October 28, 2014

Will You Wear the Garment?


Some of you might know that the word Gospel comes from an old English phrase, “God-spell,” or Good News. Today’s parable seems to deliver anything but good news. Jesus declares, “many are called, but few are chosen” as he recounts a story about a man who is thrown out of a wedding banquet for not wearing the right robes. At first glance, the king in this parable does not seem the reflect the reality of the God that we know—a God who meets us where we are, always forgives us, and never stops inviting us to lives of grace.

In some ways, the timing of a reading about a wedding feast is fortuitous. Just yesterday, our community celebrated the wedding of Christopher and James in a ceremony that radiated beauty and love. In his homily, Mark reminded us of the transformative and persuasive power of love. We’re still smiling with joy from yesterday’s memories, and in light of the things we’ve seen in this community, we can’t help but think that the element of judgment in this parable seems out of place. We couldn’t imagine the ushers harshly throwing us out onto Lowell Avenue on account of our clothing. (Though there might have been some weeping and gnashing of teeth yesterday if somebody had forgotten to turn off his cell phone).

Let’s step back for a moment to consider the context of this reading in our worship life as a community. We’re nearing the end of the Liturgical Year. The church calendar that determines our readings and feast days is like a reenactment of the history of the followers of Jesus. During the first part of the liturgical year, from Advent to Lent and Easter, we focus on the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Then, we change gears. We start walking with the disciples in the season of Pentecost, which accounts for more than half of the liturgical year, as a reminder that we are still living in the time of the Holy Spirit. As we near the end, however, we become more and more aware of an aspect of our tradition that we sometimes struggle with—God’s judgment. Jesus is very clear that we will be judged based on our faith and our actions. We’ll be hearing more and more about this judgment in the Gospel readings over the next month, up until we read Matthew’s account of the apocalypse on the Feast of Christ the King at the end of November. Prepare to hear more about the end of time and “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Unfortunately, the idea of judgment has too frequently been twisted to support hateful, narrow interpretations of Christian life. We often avoid talking about judgment because we don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that we ourselves are judges, or we don’t want to undermine the good news of God’s love, acceptance, and mercy.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that the judgment in which we believe is connected with hope. It isn’t an attribute of a God who is angry, but instead of a God who is merciful. We understand God’s judgment in light of God’s constant offer of love and forgiveness. When God calls us into relationship, we’re being asked to take our places as part of the Body of Christ, as agents of God’s redemption in our own time and place. Jesus tells us parables of judgment not to encourage us to judge others or to dwell in fear, but to startle us into taking seriously what it means to be a disciple.

Let’s turn back to the parable. In the time of Jesus, whenever someone wealthy held a wedding banquet, it was customary to provide robes to the guests at the front door in a spirit of hospitality.  To don the robes offered by the host was a sign of thankfulness, and to refuse them was an insult to the host’s generosity. It wasn’t the case that the man without the wedding garment couldn’t afford the robes or had a bad sense of fashion. He made a choice to reject the terms of the relationship between host and guest.

Christ invites us to the banquet of the Kingdom of God. As part of this invitation, we experience an unconditional relationship of love with our Creator and we walk in the light of Christ confident in a power that can withstand anything, even death. But we need to do something in return. In several of his letters, Paul urges us to put on Christ like a garment or piece of armor. In today’s reading from Philippians, Paul is making the same point. He calls on us to seek whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable.

As guests of God’s wedding feast, we are called to don the garments of grace that God offers us. God’s gifts to us are infinitely generous, but our acceptance of those gifts bears a cost. In coming to church this morning, you’re giving up the chance to sleep in or enjoy the morning in some other way. In setting aside time to pray, you’re giving up time you could use for the sake of productivity or relaxation. In being open and public about your faith as a Christian, you’re opening yourself up to judgment from those who might unfairly jump to conclusions. In feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, or standing with the unpopular, you are putting your commitment to loving your fellow human beings and serving Christ ahead of your own desires and concerns about what others might think of you.

Our culture emphasizes independence and autonomy. We hesitate to accept responsibilities or identities that might undermine our freedom to define ourselves. Putting on a garment that is not of our own choosing doesn’t seem natural to us. But the miracle of our relationship to God is that once we clothe ourselves in grace, once we accept the costs and limitations of discipleship, we discover that we have somehow become more human and more ourselves.

It’s easy to misunderstand our role in this process. Sometimes, we’re tempted to think that judgment means that we need to earn God’s grace, but the truth is much more reassuring than that. God isn’t setting us before a contract and asking us to agree to a set of terms. God isn’t offering us a deal. God is offering us a relationship that will grow deeper with time. In our commitments to our friends, spouses, children, or parents, we accept limits for the sake of something greater. So too with God.

God always invites us, and God always offers us the robes that make us at home at the banquet of divine love. Putting on those robes isn’t always easy, but it’s a necessary step in opening ourselves to the possibilities of God’s transformative love. When we reject those robes, perhaps out of our desire to stay in control of ourselves, we find ourselves in the dark, missing out on the joy and laughter of God’s banquet.

Over the next several weeks, the Gospels will tell us more about judgment. As we contemplate Jesus’s difficult teachings, we need to remember that God’s judgment isn’t about fire falling from the sky or the anger of a vengeful God. It’s about looking at a relationship and reflecting upon whether or not we have been open to God’s offer of transformation in the face of love.