October 15, 2017
Matthew 22:1-14, Exodus 32:1-14
“What are You Going to Wear?”
On our refrigerator, we have a magnet with two nuns wearing habits. One says to the other, “What are you wearing tomorrow?” It is interesting how much energy we can spend on wearing the right clothes even though in the gospel of Luke Jesus tells us specifically not to worry about what we will wear. That seems to be in direct contrast to the reading from Matthew.
There always seems to be a line that jumps out of scripture for me. This week, I got stuck on the guy who didn’t wear the right clothes and is cast out into some terrible place. I grew up in a place where it mattered what you wore to church. I still have some residue of that, but I honestly don’t care what you wear to church. I just care what I wear to church. Tuesday I wore jeans, hiking boots, and a Church baseball cap to work at the balloon fiesta to raise money for the church. We got out late and I didn’t have time to go home and change clothes like I had planned. I came to church dressed like that. I went to visit a family dressed like that. I felt like I needed to apologize all day. I don’t think anyone cared but me, but I had read the scripture for this morning and I knew the guy got cast out for wearing the wrong clothing. I think it got under my skin a little bit.
What could possibly be the point of being cast out for wearing the wrong outfit?? I’m guessing the part about welcoming more and more people at the table when the original people invited snubbed the wedding isn’t too hard to grasp. We know God wants us to widen our welcome. That isn’t news. But what’s with all the violence? Not only did those invited chose to not to come to the wedding, they killed the messengers. Then the king becomes enraged and burns their city. Assuming the king is supposed to represent God, what in the world can this story teach us?
Let’s back up a bit. In the Exodus story, Moses has been gone for too long and the people give up on him. They don’t know if he’s coming back and they decide they need to take matters into their own hands. They conspire with Aaron who takes all their gold and makes them a calf to worship. Now God is mad! What is the number one commandment? One God. Period. No golden calves. Forget the other commandments. They can’t even get the first one. God is tired of them. They just complain and disobey and don’t even TRY to observe the one commandment. So God tells Moses that they will be destroyed. Moses implores God to give up this plan and it works. God’s mind is changed.
How many of you think of God as one whose mind is changed? That isn’t typically the first thing we think about God. But here is God who is over the top angry and ready to obliterate these disrespectful people being convinced to give up that plan after all.
You and I know that it is not easy to change. Have you ever tried to change a habit? Have you gone on a diet and found yourself at a party with wonderful food? Tried to give up smoking, but couldn’t stop thinking about cigarettes? Did you try and drive the speed limit only to look down and find that you are going too fast? Did you give up swearing until you smashed your thumb? Did you try and stop watching so much tv, but found yourself in front of the screen the following evening because the new show was too good to miss? Did you give up something for Lent and find that you had already forgotten by the second day? Did you decide to pray every day only to find yourself too busy to actually do it?
We know it is hard to change. We know the desire to change and we know that it is simply easier NOT to change. Yet, the story from Exodus is the story of God being fed up with the people, ready to write them off, and then changing. I find that powerful. If God can change, and we are made in the image of God, then we have the potential to change. As I continued to read about the man cast out in Matthew, I realized that it wasn’t about his outfit, it was about his refusal to change. He refused to be shaped and molded by God. Yes, he showed up and ate the food, but he wouldn’t allow himself to be changed.
Several years ago, I read Stephanie Spellers book Radical Welcome: Embracing God, the Other, and the Spirit of Transformation. She talked about the tendency in the church to welcome people to come in and be like us. She describes radical welcome as inviting people to come and change the community by their presence. True welcome means more than you can come here. It means you can bring your whole self here and we will allow ourselves to be changed by you.
I think that message is in this story. We have the opportunity to say, “We don’t just want God to show up here. We will allow ourselves to be changed by God.”
Leonard Sweet preached a sermon on this text in which he talked about Woody Allen’s famous quote “Eighty percent of life is just showing up.” He said Allen is wrong because eighty percent of life is what we do AFTER we show up. He’s right about that. Standing at an altar and taking vows is not a marriage. It is the beginning of a marriage, but a real marriage happens in the ups and downs and ordinary and extraordinary moments AFTER taking vows. G. K. Chesterton used to say that “Just going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than standing in your garage makes you a car.” (https://www.sermons.com/sermon/god-enjoys-and-enjoins-us/1456984)
We are being challenged NOT to have the right wardrobe, but to have the right heart. We are called to open our hearts to be changed by God. We are called to leave differently than we came. We are called to allow God to grow in us. I still think you can wear what you want, but we need to allow God to change us from the inside out.
Shirley MacLaine starred in a movie called “The Last Word.” She plays Harriet, a controlling, lonely, wealthy woman who decides to pay Anne, the obituary writer for the local newspaper to write her obituary so she can approve it before her death. Harriet has burned every bridge she ever crossed. She gives Anne a long list of names to get quotes and Anne cannot find one person to say anything nice about Harriet. Harriet realizes she will have to do something if she is going to get the obituary she wants so she sets out to mentor a young girl named Brenda. She becomes a disc jockey at the local radio station. She takes a road trip to see her estranged daughter. She may be doing these things for the wrong reasons, but she is changed by her relationship with Anne and Brenda. She takes an honest look at herself and along the way (maybe accidentally), she discovers her heart opening in ways that surprise everyone, including Harriet.
When we hear the gospel reading today, it sounds like the story of a vindictive God who casts us out when we don’t conform. But what if the message is that refusing to allow ourselves to be changed by God or one another results in our being alienated from the community?
Some of us will say that it is just too hard. We may find ourselves stretched beyond our comfort zone (usually a good sign that God is involved somehow). We may wish to just stand on the edge and watch. But God invites us to enter life with our whole being with a guarantee that it will be messy and difficult. But there are treasures to be found in the transformation.
You are invited to participate in a Living Room Conversation in the next few weeks. It is easy to be too busy to come. It is also possible that we don’t want to talk at a heart level about immigration, but I believe it can be really healing for us to listen to one another. There is no agenda to change anyone’s mind. It is to really hear where we are on this issue. In listening to one another, we may find our own hearts opening a bit. I believe that is God’s desire for us. I don’t think God cares what you wear, but I do think that God cares that our community be open to transformation.
I spent some time this week with one of our longtime members who told me that she loved our church because it changed with the times and moved on rather than retreating into a corner and building a wall. She had some advice for us: listen. Listen. Listen.
If we can listen with open hearts, we can be sure that God is with us. We may not always be comfortable, but we will find ourselves becoming more like Jesus. Don’t worry about what clothes you will wear.