Reading: Matthew 22:1-14.
There is a challenge this morning: we celebrate the dedication of a Chapel honouring the Parata family and alongside that we address the question of the gospel and its meaning for our lives. Can we find a point of connection? So, I begin by offering you a phrase, a question, for reflection. What is ‘the garment of our lives’?
One of the things you notice about special services in the Cathedral is that there are usually clergy who ring or email to enquire about what curious items they are expected to wear for the occasion! Is it albs or cassock and surplice? Eucharistic or choir dress? If stoles are worn, what colour? Is this a service when copes are an option? Usually everyone wants to get it right! No one wants to stand out by looking different.
It’s a very human feeling and not just in the church! You know the sort of situation:, there is a dinner invitation and there is that sort of discussion that goes on at home while you get ready and one says to the other (Caution is the better part of valour, so I won’t identify anyone but you can fill in the blanks): One says, ‘What are we to wear?’ The other replies ‘Oh I don’t think it matters.” The question is pressed further, “Posh dress or jeans?’ The answer comes back, ‘Yes, that will be fine.’
We could revisit this conversation when it happens that the jeans were chosen and the invitation turned out to have been for a black-tie dinner! You might imagine the conversation back home afterwards. ‘We looked like hillbillies from Hicksville!’ ‘O it will blow over; we’ll laugh about it later.’ ‘What world do you live in?’
The dress code is the sign of belonging and getting it wrong results in embarrassment or exclusion: it happens at High Table, in clubs, the officer’s mess and certain fine dining restaurants; for instance in places where jackets and ties are required and where jandals are excluded.
We understand this: we may rebel against it and decide to flout convention and expectations but that decision carries consequences that we impose upon ourselves.
So, what sense do you make of the parable Jesus tells this morning? What is ‘the garment of our lives’?
The gospel reminds me of other stories: for instance the story of the women waiting for the marriage celebration; the wise women who have kept their lamps ready and the foolish ones who have no oil (Matthew 25:3-13). Behind that parable and the parable we face this morning is the tension between the way of wisdom and the way of folly. It is an ancient tension that runs through the wisdom literature of the Old Testament – for instance we catch echoes of it in the psalms.
Remembering that, nonetheless, my knee-jerk reaction is sympathy for the character who doesn’t meet the dress-code. How could he be expected to meet the dress code of the Kingdom when, without warning, he is pulled into the banquet hall? It seems absolutely unfair! (But cf Luke 12:15-25) And yet the truth of our lives is that we have little control over important matters and we certainly can’t control when we will die. You will remember the famous parable in Luke (12: 15-25) where the wealthy landowner sets out his plans to build numerous barns to store and grow his business but God says “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So our life is that vulnerable space where all sorts of things may happen and quite beyond our planning. What is ‘the garment of our lives’?
With that thought in mind, what do you really make of this story of the garment without which this guest at the banquet is so roughly and arbitrarily cast out into darkness? This has to be a metaphor – but of what? There is a history behind and a tradition.
The best account of it is in the tradition of Jewish mysticism, in the Jewish Kabbalah, the book known as Zohar. In the Kabbalah this world can be thought of as a vestibule to heaven and all that we do is preparation for eternity. We learn to become our true self and in the process prepare what we may imagine as ‘the garment of days’ that fits us for eternity.
So I quote from the Zohar:
“It has been taught: Happy are the righteous for their days are pure and extend to the world that is coming. When they leave this world, all their days are sewn together, made into radiant garments for them to wear. Arrayed in that garment, they are admitted to the world that is coming to enjoy its pleasures. Clothed in that garment, they are destined to come back to life. All who had a garment will be resurrected as it is written: 'They will rise as in a garment' (Job 38:14).”
What then is ‘the garment of our lives’? It is the self we have spent our lives holding before God.
On this day of remembering the name ‘Parata’ in this Cathedral we find ourselves giving thanks for those who have lived wisely and well; those who have so followed Christ that their memory is to us a source of light, a warmth of love and a sustaining and gentling presence that encourages us on our way as we seek to follow Christ. To live in this way is to be changed and to work for change in our world. We seek to become lights in the darkness of a world that is damaged by exploitation and defaced by greed. We become workers for the Kingdom as we follow Christ: this is ‘the garment of our lives’.