Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There are some people who are perpetually underdressed and some who and some people who are perpetually overdressed. I fall into the latter category. I was shocked the first time we went to the Toledo opera and I realized that I was only person in the room wearing a tuxedo. I am rarely seen in shirtsleeves, even during the dog days of summer. My former bishop back in Arkansas once told me that his mother had always said, “be sure to wear a jacket, because you never know when you’ll be appearing before a judge.” Anyway, if one were to err one one side or the other, I think being overdressed seems the safer option, and the parable in this morning’s Gospel seems to agree.

The parable we just heard might be one of the most bizarre of Jesus’ parables. It starts out predictably enough. It seems a rather simple allegory at first. If we were to read it as a simple allegory, there were those invited to the banquet (representing the children of Israel), and the king’s slaves (representing the prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles of the New) go out to remind them that they had better come, but they refuse. So, the slaves go out and recruit all sorts and conditions of people—both bad and good—to take the place of the missing guests. This motley group of people is us- the saints and sinners who have been given Grace to attend the feast here at our altar and in the Kingdom on the last day, despite being gentile sinnners. It all seems simple enough.

But then Jesus throws us a curve ball. Who in the world is this poorly dressed guest and why does the king deal so harshly with him?

On our honeymoon, Annie and I stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria (not the sort of place we’d normally stay, I note, but it was our honeymoon). Said hotel banned things like jeans and tennis shoes in the lobby, and if you broke the rules you might get a nasty look. But the concierge wouldn’t bind you and cast you out into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (though, I suppose for some who frequent fancy Manhattan establishments, getting one’s lunch at the hotdog stand outside might be one’s idea of hell). We might think that the caliber of guests who finally showed up at the banquet would mean that many were uncouth enough to forgo a wedding robe or simply too poor to own one! At first blush, the king seems rather capricious and uncharitable.

Biblical scholars have engaged in a great deal of work to try to explain this. Some have suggested that the wedding robe would have been a garment which a host would provide for those who came without one, like loaner jackets at upscale restaurants (still a phenomenon when I lived in New York a decade-and-a-half ago, though I suspect this practice might have gone by the wayside). If that were the case, the guest in question must have refused to follow a dress code when compliance would have been easy enough. The truth, though, is that we just don’t know enough about the customs of First Century Palestine to say for certain if this would have been the case.

Fortunately, I don’t think a knowledge of ancient wedding practices really matters so much in this instance. What we have here is not a simple allegory, but a parable in which the symbols don’t necessarily have a perfect relationship to the realities they symbolize. What matters is not how precisely wedding robes were distributed but the fact that the guest doesn’t have one on. Our work, then, is to figure out what the robe symbolizes.

There are two prevailing theories from the most ancient of Christian writers. In the interest of full disclosure, I tend toward the second of these options, which will be no surprise.

The first is found in St. John Chrysostom in his homily on this text says that while the invitation is “grace” the garment is “life and practice”. Others, St. Augustine among them, would agree. The implication of this view is that one’s response to Grace, namely Faith as it is manifest in good works, is necessary if we are to attend the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, the heavenly banquet. To comply with the dress code of heaven, we must weave a robe with the threads of righteousness. This meshes nicely with the Epistle General of St. James. “Faith without works is dead.”

Ireneaus and Tertullian hold the opposite view, which I find more compelling. The wedding garment itself is Sanctifying Grace freely given. We may, of course, take off the garment, like the wedding guest, but it’s given to us in Baptism whether we want it or not. It is notable that in the Baptisms of the Early Church, the baptizand—whether infant or adult—would be baptized naked. For adults being baptized, this would mean only Christians of their own gender would be present for the Baptism, and it’s likely the reason for the ordination of female deacons from very early in the church’s history, a practice sadly stamped out relatively early on, only renewed in our Communion in the last Century, and sadly still not embraced in others. Perhaps the Roman Catholics’ forthcoming, so-called “synod on synadolity” will be a hopeful baby step in the right direction, but I ought not get into the internal politics of a church not my own, so I won’t opine or speculate further along those lines in a sermon.

Anyway, after emerging from the water, the new Christian would be clothed in a white robe to symbolize his or her regeneration- that person’s status as a new creation. While we cannot know for certain, the wedding garment in this parable might be not-too-subtly related to the baptismal garment of early church practice.

Whatever that wedding robe is meant to symbolize, though, we can pray that we’ll see plenty of people following the heavenly dress code on that day when we reach the other shore. Thank heavens scripture tells us we will see a multitude dressed in white before the throne, all sorts and conditions being summoned from the highways of this old world to attend the greatest wedding feast of all.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.