What Not to Wear: A Sermon on Marriage Equality and the Church

**Originally preached at the Covenant Network regional conference in Springfield, IL on October 11, 2014. Conference theme was “Marriage Matters: Healing and Reconciliation in the Church.”

Matthew 22:1-14

The Parable of the Wedding Banquet

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

‘But when the king came in 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?” And he 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.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

—-

I imagine that one day, I will preach a sermon on this text and have countless illustrations to choose from. There will be all the weddings I will have officiated as a minister and perhaps even my own wedding—which I am now more hopeful than ever will be recognized by this church that I love.

But for now, two months and 11 days into my first call—I’m content to tell you a story about seminary.

My first semester of seminary I was an invited to a wedding that was—as far as I was concerned—the social event of the season. It was a celebration of the union of two women seminarians, and it was weighted with a layer of heaviness because Presbyterian polity dictated that they weren’t able to have it in the chapel of the seminary they loved. But it was also fabulous. They had it instead in a nearby venue that looked like a rustic barn. There were string lights and gourmet pizza and lots of wine and Lady Gaga. There was a powerful ceremony full of love and covenant. Under an old oak tree at that wedding, my first girlfriend, Molly, and I said “I love you” for the first time. And that night we danced with a room full of the most jubilant people I’ve ever seen—queer folks and straight folks and pastors and professors and parents and lovers—a celebration that the world said we couldn’t have—but we danced all night anyway. It did feel a little like heaven.

From the moment we first received the invite, Molly and I were frenzied with excitement and questions: who would be there, what would it be like, would anybody talk to us? But there was one question that consumed us more than any other—we spent days and weeks in preparation and debate for this all-important issue: what were we going to wear?

When I first glanced at this parable and realized it was the lectionary text for this weekend – I was overjoyed. What a perfect text, I thought! Here we are, at a conference on marriage equality in the church, and here we are with a parable about how the kingdom of heaven is like a wedding feast where the guests are the unexpected. Perfect!

And the more I thought about it, the more perfect it seemed. After all, what is marriage if not a shining metaphor—one micro-version even—of the covenant we’re all called into as people of God? And haven’t we been working all these years and decades for equality in our church precisely because we believe the gates of the kingdom—the invitation into covenant—with our loved ones and with God—is broader than we’ve been taught to believe? Broader than we could hope?

And at this moment—more than ever before—the great, fabulous wedding celebration that will come with full marriage equality—in our nation and in our church—feels close at hand. It’s not here yet. There is still work to be done, but I can hear the wedding music getting louder every second. Can’t you?

Still wrapped up in the euphoria of the major moves toward equality at this most recent General Assembly, and spilling over with joy at the news out of the Supreme Court this week, I allowed myself to believe—at first glance—that this parable, this text, is really just about how those of us who are LGBTQ are a part of the kingdom whether everyone expected it or not. Perfect!

And then I read the rest of the story. And I got a little uncomfortable. Because Matthew’s version of this parable ends in this weird way where a wedding guest is thrown out because they’re not wearing the appropriate wedding attire. And that is not quite the celebratory, inclusive attitude that I wanted this parable to have.

But I thought about it. And I found myself wondering, “Well, what do we wear?” Because really, when it comes to weddings—what we wear matters. It’s not just that we show up, it’s how we show up that makes it a wedding and not just an awkward dance party. We dress for the occasion.

Perhaps precisely the question we need to be asking, as we live into this ever-closer moment of equality that feels so much like the inbreaking of the kingdom—is: “What are we going to wear?”

Because it matters not just that we show up. It matters how we show up. It matters what we clothe ourselves in. Because we are not just celebrating a party. We are celebrating a covenant. And living into covenant compels us to show up in a particular way. I imagine that the irony is not lost on any of us, that the very thing we have been working so hard for—the right to unite in love—is causing so much division in the wider covenant community that we are a part of. And we know that as much as we are celebrating, the kingdom we are called to lean into is for more than just us. And so we are wondering, as people of God, as we move forward into a world where marriage equality is not just a dream—how do we show up to honor the fullness of covenant? What do we clothe ourselves in so that we embody the very spirit of that which we are celebrating? So that we can move ever closer to a kingdom where all will celebrate love together? What do we wear?

