During my early childhood my family did not attend worship services. My father was Baptist and my mother was Roman Catholic. Their spiritual differences partly explain our Sunday absence from the pews.
My introduction to Roman Catholic Mass came when I was in fourth grade. Eventually I was baptized in the Roman church and attended Catholic schools. But my early lack of a faith community did not deter my mother from buying Sunday clothes for me.
In the autumn of my third grade year my mother bought me a tan, three-piece corduroy suit. We had traveled forty miles from little Louisville to what seemed like the big city of Augusta. At Belk’s, my mother put the suit on layaway and paid for it over time. We picked it up after the final payment sometime around Thanksgiving.
That suit hung in my closet until the last day before Christmas break. Since we were having a party in our third grade class, my Old World mother encouraged me to wear the suit. I was sort of reluctant. Austrian kids might have dressed up for school parties, but the kids from rural Louisville were going to show up with blue jean legs rolled up so as not to drag the floor and brogan boots. In other words, everybody else would be wearing what I normally wore.
Not wanting to disappoint my mom, I wore the suit. If you’ve ever worn a corduroy anything, you know that the fabric is stiff when it’s new. You have to wear it quite a bit to break it in. A whole suit made of corduroy felt like a suit of medieval armor. I couldn’t properly bend my arms or my legs, so I walked sort of like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz seriously in need of his oil can.
These days, a lot of clothes and shoes come ready to wear. There’s no breaking in period, or at least not one you really notice. But some things are still like that corduroy suit. They take some breaking in. Before your repeated wearing has molded a jacket or a pair of shoes to the contours of your body, they pinch and bind and restrict your natural movements. Eventually, though, apparel folds and bends along with you. It’s like your second skin.
Now I ask you to use your imagination to invert this process. Picture a suit of clothes that, instead of conforming to the body and its habitual motions, molds your body. Something like Spanx. Only, over time these garments begin to lend a permanent new shape to your body. Muffin tops gradually give way to youthful curves. Beer bellies become chiseled abs.
That would be quite a product! It would fly off the shelves. At least, that’s what would happen initially. The first customers would soon discover that these garments are uncomfortable. They squeeze and press, cut off the circulation and make it hard to breathe. Being shaped by something beyond yourself takes time and will probably involve being stretched and cramped in turn.
Following Jesus involves just that: submitting to being stretched and cramped by something—by someone—beyond ourselves.
Jesus shapes our hearts and minds. Some seem to think that this is a purely inside-out job. Jesus changes our hearts and minds and then Christlike behavior follows naturally. But strictly speaking, that’s not how it works.
It is sometimes the case that Jesus initially touches our hearts and our minds. But even in such cases, the heart and the mind have a long way to go. Jesus works outside-in. When Jesus issues the Great Commission—make disciples of all nations—he is sending his followers on an outside-in job.
Many of us have assumed that the Great Commission instructs us to change hearts and minds so that changed lives will result. A closer look at Jesus’ teaching suggests that he wants us to change lives. Hearts and minds will follow.
You might say that Jesus offers us Spiritual Spanx. The Way of Christ is a new way of living. A way that Jesus has patterned for us. Initially, it will seem an ill-fitting suit of clothes. The life that Jesus patterns for us will cramp and stretch us in turn. And yet, over time, acting like Jesus will help us increasingly to think and to feel and to desire like Jesus.
That’s one of the lessons Jesus conveys when he relates the familiar parable of the wedding feast.
A king throws a regular wingding for his son. He invites all his friends and associates. None of them come. They’re too busy or have a better offer or just don’t care. Eventually, the king fills the dining hall with people dragged off the streets: strangers, slackers, lowlifes, wall flowers, street artists, dog walkers, mimes, and meter maids. Anybody his servants can grab.
So far so good. Everything Jesus says fits nicely with our view of the God of Grace. He invites all comers because of who he is, not because of who we are.
But the parable starts to turn dark—and to challenge our contemporary sensibilities—when the king stumbles upon an inappropriately dressed guest. Apparently, attendance at this banquet requires a customary wedding garment. This particular guest seems still to be wearing his street clothes.
You might reasonably wonder how someone who was just dragged off the street might be expected to be wearing the formal attire that the king demands. After all, mere moments before the start of the festivities the person was writing a parking ticket or annoying sidewalk diners with a mime performance. Most of us don’t carry around a tuxedo or an evening gown on the off chance that a complete stranger will suddenly drag us into a formal dinner party.
Let’s sweep this concern aside by admitting up front that Jesus is not especially concerned with historical accuracy or even dramatic coherence here. He’s trying to make a theological point, not write a newspaper account or a short story. This is a parable.
And here’s the point. God’s grace originates with God. We don’t earn it. But neither should we presume upon it. Genuinely accepting God’s invitation to be in relationship with him means submitting ourselves to being transformed by the love that he offers. In other words, accepting the invitation involves putting on Spiritual Spanx: following Christ’s example with our actions before our heart is completely in it.
Spiritual Spanx will pinch and bind each of us in different ways. Each person is born with spiritual strengths and spiritual challenges. Following Jesus’ example molds and shapes each of us in highly personalized ways.
For instance, some people are naturally compassionate. They take in every stray dog, nurse every wounded bird back to health, and stop their car on the freeway just to walk a wayward turtle safely to the other side. From birth the sonar of their hearts have picked up even the faintest signal of need, sorrow, and pain, and their actions have followed impulsively.
Others learn to feel compassion by acting compassionately. They serve in food kitchens even though they harbor the suspicion that poverty results from laziness. They visit the sick even when they hate hospitals. They join ministries in prisons and homeless shelters even though they struggle with feelings of moral superiority. Doing works of compassion gradually teaches their heart to embrace Christ in the other.
Generosity, humility, forgiveness, and kindness, moderation, courage, and patience can all grow in the same way.
These ways of living comprise the way of Christ. They are our Spiritual Spanx. We begin wearing them more or less reluctantly. And while our physical attire gradually begins to conform to our body, our spiritual apparel works in the opposite direction. Our hearts and minds begin to conform to these outward ways.
We are disciples of Christ. Jesus sends us into the world to make disciples in the same way that Jesus is making disciples of us. We invite others to join us in Christ’s own gracious way of living: the way of justice and mercy, the way of humility and forgiveness, the way of peace and compassion. Hearts and minds will follow in time. Theirs and ours.
This sermon was preached at St. Michael’s in Pineville, Louisiana.