Dressed for SuccessTwenty-second Sunday after Pentecost - Sunday, October 12, 2008
1Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet. 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet. 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe? And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Our sanctuary has been a lot of things over the years. When I first arrived at Grace, we had an afternoon worship service in the sanctuary at which I was formally installed as the pastor. And after the service, the sanctuary became the catering hall, as the chairs were pushed aside and the Sunday School tables were unfolded and the serving tables were set up in front of the altar and within twenty minutes we worshippers had become diners. And until our fellowship hall was built in 1983, our sanctuary was an all-purpose room: dance hall, catering hall, Sunday School room, blood bank. When an event was scheduled ... the sanctuary was the place.
I thought of that Friday night when for the first time scenes for a movie were shot in our sanctuary. The film is entitled, Aaron Bacon, the story of a young man who died about eight years ago under really tragic circumstances (well, any time a young person dies, the circumstances are really tragic). The funeral scene was filmed here at Grace. A young lady playing the part of Aaron's girlfriend delivered the eulogy and since I was present in suit and collar, the director asked me to be in the scene. I modestly, and very quickly, agreed. They sent me to the hallway for the makeup - they wanted me to look more like a guy in his sixties. Then they placed me by the lectern to provide moral support for the young lady as she delivered the eulogy.
Now sitting in the third pew were the actors representing Aaron's parents, and the camera panned from the girlfriend, to the pastor, to the parents. The director was watching a monitor, and when he saw something that needed to be changed, he'd yell "cut." Most of the times it was because he wanted the church to look full. After all, it was the funeral of a popular young man. "We need another person sitting behind the parents. Tom, grab a shirt." There were several shirts on a table in the back; you couldn't have a mourner at a funeral wearing a T-shirt with some political slogan or worse. So Tom grabbed a shirt and sat behind the parents, slightly to the left. "Cut." Billy, we need somebody else. Grab a shirt." Four times this happened. In the end, there were only ten persons including the parents in the pews, but with the camera taking such tight shots of the parents (I picked up a little of the lingo) with the camera taking such tight shots of the parents, and the few people around them, you'd think the church was packed. Including those four young men looking so handsome in their borrowed shirts. From the waist up, clothes made the man.
Just as a PS: that night I e-mailed my wife in North Carolina and told her if she wanted, I just might give her my autograph. She wrote back saying she was buying a new car when she gets back. She told me where I could stick my autograph! The price of fame.
This is a long lead-in to our Gospel text, but it might go a long way to explain one of the most unsettling parts of this story of Jesus. Then again, the whole story is unsettling.
To recap quickly, the king throws a party and invites a wide variety of people - all of whom decline the invitation. He sends out his slaves again, this time almost pleading, "Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet." And the response this time was not merely to refuse, but to kill the slaves who had delivered the invitation in the first place. The king gets so hot under the collar he burns their cities ... even as the oxen and the calves are simmering on the barbecue. The king then invites the hoi poloi, the common people. "The hoity toity won't come? I'll invite the hoi poloi." To borrow a phrase we've heard so much the last few weeks, "if those on Wall Street won't come, we'll invite those from the Main Street, and even the Bowery." Everybody's invited, both the good and the bad. Actually, I think the good and the bad were the same persons.
"Come to the party." And they did. The king was pleased, the band played on, and a good time was had by all. And the people looked as good as they felt ... for the king had supplied fine clothing for the guests. "Tom, here's a shirt." You just can't pull a man in off the streets dressed in blue jeans with a hole in the knee, white socks, old shoes and tattered tee-shirt. He'd feel out of place. I'd certainly feel out of place in the palace wearing clothes fit for the gym. The king, however, has the maitre 'd stand at the door with fine fitting wedding garments for each of the guests. "Billy, here's a shirt for you!" This is the meaning of the parable: the king is hosting a come-as-you-are party and the king dresses you up to be all-that-you-can-be!
But the king spies one man who is not well dressed. He must have not taken the occasion very seriously ... even though it was a party. "Clothes do not make the man!" he may have thought to himself. "Therefore, my blue jeans and tee-shirt are good enough." Then the king spots him and says, "Friend, how'd you get in with out the proper garment?" (Just as an aside, in the Gospel of Matthew, when the word "friend" is used, it's more like "Buster," as in "Buster, how'd you get in with out the proper garment?" ) The man is speechless. He knows he has offended the king ... but it is too late. He is given the old heave-ho. "Here's your hat, what's your hurry?" He was made an insider by invitation of the king. By his refusal to accept the gracious change of clothing, he made himself an outsider. The king merely made the process official.
Is this a story of heaven and the last judgment? Not really. It's more an allegory ... where each detail stands for something else. An allegory about, not of the end of the world, but rather a story about the church. The king is God, the son is Jesus, the slaves are the prophets, those who rejected the invitation are the people of Israel. And the wedding hall is the church.
If you are here this morning, it means you have accepted the invitation. And no matter how you are dressed ... it is God who provides the ultimate garment. Clothes don't make the Christian ... Jesus does. In baptism - we put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We come as we are to the font; God dresses us up to be all that we can be! We have been given the garment of God's grace ... as well as the invitation to the banquet. But if we refuse to wear Jesus, the free gift of the grace-full garment, if we are unwilling to change for the better, we just might be about the business of removing ourselves from the guest list. The empty chair is empty then, because we choose not to accept the seat.
But though our text might not fully reflect it ... the story of Jesus is not just news - it is truly the good news. For God does not give up lightly. In fact, God does not give up. Over and again, God offers and re-offers the invitation, "Come to the banquet. Be a part of the community called Church." When we "put on Christ Jesus," all of life becomes less like a wake in the making, and more like the wedding banquet life is meant to be.
When Grace Church is being the Church God calls her to be, then it matters little if the sanctuary is the grand edifice we now occupy .... or whether it was the rather tiny all-purpose room we once called home. Through it all Grace has remained a place where people have been invited to a party. "Come to the party," says our God. "We can have it without you, of course, but it just wouldn't be the same! And so, again I say, Welcome to the Feast!"