Please enjoy and reflect on the sermon given October 15, 2017. Do these words speak to you? Consider visiting our community of worship on Sundays at 10:00 am, 1301 South Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21230.
Dressed for Dinner
Proper 23a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe… +
Have you ever gone to a restaurant and found that you were, as the signs outside some say, not wearing “proper attire?” This can be either mildly annoying or intensely embarrassing! Some fancy restaurants keep a stock of ties or sports jackets on hand for the sake of gentlemen who show up lacking one or the other. Snooty they may be, but they are not so foolish as to lose business by turning away customers.
Few things can make one feel more embarrassed than being improperly dressed for an occasion. And there are times when it can be more than an embarrassment. It can be a matter of life and death. I happened to see one such case on TV. It’s not the kind of show I really care to watch; not because it’s violent — I mean, I like a good action picture — but unlike the tales of Bond or Bourne, this was real, and I don’t like the idea of real tragedy being transformed into entertainment.
The video starts calmly enough. You see a group of skydivers jumping from a plane; and the camera follows them because the cameraman is one of them. As they descend towards the distant ground they do an ariel ballet in lovely patterns, then one by one open their chutes and disappear, plucked up out of frame. But then, something goes wrong. The camera starts to shake uncontrollably, then starts tumbling and twisting dizzily as it plummets to the ground; as it spins it catches glimpses of a terrified man twisting in the air. In the excitement of filming, the cameraman forgot his parachute. The most important thing to wear, the thing that would have saved his life is still sitting up on the plane, where it can do him no good.
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Yes, indeed, what you wear can save your life. In today’s gospel we have just such a story of how serious proper dress can be. This isn’t just any old dinner party; this is a royal wedding banquet. And here is one of the guests sitting, as it were, in cutoff shorts, a tank-top, and flip flops. No wonder he is speechless when the king confronts him! What can he say? Out into the darkness he goes, there to weep and gnash his teeth.
As with many of Jesus’ parables, it doesn’t seem fair. This guy hadn’t been invited the first time around. He hadn’t asked to be invited the second time around. Yet he is treated as if he deliberately chose — with full notice and plenty of opportunity, as if he had received an engraved invitation stating what proper dress would be — chose to come to the wedding without the proper attire. So what is this parable all about? In particular, what is this wedding robe, and what makes it so important?
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First let me note that few of Jesus’ parables are“allegories” — stories where each character or object symbolizes some definite thing. Most of his parables are not like that; they are meant just to make a single point, a single analogy. And while some of Christ’s parables, such as that of the seed on the different kind of soils, which we heard earlier this year, are allegorical, today’s parable is somewhere in between: a string of analogies rather than a strict allegory. For example, those who refuse to accept the king’s invitation represent those who refuse the Word of God. It may well be that the ones who kill the messengers, and have their city burned as punishment, are analogous to the leaders who refused to heed the prophets and whose hardness of heart, according to Jewish tradition, led to the capture of Jerusalem and its destruction in the days of Jeremiah.
In the second part of the parable, the church is, as so often, portrayed as a banquet with open doors, where all are invited to join in the feast. But here’s where the wedding robe comes in — the heavenly banquet hall is not a fast food franchise. It is serious business, this kingdom of heaven. And the wedding robe represents the clothing from above, the new self that is put on in Christ, the suitable attire for the kingdom. One who sits at the Lord’s table is expected to have been clothed anew with the white robe of baptism, the robe that covers all our other clothing, just as Christ’s death covers all our sins. A few of us, on Sunday, literally do wear that ancient white baptismal robe — the ministers who serve at the altar — you can see them dressed in these long white robes. In the early church, that was the kind of robe they, out of modesty, put on people as they were baptized. People still dress babies in a little white suit, or a little white gown for their baptism, don’t they? My experience in performing such baptisms has been that there’s sometimes more fabric than baby! The white robe the ministers wear is a relic of the dress-code for the royal wedding. It represent new life that begins in baptism, the new self that is reborn in Christ.
For Christ has removed the old clothing, the shroud of death that covered all nations — he has swallowed up death for ever. And instead of that old winding cloth, that old shroud, he has given us this new garment of life free to anyone who wants it. That’s why the man gets into trouble: that’s why the man without a wedding robe had no excuse. God’s banquet is like one of those restaurants that keeps a supply of neckties and jackets to provide for anyone who comes to the door not wearing one — there is no excuse for anyone not to abide by that dress code. The waters of baptism are available to all without cost, flowing freely for all of humanity — available — but not just “available” for Jesus wants all nations to be baptized in those waters, as he sends out his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, telling them, Go and baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The church received those marching orders, and it has a mandate to go to all the world, to open the doors and invite everyone in, in to the baptismal waters, and through them to the heavenly banquet.
To be baptized into God’s righteousness: That is what it means to be properly dressed for God’s table. It’s not about the clothes you wear, it’s about the new life that comes from above. As that great old prayer says, “We do not presume to come to this thy table
trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” Those manifold and great mercies take the form of the wedding robe of baptism, which all are invited to put on. The chiefest mercy is the gift of grace through the death of Jesus Christ our Lord, into whom we are buried in baptism, with whom we share in this heavenly banquet, and in whom we rise to everlasting life, dead only with his death that we may live with his life. We dare to approach this table, rejoicing in the Lord always, because we are clothed in the wedding robe of baptism, our participation in God’s new creation. He but speaks the word, and our soul is healed.
Clothed in the new garment of the baptismal self — more than proper attire; more than a jacket and tie, more than a tuxedo — even more than a parachute! — but clothed in the uniform of the blessed children of God, the robe of state of the royal people of God, the vestment of salvation — it is being clothed with Christ. Beloved sisters and brothers, however else we may appear to be clothed, in our ordinary clothes or in our Sunday best, or in these ancient relics of earlier days, however we are dressed in physical clothing, let us give thanks to God that we wear as well the wedding robe of baptism. It is the garment whose one size fits all, and is given away for free — but nonetheless is fit and proper for those who join the chorus of praise at the Lamb’s High Feast, the king’s great wedding banquet. Happy are all who are called to this supper.+