The Clothing Catastrophe: A Sermon about God, Belonging, and 1001 New Worshipping Communities

[The title of the sermon was intentionally chosen to look like a Big Bang Theory episode title.]
The Clothing Catastrophe
Preached at Northminster Presbyterian Church on February 7, 2016
Text: Matthew 21:45 - 22:15
Well, one thing to learn from this story is this: If you receive a wedding invitation, you should NOT kidnap, torture, and straight-up murder the mail man. Such conduct is… frowned upon.

I think there's more to find in this text, but you gotta start somewhere.

Did you ever wonder, though, why these people would react so violently to an invitation to a lavish feast?

Last summer, I got to attend a conference of something called 1001 New Worshipping Communities. (The only way you would not already know that is if we hadn’t spoken much in the last six months.) 1001 is a movement in the Presbyterian church to try to find ways to reach outsiders, outliers, and misfits, and bring them into, well, new worshipping communities.

1001 is not a cookbook for developing new churches. It’s not yet another “church self-help program,” only for new churches. 1001 is a community trying to bring Christ’s love and transformation to folks that the world, and even the church, have ignored, forgotten, and/or excluded.

One of the things we did at the conference was hold a Bible study early each morning, before the keynote and all. The individual members varied from day to day, but there were always about twelve of us. Today’s text was one of the ones we studied. You can probably see why.

The idea of God, or even some random king, inviting people off the streets to a wonderful banquet neatly meshes with the hopes and dreams of a group of people who spend their time, careers, hearts and souls on folks who are ignored, forgotten, and excluded, especially if many of these people have themselves been ignored, forgotten, and excluded. At first glance, this is a story of comfort for us.

At first glance, the king is God and the kingdom of heaven is the way things are supposed to be, and God’s banquet is open to all! (Well, at least all those who don’t kill postal employees, but we’ll leave that for the moment.)

But there's a problem with the ending. You know, the part where the king confronts a man who the king thinks isn’t properly dressed. Keep in mind that this guy was on the streets before the banquet, and will be on the streets after the banquet is over. The king walks up to THIS guy and says, “Friend, how’d you get past the bouncer with those ugly duds?” And when the man is silent, the king has him tied up and thrown out. “Many are called,” the king says, “but few are chosen.”

Never mind that, except for the “tied up” part, the man ends up basically no worse off than when the story started. He was outside before, he’s outside now, and he never really “deserved” to be invited anyway.

Never mind that the clothes might have been given to him by the king and he, for some reason, rejected them.

I can’t help but see myself in this underdressed banquet guest. And I told that to the 1001 Bible study.

You see, literally or metaphorically, I don’t wear clothes well. No one has ever called me a “fashionista.” It doesn’t matter if I bought the clothes myself or if someone else got them for me. I can be presentable, but not fashionable.

Even metaphorically, I just don’t see myself as a guy who Jesus took from T-shirts to tuxedos.  I see myself as just as desperate for God, or some random king, to come and bring me into a banquet as when I was twelve years old in confirmation class.

It’s not that I haven’t changed and grown. God’s grace has worked in me, but the main thing it seems to do is show me how much I need God’s grace, and how many people there are out there who need God’s grace, peace, and mercy as well.

The Bible says many times that it is precisely in weakness, in need, in mourning and spiritual poverty and lack of control, it is precisely HERE that God works, precisely in the places where God seems most absent that God is most present.

So if some god, or some random king, wants to tell me that I, or someone like me, isn’t fit for the banquet because we haven’t properly advanced in our discipleship career track, that we don’t belong at the wedding because we don't wear the grace and love of Jesus Christ fashionably enough, then that random king and I, that god and I, we have a problem.

I can’t believe that God would exclude me or people like me from God’s wedding banquet just because I don’t look like or act like or think like everyone else there.

At this point in the Bible study, I took a breath and wondered if anyone else felt that way.

One of the pastors there said to me, “Look, Tim. You don’t have to worry about this, because it says right here, ‘the man was silent.’ That’s not you.”

He has a point, and not just that I refuse to let go of stuff that troubles me in Bible studies.

Maybe it was the man’s silence, and not his suit, that got him thrown out of the banquet.

Remember, when the king asks the man about his clothes, he starts by calling him “friend.”

Maybe the only thing between this man being a friend of the king, and this man being a dangerous lunatic who needs to be tied up, isn’t what he was wearing, but what he was or wasn’t doing or saying.

