Dressed for Heaven

(Proper 23, Mt 22.1-14)

10-09-05

 

Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness . . .  For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Mt 22.13-14)

In the two weeks since most of us evacuated Galveston in the face of Hurricane Rita that seemed to be headed straight our way, I have heard countless stores of high drama.  And those are just from evacuees that the storm MISSED.  The national TV networks should have had television cameras riding around with some of you – filming a hurricane evacuation reality show.  Because your evacuation stories are so interesting, and in some cases, almost unbelievable.  Obviously, that experience of evacuating, or trying to evacuate, will linger in our collective psyches for some time to come.

Just the idea of leaving your home without knowing whether or not you are going to return is a humbling experience.  So we were humbled – and changed – and continue to be changed - by our evacuation, even though we mostly came out OK.

I know that will always remember how profoundly sad I was on Wednesday night.  I was safe in Austin .  And my last act before leaving Galveston was to sandbag the doors of Quin Hall in an attempt to keep out driving rain and flood waters. 

But as I watched the television that evening, seeing the new path of the hurricane headed directly at Galveston Bay - I thought about how small those bags were compared to the fury of a category five hurricane.  And I was sad.  Not for me – but for Galveston . 

Or for whatever city or area happened to eventually be in the way.  Because by then, we knew it was certain that the best case was going to be a very bad case for lots and lots of folks.  And so I found myself – just profoundly sad at what was coming.  And at how long it would take and how hard it would be - to rebuild.  To start over.

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Not only did our evacuation change us, I think it also taught us some things – particularly about ourselves.  We all did the best we could before we left – but none of us got everything done – or remembered to take everything that we later wished that we had. 

And I think it is really telling to consider what we did take (and not take) and what that might say about our priorities – about who we really are.  At church, as I looked around my office, there was very little that was of significantly higher value than anything else.  So I just took one small box with some pictures and three of my bibles.  And of course, we took our historical records and the two computers.  But that was it.

As for my home, I took clothes.  Lots and lots of clothes. 

Now that was not particularly revealing – After all, I have always known that I like clothes.  I usually try buy nice things and I take very good care of my clothes. 

But now I know that I must value clothes more than just about everything else in my house.  Because that is about all that I took.  I gues that my idea was that I would need clothes to work no matter what happened, and that we would just have to start over without all of that other stuff. 

But whatever I was thinking, the result was a large SUV - full of clothes - and with virtually nothing else.

Certainly if the king had invited me to a wedding banquet while we were on the road to evacuation, I definitely would have had the right clothes to wear. 

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So what about that?  What did you think about this morning’s parable in which a party guest is apparently sent straight to hell because he showed up in the wrong attire?  Didn’t that seem a little harsh to you?  A little strange, coming out of Jesus’ mouth?  Yeah, did to me too.  So be glad that you’re not the preacher.

Let’s look at it again.

Jesus begins where he left off in our reading last week.  His audience is still the chief priests and elders of the temple – the religious leaders of the day.  You will remember that last week Jesus told them the parable of the vineyard, in which God, the vineyard owner, ultimately takes the vineyard away from the workers to whom it was entrusted.  Takes it away because they decide that they, and not the owner, should be in charge of the vineyard.  Instead of stewardship, they wanted ownership.  The result is they lose their opportunity to be part of God’s kingdom.

This morning’s parable begins with the same tone.  The King sends out invitations to a chosen group of people to come to a lavish wedding banquet for his son.  But many of the recipients do not take the invitation seriously.  They had their own business to take care of, so they ignored the invitation and went on with what they were doing.  When the king sent out his slaves to remind them, some even mistreated the slaves for daring to bother them again with the king’s invitation.  Naturally the king is very angry at the way that his invitation is treated.  So angry that he sends his troops against them.  And in the place of the original invitees, opens his invitation to everyone he could find.  We read that both good and bad were invited this time.

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Now so far, the parable, while maybe a little harsh, is at least understandable.  We know that the king represents God.  And the banquet invitations that are delivered by the slaves are the prophesies that have been sent, through John the Baptist and other Prophets, to the religious leaders of the Israel, telling them that the Kingdom was at hand and to make themselves ready to be part of it.  

They were being invited to a celebration of God's son entering into God’s kingdom.  But they paid no attention.  Some made light of John's insistence that the Kingdom was at hand.  Others just ignored him and went about their business.  And some even went as far as to have him killed.  

And because the leaders of the people refused to answer their invitation to the feast, the King of Heaven invited all the rest of the people to take part.  And we would assume that to include us - the Gentiles.

Like I said, at this point we are still OK.  We understand that Jesus is rebuking the religious authorities for being more concerned about their own place in things, rather than listening to God’s prophets and bringing the people of Israel into a better relationship with God.

