Today we hear two scriptures; both come from the Gospel of Matthew; both have to do with having appropriate apparel.
In the first scripture, Jesus is speaking to the crowd which includes his followers but also the chief priests and the Pharisees. They wanted to arrest him, and Jesus knew it. You have to wonder whether he might have been telling this story to provoke their reaction.
“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son,” says the Lord. I mean I guess it may be. Maybe in the way you compare two things that are opposite! See what you think…
Right off the bat, we learn this king has slaves. When he sends the slaves to follow up with the invited guests, it turns out, the people want nothing to do with this wedding. They kill the slaves. So the king retaliates. He flies into a rage and sends the military to slaughter the people and burn down the city.
Into the flaming wreckage, the king dispatches another unit of slaves. This time, they’re ordered to round up anybody off the street so the hall will be full of guests for the wedding banquet. Now this gesture does seem generous, but just when we’re thinking, okay, maybe this king is not really so cruel, he walks into the banquet hall, and he sees a man who’s not wearing black tie. Remember, two hours ago, this man had no idea that he’d be attending a royal wedding. How was he supposed to rent a tux! Once the king sees the man, that’s it. The man gets tied up and thrown out into the night.
So maybe the kingdom of heaven is like this, says the Lord. That’s a problem.
If the kingdom of heaven is like this wedding feast, does that mean the king in the story is supposed to represent God? I know traditional interpretations have tried to make that case. I know there is more to God than I can imagine or comprehend, so who am I to say what God is not. It’s just…
I also know something of God, and you do too. And to invoke the fictional afterlife ethicist Eleanor Shellstrop: Holy Motherforking Shirtballs… This is not the good place! Come on, the world of this wedding feast is not the kingdom of heaven. If anything, it must be the opposite; it must be hell!
This world features slavery, and people living under oppression who respond with violence toward law enforcement, then a government who sends in troops to attack the people and burn down the city. Oh… wait a minute. This isn’t hell either.
In the story, a man gets kicked out for failing to fulfill an impossible requirement. We happen to know a little something about living in a world of impossible requirements. You want to apply for a job, you need an address. How are you supposed to find a place to live without a job? You can’t get to work because they took your license, but the only way to get your license back is to keep your job, which you can’t get to. Our world will take the shirt off your back, then charge you for not having a shirt.
Whoever decides that a person who’d been living on the street should get kicked out of the party for failing to meet the dress code, that isn’t God. That’s us. Our human fingerprints are all over that decision.
Imagine the crowd hearing Jesus tell this story. Wait a minute, Jesus. The world of this parable is mountains and oceans away from the kingdom of heaven; this is our world. Exactly, says the Lord to all the people who can hear him. Now what are you going to do about it…
Way back in November, the people of Church of Peace did not know that we would be facing a global pandemic or a summer on fire for justice. Back in the Before Times, the congregation voted to designate Twenty-Twenty the Year of Caring and Service. This summer we’re calling on our whole church family to take on some kind of project for caring and service that will challenge your faith.
Only thing is, the idea of caring and service is mountains and oceans away from the actual work of caring and service. If nobody has warned you, somebody should. Actually taking up the work is— really hard.
For one thing, there’s no way to get into the thick of caring and serving and not bump into your own limitations. A family who comes to the food pantry needs food, no problem. They need diapers; we’ve got those too. They need money to extend their stay at Hillside Inn just two more nights until the house comes through. Our church policy is that we do not give out money at the food pantry, but here they are with a baby in the backseat, and they’re asking you for help.
Whatever you wind up telling them, you will feel your own heart break. You will find yourself worrying about them later. That night when it’s pouring rain, you’ll wonder whether they found enough money or whether they’re trying to sleep in their car… There is no compelling reason why I get to live in a house when this family does not, why I get to go grocery shopping, when so many families cannot. Look at the need and you’ll see: Our world is not the kingdom of heaven; it’s mountains and oceans away.
Now if the first thing is feeling your own heart break, the next thing is this heartbreak begins to creep into your conscience. We signed up for caring and serving so we could help people and feel good helping. It’s just… there’s no way to do this and not see our own shame come to light.
There’s no way to make masks for the people in the jail and not imagine what it’s like to be incarcerated. We know people who are locked up right now! The brokenness in our criminal justice system is not just a current American social issue; it’s personal. It is impacting our own church family, the people we care for and serve. It’s impacting us.
Actually doing the work of caring and serving will break our hearts and expose our shame. It will make us have to deal with our white privilege and our economic privilege. It will make us worry about whether our efforts are hurting more than helping or whether we’ll ever be able to help enough.
You might think we rushed into this without realizing what we were getting ourselves into! If we were a brand new church, you might think we liked the idea of caring and serving without realizing what the work involved; you might think we were naive.
But oh my friends, our story is actually the opposite.
The people of Church of Peace did not accidentally sign up to take on caring and service. This work has been the heart of Church of Peace for generations. It is why we stayed in the neighborhood in Nineteen Seventy-Five. It is how we give glory to God and who we are called to be.
I’m fairly certain that we knew exactly what we were doing when this won the vote. We knew we were signing up to have our own hearts get broken by a baby in the backseat who maybe has a place to live or maybe does not… We knew we would feel ashamed by systemic injustice that directly wounds the people we care about. We’ve been at this for generations. I don’t think any of us were fooled. We knew what we were getting into, and we chose to do it anyway, and I don’t know why you voted for this to be the Year of Caring and Service. Only you know why you put your star stickers on this choice. But if I had to guess, I would say it’s because we know something else too…
As much as caring and serving exposes the horror in our world; this same work is bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. Try caring and serving for a day and you’ll see how our world is mountains and oceans away from the kingdom of heaven. But try caring and serving for a year or thirty, you’ll see a faith of a people that moves mountains. You’ll see our heartbreak is what awakens our compassion. Our shame awakens our passion for justice. You’ll see a church of people who will give the shirt off their backs because we’ve learned: When the world imposes impossible requirements, the opposite is unembarrassed generosity.
In the second scripture, we hear about a different king. This king lives in a world where he becomes one of the most vulnerable and nobody notices. The king is naked, and when some of the people see him, please consider what they don’t do. Because they don’t call the police to report him. They don’t have him thrown out of the room for violating the dress code. They do not say, If you pass a drug test, we’ll give you a shirt. If you get a job, we’ll give you some pants.
Somehow, something in these people says, We know what to do. The man is naked because he needs clothes, let’s give him some clothes! We’ll give him our coat and our shirt as well.
They changed how the story had to end, and when they changed their story, they changed their world. Now you and I know. Even if it breaks their hearts and provokes their shame, there are people in our world who choose caring, and serving, and giving because we’re not going to let impossible requirements crush the poor; we’re not going to let the violence of the status quo determine how our story ends.
Even before this world is better, there are people who choose to keep compassion in their hearts and generosity on their hands. There are people who see Jesus among those who are most in need. Not only do they see Christ, but Christ sees them, and I’m pretty sure. The Lord says, Ah. Maybe the kingdom of heaven is like this.
May it be so.