"It's Not Really About the Clothes, Is It?"
Scripture - Matthew 22:1-14
Sermon Preached by Randall T. Clayton
Sunday, November 9, 2014

[Note: Sermon preached during a Service of Worship in which 2 children were baptized and Prayer Shawls were dedicated]

A couple of weeks ago the little television on the front of the treadmill I was using at the gym was turned to a news program on which there was a panel of people discussing Oscar de la Renta's recent death and his impact on the world. I found myself intrigued when one of the guests said something to the effect that many years ago what you wore to church told the world something of your social and economic status. But, no more, he suggested. No longer.

Years ago you wore your "Sunday best" to church - clothing that was probably rarely worn except on Sundays. And surely the quality and style of your "Sunday best" was influenced by the amount of money you had spent on those special Sunday dress clothes. My, how times have changed. We don't necessarily even dress up to come here on Sunday mornings any more. Yet while we may not all dress up in our "Sunday best" for church any longer, I think there is a respect for what we do here that informs what we wear. I mean, we don't usually show up for worship wearing the clothes we wore to mow the yard yesterday, or the clothes we used the day before to weed the garden, or scrub the floors, or wash the car.

As it is when we come to church, when we go to a wedding, we also make an effort to dress in a way that acknowledges the specialness of that moment. But in the parable you heard a few moments ago, Jesus talks about a man who did not wear appropriate clothing to a wedding reception.

In Jesus' parable, the wedding reception, or banquet, was for the king's son who had gotten married. Since it was a royal wedding that was being celebrated, those who were lucky enough to be invited simply couldn't say "no." It was in fact the kind of invitation for which you changed any already-made plans to attend.

Most likely the king had sent out invitations to the feast weeks before the event; then in keeping with the customs of the day, when the reception was about ready to begin he sent his servants out with a second invitation out to those who had indicated they were coming. This second invitation was not just a reminder but an indication that the party was about to commence and it was actually time to come to the banquet. On the day the feast began those who originally said "yes" refused to come when the servants went out with the second notice.

The king must have been incredulous that anyone would spurn the royal invitation, and he would clearly understand that the refusal to celebrate the wedding of his son and future king was more than simply a guest not coming to a wedding. Surely the king understood that the refusal was actually an act of rebellion or insurrection against his authority and power. But none-the-less, even knowing all of this, he sent his servants out again, this time to beg the invited guests to come.

"Dinner's ready. The meat is roasted. The wine is poured. The band has warmed up...come, please come."

But the invited guests still made light of the invitation. One went to his farm, another to his business, and some of the invited guests got down-right ugly - they seized the king's servants and murdered them.

His party ignored, his subjects rebelling, the king was rightfully enraged. But he wanted a lot of people at the party so he told his servants to go out though the highways and the bi-ways, to go to the very ends of the kingdom itself and invite everyone. Everyone. Invite the good and the bad.

"Invite everyone," the king said.

And so they did until finally the king's banquet hall was filled, filled with people, with joy and laughter, with great food and dancing.

Now much as we would dress up to attend a wedding today, in those days guests also dressed in special clothing for wedding celebrations. If you had enough money, you would purchase new clothing for the event. Your wedding tunic would be longer than the regular tunic you wore to work, and it would be white. But if you couldn't afford wedding clothes, it was perfectly acceptable either to borrow wedding clothes from a friend or neighbor or to wear your regular tunic, so long as you had thoroughly washed it, scoured and scrubbed it, so it was not only clean but as white as possible. In any case, you showed your gratitude for the invitation and you demonstrated your understanding and respect for the occasion by wearing your "wedding best".

That day when the king made his entrance, surely he rejoiced when he saw his house full of people. As he looked at the crowd, he saw that they were not only enjoying his hospitality but that everyone was wearing attire that spoke of their awe and their joy at being included in the party. Yes, he saw they had responded to his gracious invitation not just with their presence but with their lives as well.

But then he saw one man standing at a food table wearing a tattered, torn, worn-out, raggedy, dirty tunic.

The king said, "How did you get into this place dressed like you are?"

The guest made no reply. I imagine that he didn't bother to look at the king; perhaps he even turned his back to the king when the king spoke. And he just kept filling his plate with crudités and morsels of lamb, all the while gulping down the exquisite Champagne provided by the host.

This man, you see, had no interest in getting to know the king; no interest in being in conversation with the king; no interest in responding to the king's generosity. That man was only at the party to fill his stomach. He was only there for what he could get out of it. He was not willing to put anything into it in response.

Noted preacher and writer Tom Long once wrote, "The parable reminds us that being a part of the Christian community should make a discernible difference in who we are and how we live. In other words, there should be a sense of awe and responsiveness about belonging to the church, belonging to the community of Christ, being a child of the kingdom of heaven...to come to church in response to the gracious and altogether unmerited invitation of Christ and then not conform one's life to that mercy is to demonstrate a spiritual narcissism so profound that one cannot tell the difference between the wedding feast of the Lamb of God and happy hour in a bus station bar." (Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster John Knox Press, 1999, page 248f.)

I don't think God cares what we wear to church. I suspect God would be just as happy if we showed up here on a Sunday morning wearing our work clothes as if we wore our "Sunday best," but I do think it matters if we deck ourselves out in compassion and care for those who are poor because we know God has compassion for us; and I think it matters that we adorn ourselves in regular prayer, Bible study and weekly participation in the community of faith because that is how we come to know the grace and mercy of our God. After all, we've been invited to God's party, not happy hour in a bus station bar. And the response God hopes for isn't really about the clothes we wear, but it's about how we live our lives in response to God's grace and love.

This week I saw so many of you responding to God's gracious invitation by giving your time and energy in the bazaar. Through that amazing outreach, we deepened our relationships with one another, we shared God's love with those beyond these walls, and we raised money to support vital mission project. We were being the church at its best.

Other members are responding by being on a spiritual pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine, deepening their faith and understanding. Still others are responding to the invitation by participating in confirmation class this morning and exploring faith, and others by sharing God's love with our younger members in Godly Play. Some are responding to God's invitation by serving as a Greeter who seeks to insure that those who enter feel the warmth of God's community, or as an Usher who tries to insure that we have what we need as we worship. And others are responding by being a chorister who transports our hearts to places only reachable through music, while others today are responding by bringing their children for baptism and promising to share their faith with them. Others too are responding today. For instance, by knitting prayer shawls while we are worshiping, shawls that will bring comfort and hope to those in distress.

As we rejoice and give thanks for the many ways that people here are responding to God's invitation with their lives, it's my prayer that we will continue to say "yes" by taking the yarn of our lives and knitting a response that demonstrates our awe and our joy and our hope. After all, we've been invited to God's banquet!