October 12, 2014 – The 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23A
© 2014 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon is available here.
I see that you’ve come to church today. Well done. This is a holiday weekend, so lots of people are either out of town or just lying around their house doing nothing because they figure we’ll assume that they are out of town. But since you’re here, give yourself a pat on the back.
But, before you congratulate yourself too robustly, take a look at what you are wearing. Are you in a suit and tie? A nice dress? A jacket and open collar? Pants and a polo shirt? Jeans? Sweatpants? Pajamas? I wore my favorite white, um, robe and green scarf. What about you? When you got dressed this morning, what were you thinking about? Will it look nice? Will it fit? Will I look cute? Did I wear that last week? How many of us, when we picked out our outfit, thought to ourselves, “I’m going to have dinner with Jesus; I want to look my best?”
As Episcopalians, part of the challenge we face is helping newcomers feel welcome. Things here can be a little bit stuffy. Nothing about our worship space says, “Be comfortable and relax.” We have an air of formality about us, and we’re proud of that. But, at the same time, we want new families to feel like they can come to church just as they are. We believe that God welcomes all people—good and bad, rich and poor, elegant and shabby—and we should to. And, if he walked through that door, I hope that every single one of us would slide over and make room for a ragged, stinky homeless guy in dirty jeans and a sweat-stained shirt.
So why, then, does Jesus tell a parable about the kingdom in which the king throws an underdressed attendant out “into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth?”
For the most part, the first three quarters of the parable make sense. The kingdom of God is like a king who threw a wedding banquet for his son. But, for a myriad of reasons, the invited guests refused to come. It did not matter that the feast was lavish or that the king pleaded with the guests to attend. Those who had been invited responded hostilely to the king’s invitation, so the king, in his rage, destroyed those murderers and gave the banquet to others. He sent his slaves into the streets to bring in all whom they could find—both good and bad—and the banquet hall was filled with new faces.
That part we understand. When he told this parable, Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees—the religious elites of his day, the insiders who thought they had a straight path into God’s kingdom. But Jesus came to challenge that sense of entitlement. He spent his time having dinner with tax collectors and sinners—the kind of street-people who in the parable ended up filling the king’s banquet hall. We know that the story of the cross and empty tomb is a testament of God’s saving love for the lost. Those of us whom society would shut out of the messianic banquet are enthusiastically welcomed by the king of kings. God’s table is set for sinners like you and me, and he beckons us to come to the great wedding feast. But it seems that we’d better remember the dress code.
When the king came into the feast to greet his guests, he noticed that one of them was not wearing a wedding robe. “Friend,” he asked, “how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” But the guest was speechless. So the king said to his servants, “Bind this man hand and foot and throw him out into the outer darkness.” Remember, this was a man whom the king’s slaves had found in the street and invited in. Unlike the original invitees, this is someone who actually showed up. And what is Jesus’ explanation for this surprisingly harsh behavior? “Many are called, but few are chosen.” How unsatisfying!
So what did you wear to church today? Even though it’s a holiday weekend, did you dress for the messianic banquet? Did you remember to wear your wedding robe? Or will we need to ask the ushers to bind you hand and foot and throw you out into the outer not-so-darkness?
Of course, the wedding robe is just an image. It’s a metaphor for something more important than clothing. Jesus doesn’t care what we wear to church. He cares about our commitment to the kingdom. The troubling part about this parable—and the shocking truth about God’s kingdom—is that, even though the invitation is cast far and wide, the requirements for participation in the kingdom are limitless. As one commentator put it, “The unlimited grace of the kingdom always brings with it unlimited demand.” God invites us into his kingdom with no regard for who we are—good or bad, rich or poor, elegant or shabby—but, once we answer that invitation, he expects us to give him everything we’ve got. And anyone who comes into the kingdom thinking that he or she can rely on the gracious nature of the invitation to skip over any need to give of him or herself, Jesus has a word for you: “Bind that person hand and foot to be thrown into the outer darkness.”
Usually, here at St. John’s, when I make the announcements, I invite all followers of Jesus to come to Communion. That is supposed to sound like a gracious and far-reaching invitation because that is the same way that God invites us to his table. The small print in the bulletin, however, will remind you that in our church only baptized Christians may take Communion. Now, it doesn’t matter where you were baptized or what denomination you belong to. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been since you’ve been to church, and it certainly doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. But baptism remains the prerequisite because baptism is the way that we understand how an individual seeks transformation in Jesus.
In the waters of baptism, we are washed clean from our sin and reborn to new life in Christ. In the twenty-first century, there might be ways for an individual to undergo that kind of transformation besides sprinkling water on one’s head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the point is that you may not come to that table unless you are looking to be reborn. This is not a casual gathering for anyone who wants a little snack. This is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. The invitation might be open, but the expectation is total commitment. You cannot participate in God’s kingdom unless you are willing to give him your all, and the same is true every time we receive Holy Communion.
Jesus says to each one of us, “Come into my kingdom,” but, then, in response to that invitation, we must live a kingdom life. We are sinners in need of redemption. We are street-people in need of inclusion. How amazing it is that God would invite you and me to dine at his table! But we must never take his grace for granted. Every day we must remember that we are not worthy because of who we are. We are made worthy only because God loves us. Before you come to the table, ask yourself whether you will seek to live a kingdom life. Look at what you’re wearing—on the inside—and ask whether you’re ready to give God everything you’ve got. Amen.