October 15, 2017 19th Sunday of Pentecost
Exodus: 32: 1-14 Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14
One of the techniques for writing a sermon is to read a Bible story and then to think: Who am I in the Bible story? For instance, for the story of the King’s Wedding Banquet you might feel, if you are the boss of a company, that you are the King. If you’re the type of person who has a very hectic life, you might feel that you are one of the wedding guests who refused to go in the first place. If you are not in a very good situation in life, you might feel or hope that you are one of the people invited the second time around. All of us might feel like all of those people, depending on our situation in our lives when we encounter the story.
But there is one odd character in this story: The character of the guest who didn’t have a wedding robe.
I was wondering why the wedding robe was so important, especially in an era when people didn’t have that many clothes to begin with. I have a few outfits in my closet that I only wear for special occasions like weddings. (And isn’t sort of silly of our culture that the stuff we wear the least is the stuff that costs the most?) But in Jesus’ day, the majority of people only had one or two sets of clothing – comprised of a tunic and an outer sleeveless, or short sleeved, robe that was your jacket – which you alternated wearing. If you were poor you only had one set and if you were REALLY poor you probably only had a tunic.
If the king had invited all the leftover people from the streets to come into the banquet, both the good and the bad (or the rich and the poor as it is said in the Gospel Luke) he couldn’t expect everyone to be at their best dressed for a wedding. But because Jesus didn’t throw out some obscure symbols in his teaching – he was dealing with stuff that people knew about – I did a little research into this wedding robe bit.
It turns out that just like we give little gifts to our wedding guests, they also did that back in Jesus’ time. Of course if you were an ordinary person you weren’t expected to do much more than serve a nice dinner. But if you had the money to give a gift to everyone invited you probably would; it was a status symbol thing. And if you were really wealthy you gave your guests one of those outer sleeveless robes. Apparently this served two purposes. First of all, it showed that you had the money in a time when material was not cheap and you were willing to pay to have all those robes made. And second, the servants would hand the robes out to the invited guests at the door, who would put on the robes, thereby indicating that they were approved guests. Apparently this cut down on gate-crashers. Those who didn’t have a robe would be thrown out.
Of course it makes sense that a king would be giving out robes for his son’s wedding, because he has all the wealth of the kingdom at his disposal. But while the king is walking through the banquet he notices a person who is not wearing a robe. Now this is odd because the servants went out into the street and gathered up everyone, and I can’t imagine a servant not giving this particular guest a wedding robe – everyone else was wearing one after all. The only explanation for the wedding robe not being worn is that the guest never put it on in the first place, might have taken it off because he didn’t like it, or it wasn’t convenient for him to wear it.
When the king confronts the man about not wearing the robe the man is speechless.
So now we have another set of questions to ask: Why did the man not wear the robe or take it off, and why is he unable to give a good answer to the king who gave him the robe in the first place? This is when we start to get into the parallels between the Kingdom of Heaven and the wedding banquet.
Who is admitted into the wedding banquet? Everyone, both good and bad. Who does Jesus admit into his Kingdom? Everyone, both people who are righteous AND people who are sinners, like prostitutes and tax collectors. (Socially and morally the prostitute was the lowest sort of female and the tax collector was the lowest sort of male.) To get into the wedding feast you have to put on the new robe that the king gives you. To get into God’s Kingdom we are required to accept God’s commandments and to live a new life the way He wants us to live, not the way we want to live. This image is even stronger when you realize that a lot of religions at the time, expressed conversion as donning a new set of clothes. Changing clothes expressed the giving up of the old way of life and putting on the new life and a new identity.
We do this today. When you move from being a student to working in the world you no longer show up in your sweatpants and a rumpled T-shirt like you did when you were in university or high-school. You put on the uniform of your job, whether it’s a suit and tie, a nice dress, a chef’s jacket, a hospital lab coat, or a clerical collar. You assume the new visual identity so that people will identify you with your new internal identity.
But if you don’t take on the responsibilities and mindset of the new job, or a way of being, you are not going to be able to live up to and into your new identity. The wedding guest didn’t want to keep the new identity that the King had given him – he took off his robe, thinking that he could just enjoy the wedding without it. I’ve met a few people who say that they are Christian (or Buddhist or Jewish – you can throw any religion into this) who are not wearing the outer robes of their faith (i.e. behaving like a Christian) nor are they taking on the internal changes and challenges that God asks of us to grow in our faith. Hey, they got confirmed when they were 13 – there is no need for them to read the Bible or attend worship service, they’ve got the paper, so God is going to let them into the Kingdom.
Don’t be so sure of that.
But before you think that I’m getting all righteous on you, let me circle back to the beginning of this sermon. The person who I relate to the most in this story is the wedding guest without the robe. And sometimes, like him, I don’t have a good answer for my non-compliance.
None of us like to think that we are the wedding guest, but how many of us have moments of being convenient Christians? Now I’m not saying that we are like this all the time, I think that most of us are really trying to love God, our neighbors, and ourselves as Christ loved us and showed us. I think for the most part when it is comfortable we do our best. But there are times when I really wonder if I am doing the most that I can, to be the best that I can, for Christ.
Am I really trying to figure out who in our community needs my help? Or am I just waiting for people to have a crisis right in front of me before I do anything? Am I really dedicating myself to my prayer life? Or am I letting myself watch just a few more minutes of news in the morning, and: Oh dear, now I don’t have any time to pray – after all, I really need to work on that bulletin. When challenges come up in my life am I embracing them as a moment to grow in Christ, or am I just doing the careful minimum instead of that little extra stretch that might make all the difference?
Am I putting on the robe of Christ, am I acting with the heart of Christ, only when it is convenient or comfortable, and leaving it off when it gets a little challenging and I don’t feel that I have the courage? The thing is, I don’t need Christ when life is convenient or comfortable. That doesn’t mean that I don’t act in Christ’s love or heart when it’s convenient or comfortable, but there’s no need for me to call on him for help because: I got it, I can handle it. Praise God and give thanks for your blessings of being able to handle it when it’s convenient and comfortable.
It is when you get a challenge and you need courage – that’s when you call on Christ. And actually – that’s when he wants you to call on him – because that’s when he gets to show you that your faith is real. When things get scary and you call on Christ, and he gets down with you in the dirt and the muck, and the confusion and the uncertainty, and you are still calling for him, and working for him, and wearing that robe that you have put on proudly, that is when you truly find your faith and become a Christian deep in your soul. It is when you wear that robe in the outer darkness that you become a life-long guest of the wedding feast.
We’ve got to always remember to wear the robe that Christ has given us – the one that reminds us, and shows everyone, that we love our Heavenly Father, because he loves us. Our wedding robe, our salvation, is more than just a pretty garment. We accept it with our commitment to do our Father’s work in this world.
As Paul says: Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen . . . and the God of peace will be with you. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. May we all wear our robes proudly.