Like any good recent seminary grad, to engage this question—I turned to the bible. And first I looked for everything the bible had to say about clothing. Trust me – don’t do that. But I knew that Paul had something to say about what we, as Christians, clothe ourselves in. And he does. He says to the Colossians,

“As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”

What a beautiful idea. But let me confess something. In this present moment—these things are not always exactly the outfit I want to wear. It’s true that marriage equality seems closer than ever, and that the celebrations I’ve been a part of in recent months have felt like glimpses of the kingdom feast. But it is also true that when I show up to those moments, a big part of me wants to show up dressed from head to toe in, “I told you so.”

And when others would rather leave the party than share company with me, frankly, I sometimes want to wave goodbye with a hand gloved in, “fine—we’re better off without you.” And when still others cry out that marriage is hardly the only thing impacting queer people or other marginalized populations in the church or world today—that indeed marriage is not even the most important thing challenging the inbreaking of the kingdom—I want to throw them a glare and pull my fancy coat of “don’t you rain on my parade” tight around my shoulders and get back to my party.

Except it’s not my party. Not our party even. It’s God’s party. And we’re not the only ones invited. These impulses are understandable, but when we clothe ourselves in them, head to foot—when that’s how we show up—we’re going to show up somewhere that feels a lot more like an awkward dance party than the wedding feast of Christ.

It is not that we must deny our own justice to make comfortable those who think we have no place in the kingdom or deny the realities of trauma that we have experienced so that others can avoid the discomfort of their part in that trauma. But committing to these things does not require that we abandon one another. Even when circumstance and faithfulness demand that we call others out in love, or that, for a time, we walk on separate paths and even sometimes in separate churches—we can still be compassionate and kind and loving.

And we need not refrain from celebrating our hard-won progress, but doing so doesn’t require that we turn away from or ignore all of the injustices that persist and all of the hard work that remains to be done so that others might feel the joy of inclusion that we ourselves are finally tasting. Rather, in compassion and humility, we acknowledge that our needs and our equality are not the only ones that matter to God or us, and work patiently until justice for all truly means “for all.”

It matters how we show up. It matters what we clothe ourselves in because we are not just showing up to celebrate marriage equality, we are showing up to celebrating the covenant feast of all God’s people. We are leaning into a kingdom where the walls of hostility and division have been torn down, where justice means not only marriage equality but also no more LGBTQ youth cast out of their homes or their churches, no more LGBTQ people of color facing double discrimination and no more discounting LGBTQ persons with disabilities, no more erasure of those who are bisexual or asexual, no more violence and trauma against those who are trans and genderqueer.

Marriage matters, but we haven’t fought this long and hard because it is the only thing that matters, we have fought because it is part of something so much bigger that matters so much more—and that is the covenant of God to which we are all invited and all called. And it matters how we show up, it matters what we clothe ourselves in, what we wear, because every act of covenant with God—between two people and between all people—is not just a celebration. It’s also an act of holy protest against brokenness.

If my Facebook newsfeed is any indication, I know more and more married couples every day and not one of them has ever said that they got married because it’s just one giant, lifelong party. Covenant is hard work. Compassion and kindness and humility and patience and forgiveness and love are hardwork, but we put them on—and we clothe ourselves in them to show up to covenant because we dare to believe that the brokenness which divides us can never be stronger than that which unites us—that which, Paul says, we clothe ourselves in above all. Jesus Christ. The one who believes so much in the kingdom and desires so deeply that we be there with him that he blew apart every barrier that would keep us away—even death itself.

When we clothe ourselves with Christ—and with his compassion and love—we dress ourselves to live into the wedding feast that matters more than any other. The feast of the kingdom of God, with the gates flung wide open, not just for those of us who others would never expect, but also for those who we would never expect.

It matters how we show up. It matters what we wear.

Here’s the thing: I worked through all of this, and I wrapped myself up in all the compassion and love and Jesus I could muster and I went back to this parable. And it made me more uncomfortable than ever. And for a minute I wondered if I could preach this at all. Because the king in this story—which traditional reason would dictate is meant to be God—pauses in the middle of his all-inclusive wedding celebration to destroy a city. And then he throws a guy into the outer darkness just because he’s wearing the wrong clothes. And none of that sounds like a God who tells us to clothe ourselves in compassion and love—a God who would, as Christ, enter the confines of humanity and death just to reach us.

