Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Sermon at Parish Mass Trinity 14 2013

Ecclesiasticus 10:12-18
Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16
Luke 14:1,7-14

“The Bucket residence, the Lady of the house speaking!” So says Hyacinth Bucket when she answers the telephone in “Keeping Up Appearances”. It’s a comedy of manners which shows up her relentless snobbery and social climbing - things that she is herself completely unaware of. Particularly to be feared are her famous candlelight suppers where who knows what excruciating embarrassment might ensue. And all of it is about her trying to put on a front, to construct the social identity to which she aspires. She imagines that’s how posh people live and she wants so desperately to be posh. And the comedy is about how she keeps coming unstuck.
Well, two thousand years before, Jesus was often an awkward dinner guest, particularly if you were a pharisee. There are a lot of scenes set at dinner parties in the gospels, most of all in Luke, and Jesus often says and does things at them that embarrass the host or the other guests. 
So, today. Jesus is being watched by the pharisees to try and work out what to make of him, and indeed to trap him in something he might say or do. Last week he healed in a synagogue on a sabbath day, arousing the anger of the religious authorities. And this week follows on, developing the same theme. In fact in the full version of today’s gospel there’s another sabbath healing story, very similar to last week, which for the sake of brevity has been left out. What we focus on this week is a story that Jesus tells when he notices the behaviour of some of the guests. Quite like Hyacinth Bucket, they seek out the higher places for themselves, jostling for position in the social pecking order.
But the story Jesus tells is not simply about dinner party etiquette. Luke tells us it’s a parable, which means we need to watch out. Things in parables are never quite as they seem on the surface. They tell of scenes which at first look familiar, but are set in a world which runs radically differently from the one we know. They challenge our consciousness and open our minds to a new understanding - if we are willing to receive it. 
The Zen-like stories which Jesus tells open a window so we can see, if we will, the Kingdom of God breaking into this world and turning everything upside down. The hungry are filled with good things, the lowly lifted up; but the powerful are brought down from their thrones, the rich sent empty away, as Mary sings in her Magnificat at the start of Luke’s gospel.
So, this story about guests at dinner parties is a parable. It is meant to tell us something about the Kingdom of God. And indeed a banquet, in this story a wedding feast, is one of the images the Bible uses for that Kingdom. 
At the heart of this parable is a simple observation about honour. The foolish guests choose the places of honour for themselves, but then are embarrassed as they are moved to the lowest place. Humble guests, however, choose the lowest place and then are honoured in the sight of all when the host says “Friend, move up higher”.
Honour, in Greek, is doxa. It’s a rich word and has overtones of glory and reputation. And what Jesus draws our attention to is that we always receive our glory, reputation or honour from someone else. If we try to grab our honour in the way of the world, through envy, rivalry, jostling for position, desiring what others have, we are likely to come unstuck. Honour has to be received from someone else, not taken. We cannot construct it ourselves. Attempts to do so can be comical when it is just jostling for social precedence like Hyacinth Bucket. Though that can also be rather sad if that’s all that someone’s life really consists of.
But consider that to desire someone else’s place is ultimately to want to be someone else. It is to desire their being, their self, which I perceive to be somehow more vital, more full of essential stuff, than I am. Then the dynamic of grabbing a place by taking it away from another can become horrific and tragic, as events in Syria and elsewhere show all too well.
The alternative, as Jesus tells us, is to follow the way of the Kingdom, which is to recognise that everything we have, everything we are, is from God. We receive our being and our honour from God. God who is the host of the banquet of the Kingdom. God who wants to honour us and raise us higher. God who wants to give us in fact the honour, the glory, the reputation, of his beloved children. But to receive that we have to let go of our efforts to create our own honour and glory. Humility is the path into the Kingdom.
A Jewish audience should have known this - Proverbs chapter 25 has this to say, part of the tradition that it seems some people had forgotten:
Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence
   or stand in the place of the great;
for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here’,
   than to be put lower in the presence of a noble. 
Jesus elaborates this further in the second part of his parable, which really turns everything upside down. “Do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid”. God wants to honour us, to own us as his children, to give us our being, entirely out of his own generosity and overflowing love. Being repaid isn’t part of that. There isn’t a bargain, there’s just a gift. The Kingdom of God is not about earning God’s favour or deserving anything or being worthy. It is about receiving honour, and everything, our very being, in utter simplicity as children of God just because he loves us and for no other reason.
And this includes everyone. Jesus says, “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind”. These are people who, according to some religious authorities of the time, were specifically excluded from the banquet of the Kingdom. Suddenly everyone from the edge is at the centre, the outsiders and those who have nothing to offer are at the heart of God’s kingdom of generosity and love.
We need to beware of thinking that we can earn God’s favour by being good. It is a very prevalent idea but it is not what the Gospel says. We are “Justified by grace through faith”, meaning that God loves and honours us as his children not through any merits of our own but entirely through God’s free gift. We have simply to turn to him to receive that love, the honour of being his sons and daughters, with the simplicity of children receiving all the good and needful things of life from loving parents.
Once we realise that this is true of us we can begin to re-imagine the world. Because it is true of everyone else, too. Even those who most resist God’s call to live according to his kingdom. All the sinners and ne’er do wells and the feckless and the lazy. All the the loan sharks and human traffickers and drug dealers and traders in human misery. And the tyrants and the murderers and the war lords. “Everyone” and “inclusive” are not necessarily comfortable words.
God’s will is that all should turn to him and be saved. And the path into the Kingdom, for all, is repentance, to let go and turn away from our attempts to construct ourselves at the expense of others, to turn away from rivalry, violence and contempt. Repentance is always possible! God never gives up waiting for us to turn to him! And repentance is in the end the only lasting solution to all our human rivalry and violence, wherever it may be.
And repentance leads us to a new beginning, in humility. When we realise we have nothing to bring we can receive forgiveness and a new beginning from God. Simply because he loves us beyond our imagining. Simply because that is what he is like. 
And humility leads to love, because when we turn to God in humility and repentance we discover that we are loved and cherished and honoured more than we can know. We find ourselves in the place of God’s love which cannot but overflow in our lives. God’s hospitality to us becomes our hospitality to all - most especially those on the edge, those marginalised and excluded. For of such is the Kingdom of God. This looks like turning the world upside-down. But, actually, it is turning it the right way up, at last.


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