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

  1. Layton, wow! I don’t seem to have your correct phone number or else I’d have texted you a million !!!!!!!!!. Not because you reminded me of the best day of my life, but because you said something about the Gosepl that was unique and made me want to hear more, this is one of the best sermons I’ve ever read. Wish I could have heard it!

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