And no matter how I thought about it—the first guests rejected the invitation, the robeless man chose not to wear the robe that was offered—I couldn’t make my peace with a vision of the kingdom where such exclusion and suffering is a part of it. This cold kingly depiction of God just makes me uncomfortable.

But we know that sometimes questioning the understanding that tradition dictates can lead to a better understanding and so—clothed in the compassion and hope of Christ as we approach this text—I dare us to wonder if we’re meant to feel uncomfortable. I wonder if that discomfort too is part of what we wear when we dress for the heavenly banquet, for the covenant? Because perhaps, more than anything else, clothing ourselves in Christ means daring to believe, as he did, not in a kingdom so much as a kindom beyond any parabolic metaphor or human power paradigm we can imagine. A kindom where the inclusion of one never requires the destruction of another. Where all know and embody compassion, love, Christness, and all are welcome.

What if that’s the kindom celebration we dress for? It matters how we show up. It matters what we clothe ourselves in.

So I ask you, friends, what are we going to wear?

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What’s In It For Us?: A Sermon

Originally preached for Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago on Oct. 3rd, 2014.

 

Matthew 21:33-45 

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

 

‘Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watch-tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.” So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.’

 Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read in the scriptures:

“The stone that the builders rejected

    has become the cornerstone;

this was the Lord’s doing,

   and it is amazing in our eyes”?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.’

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them.

When I was a kid, I loved Peter Pan. So it makes perfect sense that in 1991 my favorite movie was the Robin Williams’ classic “Hook.” In the movie, Williams’ plays a stuffy grown-up version of Peter Pan who has left his old life and world in Neverland far behind him, until a family crisis at the hands of Captain Hook compels him to return to Neverland and save his kids.

Once they realize who he is, the other Lost Boys are all overjoyed to see their leader and friend Peter once again. Well, all of them except one. Rufio. Rufio is the new leader of the Lost Boys, the one Peter left in charge and told to take care of everything when he left long ago. And Rufio isn’t so keen on the idea of having this new older Peter Pan back in Neverland. He does everything he can to maintain his power and authority over the Lost Boys.

You’re not supposed to like Rufio, but I always kind of did. I couldn’t help it. And not just because he wore leather and eyeliner and had a red Mohawk. As much as I loved Pan, I understood where Rufio was coming from. He had spent years taking care of the other boys and fighting off pirates and keeping Neverland safe in Peter’s absence. And then out of nowhere, Peter returns and he’s just supposed to give it all up. It kind of stinks.

In our scripture for today, Jesus tells the Pharisees a parable that is meant to make clear to them that they are not really in charge anymore. The Pharisees are like the tenants in his story—and just like the tenants don’t want to give up the vineyard they’ve been tending to when the landowner’s son comes for the harvest—the Pharisees don’t want to give up their power and authority to this one who claims he is the Son of God.

This parable is the middle of three parables that Jesus tells to call out the corruption of the Pharisees as tensions mount between him and the Jewish leadership. We’re not supposed to like the Pharisees. And it’s not hard to dislike them, given their arrogant attitude and all that they will do to Jesus later. But even so, I have to confess that I feel a twinge of sympathy for them.

They have been taking care of their religion and its people for as long as they can remember, serving God, and now, suddenly, they are being asked to turn it all over and do things a different way. They may not be the good guys in this story and we may not like them, but I can imagine how they feel. Can’t you?

Even though Jesus’ message in his time was meant to specifically call out corrupt and wayward religious leaders rather than all the people, I believe his message is relevant for us today.

Every week at this service, when we have our time of offering, we acknowledge that all good things in our lives come as gifts of God’s grace. We say it and we pray it, but how willing are we to really accept it and live into it?

The truth that we proclaim is that this world and all that is in it—even our very lives—belong, not to us, but to God. But do we believe it?

Sometimes, when we take care of something for so long, we forget that it doesn’t belong to us. And that makes sense. This world and these lives are all we’ve ever known. And we work hard! To take care of them, to build them up, to make them good and fruitful. Think of all the effort that has gone into building up this church over the past century. And despite all of that hard work and care, we’re supposed to just hand them over to Jesus to serve his purpose? Honestly, it feels a little unfair.

