Sermon, October 9th 2011
The Wrong Trousers
There are few things in life I enjoy as much as a good wedding. There seems to me something so life affirming about weddings and they are, of course, an excellent excuse for throwing a great party. The problem is they come in gluts – it’s either feast or famine in my experience. There were lots of them when I was in my late 20s and then there was a long period of famine which I hope will be coming to an end soon as my children and the sons and daughters of my friends get married (although not quite yet in the case of my offspring). One of the great benefits of being a clergyman is that you get to marry people and I conducted my first ever wedding this year when I married Jacqui Bradley’s son Matt and his lovely wife Sally. All I can say is that I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.
But of course, weddings can also be pretty fraught as well. There is a huge amount of planning that goes into them – who to invite and more particularly who not to invite. And then there is the question of what to wear. Traditionally this has been a much bigger issue for women than for men but there are also elephant traps for men in the matter of wedding kit as I learnt to my cost at the first wedding I attended of my adult life.
I wasn’t that long out of university and Belinda and I were invited to a rather smart wedding, the sort of thing my mum might have called “a pukka do”. Picture the scene: a pretty church deep in the Suffolk countryside and, after the service, a lovely marquee for the reception in the grounds of a country house. The question of what to wear did not detain me very long. It was obvious – I would wear my suit! I remember it clearly. It was dark grey flannel and I thought it remarkably elegant. In the fashion of the time – and I realise this rather dates me – it had a pair of flared trousers.
On the morning of the wedding we drove down with friends and managed to cut it rather fine, only just arriving before the bride, so we arrived a bit hot and bothered. However, any hopes of relaxing into a lovely wedding service were dispelled when I stepped into the church and was met by row, upon row, upon row of men all dressed in morning suits. Aside from the friend I had travelled with there was not a lounge suit – as they are called – in sight. Worse still, there was no possibility of us creeping in at the back unnoticed. The ushers made it clear to us that our seats were some way up the aisle, so up I walked to my seat with my flares flapping ostentatiously around my ankles.
You will understand then that today’s gospel reading has a special significance for me, although I fared much better than the man in the story who gets thrown into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth for his sartorial faux-pas. In contrast everyone at the wedding was far too well-mannered to mention mine and I am pleased to say that everything has continued to turn out well. The happy couple of that day remain a very happy couple and they are still good friends of ours.
We really have two parables today, both of them very dark. The first is about wedding guests who are invited but who don’t bother to turn up and who do worse things still than that. The second is about guests who do turn up but one of whom was wrongly dressed, just like me. As ever with parables there is a lot to ponder but what I would like to draw attention to this morning is what they tell us about the church and what it is really about.
We don’t need to dig too deep to understand the first parable. The King tells his slaves to call guests to his son’s wedding banquet and they don’t come. By the way, it was the Jewish custom of the time to issue an invitation some way in advance but not to specify the precise time of the wedding. This was only made known to guests when everything was ready. What enrages the King is not only that the invited guests don’t come but some of them ill-treat and kill his servants. He does two things in response. Firstly he kills those who have mistreated his servants, burning their city and secondly he tells his remaining slaves to go out and invite anyone they can find, the good and bad alike.
It’s pretty easy to see what is going on here. The first lot of guests, the ones who don’t turn up, are meant to be the Jews who won’t accept Christ’s gospel. The second lot of guests are the gentiles – us, in other words. And of course, the acceptance of non-Jews of the gospel of Christ was seen as fulfilment of the age-old prophesy that the whole world would be reconciled to God through – or in this case in spite of – Israel. It’s worth noting here that scholars believe the bit of the story that sees the king destroying the city of those who’d refused to come was a reference to the burning of Jerusalem by the Romans in AD70. As such these words couldn’t possibly have been spoken by Jesus and instead reflect the early church’s conviction that the destruction of Jerusalem was God’s judgement on Israel for its refusal to accept Christ’s gospel.
But the key point here is the use of the words “good and bad alike” in relation to those who were finally welcomed to the banquet. This is a clear reference to divine grace which is poured out equally on the deserving and undeserving alike. Thanks to Jesus all men and women are now the chosen people. All they have to do is to accept the love and forgiveness he offers.
