THE QUESTION OF A DRESS CODE
A Sermon preached by the Rev. Michael Anderson Bullock Exodus 32:1-14; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14 [2023.1015.A.Pr 23.DressCode]
Let me begin by acknowledging what is happening in the Middle East and ask how it is that we are to keep faith and make a healing difference amidst such agonizing, painful destruction and numbing chaos. Of course, this eruption of brutal violence is not the only example of need in the world. The terror that is still in Ukraine, Sudan, Yemen – to mention only three – remain catastrophic realities, only being overshadowed for the moment’s news cycle by Hamas’s attack and Israel’s response. Moreover, all this is mixed in with issues of our paralyzed and dysfunctional government, inflationary stress, and the more local demands each of us face in living out our daily responsibilities. And here we are in church, not to turn away from (much less deny) such painful struggles but rather somehow to remember and to trust that being among the people of God, there is more to life than the mess humanity so often makes of it: That somehow seeing one another and gathering as Christ’s Body, keeping the prayers, and absorbing the reality and hope that is Communion, we may in fact somehow be instruments of God’s healing life and peace. In this I am reminded of the strong pastoral wisdom of the rabbinic tradition, which says: Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. With this profound, truthful reminder, I will transition to this day’s scripture lessons and wonder out loud with you what the gospel (in particular) has to do with reminding us to be reflections of the God-life in such a volatile and unsteady world. In particular, what about the king in Jesus’ parable? And what about the poor shmo who didn’t get the memo about the dress code? Don’t these allegorical characters bother you? What is the parable’s message that can buck up our faith and vision in these dark times? As I think about this question, I wonder how many of us have experienced a dress code. In my experience of school, especially in high school, there was a dress code. It required boys to wear collared shirts, slacks (no shorts or jeans or spandex allowed); and shoes and socks, not flip flops. The dress code wasn’t a big deal for me. With my Mom’s help (and her aesthetic taste), I got dressed for school and never caused a scene (one way or another) with my appearance. (However, I did get in trouble one time with the Vice Principal for chewing gum in school.) As a teacher (albeit, at a boarding school), there was a dress code that was much more formal than I had personally experienced. Boys had to wear a collared shirt with a tie and a sport coat – usually a blazer. Girls were to wear simple blouses, shirts that were no higher than the knee, and either a blazer or a sweater. Without intending to sound like an old curmudgeon, I essentially favor dress codes, especially for students, because a dress code simplifies things for everyone. It levels the playing field, eliminating competition between and among young clothes horses, not to mention mitigating the cost and complexity of being “stylish”. It seems to me that the uniform that a dress code creates also speaks to something beyond extreme individuality. A good example of which is clear on an athletic team. The “uni” in the “form” spoke of “team”, which by definition is a unity that is always greater than any idiosyncrasy. The players that I coached and knew had absolutely no problem dressing in the team’s uniform. Quite the opposite, they were proud and eager to represent the school and to be a part of the team. Any expressions of individualism (or even eccentricity) were a matter of contributing personal performance and skill on the field of play. So, in the parable, what’s the deal with the poor dress code violator? And more to the point, what about the king’s reaction to his apparent violation of what was required dress at the wedding? In a manner of speaking, we have this same dress code issue in our current time. It is in the United States Senate. Just this past month the senate voted to rescind its historically formal dress code from formal business attire to something more casual and personal. In fact, the junior senator from Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, is the poster boy for such a change and movement to a less formal garb. And I couldn’t help myself in thinking that, should this parable be committed to the stage or screen, Senator Fetterman would make a great casting decision to play the role of the parable’s wedding guest. Of course, in fairness to Senator Fetterman, there is a significant difference between the senator and the sap in the parable: the senator can now freely wear his version of liberated attire in the senate chamber, while our poor parable shmoe was escorted out from the gathering to the “utter realms of darkness”. And again in fairness to Senator Fetterman, I perceive that some of his apparel choices serve as a wordless criticism of the “empty suits'' that so frequently hold office with him. Nonetheless, I think the gospel parable raises some important (albeit, disturbing) questions that we need to face about our interpretation of scripture and our life of following Jesus. For instance, are we willing to wrestle with Jesus’ irksome parables in order to discover what lies beyond the evaluating veneer our likes and dislikes? Or do we turn the parable into a clear-cut, moral violation of God’s dress code and leave it at that: those who obey are “in”; those that disobey are “out”? (Even now, I recall with some trepidation that in high school, violations of the dress code resulted in detention after school! Oh, the shame and torture!!) Or do we simply dismiss this story as yet one more example of what’s wrong with following Jesus? Guess which one I choose to observe? In my attempts to recognize at least some of what Jesus conveys in the “Parable of the Wedding Feast”, three elements, three clues surface that demand our primary attention if we are to avoid being lost in the interpretational weeds. The first and foremost is to remember that Jesus is telling a parable, using an allegorical story to illustrate the nature of God and our life with God. The second element or interpretive clue is to recognize that the parable’s setting occurs in the context of a wedding -- a royal wedding at that; and that the hosting king ultimately invites everyone to join him in this celebration. What