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Put On the Garment

Bart Smith

October 9, 2011
Matthew 22:1-14

10-09-2011 Sermon It is indeed a privilege to be standing in the pulpit this morning. My name is Bart and I have had the pleasure of working and growing alongside the youth of this church for just over a year. Now I also serve on staff as the seminary intern, keeping one foot in the parish and the other in the classroom. I am here to learn from you and dip one toe in the “real world” of congregational life after two years of theological education. Some of you I already know; others I hope to get the opportunity to meet. I appreciate this opportunity, so thank you.

Our second reading comes from the 22nd chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew:

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again, he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

One thing that I should claim loudly and clearly as we explore the Parable of the Wedding Banquet is that I am a soon-to-be groom. My fiancée and I were engaged in early August and since then have been immersed in planning for “the big day.” It is a peculiar process, this wedding planning. So many details need sorting out! At first, I was chanting the mantra: “Honey, this is our day; it’s about the two of us.” I am quickly learning that it is… and it isn’t. Each of the major players has a particular stake in the event.  If you are wondering how the planning is going, you would get very different answers if you asked the mother of the bride or one of my groomsmen. How the experience of the wedding is characterized depends on whom you ask. Your perception of the event depends on where exactly you are in the story.

Parables similarly have their angles. How they are understood depends on one’s perspective. Much to our frustration, Jesus was not always blunt; he told parables instead. He did not just say, “The Kingdom of God is that realm of God’s presence where love and justice are the norm.” He told a story. Parables convey truths in dynamic ways. They allow us to hold multiple, layered meanings at the same time. Parables are multifaceted and there are many ways to approach them. Each one is as hiking up a mountain: our experience of it depends of the trail we choose. One pathway leads us through a dense forest and another alongside a babbling stream. Still another steadily winds us horizontally against the mountain’s face. Each trail takes us in a different direction, offering us a particular perspective of the mountain’s geography. Yet, whichever footpath we choose, we still journey on the same mountain.

So it is with Matthew’s version of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet: it is marvelous and intimidating. It elicits certain emotions when we first approach. It is frustrating; why do these guests refuse the invitation of a king? It is appalling: why shoot the messengers carrying the invitation? But then it uplifts us: everyone is invited, “both good and bad”! But then there’s the startling and offensive ending… who is cast out for a mere fashion faux pas? That’s just not fair. If this parable is like a mountain, it has some very windy and complicated trails.

But we are drawn to this text for a reason, surely, so let us walk along some of these paths. The first is allegorical. This vantage point offers us at least some clarity. The characters and images have their counterparts in human history. The image of a grand banquet is used elsewhere in Scripture as the practice of ancient kings giving feasts for their subjects was quite common. The cast in this case is clear: the king is God, the King’s son is Jesus, the guests are the same lot as the wicked tenants in the previous parable, the destruction of the city alludes to Jerusalem’s demise at the hands of the Romans after Jesus’ ascension, and the slaves who compel “both good and bad” are the Christian evangelists to the gentiles. The parable is yet another manifestation of Jesus’ and the disciples conflict with the Jewish leadership. Israel was invited first, the gentiles second, and the person at the end demonstrates that, why everyone is invited to the kingdom of god, it also requires acceptance and responsible participation. This explanation seems simple enough and helps us grasp some basic elements of the parable.

Yet, there is still a rock in our shoe and something is lacking. This king seems very temperamental and reacts harshly, especially to the dress code violator. This angle does not speak immediately to the grace and generosity of god that are cornerstones of our theology. Furthermore, if this is an allegory for Israel, the parable runs the risk of inspiring anti-Judaism sentiments and Christian haughtiness: Israel got it wrong, the church got it right. We only have to look at history to see down which dark paths this view can lead us. With this interpretation, those lingering feelings of shock and disturbance remain in tact. We still are left to reconcile the idea of the reign of god being a free, loving gift for all with “many are called, but few are chosen.” this path is difficult and potentially treacherous.

A more relatable and imaginative trail is approaching the parable through the eyes of the one caught without the wedding robe.  Put yourself in his shoes, pardon the clothing-related pun. How much would you hate being that guy? Through a twist of good fortune, you make it to the social event of the century and you are without the proper attire. Let us put the situation in contemporary terms. The mayor of New York invites the political and social elite of the city to a black-tie gala, an event of historic proportions on the Upper East Side. But they don’t RSVP. Moreover, they disrespect the mayor’s staff when they hand-deliver another invitation. Furious as ever, the mayor sends the staff to the occupy Wall Street demonstrations to scrounge up the swarms of protesters who have been camping out in the same clothes since Wednesday. You’re one of them. You get into the gala! But wait, you are inappropriately dressed. No tuxedo, not even a modest navy blazer. Security “escorts” you up from the table, across the dance floor, past the kitchen, and through the exit, into the pitch-black alley out back where god-only-knows-what goes on. A celebration, the likes of which the world has never seen, is happening and you are on the outside.

This is an interesting angle, but its modern spin misses something crucial. It was historic practice in the days of the parable for the host of such an event to provide the proper garment at the door. If both trails we have taken led us in a sound direction, we can still situate a gracious god, a radically inclusive celebration, and even ourselves within this parable. The reign of god has come near and all are invited. For sure, many reject the welcome, offering excuses and rebuffing the invitation even to the point of violence. The guest list may surprise us; “both good and bad” fill the wedding hall. The good news is that you and I are there too, clothed in the garment of our baptism.

We make it in to the greatest party ever known, with the Creator as the host and Christ as the guest of honor. If there were ever a need for trumpets and halleluiahs, now is the time!

So, we are admitted to the banquet and are styled accordingly. That works for spiritual comfort and assurance of the providence and generosity of god today, but what does that mean for Monday morning? What does this metaphorical wedding robe look like? Scanning the New Testament, I think it looks like Paul’s encouragement to the sisters and brothers in the church at Colossae. Paul writes:

“(2) 2when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of god, who raised him from the dead… (3) 12 as god’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”

I have seen plenty of “putting on of the robe” among the church at San Antonio street in Austin.

We wear the garment each time one of us volunteers with “Bridge to Worship.” We don our banquet-best we serve food and pray with those at “Uplift” or visit the homebound. Outside these walls, we sport the apparel of our baptism when we cover a shift for the coworker who has just too much on her plate or when we let go of a longstanding grudge with a family member. We “clothe ourselves with love” when we show hospitality to the foreigner in our midst.

This glorious banquet is all around us. There are endless opportunities in each moment to dress ourselves for the occasion. All are invited and the robe is already given. The only way we are missing out is by stubbornly refusing, which we can and have been known to do. But who would want to miss a party like that? Plus, the host is very persistent with the invitation, even to the point of a cross and an empty tomb. Thanks be to God.