+In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit+
My friends in Christ, when I first read this Gospel and began preparation for this sermon, my initial thought was, “Thank God, we’re out of the vineyard for a while!” Recall that the past few Sunday’s Gospel stories have taken place in a vineyard…a change of location, as Martha Stewart might say, is a good thing! As I studied this pericope, in my mind I began to wonder whether the son in this story is the same prodigal son we read about in the Gospel several weeks ago. Then I began to worry because this is a harsh, difficult Gospel story. It’s very unpleasant…and I’m reminded of an apocryphal story among deacons that on one Sunday when this lesson was read and the deacon was to preach, the deacon read the Gospel, and walked to the pulpit, crossed herself, paused for a few moments, then quietly said, “Eeewwwww…” and returned to her seat.
Have you ever found yourself sitting there in your pew listening to a lesson, or standing there listening to the Gospel, and suddenly you want to say, “Hold on, deacon…stop! I need to hear that again. I can’t believe what I just heard you read…”? This is that kind of lesson. It throws a person off kilter. We expect “warm fuzzy” Jesus and we get harsh words.
It’s tough to hear, and it’s tough to preach on. I came this close to calling Ron on Friday and saying, “Ron, my brother, I can’t preach this lesson? Want to swap Gospels?” I couldn’t. I knew he’d remind me of how much he struggled with last week’s sermon.
So I turned to the commentaries, my pals on the Internet, and God. I said, “God…help me here. Give me something. Hit me with a two-by-four, I don’t care. I need something to sink my teeth into. I need to have an answer to the question I ask every time I preach: ‘What does this lesson mean for us, today?’”
Well, God gave me an answer. Being an ornery deacon, I had to argue with God. “Don’t do that to me, God. This is supposed to be a sermon, not a comedy routine.” God was serious as a crutch, so here goes:
In my opinion, today’s Gospel lesson is about a comfortable, old pair of shoes.
I’m not talking about “dress-up shoes” or “Sunday-go-to-meeting’” shoes. I mean a pair of good old everyday shoes.
For some of you older folks they might be a comfortable, warm pair of slippers you put on when your feet start hurting. For some of you younger folks they might be a pair of Nike’s or Doc Martens. For me it’s a pair of Birkenstock’s. Whether it’s my sandals or my clogs, when I put on my Birkie’s I’m in Heaven. For me, when I get home from work or leave here on Sundays, I can’t wait to get home, get out of this collar and suit, and put on my Birkie’s and my black leather jacket.
Now, some clothes just seem to “fit” better than others. You feel better when you wear them…like my leather jacket. But just because some clothes are comfortable, it doesn’t mean they are always appropriate. I think we can all agree that it wouldn’t have been appropriate to show up in Saint Louis two weeks ago for Sheila and Brian’s wedding reception wearing a pair of house slippers or some Nike’s or a pair of Birkenstock sandals.
Having said all that, I think that the Gospel we just heard about some fellow getting thrown out of a wedding banquet for not wearing the proper clothes leaves most of us feeling just a bit uncomfortable.
Part of it has to do with the way the story opens. In today’s parable, some king desperately wants guests to fill the wedding hall. He sends out servants to invite anyone who is available to attend the wedding…this is the cool part…it doesn’t matter who you are and it doesn’t matter where you’ve come from. But when the party begins, it suddenly becomes a big deal about what kind of clothes you wear.
Doesn’t make a lot sense, does it?
One of my online pals makes an interesting comparison between this parable and a book by CS Lewis called “The Great Divorce.” Listen to what my friend wrote me:
The book by Lewis is a fascinating story, an allegory, actually, about our relationship with God (the title, “The Great Divorce,” refers not to a marriage of a man and a woman, but rather to Original Sin, which has driven a wedge between humanity and God).
The books open with a scene where a number of people are simply standing around a large room. It turns out they are in the waiting room of heaven. Just beyond the other side of the door is the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem. It’s the place they always wanted to go, but now that they are there, they have to accept the fact that God has indeed saved them; that God has forgiven every sin of theirs and has a tremendous reward waiting for them.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, for some of the people in that waiting room, that fact that God has done all this becomes a serious problem for them.
This is how CS Lewis sets it up: before leaving the room and stepping into heaven, everyone needs to put on “the armor of salvation.” But some of them prefer their old, everyday clothes. One of them, actually, is very well dressed, but he’s not willing to remove the jacket of his achievements and accomplishments. Eventually he disappears into the small, dark hole of his egotism.
Another man, a young man, is standing in the corner and a slimy, red lizard perches on his shoulder. You get the sense that it represents some sin of lust. Well, this man hates this creature but at the same time, it has become so much a part of him that he refuses to knock it off his shoulder in order to put on the new armor.
When an angel approaches offering to kill the ugly thing, the young man resists, saying that if it is killed, he’s not sure if he could survive. He hates it but he’s not sure he can live without it.
As the angel urges him on, the young guy, trembling and fearful, finally let’s go of the lizard crying out, “God help me! God help me!” and with that a fierce battle takes place! As the angel tangles with the lizard, the reptile is suddenly into a glorious horse.
Here is how the man in the story describes it: “What stood before us was the greatest stallion anyone had ever seen, silvery white, but with mane and tail of gold. The young man turned and leaped on the horse. Turning in his seat he waved a farewell, and then nudged the stallion with his heels…they both soar off, like shooting stars, toward the green mountains of heaven.”
I thank my friend immensely, because that’s a great story.
What that story…and this Gospel…convey to me is this: the young man finally clothed himself with Christ. Having nothing of his own, not even his past sins to cling to, he put his complete trust in God and traded his garment of shame for the robe of the King.
My friends in Christ, this is precisely how St. Paul describes the sacrament of baptism! If we are baptized in Christ, says Paul, we must be clothed with Christ.
Have you been called by Christ? Yes.
Have you been invited to the banquet of heaven? Yes.
Does it matter what you wear? Not really. Just make sure that when you show up, you’re “decked out”…”decked out” with Christ.