is the meaning of the king’s invitation? The answer to that question draws us to focus on the third clue, which is the point in the parable where we are meant to stumble and learn. In the case of the “Parable of the Wedding Feast”, the well-placed stumbling block is the “dress code”, specifically, the required “wedding robe”. So, what can we say about these three elements, these three clues? Starting with the first, Jesus is offering a simile concerning what the God-life is like. Tellingly, life on God’s terms and life with God are like a wedding; or as Matthew has Jesus saying, “the kingdom of heaven is like a king who made a wedding feast for his son”. As we all know, a wedding is a time of festivity. A wedding is an occasion for the reuniting of family and friends into a community in which new life presents itself with new partners. As Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven” is like what a wedding is meant to be. Yet, as one would expect from a good story, Jesus’ parables convey an unfolding sense of drama. The “king” announces the marriage of his son and directs his servants to invite those who are associated with the king through a pledge of fealty to join him in this benchmark occasion. But these people who had pledged themselves to the king refused to come. They had other things to do. When asked again by the king to join him in the festivities, the rudeness and disloyalty of these royal subjects erupted into blatant contempt and even violence against the king and his representatives. As a result – and to say the least, the royal presence was understandably not amused by any of this rebellion. For his part, the king ordered his servants to scour the byways and highways to invite any and all to the wedding. And so, like the loyal and faithful servants they were, this is precisely what they did. Soon the banquet hall was filled with guests, and the day’s wedding events were finally ready to proceed. But then it happened. One guy showed up in his work clothes, and upon spying this “sore thumb”, the king demanded an answer as to the reason this man was not wearing a “wedding robe”. Speechless at such a confrontation, the man was immediately and unceremoniously expelled from the king’s presence, leaving only Jesus’ terse postscript to end the story: “For many are called, but few are chosen.” Here's my take on this demanding parable. First, we are right to notice its intensity (some might say the edgy horror that the intensity creates), especially as we identify the “king” with “God”. What I believe this tension and its accompanying edginess are about has in part to do with the fact that (as we have seen in the previous two parables of Jesus) he is already in Jerusalem; and in the calendaring of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is at the sobering threshold of his crucifixion and death. The tension and the disturbing edginess that we experience (especially with how the story ends) reflects the urgent imminence of Jesus’ last days. As such, there is little-to-no room for too much allegory or metaphorical speculation. This parable ratchets itself up from an engaging story to a foreshadowing of the cross. As to the invitation, a king is a king by virtue of the people (historically read, the landowners) binding themselves to the king by oaths of fealty that place the “king” at the center. In the parable’s background, those who were initially invited are (in Jesus’ telling) Israel; and their lack of interest in attending the wedding and its banquet reflects the wavering history of God’s chosen ones, even to the extent that those who sought to rekindle the dynamics of the invitation (the prophets) were disregarded and often killed. Yet, the king’s invitational nature remains steadfast, to the extent that the king ultimately offers an invitation to both the washed and unwashed. But then there's this one guest. But when the king came to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” [The man] was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Does this strike you as fair? Does it strike you as “Good News” about God and the God-life? How does this parable, this story affect your own pledge to God-in-Christ? I mentioned earlier that there is a danger of tumbling into the weeds if we remain unclear about the parable and its purpose. Some of the weeds raise sensitive questions, such as: What if the poor guy didn’t have a wedding robe or couldn’t afford one? Or what if he didn’t have time to change his clothes? Much more to the point, what gives with these words of Jesus: “many are called, but few are chosen”? Bev and I have a neighbor up the hill from our house who has a 100-acre farm. The farm’s main “cash crop” is that the farmer and his wife have turned the farm into a premier wedding destination, where people eagerly drop tens of thousands of dollars to have what is couched as “a farm wedding”. My point is that in all the weddings and receptions at this beautiful site, I have never seen anyone who was not aware of what a wedding entails, including some sort of upgraded outfit. So, in terms of the guy who seemingly crashed the king’s party, the question arises: How could this man not have realized what attending a wedding entailed? But more to Jesus’ point, everyone who heard that parable with any gospel sense at all would note that the image of marriage that was actually in play was the covenant of our baptisms, that sacramental act, where we “put on” Christ. For their parts, the Jews were also “dressed” for the king in and through the faithful observance of the Covenant. This to say that everyone who knew the “king” already had a wedding robe! So, what was this parable’s John Fetterman doing without an appropriate “robe”? Expressing rebelling; not giving a damn; unfettered ignorance? Elle Morgan preached last Sunday about the fact that there are consequences to our choices and actions, which is a good segue to how the gospel lesson concludes. “Many are called, but few are chosen”. There are consequences to being called and chosen. To be chosen (that is, to belong) requires more than receiving an invitation. Belonging, being chosen, demands a commitment. And the actual truth is that real commitments, transformational pledges can’t be faked, no matter what you wear. And what all this has to do with wedding invitations and the Middle East is this: to recognize the invitation God gives us all and in response to seek to live with one another in humble gratitude. Amen.