Sermon

Pentecost 17 - Year A

2011-10-09
St. James's Episcopal Church
The Rev. Douglas Burgoyne
Putting on the Right Wedding Robe
“Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” Matthew 22:12
So spoke the king to that hapless guest in Jesus’ parable. Now remember, it is a parable, so don’t press the details too hard. Don’t belabor the obvious: that a guest who was suddenly invited in off the street to attend a royal wedding ban-quet couldn’t possibly be expected to be wearing the right robe! The parable is about the Kingdom of God, and about how ignorant and indifferent people were toward the Kingdom in Jesus’ time. Matthew and Luke both tell this story of the banquet, but Matthew adds the part about the guest who walks in without a wedding robe. And that part really used to bother me, because it seemed so con-trary to God’s unconditional love, which, we say, has “no strings attached.” Doesn’t God love and accept all of us equally? The king, after all, sends out his slaves to gather into the party everyone they can find, “both good and bad!”
So why is he suddenly so angry toward his ill-clad guest? The guest is speech-less! How embarrassed he must feel! It reminds me of one of the more embar-rassing moments in my own life. Onetime in Newport News, Joannie and I were invited to the James River Country Club to attend a reception in honor of a young couple, both of them doctors, who had arrived in town to begin their medical practice. We walked into the club, and greeted the doctors, and ran into a lot of other friends too. But we didn’t see the couple who had invited us. Assuming they’d been delayed for some reason, we continued to circulate, like you do at a cocktail party. Finally I asked a woman I knew, “Where are the host and hostess?” “They’re right behind you,” she replied. I turned around and saw, smiling rather oddly at me, an older couple whom I didn’t know at all! And I was speechless! Suddenly the awful truth dawned on me: We’d come to the wrong party! I, who always prided myself on keeping things straight in my calendar, had written down the wrong date and gotten us to the country club exactly one week early!
I apologized profusely to the couple—who were very nice about it—and Joan-nie and I beat a hasty retreat! But there’s more to the story: On the same even-ing the following week, we drove back to the country club, to the party we were actually invited to, ran into the same two doctors and many of the same friends—and this time, of course, the couple who had actually invited us! I’m sure God wanted to teach me a little humility, and remind me that “pride goeth before a fall,” because that evening at least two different parishioners stopped me and said, “Doug, are you sure you’re at the right party?”
God sometimes stops us in our tracks, like the king stopped that ill-clad guest in Jesus’ parable. Because even though God loves us, and accepts us as we are, and longs for each one of us to enter, it’s remarkable how ignorant and indifferent we can be about the Kingdom—which must be why Jesus told so many parables about it. We humans just don’t seem to get it! It’s like we come dressed for the wrong party. We clothe ourselves in society’s vanities and ventures that count for so little. Take it from one who’s “been there and done that.” My embarrassment at the country club is nothing compared to how embarrassed I still am about the way I used to clothe myself in status-seeking, social-climbing, churchgoing (yes, churchgoing just for social reasons), and ventured off to school and college, not for the love of learning, but for the future success it would bring me. I was utterly clueless about, and indifferent toward, the Kingdom of God!
Paul the Apostle, who himself knew what it meant to be stopped dead in his tracks, used this image of putting on the right clothes in his Letter to the Romans. Years later his words so touched a young African named Augustine that they liter-ally changed his life. Augustine had come to teach at the university in Milan, Italy. He was a restless, tortured individual who had long dabbled in various religions and clothed himself in pleasures of the flesh. But his mother Monnica, a strong Christian believer, kept praying for him; and lately he had fallen under the influ-ence of the saintly Bishop of Milan, named Ambrose. One day in a garden, in the year 386, Augustine heard a child’s voice whispering to him, “Take up and read.” The young professor had with him a copy of Romans, and it fell open to the 13th Chapter, verses 13 and 14. He took it up and read these words: “Let us live ho-norably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and li-centiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Chr-ist, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” The impact on Au-gustine was profound. He described it later: “The light of confidence flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished.” He was baptized by Bishop Ambrose the following Easter, and soon afterward he returned to Africa where he became, as you may know, the Bishop of Hippo, and a world-famous author, and the greatest Christian theologian since St. Paul.
