Dressed for Dinner

One garment can save your life... and it is free for the asking!

SJF • 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 dinner party or social function and arrived to find that you were not, as the signs outside some posh restaurants say, wearing “proper attire?” Depending on the degree of the inappropriateness, this can be either mildly annoying or intensely embarrassing! Some fancy restaurants will keep a stock of ties or sports jackets on hand for the sake of gentlemen who show up deficient in one category or the other. Snooty they may be, but they are not so foolish as to lose business by turning away potential customers. Still, you might well risk getting a haughty look and a gesture towards the door, if not a helping hand from a bouncer. And if it’s a private function, you have no recourse, but to endure “the eye” from all the other guests.

It is very uncomfortable to feel out of place, and since, as the politically incorrect saying goes, “clothes make the man,” few things in polite society make one feel more out of place than being improperly dressed for the occasion.

And there are times when being improperly dressed can be more than an embarrassment. It can be a matter of life and death. You probably know the various TV reality shows that consist of amateur video of terrible accidents and disasters. 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 as well as anybody — but because unlike the fictional tales of Bond or Bourne, these videos are real, real tragedies of real people in horrible situations, and I just don’t like the idea of real tragedy being transformed into entertainment.

One of them, though, a terrifying one that I did happen to see, starts calmly enough. What you see through the camera is 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 are weightless, and you see them do a wonderful ariel ballet that forms all sorts of lovely patterns, then one by one they open their chutes and disappear.

But then, something goes wrong. The camera starts to shake uncontrollably, then begins a free-fall of its own, tumbling and twisting dizzily as it plummets to the ground, occasionally as it spins catching sight of a terrified man twisting in the air. In the excitement of the filming, the cameraman himself has forgotten 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 failing to dress properly 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? Before he can say a word, he is bound hand and foot and tossed out into the darkness outside the brightly lit banqueting hall, there to weep and gnash his teeth.

We are apt to sympathize with this poor guy. After all, he wasn’t one of the original invited guests — they refused to come, and they also faced the king’s rage. This man without a wedding garment is one of the second-string guests, the stand-ins, the ordinary folks who just happened to be in the neighborhood going about their business — or lack of business — when the king’s slaves gathered them all into the banquet hall. How could he be expected to have a wedding robe?

Yet that seems to be just what this unreasonable king expects, and out the poor guy goes. As with so many of Jesus’ parables, it doesn’t seem fair. He 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 wedding invitation stating what proper dress would be, to come to the wedding without the proper attire.

So what is this parable all about? In particular, what is this wedding robe, that makes it so important? The man in question, after all, isn’t the bride or the groom, or a groomsman or the best man; he’s just one of the guests — invited at the last minute at that. What is Jesus teaching us in this parable? What’s is it about?

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First let me note that not all of Jesus’ parables are what’s called “allegories” — that is, a story in which each aspect of the story symbolizes something definite. Most of the parables are not like that; they are intended just to make a single point. And it misses the point in those cases if you try to explain each detail as if it corresponded to something else. But some of Christ’s parables, such as the story of the seeds falling on the different kinds of soils, which we heard earlier this year, do call for this kind of interpretation. Jesus himself demonstrated that by explaining what each kind of soil, or lack of soil, represented. So too this parable of the Wedding Banquet, and the Guests and the Wedding Robe is worth looking at point by point.

Those who refuse to accept the king’s invitation, for instance, 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, represent the leaders who refused to heed the prophets and whose hardness of heart, according to Jewish tradition, was responsible for the capture of Jerusalem and its destruction in the days of Jeremiah.

In the second part of the parable, the church is portrayed, the church with open doors, where all are invited to join in the feast. But — and 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 there are no “dress-down Fridays” to say nothing of Sundays!

But don’t for a minute think that Jesus is talking about a dress-code for Sunday worship! As Jesus’ brother James reminded the early church, don’t turn away someone from your church who may be dressed poorly; Jesus loved the poor, and he spent most of his time with them. So this is not a parable about us dressing up for Sunday worship.

But remember, at the same time, the symbolism; the elements of the parable are symbols, not to be taken literally. This isn’t about literally dressing up, it’s about a wedding robe that here doesn’t represent a wedding robe: it’s a symbol of something else. The wedding garment is a symbol here: it represents the clothing from above, the new self that is put on in Christ.

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 here — you can see them all, dressed in these long white robes. In the early church, that was the kind of robe that would be put on someone when they went to be baptized. (And don’t we still today dress up even little babies in a little white suit, or a little white gown? As I sometimes say, there’s sometimes more fabric than baby, when I’ve done some baptisms here!) So this white baptismal robe is called an “alb” from the Latin word for “white” — as in albino! This alb is what we now have as a relic of that wedding robe. It represent new life that begins when you are baptized, the new self that is reborn in Christ.

For Christ has removed 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. That’s why the man gets into trouble because this garment is available to all, this new creation in Baptism — that’s why the man without a wedding robe had no excuse — the free gift of God in Baptism is available to all who chose it, and the banquet table is open to all who are baptized. God’s heavenly banquet is like one of those restaurants that keeps a supply of neckties and sports 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 the 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; baptize them 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 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, into which all are invited to come. 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. We dare to approach this table because we are clothed in the wedding robe of baptism, we are wearing protective garments, the armor of God, the new creation that comes in baptism.

