothing and come clean with the LORD!

So, what will you be wearing to the wedding? 

You’re invited, of course!

Me?  I’ll probably be wearing one of my bright and colorful Hawaiian shirts.  But I do hope it will be covered with fruit, that special fruit of the Spirit!

Religious Trappings

 “Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”—Joshua 24:14-15 (NIV)

ImagePastors like to base sermons on Joshua 24 because it’s “preachable” … easy to prepare for, easy to deliver, a feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy that’s easy for us to understand–especially the favorite line upon which most ministers focus, 24:15: “Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell.  But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”

But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.

What wonderful words!  Such special sentiments!  A personal, powerful statement of testimony, commitment, and covenant between the created family called of God and their Creator.

But, let’s put this passage into context:

After their years of slavery and servitude in Egypt, God used Moses to free Abraham’s lineage from its bondage and lead the tribes of Israel across the wilderness and into the promised land on the other side of the mighty river.

It wasn’t an easy journey and the people groaned and grumbled along the way.  More often than not, they took out their frustrations on Moses, complaining about one thing or another.

Yet, it wasn’t God’s plan for Moses to be the one to bring his people into the land flowing with milk and honey; that honor was passed onto Joshua, who succeeded Moses as the leader of the Israelites.

Not only did Joshua have to conquer the idolatrous people inhabiting the land, he had to deal harshly at times with his own people’s idolatry.

“You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.  He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins,” Joshua warned.  “If you forsake the LORD and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.”

Joshua then tossed out a test to them that continues to challenge us today: “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.”

Maybe Joshua was asking his people to abandon those lucky charms, rabbit’s feet, and other special ties that were seemingly fortuitous in the past.  Yes, perhaps that’s what they were afraid to give up … you know, just in case the LORD God wasn’t enough to come through and deliver for them.

Though we may laugh them off as merely a bit of supernatural extra insurance that, well, it just doesn’t hurt to have … it does hurt to have them!

Because they are idols!

Joshua knew that the greatest hindrance to faith is our tendency to bow down to the things we create rather than to the Creator when we worship the works we’ve made … often believing that we’re honoring God in the process.

The people of Israel already had begun to compromise with the culture around them by bowing down to gods of the present.  Some of them possessed household gods representing Baal and other gods worshipped by their neighbors.  Those were the gods of the here and now, of the Amorites, in whose land they now lived.  But there are other gods, too, that we’re warned not to worship: the gods of our fathers in Mesopotamia, from where we came.

It is here, I believe, that we must look and root out the foreign gods among us.

Apart from the gods of our fathers, those things we worship from the past, we must be vigilant to guard against the gods of the present, too … church idols and religious trappings which can undermine God.

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A church I had pastored couldn’t (or wouldn’t) bond with any of its pastors because none could live up to Pastor Gary, its founding pastor, who had been martyred and turned into a saint after losing a four-month battle with cancer.

Pastor Gary got this church going … and he had a heavy hand.  A very heavy hand in how things should be done and how they shouldn’t.

When Gary passed, a number of people passed with him, leaving the church.  While that hurt the church, it was okay because they were there for the wrong reason: they came for Gary, not for God.

ImageI’m told that Gary got weary of people complaining that he talked too much about stewardship and asked for money too often.  So, Gary’s solution was to do away with passing the offering plates and substituted “giving boxes,” instead.

Years later, a new member asked: “Where are the plates?”  People wanted to give but couldn’t, because the boxes were gone and no plates were to be found.

They weren’t there, I suspect, because the church had made them into an idol to Gary, and took great pride in not passing the plate.

“Unlike other churches, we don’t pass a plate,” we announced week after week.

But what about people who believed we should be passing it around because passing the plate can bring blessings to those of us who have and those of us who don’t.  Just touching a plate of offerings consecrated to God can give power and purpose to those who might not have anything to put into it this week, but want to and can the next.

That’s one of the reasons why most churches pass the plate!

