12 October 2008

Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost - "Honesty and Honor"

This is an incredibly complex parable to address in a full sermon, much less a shortened version as we’ll have this morning. My preaching professor said this week that this parable is “PG-13 at best;” it’s harsh, judgmental and full of stumbling blocks for those of us who like easy answers, black and white situations.

Today I see two things I’d like to note in what Jesus says about the kingdom of heaven. The first touches on the king’s anger, specifically verse 7, where the king burns a city to the ground. The king’s anger comes from more than one offense. The first, ignoring and outright rejecting a royal invitation to a banquet, is at the very least in poor taste, if not an act of treason, but this is an offense against the king, and if you look closely, you see that the first offense goes unpunished. It is the second offense, the torture and murder of the king’s messengers, that raises the king’s anger. One commentator noted that “the king’s anger rises out of the king’s love for his people.” [1] If the king is indeed an allegorical stand-in for God the Creator, then the message is clear: God’s love for God’s people extends to God’s messengers, also, and the way we mistreat and refuse to heed those who bring God’s word to us angers God far more than our personal rejection of God’s invitation to relationship. And note the king’s resolve also: there WILL be a banquet to honor the king’s son, it will be attended by those who the king deems worthy of such an honor, and the king, not his people, has the final word on who is worthy to attend the banquet and who is not.

The second point deals with that worthiness, specifically in the case of the man found without a wedding robe at the feast. If we had time and the inclination, we could do a cultural study on the tradition of feast garments in 1st century Palestine and the offense that may or may not come from a guest not being appropriately attired. But as we’ve noted before with these parables from Matthew, this is NOT simple moral instruction with an easily supplied answer. As is almost always true in our life together, the presenting issue is not the issue here – this is far more than a “What Not To Wear” problem. Sorry, Clinton and Stacy, but we won’t be needing your services here today. The issue is a matter of deeper importance, a matter of honesty and honor.

There’s no moral to the story here. This isn’t a dog trotting over a bridge with a bone in his mouth. This is the relationship with God being shattered, and also the means and lengths to which God is willing to go to see to it that the relationship is restored. But there is also judgment here, and a description of our need for repentance, lest we find ourselves cast away from the banquet to which God has invited us. One of my former colleagues from Minnesota coined the phrase “works wrong-teousness” for stuff like this. We cannot become righteous through our works, but we can certainly find ourselves on the outs with God due to our works.

So, what are we to do with the ill-attired wedding guest? A few questions came to mind this week. First question: why didn’t someone else offer to help him find appropriate clothing? Are we really so perverse that we let those around us walk into danger and don’t lend a hand up? Sometimes we are indeed that perverse, and apparently this is one of those times. Second question: why didn’t the guest simply admit his offense? Maybe he didn’t have the money to purchase a proper garment. Maybe he didn’t have time to return to his home to get it. Whatever the reason, an honest confession would most likely have brought about a far different response from the king. But silence and a refusal to address the issue put this man outside the good graces of the king, and so we are cautioned against the same offense.

As I said, this parable addresses the need for honesty and honor: honesty on the part of those who have offended or even rebelled against the king, and honor on the part of those who respond to the king’s summons. Honesty, then, becomes the first step of our repentance. As my friend Tripp noted this week, “I know what that feels like. I know what the outer darkness feels like. I have wept at night. I have gnashed my teeth in fear and anxiety and in the simple knowledge that I have hurt someone. I know this state. And I know that the only way to get back into the wedding banquet is to atone...to stand before the king …and say "Yes. I did this. It's my fault and I own it entirely…I did this. And I wish to be different. May I come to the banquet?” Then we are called to honor the gracious invitation of the king, to acknowledge the invitation and come to the feast with the best of who we are.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians ends on this note of honor. All that is praiseworthy, pure, compassionate: in other words, everything that is the proper attire of a guest at a feast, these are the things for us to pursue, now that we have been invited to the banquet. The wedding robe is not a requirement for admission to the banquet. Remember, the guests had already been seated when the ill-attired man was questioned. No, the wedding robe is a means by which the feast becomes more of what the king intends: a great celebration, filled with joy and laughter. We have been invited to a great feast honoring the Son – let us clothe ourselves in whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy, and come to the table. It doesn’t matter if we rejected the first invitation. It doesn’t matter if others may not think we are worthy to be here. All that matters is the king’s invitation and our thankful response, friends: come, let us eat, for now the feast is spread. Amen.

[1] Rolf Jacobsen, from “Sermon Brainwave.” http://www.workingpreacher.org

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