So kicking them out of the kingdom and inviting others, even those who lead bad lives, is an acceptable concept for us.

After all, that is how People like you and me get invited!

But this is where the parable takes a turn.  Because one of those like us.  One of those who got invited in spite of who he was, is discovered by the king to be improperly dressed. 

And the king declares, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness . . .  For many are called, but few are chosen.”

Doesn’t sound too much like the grace that we have grown accustomed to hearing about, does it?  I thought grace was free.  That there it came without a catch. 

But now Jesus is saying that I only receive it if I am dressed properly?         You mean one bad hair day, I can lose it all??

Well, Yes.

And, No.

Yes, grace is freely given by God.  But NO, that does not mean that our claim to faith allows us to do whatever we want in life.  Being born again by water and the Holy Spirit is a free gift, for which we did nothing to deserve.  And while it is a ticket to heaven, it is NOT a ticket to do whatever we want, whenever we want.  So there are conditions.  There are expectations by God that we are expected to strive for. 

As I wrestled with this reading, I thought about our Sunday banquet, the feast of the Lord that we share at Communion.  And I thought about what expectations go along with receiving the bread and wine.  And how those expectations might fit into this parable.

Every Sunday, we are invited to God’s Eucharistic banquet, up there at the altar.  And all believers are invited.  But there are some expectations.  Expectations of wearing the right clothes.

For one: we don’t come to the table, wearing our proud clothes – but we come dressed in humble clothes – confessing and repenting our sins before receiving the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  In that confession of sin, we admit to our smallness, and we recognize God’s greatness. 

And that sincere confession is expected before we accept the invitation to the feast.

Secondly, we don’t wear the robe of self-sufficiency when we come to the table.  But we put on the robe of Christ.  By hearing the Word of God – proclaimed and preached - before we present ourselves at the banquet.  We come as seekers of the Word, as those who long to know more – not as ones who know it all already and have it all under control.

And thirdly, we don’t wear clothes of self-importance, but rather we dress in the clothes of justice and peace for all.  When we pass the peace before communion, we are effectively reconciling ourselves with our neighbors.  So it is important to seek out those with whom we have slighted or had a disagreement with – because it is expected that we are at peace with our neighbor when we arrive at the banquet.

And lastly, we don’t wear rich clothes with golden threads.  Instead we wear the clothes of stewardship, and give our gold back to God.  Our gifts are presented at the altar before we take part in the banquet as a small token of appreciation to our host, without whom we are nothing.

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The main thing that this parable tells us is that it is not enough to just show up here on Sunday.  God invites us all, that is for certain.  But he is not interested in warm bodies.  God is looking for guests to his banquet who will rise to the occasion of honoring God’s son, Jesus Christ.  Guests who will wear the clothes that are made from the material that we receive from Jesus Christ.

Made from the material of justice and peace for all.

Made from the material of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

And made from the material of proclaiming the gospel message far and wide.

Clothes that become part of us – that we wear every day of our walk in faith.  Clothes that God expects us to be dressed in, when we come to his banquet

. . . . . .  One evacuation story before I end.

As I mentioned, about the only hurricane preparation that seemed like it might be effective for the church was to put sandbags in front of the thresholds of the doors in Quin Hall.  They are pretty low, and our street is prone to high water when it rains a lot, so we thought that might keep out some water.  But on Tuesday evening, we heard from the Landscaping Company that they were not going to be able to provide the bags – they were just too busy trying to fill earlier orders and making their own preparations for the hurricane.  But in all of that discussion, we were given the phone number of a man that works for them.  And it turns out that he lives directly across the street from the church – here on 36th.  His name is Javier.  I know him just to say hello.  I actually see more of his kids – they like to play soccer in our big yard out there.

Anyway, on Wednesday morning, I saw him - outside loading up vehicles with his family on Wednesday morning.  So I went over to check if we might be able to get a few bags. 

Well, he said that the problem was that the company was closed, because everyone was leaving the island ASAP. 

However, he felt guilty about leaving the church exposed.  So he said that he might have enough time to go fill some bags himself, if I could get a couple of guys to help.  Well, I went in and made a couple of calls, but by the time we arrived at the company to help, Javier and his sons were just leaving to return to the church. 

He and his four sons had filled fifty bags with sand in what couldn’t have been more than 20-30 minutes.  Then they carried them into Quin Hall and used them to secure all of our outside doors. 

Of course, I tried to give him money.  But he absolutely would not take it.  I said; just let me buy your family lunch or gas for your trip.  He said NO.  I cannot take money from the church.  This is something we do for you because it is God’s church and we are your neighbors.

And then he and his sons went back across the street and resumed getting themselves packed to leave.  Dressed as they were.  In simple clothes.  Clothes that were just perfect for a banquet.