Sunday, 12 October 2014

Jesus and the fashion police

Royal weddings understandably attract a massive amount of attention.   The wedding of William and Kate in 2011 drew audiences from across the world and I suspect most people would have jumped at the chance had they been invited to the service and reception afterwards.  Even the most lukewarm of royal observers perks up at a good royal spectacular and they show just how far we are from republicanism.  These were the hottest tickets in town and I can’t imagine many people responding that they had business engagements to go to instead, let alone mistreating the postman delivering the message and certainly not killing any of them.  This makes the scenario in our gospel reading (Matthew 22:1-14) all the more bizarre.  Who in their right mind would turn down this invitation and with such bad grace and violence?

The clue to this strange parable comes at the end.  It is not that the fashion police single out the poor man who didn’t have the right clothes on.  It’s more remarkable that any of those last minute invitees were properly dressed at all.  No, this story is not really about a wedding and it’s certainly not about the dress code.  The way in to this story is to look at passages like the Epistle, which was so helpfully set alongside it by our lectionary.  This gave us a list of virtues: ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’ (Philippians 4:8).  These are the wedding clothes for the guests to the banquet.  These are attributes and qualities that we are to have with us all the time.  So if the invite comes we are ready because that is how we are living already.  We don’t need to go and get changed and won’t need excuses as to why we can’t come because we don’t want to be shown up, exposed for who we really are.  The grumpy guests revealed their hand by how they responded.

The Kingdom of God is like being ready when the moment of judgment comes.  And ‘judgment’ is one of those words we don’t like hearing or using.  Everyone is welcome and invited; we see that from how the invitations go out and broaden beyond those we’d expect to be invited.  Not just friends, not just those who we usually find attending great state occasions.  This is itself an interesting challenge to the usual assumptions about who is ‘good enough’ and ‘worthy’ and who is not.  That was an important message for when the gospel was written.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is not just for 1st century Jews but for everyone and we find the first disciples having their horizons broadened as they journeyed with Jesus.  Tax Collectors become disciples alongside zealots and fishermen.  Roman officials have their request for healings granted.  Lepers are embraced and the blind and lame healed.  He feeds 5,000 by one seashore before crossing over to another community, of outsiders, and feeds 4,000 more.  But it is the leftovers that are telling – far more is provided for the outsiders than the insiders because the baskets used to collect the pieces are bigger.  Time and again the horizons are expanded.  Matthew begins his gospel with travelling foreigners worshipping and adoring as they left their strange gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  The world comes to worship and Christ came for the world.

But this is only half the story.  The other half is that being invited calls us to account.  We have to make a decision and it challenges us with where we are when the invite comes.  No one knows when it will come.  It comes like a thief in the night, we are told, unexpected and without warning.  How it finds us is how we are.  There are consequences to what we do, the moral decisions we make and the character we develop.  The consequences reveal the clothes of our character that we carry with us all the time.  So when we enter the banquet we do so as we are and that is judgment day for all of us.

So the challenge of this seemingly strange story about a wedding and the fashion police is to take the call of God seriously; to shape our characters in light of that call: its justice, truth and all that is worthy of praise.  Do we measure up?  No of course we don’t.  Salvation always comes through God’s grace which completes what is lacking, but there are consequences.  If there weren’t what would be the point?  The call from this parable is to live as you would like to be found when someone demands that you give an account of how you are.

There are things we struggle with.  Some have been badly treated in the past and carry those scars.  They are part of the character.  Some are weighed down by what they see as unforgiveable guilt.  That is where the cross comes in.  It is the place we lay the things we can’t deal with but we do it with a deep desire that the taint will be taken away, and in that faith and approach it is.  We can face this judgment precisely when we realize that we have nothing in mitigation to say except I am trying.  It is when we use the words of the centurion that ‘I am not worthy to have you under my roof, but only say the word from a distance and all will be well’ (Matthew 8:8).  The centurion was near to the kingdom of God because he knew he needed God’s grace to heal and to redeem.  And strangely it is when we know our need that we find we have the right clothes to enter the banquet.  That is all God asks of us because in the words of the Psalmist, ‘a lowly and contrite heart he will not despise’ (Psalm 51:17).

We come before the throne of God’s grace and trust in his mercy.  The Kingdom of God is like those who were invited and while they may have been greatly surprised were ready to accept with honour, humility and great thanksgiving.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 12th October 2014

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