What if the man had said that the clothes didn’t fit him? What if he said that no one told him there was a dress code when they dropped an invitation in his lap where he sat begging for crumbs? What if the man answered the king’s question (“How did you get in here?”) with “Well, you invited me.”? What if the man said that he was afraid that if he put on the wedding uniform (sorry, wedding CLOTHES), that he’d not really be HIM anymore, that he’d be nothing other than some nattily dressed nobody, another anonymous face in a spiffy crowd? What if he asked the king if he would prefer if he just shot the wine steward in the face like the king’s other friends did?

And what if someone else had come to the man’s defense? There were people all around him. What if someone else took the man’s part, told the king to stop bullying him? What if someone else risked their own comfort and convenience and security to step outside themselves and stand next to this man, stand WITH this man, even if they themselves didn’t really have any problem with the wedding attire?

How would the parable be different if there was less silence?

The 1001 conference had, like many church conferences, time for workshops and time for small group discussions. While I was waiting for my small group to gather, I saw that one of our number (let’s call her Michelle because I forgot her real name) was so angry she was talking to herself.

“Don’t you just DISMISS someone like… Tell YOU a thing or two… Think you’re so important you can just…”

Before we got to whatever it was we were SUPPOSED to be discussing, we asked Michelle what was wrong. She said she was furious about something that happened in the stewardship workshop.

Now, I’d been to a different session of the stewardship workshop the day before, and I thought it was kind of helpful.

The thing was, at Michelle’s session, a black woman had an objection, but was too shy to voice it. The woman sitting next to her spoke for her. The problem was that the woman could not see herself, a black woman, walking up to a probably white rich man on a golf course and saying, “Please, suh, won’t you hep my poor black community?” like some Gone with the Wind field hand asking a favor from Rhett Butler. It wasn’t as much a question of personal humility as it was a question of cultural humility.

The leader (who is white) said, in essence, that he didn’t know about cultural problems like that and moved on to his next point.

At which point, Michelle, who, as she told it, was sitting across the room, stood up and let the leader have it.

“Don’t you just DISMISS her!” she said. “What kind of way is that to treat her? Where do YOU get off just blowing HER off?”

The workshop leader apologized, said he didn’t mean to brush the woman off, but that he didn’t have experience in that situation, that there were others not present who did, and he would be sure to get them in touch.

Still, Michelle thought he was just brushing off the objection with a few more words, which is why she was still seething an hour or so later.

At the small group gathering, we talked and prayed Michelle down from her fury. We let her know that we understood her outrage, but we helped her see that the leader wasn’t out to dismiss or belittle people.

While we were all talking with Michelle, I started to realize something amazing had happened:
  • Someone had a problem, but couldn’t ask about it.
  • Someone else stood with her and asked the question.
  • Then, somebody ELSE (Michelle) stoop up for the other two,
  • and then WE (the small group)  took time and energy to help Michelle, whom we BARELY knew, deal with her anger.

I do not see that kind of thing happening often enough: people gathering around those in danger of being excluded or dismissed. More often it seems, people (myself included) just stay seated and silent, like all those well-dressed street people at the king’s wedding banquet.

Now, I realize that it’s a standard practice for many to consider any king in a parable of Jesus as representing God. I don’t think that’s true here, though.

I mean, this king is a pretty horrible person, and doesn’t really act like the God revealed in Christ’s death and resurrection. Look at him:
  • He has his minions burn down entire cities because someone in there DARED to treat one of HIS servants badly.
  • He lowers the velvet rope to his banquet to let street people in, and then raises it up again for the offense of improper haberdashery.
  • He goes from “Hello, friend!” to “Goons, get him!” in ten seconds like some bipolar mob boss.
  • He’s apparently so disagreeable that not even his best friends could stand to be together with him for a few hours, even stooping to murder to avoid having to THINK about it.

To be honest, when you look at it, the king looks less like God and more like…

… well …

the Pharisees.

That’s why I’ve included a few extra verses in the reading, before and after the parable. The Pharisees knew that in this set of parables Jesus was talking about them.

The Pharisees were the kings of God’s temple, the ones who decided who were the “insiders” and who were the “outsiders,” who were properly dressed and who weren’t. And while they would invite ordinary people into the temple, they had to act and dress the right way if they were going to stay there.

