Just having finished creating the website for our church (check it out at ccocleominster.org!), Linda and I spent time writing a welcoming statement. It says something like this...” We want you to come just as you are. When you walk through our doors you may see people in suits and ties, but you will also see people in jeans and t-shirts. We want to make sure when you visit you are comfortable and that is all that matters to us.” It just doesn’t seem that important anymore what you wear to church.
Now it’s true that there was a time when it was much more important what you wore to church. As a little girl, I remember my “Sunday go to meeting” clothes. Almost a party dress, complete with shiny black patent leather shoes, white ankle socks and white cotton gloves. And a hat on Easter Sunday. Definitely.
Slacks were definitely out for women in those days. I remember one snowy Christmas Eve, it must have been in the late 60’s, when my Grandmother Nell Smith wore a polyester pantsuit to the Christmas Eve service at Church. A POLYESTER PANTSUIT!!! It was green, if I remember correctly. Imagine that...shocking! Thankfully, she was a guest at our church that evening, and we, the congregation, were very gracious hosts, it was snowing outside and Christmas Eve, after all...allowances could be made, but REALLY...what was she thinking!
It seems ridiculous now, doesn’t it? We’ve relaxed our dress codes quite a bit these days. So what’s all this in the parable about the King throwing out an invited wedding guest because he wasn’t wearing a wedding robe?
Let me put it another way...do we have any expectations here? Shift from thinking literally about the clothes that we’re wearing and think of it more like...the attitudes we’re wearing, or the behaviors we’re sporting. Paul wrote about putting on the “armor of light” in his letter to the Romans (Romans 13:12), and in his words to the Galatians, he said that in baptism we are “clothed with Christ.”
So what does that look like, actually? Putting on the armor of Christ? Paul gives us a pretty good picture, I think. The armor of light, being clothed with Christ looks a lot like love. Paul beautifully describes it in his words from 1 Corinthians 13 when he says, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Going back to our welcoming message on the website, I do believe that God’s invitation—our invitation—should include a radical welcome. God knows us and loves us, just as we are. The invitation to each of us is to come, whoever and wherever you are on life’s journey, come and you will be welcomed.
Yet, if we’re honest, while we might have relaxed our expectations about polyester pantsuits and white cotton gloves, there is an expectation that we will strive to clothe ourselves with the garments of love that Paul has so beautifully described. Or that we, as Christians on the journey together, will strive to clothe ourselves with these things.
Will we always live up to these expectations, absolutely not. So we must also be adorned with compassion and forgiveness, and I suppose that bright scarf of patience comes in handy, too. Striving and supporting one another to be clothed in this way...putting on our “wedding robes’ as invited guests to the banquet. As the guests who walk in the door, and as hosts who welcome them.
At Coventry Cathedral in England, a message welcomes guest upon entering the sanctuary. It reads... “We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, straight, gay, confused, well-heeled or down-at-heel. We especially welcome wailing babies and excited toddlers. We welcome you whether you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself. You're welcome here if you're just browsing, just woken up or just got out of prison. We don't care if you're more Christian than the Archbishop of Canterbury or haven't been to church since Christmas 10 years ago. We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet and to teenagers who are growing up too fast.
“We welcome keep-fit moms, football dads, starving artists, tree huggers, latte sippers, vegetarians, junk food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you're having problems, are down in the dumps or don't like organized religion. We're not that keen on it either. We offer welcome to those who think the Earth is flat, work too hard, don't work, can't spell, or are here because Granny is visiting and wanted to come to the cathedral. We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither.
“We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throats as kids or got lost on the Ring Road and wound up here by mistake. We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters and you.”
The Cathedral’s Canon Pastor Kathryn Fleming explained the welcome like this. “For us at Coventry, our core calling is reconciliation. Our cathedral was bombed in 1940, and a new cathedral was built around the premise that we would work for peace and reconciliation. But our core message was not Father forgive them, but Father forgive all of us who mess up day by day. So it's about being a place where people can leave their differences at the door and come into conversation with one another and with God.”(1)
What to wear? A welcome like that to the banquet table of God comes with an invitation to be clothed in the armor of light, clothed with Christ, adorned in love.
(1) Rita Nakashima Brock, “The courage to Choose/The Commitment to be Chosen,” in And Blessed is She: Sermons by Women.