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October 9, 2005 (Sunday 28 · Time after Pentecost)—“Being Dressed for the Occasion”

Pastor David Barber

Matthew 22:1-14

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I don't know if it's my age or I've just encountered these recent texts from Matthew one too many times, but quite frankly, I'm sick and tired of them. The violence has always been there, but now it seems as if volume is just too loud and the scenes just too gruesome and graphic.

In one reading after another we've encountered such mayhem. An unforgiving servant is tortured. Wicked tenants engage in beatings and killings, and then receive the same fate themselves. And today it's the same story.

Invited dinner guests not only have other things to do, but some of those invited are so rebellious and defiant that they seize the messengers of the king, mistreat them, and even kill them. The king is enraged, and in retaliation, he sends his troops, destroys those murderers, and burns their city.

As if that's not enough, when the king discovers that there's a guest at the wedding banquet who isn't wearing the proper attire, he doesn't say, "Bring this man a tuxedo, some cuff-links, and a cummerbund."

Rather, he has him bound hand and foot. And he's thrown into the outer darkness where there's weeping and gnashing of teeth. No wonder there are religious fringe groups who feel justified in committing acts of death and terror all in the name of Jesus.

I suppose we can say that's the "real world." That's what happens when people are unforgiving, deceitful, and engage in violence. "What goes around comes around." And the cycle continues. Or that's what happens when the old-world meets the new world.

The only problem is that some of these stories start out with the words, "The dominion of heaven may be compared to a king or a vineyard." Then it continues with a tale of bloodshed and destruction, and God becomes portrayed as Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis or some other action figure in a "R-rated" movie.

I'm not really sure what's going on in the church at this time to make such stories necessary. And even though I can work my way through the body count and try to construct a plausible explanation, I still don't like these stories.

The folks who were invited to this grand wedding banquet in our Gospel for today must not have been Lutherans. After all there was exquisite food. There was fine wine and excellent entertainment. It was being billed as the "social event of the year. And it was free! From that standpoint, Lutherans would show up even if they didn't like the host.

So why didn't these people show up? Perhaps they're being defiant or rebellious--treating the king's authority with contempt. Not only do the guests refuse. Not only do some have better things to do, but also others seize the messengers and do them in. Perhaps this is an insurrection.

But the king will not be restrained. After burning the city and putting down this rebellious nonsense, he sends out another invitation requesting that all persons--both the "good" and the "bad" be invited to the banquet.

This is a radical invitation. The table is spread for all to come. Those gathered from the streets have no reason or right to be there--except that they're invited by the king. The hall is filled. So let the party begin!

The graciousness of the king changes when he spots a man in the crowd who has snuck into the banquet--like a Linda Lingle appointee--without the proper wedding garment. And once again the king--who is on a short fuse--becomes enraged.

Why would the king expect him to be properly dressed anyway? He just came in from the street. The king went to all this trouble to make sure that the wedding hall was filled up. Why can't he just be happy? Or why couldn't the king provide him with a coat and tie? Why get so "bent out of shape?"

Not too long ago, as I was waiting for someone, I picked up a magazine published by the AARP--the American Association of Retired People. Of course, they cater to anyone over 50 years of age--retired or not. So one of their articles was about Condi Rice, our Secretary of State, who had just turned 50 years old.

The article began by describing the surprise birthday party she was given. It was held in some eloquent place I'm sure, and she arrived in a limo. The only problem was, while all the invited guests were dressed in tuxedos and extravagant evening gowns, she was dressed in Levi's.

But after they surprised her and sang "Happy Birthday," she was rushed upstairs and dressed in an appropriate red gown by her favorite designer--Oscar de la Renta. And supposedly, it was reported that even her hair was redone.

Why couldn't our king have done the same? After all, he went to all this trouble. What's a little more? All he accomplished was the elevation of his blood pressure. Unless, of course, the king realized that it would take more than clothes to make this person worthy.

