Have you ever gone to a social function and found that you were inappropriately dressed?
Say, you got an invitation from the Master Gardeners to a gathering at the local nursery. You skimmed over the fine print and jotted down the time and place. You figured it had to do with getting the most out of your spring garden. So, you throw on your work duds and look forward to digging in the dirt, but, when you walk in the door, lo and behold, everyone else is dressed to the nines. Turns out, it’s a brunch to kick off the annual membership drive, and you’re one of the honored guests. Whoops.
I’ll never forget the time I served as an Associate Pastor in Paris, Texas. We had a death in the congregation, and I dropped by the funeral home to pay my respects. I was wearing a pair of bright pants and a colorful dress shirt. Everyone else wore black. What was I thinking? The funeral director met me at the door with a glare to stop a locomotive. I signed the guest book and got out of there as fast as I could.
Then there was the time when we were living in Nashville, Tennessee. One of the church members invited me to lunch. I was wearing slacks and sports shirt, which seemed to be dressy enough. But instead of going to one of the places near the church, we drove downtown, parked in a parking garage and took the elevator to the top floor of a bank building to this really nice, private club. The maitre d’ took one look at me and said, “Hmm. I think we may have a sport coat to fit you in the cloak room.” I’ve never been more embarrassed in my life.
Being improperly dressed can be a nightmare, literally. Ever had this happen to you? You wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. You’ve just had a dream that you were giving a speech or presentation – or, in my case, a sermon – only to realize you were standing before God and everybody in your underwear or birthday suit.
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Well, today’s sermon is about being properly dressed. But it’s not about what you wear to church or work or school. It’s about being clothed in the righteousness of God. And what I hope you’ll get out it is this: While God is perfectly willing to clothe us in the garments of Christ, it’s up to us put them on and wear them faithfully to the glory of God.
The scripture comes from a couple of parables neatly tied together. The first has to do with a king, who wanted to give a big wedding banquet for his son. So, he invited all his friends and political allies. It was to be a royal, festive occasion. But, as the servants returned from the neighboring kingdoms, they brought back only rejections.
The king thought there must be some mistake because, in those days, to reject a royal invitation was tantamount to a declaration of war. He gave his allies the benefit of the doubt and sent his servants back to tell them that the wedding banquet was prepared and for them to come at once. The would-be guests not only refused the second invitation, they made light of it. They even taunted and ridiculed the king’s servants.
When word got back to the king, he was furious. He summoned his troops and went to war against his now-declared enemies. Once they were defeated, he returned to his kingdom more determined than ever to give his son a proper wedding banquet. He sent his servants into the cities, inviting people off the streets to come to the palace. Sure enough, common folk poured into the palace to celebrate the marriage of the prince.
In the context of Matthew’s gospel, the parable explains why God turned from the Jews and gave the promise of salvation to the Gentiles: They accepted Jesus as the Christ; the Jews refused. The early church got the message: The same can happen to you. The kingdom of God is at hand. The table is spread. The banquet hall must be filled. If you’re not willing to put God first, your seat will be given to someone else.
Luke tells the same parable in a simpler, less militant way. (Luke 14:16-24) According to Luke, the host invited three friends, but each was predisposed. One had just bought some land, another five yoke of oxen, and another had just gotten married. Given the particulars, each had a reasonable excuse. Years ago, a friend of mine put this together in a song and sang it to the tune of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” It went like this:
“I cannot come to the banquet, excuse me, I pray, I’ve just bought a field, I must gather my hay; I hate to miss the party, and I know this sounds dumb, Pray, Lord, excuse me, I cannot come.
I cannot come to the banquet, excuse me, dear sir, I’ve just bought a cow, and her cream I must stir; I hate to miss the party, all the food and the fun, Pray, Lord, excuse me, I cannot come.
I cannot come to the banquet, excuse me, my Lord, I’ve just married a wife, and I gave her my word; I hate to miss the party, and all that good rum, Pray, Lord, excuse me, I cannot come.
I cannot come to the banquet, I’m too busy, you see, Perhaps another time would be better for me; I know the table’s ready, and I feel like a bum: Pray, Lord, excuse me, I cannot come!”
Either way, the message is the same: Whatever your excuse, the kingdom must go on. God is at work reconciling the world to himself and, if we’re too busy or, for whatever reason, unwilling to be part of this ministry of reconciliation, God will choose others to do his bidding.
To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to make him your first priority, to offer the first fruits of our time, talent, gifts and service … not whatever’s left over after everything else is done and all the bills are paid.
