Saturday, October 11, 2014

Putting on the garment

Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

Once again, Jesus is daring the leaders of the Jewish people to do something, to change their ways. He knows they won’t, but each time he encounters them, he intensifies the pressure. It’s important to remember that this conversation occurs during Jesus’ last week. Publicly, they can’t say much, but behind the scenes, they are plotting to remove Jesus, to cast him into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. They still don’t expect that they are the ones who will be cast aside.
The first part of today’s gospel is a thinly-disguised allegory about the leaders themselves. In sending Jesus to earth, God was throwing a wedding party between God’s Son and the people of Israel. This image of God as the groom and Israel as the bride is an ancient one, an image the leaders would have been very familiar with.
All were invited to the party, starting with the leaders. But they wanted nothing to do with the party, but that did not stop the party from happening. The invitations were then sent out to all to come and join the party. And, they came, both good and bad.
The second part of the Gospel reading seems to be an addition, or at least a separate story. In this story, the guests are now at the party, and all but one person is wearing a wedding garment. This is a bit of a puzzle. If the guests at the party are the same ones that came in off the streets a few minutes ago, they would not have had time to get wedding garments, if they could even afford them. Perhaps the host of the party provided some special clothes to wear, in the same way a host will provide a party hat at a New Year’s Eve party.
We don’t know just what this garment was, but it may have been a sleeveless robe or maybe a shawl. The expectation is that all guests would wear the special garment as a sign of respect for the host and a willingness to participate in the festivities. However, there is one guest who chooses to not wear the garment, and so stands out as not really joining in the festivities. He is cast out of the party, into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.
One thought about this part of the story is that it could actually refer to the early Christian community, rather than the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time. Many people professed faith in Jesus, and so joined the party. But not all found it easy to receive God’s grace. They were too focused on doing the right rituals in the right way, for example. … Or they were causing trouble in the community by insisting on their own way instead of seeking the common good. Such individuals needed to be cast out of the group, to stop them from infecting the whole community with their discontent.
The image of the wedding garment in this story has become in Christianity the baptismal garment. In many traditions, those who come for baptism wear a white garment. This baptismal garment symbolizes the act of baptism, the forgiveness promised by God, the promises made by God to fill the candidate with the Holy Spirit, and the promises of the candidate to live a holy life in community with other Christians.
Here, we can turn to Paul for ways to live in community, ways to put on the wedding/baptismal garment. Several times in the letter to the Philippians Paul reinforces the concept of being of one mind within the community and being of the same mind as Christ.
In this section of the letter, Paul urges Euodia and Syntyche to find a way to consensus. The fact that they are mentioned means that they are important leaders in the congregation; they were coworkers with Paul. They may be deacons or teachers or even preachers. Apparently they have been having an argument that has been so disturbing to the congregation that Paul has heard of it. Probably, people within the congregation have taken sides, some agreeing that Euodia is right, others insisting that Syntyche is right. The whole congregation has been affected by their disagreement.
Paul urges them to “be of the same mind as the Lord. Let others in the community mediate between you and help you find peace, together. Do those things that bring harmony: tell the truth; be honorable; focus on purity and excellence. Find things to praise in each other. Put on the garment of Christ, and sacrifice your own needs for the benefit of all in the community.” Paul’s words then still have merit today.
A pastor shared this story: When I was in Burlington, Vermont I participated in a pulpit exchange with the local synagogue. I remember, standing with the rabbi in his study before Sabbath services, noticing on the walls of his study pictures of a number of different synagogues that had once been in Burlington. I asked the rabbi why there had been so many congregations for such a relatively small Jewish population. I thought I was going to hear about some interesting theological distinctions among the various groups. I’ll never forget the rabbi’s reply: "Well, no one seems to remember how it all started, but eventually all the divisions came down to the usual reason for such things: ‘I’m not going to worship with that [so-and-so] anymore.’"
Mike and I have an ongoing joke. We both think we are right. And we tell each other so, all the time. Most of the time, that works ok, but once in a while, one of us has to be wrong, and it’s never easy to admit that we are not right.
When we find ourselves having trouble finding a way to agree on a sensitive topic, it’s important for us all to put on the garment of Christ, the one we donned at our baptism, the one we confirmed we wanted to wear, the one we confess each week we need to have cleansed and restored.
Whether it is discussion of changing worship times, the kinds of music we sing, how much paper we use, or whether or not to purchase a new sign, we need to show up together, seek God’s wisdom together, put on the same baptismal garment and agree together on where God is leading us.  
We need to remember what each person present has done that is worthy of honor and praise and excellence. We need to remember that each person is Jesus’ sister or brother. We all need to show up for the feast, ready to join in the party and discover together what Jesus wants us to do next, where he is leading us now and into the future.
This week, when you have an interpersonal challenge, remember you are wearing a wedding/baptismal garment and so is the other person. Do whatever is honorable, praiseworthy, pure and excellent as you seek to work together toward a solution.

Please pray with me: Lord, you invite us to your party, to join in the festivities of your reign. Help us all put on the right garments, the same garments, and seek to work together for your glory.