All the others--even from the street--had honored the dress code. These people obviously took the time to go home, change their clothes, or even borrow clothes from their neighbors, if necessary.

It must have been a conscious decision on this man's part not to come with suit and tie. So in one respect he's no different than the guests who rejected the invitation. They spurned the invitation to the feast, but this man disdains the feast while actually attending it.

This man isn't rejected because he's a bad man in the midst of the good. Both good and bad have been invited to this wedding banquet. All that's required is the willingness to honor this occasion, to rejoice with the king, and to be a real guest at the wedding--which wearing a wedding garment expresses.

This man had received a gift from the king. He had received an invitation to a joyous and elaborate feast, but he treated it as nothing. He didn't even bother to dress appropriately.

One of the reasons Matthew might have included this story and why he places it where he does--namely during the last week of Jesus' life--is to remind his audience that the invitation to the reign of God is the central question of our lives.

Our relationship with the Holy One--and our response to the grace of God and how we live in obedience to this love and grace is the most important issue of our existence. It's not to be taken lightly. We can't be perennial "wedding crashers" dishonoring and treating the host with contempt. This is a matter of life and death.

Where we sometimes get into trouble are the distinctions we make about who is worthy and who is not - who is dressed appropriately and who needs a costume change.

Unfortunately, the church--by its words and by its actions--has often told people that they weren't wearing the proper attire. Sometimes this has to do with culture, or race, or economic class, or even sexual orientation.

When I was back in the Minneapolis area a couple of weeks ago, I read a "Letter to the Editor" in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune entitled "Why we must look for a new church home."

The writer, who has a gay son, ran out of patience with the ELCA especially since it reaffirmed "business as usual" in its national assembly in August.

She writes, "We can no longer be Lutherans. We honor those who feel the pain yet continue to work to change this church--but for us the pain is just too great and we have grown weary in the struggle. We need to nourish our battered souls in a church that lives in Christ's teachings.

This hasn't been an easy decision for this family since they're steeped in the Lutheran tradition. There have been Lutheran clergy in the family in every generation. She and her husband also served on a mission field in China through a Lutheran organization. They brought their four dear children to the baptismal font and raised them in the Lutheran church.

"To leave this church, which was at the core of our family, is one of the most painful things we have done," she writes. "But we can no longer worship in a church that treats God's beloved gay children as sick and sinful based on their sexual orientation."

Wearing the proper wedding garment is not a matter of sexual orientation, or skin color, or economic class, or our morality, or any of the other surface distinctions we use to decide who stays at the party and who needs to be thrown out into the outer darkness.

It's a matter of how we respond to God's gracious invitation to life and how we participate in God's magnificent party whoever we might be.

It's a matter of wearing the clothes that we've already been given in our baptism--the clothes of righteousness, grace, and forgiveness--every day of our lives, and sharing these clothes with others.

It's how we enter into the lives of those who live on the margins of life and how we serve those who are hungry, those who are poor, those who are addicted, and all those people whose lives have been turned upside down.

Recently, the church lost a faithful theologian in the death of Walter Bouman, professor of systematic theology at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.

Shortly after he was diagnosed with a cancer that was inoperable, he preached a sermon to the seminary community. Among other things he said, "Some things are worse than death. Have you ever spent two hours with an insurance salesman?"

Then he continues, "The resurrection of Jesus Christ frees us to do more with our lives than protect them. We are free to offer them. We are called to love the world, to want clean air and water for everyone, to give ourselves to peace instead of blindly following our leaders in senseless wars, to commit to the cause of justice, especially when our institutions and our country are guilty of injustice. That is a big order. But you are free to pursue it by the resurrection of Christ."

Then he concluded with this prayer that he first prayed in German as a child:

"Lord Jesus, who does love me,
Oh, spread thy wings above,
And shield me from alarm.
Though evil would assail me
Thy mercy will not fail me.
I rest in thy protecting arms."

Perhaps his words and this prayer signify what it means to be dressed in the proper attire. May we be so clothed each day of our lives.


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