When Jesus said that this story was what the kingdom of God was like, he wasn’t talking about the way the world ought to be, but the way the world was, the kingdom of God on earth. In today’s world, the church.

These Pharisees who would approach Jesus, who wasn’t wearing the wedding clothes they provided, and challenge him, and when he wouldn’t answer them, tie him up and toss him out like a dangerous maniac.
And, unfortunately, if we are honest, we church folk too often act just like the Pharisees, the king in the story.
We good, pious folk often spend time saying how much we love everybody, just like God does, and then make lists of how “those” people are all screwed up: Those Democrats. Those Republicans. Those young people with their Instagrams and their Snapchats. Those old people with their Matlocks and their Andy Griffiths. You know. Those people.

We talk about acceptance, but what we often mean is acceptance for people who look and think and act more or less like us, who accept the invitations we make or at least wear the wedding clothes we provide.

I think the difference is that we know a little better. We know that Jesus entered the banquet with the street people and not with the king and his entourage. We know that none of us are good enough to sit at the banquet, and none of us should keep others from entering in, or throw people out.  If anything, we should go out, leave the banquet, in order to find them.

There are people all over the world, people all over Louisiana, people all over Slidell and Pearl River who feel weird and stupid, excluded and ignored. They often make good church folk very uncomfortable. Maybe they listen to death metal. Maybe they listen to bluegrass. Maybe they listen to bluegrass versions of death metal. Maybe they are geeks or jocks or accountants or gay, queer in the broadest sense of the word.

Many of them don’t come to church or Sunday school, and they ignore our invitations because they suspect that all we’ll do to them is try to turn them into people that look and sound and think like we do. They believe that we will just comb their hair, shine their shoes, and give them nice Christian wedding clothes, and then, if they don’t fit in or refuse to wear the nice clothes we gave them, throw them out, or politely stop talking with them. Jesus may have eaten with sinners and protected prostitutes and gave traitors leadership positions, but that kind of thing is often seen as unreasonable and irresponsible today.

I know. We’re not that kind of church. We don’t want to be that kind of church. Not Northminster. Not the Presbytery of South Louisiana. Not the PC(USA). But the people outside aren’t  going to believe us if we don’t toss aside our comfort and preferences and start doing something different.

  • To share Christ’s love with these “outsiders”, we’re probably going to have to do something different.
  • To show them that they are valued by God and us beyond how useful they may be, we’re probably going to have to do something different.
  • To let them know that even if they aren’t wearing good Christian wedding clothes, they are still people that Jesus died for, we’re probably going to have to do something different.

I don’t know what that “something different” is. It’s certainly going to take different forms for different people, and sometimes this “something different” might not be led by a professional pastor, or even an ordained elder.

1001 is about trying something different. Maybe just a little different (like a traditional church that reaches a small racial or ethnic group). Maybe a lot different, like standing on a sidewalk, handing out chicken wings and taking the hands of prostitutes and drug addicts and praying with and for them.

There have always been Christians who have wanted to reach out to those misfits, but, too often, their ideas and concerns have been sidelined because they don’t come with a good business plan or a seat or a voice at the leadership table.

I want to talk to people who want to reach out to misfit weirdos who don’t know how to dress, but who are probably going to lead us all into deeper communion with Christ. I hope I’m talking to some of them now.

If there is a community of people you love and want to show them that grace, peace, and mercy are theirs from the triune God, let’s talk. There’s a whole community of folks at 1001 New Worshipping Communities, and even in this presbytery,  who would LOVE to help you reach those people you care about. There’s some money available, but more than that, there are PEOPLE available. And you can start with me.

So to recap the lessons in this parable:

  1. Don’t kidnap and murder postal employees.
  2. If you feel left out or left behind, or if you see someone who feels left out or left behind, say something. Say something to us or say something to them, or say something to us AND them. Even if there’s nothing we can do right now, even if there’s no budget or leadership team, let us know so that we can start praying and working.
  3. Join with us and do something different.

We’re coming to the end of a church season that started on January 6 and finishes up Tuesday night. Church folk call it “Epiphany.” Yats like me call it “Carnival.”

An epiphany is a sudden insight that changes the way one thinks about something. Carnival is a time when all kinds of people gather to celebrate.

Let’s change the way all kinds of people think about Jesus and the church, and at the same time, let’s change the way we think about what it takes to gather all kinds of people together to celebrate.

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