Sermon for Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity High Mass Sunday 12 October 2014
Sermon preached by Revd Dr Andrew McGowan, Dean of Berkeley Divinity School, Yale
Dressing for Dinner
A remarkable amount of material in the Gospels concerns meals. There are stories of Jesus eating and drinking, feeding others, or telling stories about people doing the same. Loaves and fishes appear from thin air, massive stone water-jars are mysteriously filled with a fine vintage; there are arguments about what you can eat, with whom you ought to eat it, and how your seats ought to be arranged; there are stories about when to kill fatted calves, of underperforming fig trees and hungry Messiahs, of women lurking near laden tables to wash or anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume and tears – and these of course culminate in the story of a last meal and a command, which we observe today, to keep eating and drinking together in memory of him.
In this age of molecular gastronomy, slow food, and nose-to-tail eating, we might seem particularly well-equipped to engage this eating Jesus. Yet today’s parable about a marriage feast may disappoint the foodie in us, because it focuses not on the cuisine or the company, but on a familiar problem just as perennial at dinner as what to eat or whom to invite – namely, what to wear.
‘When the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding garment, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” And he was speechless.’ The aftermath is well known, dramatic, and definitive, and involves weeping and gnashing of teeth.
What is this wedding garment, on whose presence or absence our place at the king’s meal of all meals depends? Are you mentally checking your own or others’ labels now, or wishing you’d worn something else?
[There are doubtless those behind me in the chancel saying to themselves “I’m not sure what it is, but I’m sure that if I call the people at Watts they can run one up for me”!]
Now the problem of what actually to wear to dinner does not appear in any of the Gospel controversies about Jesus’ own meals, nor was ever he attacked for his dress sense, but only for being a “glutton and a drunkard”, who accepted the hospitality of the wrong people.
What to wear to dinner turns out, however, to be a New Testament issue not just in this parable. The Letter of James warns early Christians of risks related to dressing for dinner, or perhaps for Mass:
“if a man with golden rings in fine clothes comes into your assembly, but also a poor man in filthy clothes, and if you honor the one in fine clothes and say…”sit here in a good place,” and to the poor man “stand over there” or “sit here under my feet”, are you not discriminating, and haven’t you become judges with perverse thoughts?” (James 2: 2-4)
This apostolic lecture on etiquette seems to take the opposite position from today’s parable, dismissing the value of fine clothing as a basis for attendance at the Lord’s banquet, while the presence or absence of that enigmatic wedding robe was crucial in the Gospel. Despite the contrast however, the two passages are closer than they appear; and this demand from James to treat others with openness and charity actually gives us a clue to the meaning of the Gospel.
The Gospel story is a parable, and parables are not models for etiquette any more than for agriculture; what ancient kings may have been prone to do at weddings is, thankfully, not exactly prescriptive for what God does with our inadequacies. So just as this story is not about kings, or for that matter about weeping and gnashing of teeth, neither is it about literal clothes.
So what is the wedding garment required of us, if not obtainable from Liberty or on Jermyn Street?
The collect today drew on the words of St Augustine of Hippo, who in his Confessions spoke to God, saying “you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”; it also echoed him in asking that God “draw” us to himself. Augustine mused with his own congregation about this same parable on a Sunday morning something like 1600 years ago. They apparently wondered what the wedding garment was too. Was it perhaps baptism? Or Eucharist? No, he says, for even in Church there are those who are “called but not chosen”. Neither, Augustine argues, is it some charismatic gift of spiritual power, nor even faith itself – but love.
“Ask yourselves” he says, “if you have it, you can be at the lord’s banquet without fear.” But Augustine goes on to suggest that “it” – self-giving love, not merely the love of those who love us, or love of what we want to control or use – is both the wedding garment but also functions as a kind of infectious invitation to the feast: “first, love God. Extend yourselves out to God; and whomsoever you can, draw them on to God. There is your enemy: let him be drawn to God. There is a son, a wife, a servant; let them be all drawn to God. There is a stranger; let him be drawn to God… So let love be advanced, so be it fed, that being fed it may be perfected; so let ‘the wedding garment’ be put on”.
I said earlier that what Jesus himself wore was never part of the controversy in relation to his fulsome dining practice. But I should qualify that. At the culmination of the Gospel, Jesus’ clothes do at the end become a matter of contention, when Roman soldiers cast lots for them.
Jesus himself was stripped bare in preparation for death; bare, that is, of all but love itself. This of course was not a meal; but his invitation, arms open wide on the cross, draws the world to himself and to this sacred banquet, regardless of wealth or clothing, not because of our resources but because of his generosity. This indicates how little and how much it matters just what we wear as we approach him today.
What then is the wedding garment? It is the love that we cannot claim to have, or find anywhere else, unless he gives it himself. He offers us the wedding garment that we need to come in and eat with him; this Eucharist is our present foretaste, binding us to one another and to him, but also to the world that needs it and him so much. Let us celebrate the feast at peace with one another now; and let us also as we go out take Jesus’ prized and immoderate invitation to the rich and ragged alike, as we are all drawn to and by the love of God.