Proper 23 2014:
What do you wear to a wedding banquet? What difference does it make if the king is the host?
We all receive invitations to events that require our attendance. Sometimes they are social events, a backyard cookout that we don’t have to think long or hard or go shopping to decide what to wear. There are more formal events for which preparation takes hours if not days. What if the event is something really special and we have never been to such an event….do we know what to wear? The first time I attended Mayfest was one of those occasions. I have now seen many pictures taken over the years of that event and the dress is upscale but not formal.
The first time I went to Haiti it did not occur to me to pack a skirt for Sunday morning and the folks at Saint Etienne’s put on their finest attire to go to service, even though their church was destroyed in the earthquake and they worship on hand hewn pews and have only a tarp to retard road dust.
While living and teaching in Thailand, I wore a skirt almost every day, rain or shine, hot hot, wet hot, or dry hot. On outings to see the various historic sites, when accompanied by students, I dressed the same way. When a person in the graduate school died, students invited me to the funeral. I had never been to a Buddhist funeral and wanted to go. I asked, what is the proper dress? They said, black skirt and white blouse. I did not have a black skirt with me and so we went off to the western part of Bangkok shopping. After trying several shops it became clear that they would not have anything that even remotely covered the top half of my long legs. The student with me knew what to do…we bought cloth, rode over to a shop and had one made that day while we waited. The next day we attended the funeral, properly dressed even for a forang/foreigner.
In today’s lesson we have the story of a king who invited his friends to a wedding and the celebration-banquet but they were all too busy to attend… they had families with commitments, plans for that date for a trip somewhere special or at least fun, or they promised other friends first and would not break their promise. The king was not important enough for them to change their plans.
So the king sent the staff out to find others to come to the banquet, ordinary folks like you and me. They accepted the invitation – though we don’t quite know why. Did they want to feel special in the presence of the king? Did they want a free tour of the kings palace? Did they want to pretend to their friends that they were really special…IN as we say? Did they want a free meal?
For whatever reason, they accepted and went to the banquet. But one fellow was not dressed appropriately and the king had him thrown out. Why? What did the king expect? You ask folks at the last minute, who are not familiar or accustomed to being in royal dress or company and then you expect them to be dressed just so? It would be fairer to send him home for the appropriate tie and coat, or have something in the reception area like they do at those fancy restaurants where men can “borrow a tie and jacket.”
Now think with me about how outrageous the plot of the story is. What dinner stays warm while the host goes out mobilizes the troops, declares war and burns a city to the ground? So by the time we get the ordinary folks into the banquet hall, we are dubious about the host.
To make sense of all this we need to look at the background story….which is how disappointed Jesus is and so is the author of the Gospel of Matthew. They are disappointed that so few of God’s people respond to invitations to celebrate with his son. The temple in Jerusalem was demolished in 70 CE by Rome because of a revolt by the zealots. When Paul and other apostles decided to invite the Gentiles into the faith community, some were foreigners, some were ordinary folks, and the second group of guests was at odds with the first invitees over a number of customs, most importantly food rituals and circumcision as a mark of the covenant.
Some of the newcomers may have thought that everything had been squared with God forever, so you could come as you are, all are welcome, and nothing more is required. Matthew says,” No” to that assumption. Matthew says: being an invited guest does not mean you do as you please. People of God: you are invited to a feast prepared by the king…you need to rise to the occasion.
I suggest that the wedding robe has a deeper meaning: it is a way of life – one that honors the king, reflective of the change that occurs in the presence of the king. The underdressed man did not dishonor the king because he was short of formal attire so much as he was short on righteousness and thought no one would notice.
Think about how we cloth ourselves to come here on Sunday, to a foretaste of the Wedding Banquet. Even if we don’t think we are the heavenly wedding banquet we are certainly at the rehearsal dinner and each of us has to prepare to be present. Everyone in our tristate area is invited to be here this morning and some had better things to do. Some are at the green cathedral, some are at work, some are still in bed, and some accepted the invitation and are here. Some who are here have come without thinking much about it. Our spiritual attire may be a bit shabby: we may be holding onto hurts, fears, resentments, anger, wealth, privilege and refusing to accept or give forgiveness, share with generous hearts, and respect the dignity of every other human being. So which clothes are we wearing this morning?
Some of us don’t think it matters. I have attended church in some parts of the world where there were only a few people present on a Sunday morning, spaced far apart, and I have been places where the lines formed in the yard outside the church waiting for the next service and when that service was over and I walked outside there was another crowd waiting to go in. In the highlands of Scotland it was pretty obvious we were strangers because the other 15 people present knew each other. In Mombasa, it was pretty clear we were strangers because we were the only white faces in the crowded congregation.
Maybe the underdressed guest thought he was going to one of those places where any bodies would be a blessing and was ready to eat the king’s food and enjoy the banquet if it would help the king out of a difficult place. But God is not looking for warm bodies. God is looking for wedding guests who honor his son.