And this is where I think we begin to understand the fate that befalls the man who is wrongly dressed. For it’s clear that although he has accepted the invitation he hasn’t really valued it. He has given it no real thought; hence when the King asks him how he gained admittance dressed as he was he is speechless.
The gift of grace is ours by right but like all rights it carries responsibilities and our chief responsibility when in receipt of such generosity is to give God his due. Above all, giving God his due means acknowledging his greatness and his lordship of our lives.
Now, I will wager that if you ask most people what they think the church exists to do they will come up with answers such as “it’s about making good Christians of all of us” or “it’s about us doing good works” or “we come here to enjoy a Christian community or to have a moment’s peace and reflection”. Now let me stress that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of this. Quite the contrary, there is much that is very good about it. However, none of it is what the Church is primarily about, for the Church is about worship before anything else. It’s perhaps easiest to understand the significance of this word when we see that it is derived from the Old English word “worth-ship”. In other words, worship is the acknowledgement of that to which we ascribe the most worth or value in our lives. It means that in worship we put God at the centre of everything. Worship should be a single-minded focus on Him. It’s summed up in Jacob’s experience in the Book of Genesis when he says:
“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven”
That’s what happens when we truly focus on God. But all too often we think that the church is really about us. It’s great that we want to be in community and do good works but all these things must be secondary to giving God the honour and respect He is due, otherwise we risk being like the wrongly dressed man. For everything flows from the love of God first and foremost. Jesus told us that we must
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength – and love your neighbour as yourself”.
In other words, the love of neighbour is secondary and a consequence of love of God. Why? Because if we don’t properly acknowledge God in our lives we are not living in the truth, we are not living according to the deep structure of reality. We are instead putting ourselves at the heart of things and as soon as we do that it’s impossible to live in harmony with others. What’s more, Jesus makes it clear that it is in our own best interests to give God his due. He promises us joyful lives of abundance – but only on the basis of our acknowledging the sovereignty of God and thereby understanding our proper place in the world. At the core of our faith is this belief that we can have peace and joy in our lives and live in right relationship with others only if we give God his due. The trouble is it is an incredibly hard lesson to learn and one that, I suspect, will take us a lifetime and more to properly take to our hearts.
And that is what makes the story of the poorly dressed man so very poignant. He is so very easy to identify with isn’t he? After all, he’d just been a bit thoughtless hadn’t he – just like me? This is a characteristic he shares with two people that we find in the first parable. It’s easy to overlook them because all our attention is focused on those who kill the king’s servants. They are a farmer and a businessman respectively and they don’t bother to come to the wedding because they are too busy. Well, how familiar does that sound?
The truth is life is pretty tough for most people. You struggle to pay the mortgage or the rent, clothe and feed the children and cope with your boss’s impossible demands, assuming that is that you have a boss. Maybe you don’t and you are unemployed in which case it’s a struggle just to keep body and soul together. Are we supposed to do all this and give God his due? Well, the trouble is that we can all of us be so busy making a living that we forget to make a life for ourselves. It’s all too easy to invest time and effort in things that are worthwhile and important in themselves but that, ultimately are secondary to what really matters to us and to the source of all value – God himself.
This point was brilliantly illustrated for me earlier this week when I heard the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, speaking on the radio about Alfred Nobel the great Swedish engineer, chemist and businessman who invented dynamite. He got a horrible shock one day when he opened the paper only to read his own obituary. Unfortunately the journalist had made a mistake as it was his brother who had died. However, this was just the wake-up call that Nobel needed as he was horrified that all he was remembered for were his business activities. Important as these were they didn’t seem to him to in any way reflect what he thought of as being of most value. As a direct result he invested his fortune in the Nobel prize, so honouring those who bring peace and truth through scientific advancement to the world.
There is, I fear, no getting round it. The offer of grace places a responsibility on all of us. The choice of how to respond is ours and ours alone. The poorly dressed man was sent into outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth for his choice. It strikes me that there is no better way of describing our world when you think of its darkness and the cries of those in misery. But what the gospel tells us continually is that God calls us – in the words of the first letter of Peter – “into his marvellous light”. But to bask in that light, to enjoy its loveliness, peace and warmth, we must first of all acknowledge the glorious state to which we are called and, above all, the splendour, the power and the majesty of the One who is calling us.