Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Christian dress code, and no tweed in sight: Matthew 22.1-14

Many are called, but few are chosen.” +In nomine...
If I accused people of making a fuss about their clothes, you might say I was something of a pot calling a kettle a culinary tool. My wardrobe has been compared to Mr Benn’s shop, where the eponymous children’s cartoon character of the early 1980s used to dress up in an infinite array of costumes to go out and engage in more or less thrilling adventures. Heaven forfend that anyone here should ever find themselves hiding in my wardrobe, but if you did, you would find an Aladdin’s closet of kilts, uniforms, cassocks, gowns, suits and dresses – the last, I hasten to add, belong to my wife.
We are, of course, sinners all, and one my less cardinal failings may be a touch of sartorial vanity, but do I like to be able to dress properly for any occasion. Yet there are those who do not. Our dear leader Mr Brown has stirred controversy in City circles by refusing to wear black tie to formal dinners. Doubtless following the advice of his PR team, he knows well that his choice of outer dress is an important indicator of his inner convictions and intentions. I imagine he is told that the dinner suit and bow tie represent a lifestyle which alienates him from his electorate; while his two-piece lounge suit and straight tie are presumably meant to show a workaday man of the people.
Sadly for the Prime Minister, though, today’s Gospel does seem to stress the importance of reading one’s party invites carefully and dressing as they demand. A man arrives at the feast of the kingdom of God inappropriately attired and is promptly ejected by an angelic bouncer; because our dress does show our convictions and intentions, it is an indicator of our inner attitudes, attitudes which include respect for our host. After all, you wouldn’t turn up to a relative’s funeral wearing a clown costume; you would be unwise to respond to the ominous call of the Proctor by entering his office wearing a latex one-piece body suit; and you would not dare go into certain nightclubs wearing jeans or trainers. So far, then, it’s one to me and nil to Gordon Brown – for if we go to such an effort to dress properly even in respect of such worldly hosts, how much more so should we ensure sartorial propriety in the face of God himself! So today I want us to think about what dress code we find on the invitation to the Kingdom of Heaven; but before that, I want to look at exactly to whom it is offered.
According to the parable here in Matthew, at first only a few are invited. But then, when they prove themselves unworthy, the King sends his slaves out to invite everyone to the banquet. The words of our O.T. reading from Isaiah confirm the universality of this invitation: the Lord has made a feast for all peoples, he will swallow up death for all nations, wipe the tears from all faces and take away the disgrace of all the earth. Let us be quite clear, then, that God’s call to Heaven is not an exclusive invitation, not a party restricted to the spiritual equivalent of rich kids wearing some kind of holy Prada or Gucci. All are welcome to the feast, all are invited, if they will only accept the invitation – and read its instructions carefully.
Perhaps the best explanation of a proper Christian dress code is given by St Paul in Col 3 – not when he’s going on about women covering their hair and what have you, but when he tells us to clothe ourselves in Christ. Clothe our selves, our souls, in Christ. Let me tell you what I think this means. To clothe ourselves in Christ is to clothe ourselves in that God who is Christ, and who in his deepest nature is love itself. To clothe ourselves in Christ is to immerse ourselves in the depths of God’s boundless love. And so, I think, God has planted the invitation to his Kingdom in every human heart; an invitation the baby receives in the first touch and glance of his mother, an invitation hidden in a lover’s smile, an invitation we all receive whenever anyone tells us or shows us that we matter to them. The invitation to the Kingdom is an invitation to love, to love God and to love each other.
So, we have all received the invitation. We have read the dress code: clothe yourself in Christ, immerse yourself in God’s love. Now we must respond, we must RSVP, and we must learn to dress ourselves as God demands. But the irony of this dress code is that, like a toddler struggling with a tricky jumper, we cannot in fact dress ourselves. By our own efforts, we cannot make ourselves fit for the Kingdom. Rather, God’s dress code requires a sort of spiritual nudism: we must bare ourselves to God and allow him to clothe us in his love. The way, I suggest, to do this is through prayer, through letting go of our selves, through closing our eyes and opening our souls to God’s loving will. A daily and varied routine of contemplative prayer, I promise you, is one of life’s greatest joys, and Fr Hugh or any of the chapel assistants can offer you support in developing your prayer life whenever you are ready. Do not underestimate its value: prayer is the loving response to God’s loving invitation, and it is through choosing to bare your soul in prayer that you allow God to clothe you for his feast.
But if my sermon ended there, it would seem rather self-absorbed. So far, I have talked only about receiving and responding to God’s invitation as an individual, as if the invitation is given out to you or me exclusively. This is not so. The Kingdom of God is a community, and it would be a pretty miserable banquet if only the in-set, the elect few were able to attend, leaving the rest outside the gates. Just as the dress code counter-intuitively demands that we denude ourselves, so the very idea of an invitation as something exclusive is turned on its head: rather, this invitation is viral, like a chain e-mail that we are told to pass on to our whole address list. Remember, the invitation is love, and love is self-giving. If we stopped at loving God and basking in his love for us, that would be little short of spiritual onanism; but rather than keeping it to ourselves, we are called to pass God’s love on, and so perpetuate God’s invitation to the ends of the earth. And doesn’t this fit rather well with Jesus’ Great Commandment: love God, and love your neighbour – for in learning the love of God, we learn to love each other. In submitting ourselves to the pattern of love that God wills for all Creation, we become instruments of his love. We become not just well-dressed recipients, but also heralds of God’s invitation to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let me make the point one last time. This is not just an esoteric, other-worldly matter. Do not think that Christ is just talking about your individual salvation. God’s love calls us not only to work towards the Kingdom beyond, but also to help build it here on earth. So you can put away your posh frock for now; rather, wear your spiritual clothing straight away. Show the world what we Christians are made of, show the world that we are made of love, show that love to everyone you meet, and you are already responding to the invitation, already meeting the dress code.
Many are called, but few are chosen.” Well, let’s see what we can do about that.

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