Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

The Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, 2010

The Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd, Charlestown;
Trinity Anglican Church, West Lebanon, New Hampshire

Let us pray: Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord, to thy faithful people pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve thee with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Today's gospel contains this phrase, an order from a certain king: “Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into the outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen.

“Alas, poor man,” we are tempted to say. His only offense seems to have been his poor choice of clothing. Besides, wasn't he compelled to attend the wedding feast? Certainly, his punishment was extreme. For such a small offense. Besides, any good establishment would have an extra jacket and tie for those unfortunate diners who arrived improperly attired. What kind of place is this, anyway? What kind of place, indeed.

The great Anglo American poet, W.H. Auden once posed this rhetorical question: “Does God judge us on appearances?” Then, he answered his own question: “I suspect that He does.” The question asked in this gospel passage is precisely this: how do we appear before God? What is it that God sees when he looks at us? What is it that we wear in the presence of God?

What we wear often identifies who we are. Particular clothing establishes our identity, especially our professional identities. We can recognize police officers, soldiers, prisoners and, yes, clergymen. The clothing fixes our identity; they tell the world who we are. The world of the theatre uses our understanding of clothing to tell its stories. Actors change identity with regularity, sometimes playing this role, sometimes that. Today, they might be the hero, tomorrow the villain. Like all professions, the theatre world has many customs. One of those customs is called the “costume parade.” At a rehearsal or two before “final dress,” the director of the play sits in the audience along with the costume designer and asks the actors to parade across the stage in their costumes. The director looks them over carefully. Perhaps the director will ask them to turn this way and that, sit, stand and walk about the stage. The director might approve the costume or suggest small changes. On occasion, the director might say to the costumer: “that really just doesn't work.” Though the costume designer might argue a bit, it is a losing battle; the director has the final say. If a costume just “isn't right,” it will be discarded. The actor will be fitted with another costume – one more suited to his “character” - and the show will go on.

Rarely, in all the history of the theatre, has an actor failed to answer this particular question: “why did you come on stage dressed that way?” The actor will always answer: “the costume designer designed it and wardrobe gave it to me.” But in reality, the question does not need to be asked or answered. The answer is obvious to all concerned.

Today's gospel message concerns a wedding feast where garments are certainly important. A man shows up at this wedding feast without the proper garment and is cast out. Not only does he not have the proper garment, but he has no answer to the question: “friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” The man does not answer. The answer is obvious. No, a costume designer did not design it for him; wardrobe did not give it to him. He made it himself, fashioned it to his own devising. And when he is asked by this “certain king” for an explanation, he has none. Because it is clear to this man – and to the king.

What does the garment represent in this story? It is not the outer clothing at all. God does not judge us by what we choose wear. The wedding garment that this poor man has failed to put on has nothing to do with appropriate outer dress. That could, in fact, be altered in a minute's time. But this man cannot, like an actor, make a quick change and be suddenly acceptable. It simply cannot happen that way.

St Augustine found this passage to be very revealing. And he correctly and very beautifully wrote that

“the garment that is required is in the heart, not on the body, for if it had been put on externally, it could not have been concealed even from the servants.”

It is in our hearts that we know God and that God knows us. It is that garment that we wear with us to judgement day.

St. Augustine also reminds us that charity is indeed the garment of righteousness that we should put on. He uses charity in the old sense of the word, which comes closest to love. What do you suppose might have happened if the wedding guest had answered the king in this way: “I have the gift of prophesy. I understand all mysteries and all knowledge. I have the faith that I can move mountains.” And the king might look at him and ask: “Is there anything else?” And the man might look a little puzzled. He might scratch his head and search his mind for the answer. And he might try again and say: “But I have all these things. Surely that is enough.” And the king might turn to him one more time, giving him yet one more chance. Because the king wants the feast to be full, he does not want to leave one soul behind. And he asks one last time: “Is there nothing else?” And the man is speechless. Perhaps, as he is bound and cast into the darkness, he is aware of the garment that he has put on; an odd and ill-fitting garment that suggests separation from God and all faithful people. It is a garment that is easily recognized by all who see it. Why, we may wonder, why didn't he see this simple truth? But in that darkness, we hold out the hope that this poor man might wonder what this word “charity” is all about; that he might finally come to understand what it is to know and love God in the fullness of his heart.

It is only, in this way, that he can loose the bonds in which he has bound himself, clothe himself appropriately and meet God with a loving and penitent heart.

Let us pray: Lord, we beseech thee to keep thy household the church in continual godliness; that through thy protection it may be free from all adversities, and devoutly given to serve thee in good works, to the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.