The Good News is the Kingdom of God is at hand, and we’re the honored guests. The word to wise is: Dress accordingly. That’s where the second parable comes in.
According to Matthew, as the king mixed and mingled with his guests, he noticed one that was not wearing a proper wedding garment. He was as out of place as I was at the funeral home or the private club in Nashville. The difference is he wasn’t clueless like me, he was disrespectful.
Here’s the background: In Jesus’ day, guests coming to a royal banquet were expected to wear festal garments. For the wealthy, that meant embroidered robes and gowns adorned with precious jewels. For the poor, it meant the best clothes you had, freshly washed. If you could afford it, you’d wear white, and, if you couldn’t, you’d wear as close to white as possible. Commentator Richard Bauckman says, “Wearing festal garments indicated one’s (full) participation in the joy of the feast.” (Journal of Biblical Literature, Fall, 1996, pp. 485-486)
The implication is that the guest who was not wearing a festal garment had simply come along for the ride. He wasn’t there to honor the king and celebrate the marriage of the prince, he was there to scarf up the free food and drink. The way he dressed could even be interpreted as a sign of disdain. The king had every reason to throw him out.
But there’s more. In the Bible, clothes have a symbolic meaning. They’re a sign of being dressed in the righteousness of God. For example, Paul told the Ephesians,
“Put away, as concerning your former way of life… and put on the new man, who in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of truth.” (Ephesians 4:22-24)
That’s how I hear this passage speaking to us today. God is calling us, now, more than ever, to “put on Christ” and bear witness to his grace and love in the world around us.
Paul told the Galatians, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galations 3:27) In his Letter to the Colossians, he writes,
“Put to death therefore your members which are on the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness… but now you also put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and shameful speaking… put on the new man, who is being renewed in knowledge after the image of his Creator… as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance… Above all these things, walk in love, which is the bond of perfection.” (Colossians 3:5-14)
To be clothed in the righteousness of God is to be immersed in the teachings of Jesus and filled with his Spirit, just as Paul told the Ephesians:
“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the… spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and, having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having the utility belt of truth buckled around your waist, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having fitted your feet with the preparation of the Good News of peace; above all, taking up the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:11-17)
The Good News is that God supplies all the clothes we need to fight the sinfulness of injustice and oppression, self-centeredness and greed. He gives them to us as a free gift through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The catch is we have to be willing to wear them, not only on Sunday morning here at church, but throughout the week, in our homes and out in the community.
That’s not always easy. We come to church on Sunday singing God’s praise and celebrating God’s goodness and talking about this New Creation of forgiveness, acceptance and reconciliation in Christ. Yet, no sooner than we walk out the door, our vision of this new life in Christ is blurred by the realities of anxiety and stress, conflict and anger. Before we know it, we’re so caught up in the rat race that we’re just like everybody else – clothed in the ways of the world rather than the righteousness of God.
The crux of the matter is this: God wants to clothe us in garments of Christ, but God leaves it up to us to put them on.
I started wearing a clerical collar a little over three years ago. I see it as a sign of my calling to be a Minister of Word and Sacrament. Just as police officers wear uniforms when they’re on duty, I wear a clerical collar. It made me self-conscious at first – it certainly makes you stand out. It also makes you think twice: People watch to see how you handle various situations. You’re supposed to set a good example.
But this holds true for everyone who walks in the footsteps of Jesus. We’re called to live by a higher standard of righteousness than the world around us. When we don’t, we forfeit our witness. When we do, others see the Spirit of God at work in us and are encouraged to follow our example. Jesus told his disciples,
“Therefore, by their fruits you will know them.” (Matthew 7:20)
Well, I’m not suggesting that you wear a clerical collar, but I would like for you to think of some tangible way you can, in Paul’s words, “put on Christ.” It’s not all that far-fetched: People wear pink ribbons to indicate their support of breast cancer research. Some wear yellow bracelets in solidarity with our soldiers overseas. What if you were to do something creative to distinguish yourself as a disciple of Jesus Christ – not to call attention to yourself, but to let others know – and to remind yourself – that you belong to Christ?
Here’s the bottom line: We all know how embarrassing it is to show up at a social function inappropriately dressed. What we need to remember is that the greatest social function of all – the Kingdom of God – is here and now, and we’re expected to dress accordingly.
So, put on the garments of Christ. Clothe yourself in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and love … and in so doing, honor and glorify the king. Let us pray:
“Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways; reclothe us in our rightful mind, in purer lives thy service find, in deeper reverence, praise.” (John Greenleaf Whittier, Presbyterian Hymnal, p. 345)
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2009, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.