Sunday Message: “Are we dressed for the wedding?”

   Text: Matthew 22:1-14

   Liturgist Text: Philippians 4:1-9

Purpose: the purpose of this message is to clothe ourselves with repentance, righteousness and compassion.

     I remember the day like it was yesterday, August 18th, 1984, my parents’ 33rd anniversary, and the day my wife, Jude and I ‘tied the marriage knot’ with our pastor and my grandfather officiating. Since preparations were complete, and the ceremony was in the early afternoon, I spent the morning washing our ‘get-away’ car. After lunch, I showered and got dressed for this life-altering experience. I put on the rented tux with tales, cumberbund, and cufflinks, yet puzzled over the ascot. I could maneuver a necktie, but had never before worn an ascot. Fortunately, my best man knew about ascots and he helped me tie it effectively. I was ready to embrace my beautiful bride in her dazzling gown for the covenantal adventure before us.

     There are moments in life, not many perhaps, but several, when we are fastidious about the way we dress. We want it to be perfect, and a wedding is one of the biggies. In Matthew 22, Jesus tells a parable which imagines such a moment and the importance of being appropriately dressed for the wedding occasion. Follow with me as I read Matthew 22:1-14, a teaching-metaphor Jesus offered shortly before the events leading to his crucifixion and resurrection.  Read: Matthew 22:1-14.

     We have previously considered other parables of the kingdom. It is like a mustard seed, leaven, or a pearl of great price. It is a story of a lost sheep, lost coin, or prodigal son. It is a vineyard rented to faithless tenants, a field of wheat and weeds, and a vineyard harvest with workers hired at different times of the day. This time, the kingdom of heaven is a wedding party to which many are invited. No expense has been spared, for this is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ rite of passage for the king’s son and his bride. When all is ready, no one shows up. The king dispatches his servants to find out why. Each has an excuse, and some invited guests are downright hostile—even to the point of violence.

     The king punishes them for their misconduct, but now there is a wedding reception with no guests! Unthinkable! He dispatches his servants once more to invite anyone and everyone to the celebration. This time the reception hall overflows with delighted guests from every corner of the kingdom. One might think the parable complete, but there is a curious twist with a serious consequence. The king notices one guest inappropriately dressed. He is not wearing a wedding robe, presumably provided upon entrance to the celebration. When confronted, he has no excuse and is expelled from the reception hall, not simply to the street, but inexplicably to a condition of torment. Jesus concludes, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” As listeners, we are left with an ominous feeling in the pit of our stomach. What is Jesus implying? Who are the chosen ones? Are we among them?

     The meaning of the first part of the parable seems obvious enough, for we have encountered it before. God offered grace to Israel, a chosen people, but many rejected the invitation, bringing consequence upon themselves. Prophet-messengers were rejected in succession; several were mistreated and some even put to death for speaking unacceptable words of challenge. After holding them accountable, God broadened the invitation to all people of the world, and many accepted the generous invitation.

     The parable to this point is a familiar story of a God who keeps covenant with a nation which breaks covenant, resulting in a broadening, generous extension of covenant offered to every nation in every age. It is the biblical story and we know it well…except the last part. What is to be made of the poorly-dressed wedding guest? Why is he even mentioned? Why does the king take notice of him, and why does the king over-react by banishing him not only to the street, but to ‘outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth?’

     In biblical study, I have found the best commentary on the Bible to be the Bible itself. In Colossians 3:12 & 14, we read, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience…Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Again, in our liturgist reading from Philippians, we read, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…”

     In Revelation 6:11, when the visionary John sees those who have been martyred for their faithfulness to God, “they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer” until all was fulfilled. Finally, in Revelation 19:7-8, we read of the great wedding feast imagined in Jesus’ parable, “Let us rejoice and give God the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready; to her it has been granted to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel also said, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”

     The point is this: Jesus is not talking in the parable about the clothes which the wedding guest is or is not wearing. Not really. He is talking about what the wedding robe represents—repentance, righteousness and compassion. John the Baptist, for example, wore camel’s hair for clothing as he called his generation to repentance, but the Jewish leaders, with their fine robes and privilege, called to be guardians of God’s covenant message, rejected John and his message. Jesus himself later asked the question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” And in his first epistle, Jesus’ beloved disciple John composed this reminder, “Faith without works is dead.” The wedding guest in Jesus’ parable is not dressed in the ethics of repentance, righteousness and compassion. Like the original invited guests who rejected their invitation, this one, too, has rejected the grace and kindness of the king by not living a life worthy of repentance.

     Through this parable, Jesus assures us that we are called to live God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, but we are the ones who choose to do so or not by the choices we make, the faith we live, and the selfless love we generously share. The waters of baptism nourish our growth, producing leaves for the healing of nations and fruits of the Holy Spirit. The clothing God gave Adam and Eve for hiding their feelings of shame is replaced by wedding robes offering a brand new start for anyone who wishes to go there.

     That brings me to a vision that I have. Some of us may truly feel happy and content. If that describes your life, I celebrate with you, giving God the glory! Others, however, feel like their life falls short of that ‘best self’ for which they are created. Some are haunted by unhealed memories of past trauma. Some struggle to manage the daily symptoms of chronic pain or illness. Some are chained to impulsive, cycles of addiction which keep them trapped: substance abuse, over-eating, over-spending, sexual misconduct, gambling or co-dependency. Others are crippled by fear, slander, or the relentless echo of toxic words which consume their self-worth. Some suffocate from loneliness, while others are desperate to find a job. Some are homeless, or faint from food insecurity. Some are estranged from family, unable to forgive or be forgiven. And too many, far too many, have lost hope for today, much less tomorrow.

    What if, in the middle of this desert, there was an oasis of recovery? A place of healing? A source of renewal? A community of hope? A strategy for getting back on track? A word of affirmation? A friend to guide? A God to offer forgiveness? A song to sing and a dance to dance? Our church and twin cities can become that. We have the resources to heal one another with the grace of God. We have the capacity to breathe hope and life and love into the lungs of those who gasp for grace. We can be alive with God.

     If you think about it, we are already on our way. In our chronic illness support groups, we encourage members to embrace what they can, even as they grieve what they can’t. In our Christian growth classes, we listen for God’s voice in scripture and one another. In our service with the High Street Food Cupboard, Trinity Jubilee Center, and Center of Women’s Wisdom, we feed the hungry, offer literacy, and clothe those who lack winter wear. With our prayer-quilts, we wrap one another in friendship and care. Through scouting, scholarships and relationship, we mentor new generations and guide vocational dreams. By supporting recovery centers like Sophia’s House, we extract victims of human trafficking, offering a fresh start. By hosting 12-step groups, we deliver from the evils of addiction.

     Wouldn’t it be great if there was a center where people with hurts, habits, hang-ups and heartaches could find hope, help and healing? No church can be all things to all people, but there is no reason on earth why we cannot become a lighthouse for those seeking recovery and shelter from the jagged rocks of shipwreck in the 21st century. We can be a beacon of grace for those getting started with a celebration of recovery. We can educate ourselves and gather resources for effective referral. We can pray together for all who seek God’s grace, and splash miracle into the lives of others. We can dress ourselves for the wedding of eternity, wearing robes of repentance, righteousness and compassion. How about it?