The new garment of the baptismal self is more than proper attire; it is more than a jacket and tie, it is more than a tuxedo — it is even more than a parachute! It is the uniform of the blessed children of God, the robe of state of the royal children of God, the vestment of salvation — it is being clothed with Christ. Beloved sisters and brothers here today, however else we may appear to be clothed, in our ordinary clothes or in our Sunday best, or 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 it is fit and proper for those who join the chorus of praise at the Lamb’s High Feast, the king’s great wedding banquet. +

Front Row Seats

SJF • Proper 24b 2009 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”+Last Sunday and next Sunday we heard and will hear Gospel passages in which people ask Jesus various things. Last week it was the rich young man asking what he had to do to gain eternal life. Next week it will be blind Bartimaeus asking for mercy. This week we hear Mark’s account about two of the earliest disciples, the fisherman brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking for front row seats — the seats of honor next to Jesus in his glory.

This Gospel has particular relevance for us because James is our patron saint, for whom Saint James Church is named. As you may know, the only stained-glass window of Saint James in the church is now walled up behind the altar — and we can only guess it is because when the altar was moved against the end of the church and raised on three steps, it cut the figure of Saint James off at the waist and people thought it looked a little odd.

Our patron saint is not completely without representation in the church, however. In the row of icons at the altar (which I reproduced in today’s bulletin) he is there at the far left, and his brother John is at the far right. So, in a way, at Saint James church at least, James and his brother John do have the honor of being to the left and right of Jesus.

But it is important to note that in most churches with icons, those places are taken by Peter and Paul, and in all churches with such an arrangement of icons, the most honorable seats in this portrayal of the heavenly banquet belong to the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist. In other words, the church has long understood Jesus’s response to James and John as indicating that those seats of honor were reserved for someone else — for the one whom every age would call Blessèd, and the one who was “the Forerunner” and first proclaimer of the Lamb of God.

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Now, I don’t know about you, but I can well understand the other disciples getting annoyed with James and John when they rushed to the head of the class. We’ve probably all known people who put themselves forward, in the process of putting everyone else down. People might call them the “teacher’s pet” or a “crawler.” There is something offputting about this kind of ambition — an instinctive sense that it is inappropriate to push forward and try to take the front row seats, the best seats, the seats of honor.

Indeed, Jesus elsewhere advises against this sort of behavior: telling people to take the lowest seats at the banquet so that they might be honored in being asked to come up higher, rather than taking a high seat and being embarrassed to be asked to move down lower. Apparently James and John did not think this applied to them — they were, after all, part of the inner circle, along with Peter, who had been invited to go with Jesus to the mountaintop, and later those three would accompany him to the garden of Gethsemane. Maybe the trip to the mountaintop went to their heads!

Whatever the reason, whether pride or self-satisfaction or because of earlier signs of favor, James and John clearly overstep in their request for prime seating, and Jesus gently corrects them, and the other disciples as well, when they get bent out of shape in this unsavory contest of “who does Jesus like best.” Jesus doesn’t settle the issue and say anything about who will be seated where — and as with the seats at the banquet advises taking the position of a servant — of one who serves.

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As with all Gospel passages, however, there is more to this account. Notice what Jesus does predict concerning James and John. They will drink the cup that he will drink, and undergo the baptism with which he is baptized. And this is where our row of icons comes in again: for although the images of the saints and angels are ranged at the altar where we celebrate the earthly foreshadowing of the heavenly banquet, they are also ranged at the foot of the cross.

This is the cup that Christ would drink, the baptism with which he would be baptized: a cup he would earnestly entreat his father in Gethsemane to pass him by — while James, John and Peter were sleeping. But in union with his father’s will he accepted it, accepted death on the cross for our salvation, in union with us his brothers and sisters.

The prophet Isaiah had spoken centuries before of this suffering servant of God — the one upon whom the iniquity of all of us wandering sheep long since gone astray, would be laid. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Or as an old prayer has it, “By his cross and passion we come to the glory of his resurrection.”

Christ knew that this was what lay before him — the bitter cup and the baptism of death. James and John would indeed share in this with him — James would be the first of the apostles to die for his faith. And his brother John, though he lived to old age, would know the bitterness of exile on the island of Patmos.

And all of us who bear the name of Christian, if Christians we are, share with our Lord in his sufferings as we share in solidarity with all human suffering: doing our best to alleviate it as servants of the one in whose image every human being is made. This is the way that Jesus commends to his apostles, and through them to us: not to lord it over others as their masters, but to serve them as Christ served us and gave himself a ransom for many.

The Christian life is not about climbing the greasy pole to success, of clambering to attain a front row seat, to elbow others out of your way to get the places of honor. Rather it is about the ministry of service that stoops to wash the feet of the poor, that gives itself and spends itself for the benefit of others and their well-being.

But the Christian life is also not about envying those who do succeed or gain seats of honor and privilege, especially when that honor comes unexpected and as a surprise even to the one so honored. I think of some of the recent reactions to President Obama’s Nobel laureate. I very much doubt this is something he expected and he appears to have received it with grace; and I can’t help but hear in the voices of some of those who have said he doesn’t deserve it, the envious echoes of those other disciples.

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Neither pride nor envy are attractive human traits. Jesus would have us avoid them both. And the surest way to do that is to do as he said: to serve as he did, even if it means a bitter cup and a painful baptism. Few if any of us will be asked to go as far as the apostles and martyrs; but we can do our bit in patience and humility, in service to the least of our brothers and sisters.

And so, away with pride and envy. Our Lord and God has seats prepared for us, and though we know not where exactly they will be, we know that they will be with him, and that should be enough to satisfy us. What need is there for ambition when we have such promises from the living Word of God himself: that living, active word, sharper than a two edge sword that judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart; before whom nothing is hidden and to whom we must render an account; but one who is also able to sympathize with our weakness, as he has borne our griefs. With this Word of God for us, what can stand against us? As Martin Luther wrote,

That word above all earthly Powers,
no thanks to them abideth;
the spirit and the gifts are ours
through him who with us sideth:
let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
the body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still,
his kingdom is for ever.+