In Jesus’ parable, the landowner sets up the vineyard before he ever leaves it in the hands of the tenants. The tenants work hard to care for the land, yes, but they forget that the owner’s work in the beginning is what made their work able to yield fruit in the first place.

The problem is that when we’re given power over something we forget where it comes from and we get possessive. And the more power and privilege we find ourselves with the more possessive we get. Then it stops being about what we were entrusted with—to care for and tend to—and becomes instead about what we have to gain or lose.

At our worst, we trade in our commitments to justice and a better world for bitter diatribe and corrupt, territorial volleys for power. We tear each other down and rip each other apart in the name of somehow building ourselves up. We get it in our heads that the only way to make sure we are okay, is to make sure that somebody else isn’t. This worldview is rooted in a myth of scarcity. It’s suggests that there is not enough to go around.

This fear of scarcity is what drives the tenants to kill the landowner’s son. It is what terrifies the Pharisees into seeing Jesus as an enemy that must be eliminated in the name of the very faith he has come to illuminate. We may feel like these acts of fear-driven violence are far beyond what we are culpable of even our worst days, but when we operate from this fear and possessiveness—when our sisters and brothers become nothing more than enemies to be defeated or obstacles to be overcome or objects to be exploited—are we not in some way destroying the image of Christ we are called to see in them?

When we operate from this perspective of scarcity—where life and this world are matters of winning or losing, the question that drives us is: what’s in it for us?

In our quest to answer this question; to gain more: more power, more influence, more comfort, more security—more of whatever we think we want and is ours to take—we lose sight of the one thing more important than all of it. The one thing we really need. Grace.

Grace—made known to us in Jesus Christ—is not just what we need, it’s the foundation upon which this whole world and our whole lives rest. Grace is what compelled God to entrust these things to us in the first place—not out of our deserving or earning but out of selfless love and boundless hope.

Grace reminds us that the question isn’t “what’s in it for us?” but “who is in it for us?” And grace gives us the answer. Jesus. Jesus—in all his grace—is literally “in it” for us. In the world. In human form. In pain and death. In resurrection. In it all with and for us.

For Jesus, it’s not a matter of winning and losing—for Jesus, it’s about sharing. Jesus loses everything, but what matters more to him is what he can share with us. He shares in all that pains or troubles us, and he shares in our joys.

When we think our lives belong ultimately to us, we can be overcome by what it feels like Jesus is asking us to give up. But the truth is that without Christ’s grace we don’t have anything at all. Jesus is who makes the vineyard fertile and grace is what brings about the good fruit. Without them and the harvest they bring about, we can never hope to possess anything more than a barren land.

Instead, Jesus offers us something better than we could imagine on our own. Jesus invites us to participate. To take part in bearing the fruit of the kindom. To share in his grace that makes our lives possible and to share that grace with one another and with the world.

When we work to share that grace, we too are compelled to give selflessly, to hope boundlessly. We are compelled to toil in the name of justice for all people and for creation. We are compelled to rejoice in community and the opportunity to share in the bounty. We are compelled to dream not just for ourselves, but for all. To dream not just of the ground beneath our feet or the things within our grasp, but of a better world, a holy ripened vineyard bursting with fruit enough for all, the kindom of God.

When Jesus asks the Pharisees what should become of the tenants, they can only think of violence and death. Kill them and be done with it, they say. But Jesus doesn’t write us off this way. He invites us to help bear the fruit.

At the end of Hook, Peter leaves Neverland again to go home and care for his family. As he’s leaving, the Lost Boys gather—curious to see who he will leave in charge this time. He paces before them before finally handing his sword over to a big, gentle boy named Thud. “Me?” Thud asks in awe, astounded that Pan would entrust him with such a task. Peter nods, and then turns to the next boy. “And you take care of everyone smaller than you.” He says, and then gives them each the same message in turn. When the smallest asks in wonder and delight what his job should be, Peter says, “you take care of the fairies.”

This is the mutual joy and grace that Jesus offers us and invites us to share in. This astounding gift and responsibility does beg a question, but the question isn’t “what’s in it for us?” The question is, “what more could we ask for?”