# # # # #

ImageChurches pass the plate via the USPS, too.  We all get fundraising letters and, more often than not, quickly deep-six them into the circular file.

But this one came from church (not the same church) so Russ, my partner, opened and read it.  Although the letter was addressed to both of us, he didn’t show it to me or even tell me about it until the next day.

Instead he stewed over it and did a slow burn … ultimately posting this message on the church’s Facebook page:  “How an appeal letter for a $5,000 banner (really???) can begin with a quote that references banners “that were used by crusading Knights, to rally the faithful” during the most horrific period of Christian history, is beyond me.”

It had been twenty years since this Episcopal church had had a new banner to represent the parish.  The old banner, made lovingly of felt and needlepoint lettering, was beginning to show its age.  With a new priest-in-charge and the consecration of a new diocesan bishop several months down the road, the church believed it an appropriate opportunity to celebrate this time of renewal with a new processional banner.  “Every parish in our diocese will be represented and all the church banners will line the worship space.  We would love to have our new banner there to represent [us],” stated the Altar Guild in its church-wide appeal.

Including shipping (from England), a new pole for display and a cross rod to hang it plus floor stand, the handmade banner would cost some five thousand dollars.

While the opening words of the fundraising letter about “rallying the faithful crusading Knights” were what had rankled Russ given the history of persecution the Jewish people had faced in Inquisitions, Holocausts, Pogroms and Crusades, it was something else that bothered me (when I finally got to read the letter): the banner, I believed, was an idol … one more piece of pomp and circumstance, rite and ritual, that people focus on and pay attention to in the name of God.

I certainly could understand the Altar Guild’s desire to reflect the church’s “renaissance” symbolically through a new banner.

Maybe its existing banner was frayed and torn and not as pristine as some of those others in the processional for the new bishop … but I wondered which banner (new or old) Jesus would feel more comfortable with, given the state of the world and its needs all around us?

# # # # #

For pomp and circumstance, rite and ritual, certainly nothing can compare with the Roman Catholic church—especially when a conclave of cardinals is called to (s)elect a new pontiff.

Poland Giant John PaulSeriously, do the faithful really need a 46-foot tall statue of the late Pope John Paul II in the historic city of Czestochowa, home to the Jasna Goara Monastery — Poland’s most important pilgrimage site — to spread the Good News?

Let’s not forgot what we’ve been warned about graven images!

The “Pope on a Rope” being heisted goes against strict Scriptural admonitions which remain valid to this day: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Exodus 20:4).  Or, “You shall not make idols for yourselves or erect an image or pillar, and you shall not set up a figured stone in your land to bow down to it, for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 26:1).  And even the New Testament tells us, “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”

New Pope Francis from Argentina has given people much to talk about as he eschews the traditional vestments and garb accorded to Peter’s golden throne.  Here is a man who washed the feet of captives – Muslims at that! – while preferring public transportation over the “Popemobile,” a wooden seat instead of a gilded cathedra, plain brown shoes over those rich red ones.

These small acts of humility and contrition initiated by the new Roman Catholic prelate may, indeed, be the stuff of “public relations” … but they’re good public relations: small, symbolic steps being taken to offset the hubris often associated with the church and replacing it with grace notes of humility.

# # # # #

Ultimately, I believe, it all comes down to this: How much of our church giving is spent on our own personal preferences and priorities, rather than God’s?  

From money and power to politics and the people we approve for public trust or to shepherd us in church, just about anything we hold up and put first in our lives can turn into priorities that we idolize.

If we worship it, it’s a foreign god … and we must get rid of it.

Joshua calls us to a time of contemplation, to remember who – and whose – we are, where we came from, and what the Lord has done for us.  He commanded the people of his day to throw away their foreign gods.

We must do no less than topple the gods that have crept into our own hidden places of worship.

It’s time for us to make up our minds about whom we will serve: God or man, the Lord of creation or what we’ve created?

As for me and my house, we will (try our best to) serve the LORD.

You knew that was coming, now, didn’t you?