In his Confessions, Augustine later wrote, “O God….you have made us for your-self and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.” That restlessness of heart was the turning point in my own life. It happened one summer during col-lege when I was suddenly at loose ends, and felt a terrible emptiness, all of which finally brought me to my knees. Gradually, I became aware of being drawn toward God. C. S. Lewis once called it “a God-shaped void.” I felt like I was on the threshold of a new beginning; but I was still riddled with guilt about my former ways. I was looking in over the threshold, so to speak, but feeling woefully ill-prepared to enter—like I was “wearing the wrong robe for the banquet.”
And that, for me, was the “string” attached to God’s love! The love I began to feel was so overwhelming that it reduced me to tears. But I had to let go! I had to put on the Lord Jesus Christ! If I didn’t shed the old robe and clothe myself in the new, I would never feel part of the banquet; God could never fully get at me. I had to strip away all those social vanities and ventures and put on, for the first time, an honest humility and openness to God. And when I did that—but only then—I began to feel a blessed release from the restlessness of heart I had found so crippling, and the dawn of a new confidence such as Augustine had described.
The contrast between the new and the old was striking. Take the matter of churchgoing, for instance. I still think of the Sunday mornings of my youth when I would ride the 96th Street crosstown bus through Central Park, from the Upper West Side of Manhattan where I lived to the Upper East Side where most of my friends from Trinity School lived. Then I would walk proudly down Fifth Avenue to the Church of the Heavenly Rest where we had all been confirmed. It was one of those New York parishes, like St. Thomas’ and St. Bartholomew’s, where some people felt it was important “to be seen” on Sundays. And I’m ashamed to admit I was one of those! We schoolboys did have a vague sense of the pretentiousness of it all—we called Heavenly Rest “The Church of the Celestial Snooze!”
Now Heavenly Rest is a great parish, mind you, and has significant ministries to the sick and the poor, and a weekday shelter for the homeless, right in that beau-tiful narthex. Two of my clergy friends have served there in recent years and spo-ken of the parish’s vitality. I’m talking here about my own attitude, which was so superficial in those days, not just about church but about everything. I was snoozing my way through life! It all changed that summer in college when God helped me put on the right robe for the banquet.” I finally “got it” about the Kingdom.
The Kingdom is all about companionship, an incredibly close companionship. Now, Com means with; and panion comes from the Latin word panis, meaning bread. Companionship is friendship with another so nourishing that it’s like bread for the soul. God’s Kingdom is the most nourishing companionship there is—with the One who loved enough to die for us on the Cross. That’s why we believe the Kingdom is so intimately expressed in the Eucharist, God’s great gift of the Lord’s Supper. We come to church out of our hungry, anxious lives, to be fed by a com-panionship with the Crucified Christ which is utterly foreign to the world. How extraordinary it was for me to go to church and realize finally that I was among folks who loved and cared about me not for my social graces, but just for being a fellow sinner in need of forgiveness; where I could be myself, and work on growing up in Christ and learn to love and care passionately for others in the world around me.
It was a whole new kind of banquet! And the more I shed my worldly robe of pride, and allowed myself to be clothed in the Spirit of Christ, the more at home I felt. That’s what the kingdom does—it grows on you. And you want to share that companionship. You want to help feed others with the love of Christ—which is what hundreds of you dear friends at St. James’s do with such generosity and joy—all over Richmond and far beyond. Joannie and I love you all very much! Thank you for making us feel so at home. Let me close now with one of my favo-rite prayers: “O God, our Great Companion, lead us day by day deeper into the joy and mystery of your life and ours, and help us to share your life with one another, and with the world around us—through Jesus Christ, our Savior.” Amen.