Preached by Canon Lesley McCormack on 28th August 2016
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
‘When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you….’
As we gather here this morning to worship God, we sing, we pray, and we share the gift of a simple meal. And we listen – to each other and to God speaking to us through all these things and through the words of scripture. And as we do all of this, we are reminded of a profound and utterly amazing truth – that God loves each and every one of us – not just those of us here, but all people everywhere across our world- we are loved no matter who we are, no matter our age or circumstances, no matter our faith or beliefs. God simply and gloriously loves! He loved us into being, and he continues to love us into the fullness of life, not because of what we are, or what we do, what we have done or will do in the future, but simply because we are! – the wonderful, extraordinary, beautiful, fallible children of God. God’s love has no strings attached – He loves us, not because we are loveable, but we are loveable precisely because God loves us. That love will never falter – it is infinite and everlasting.
And because we are loved, we are called to love.
Yet so often, we seem to find it so hard to grasp that reality; it’s a real struggle for some people to believe and comprehend that they are loved; and I would dare to suggest that it is a constant struggle for most of us to love unconditionally, a struggle made harder by our preoccupation with issues of power and status. Over time, that preoccupation, fed by our inability to love with no strings attached, has had and continues to have devastating consequences resulting in pain, hardship and injustice. Being a person of faith does not exempt us from this struggle. We only have to look at the tensions currently within the Anglican Communion over issues of sexuality and same-sex marriage to be reminded of that.
Jesus, and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, confronts each of us head on this morning.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus has been invited for a meal – a banquet – at the home of a leader of the Pharisees. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaching about banquets points to the life of God’s Kingdom; they celebrate the flourishing of people living in relationship with a generous God and with one another. On this occasions, you sense that something else is also going on here for Luke tell us that ‘they were watching him closely’. But Jesus has also been watching others who had also been invited, and he noted how they were jostling for position, choosing for themselves the places of honour.
In somebody else’s home, and surrounded by hostile eyes, Jesus make no attempt to curry favour with his host or the crowd, and turns the spotlight on his watchers. They, not him, become the spectacle.
Jesus tells two stories about dinner-parties, cutting straight to the heart of the obsession of the Pharisees and other community leaders with hierarchy, position and judgements about others worth and value.
Frequently in the Gospels we see people coming to Jesus with the same kind of questions about hierarchy and position; about how to measure and order their world and find the best place for themselves. Jesus simply refuses to answer in those terms, and tries to get the people to work with a completely different set of assumptions.
The guest, he says, must remember that it is not his dinner-party and he cannot decide for himself who should sit where. The party is given by someone else and the host alone has the right to determine the seating arrangements.
Further more, Jesus seems to be suggesting to his distinguished audience that they have no idea at all of the criteria that God uses to send out his invitations. No amount of working our way up the hierarchical ladder is going to guarantee admission, and if you do get invited, you may find yourself in some unexpected company!
The writer to the Hebrews picks up the same thread. ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.’
We don’t do that very well, it seems for I was reminded earlier this month that we are failing to honour commitments under the Dublin regulations to bring unaccompanied refugee children into this country and reunite them with their families. To date, only 40 children and teenagers have been allowed in to Britain with a further 110 in Calais identified as being eligible – but no action has been taken in their cases. Another 200 children in the camps in Calais are eligible for sanctuary in Britain under the Lord Alfred Dubs amendment to bring child refugees to the UK, formerly a child refugee himself. Ministers said that several thousand were expected to come to Britain – so far there have been just 20. We are not, it seems, doing very well in showing hospitality to strangers and sharing our banquet with others – and it brings shame on us all!
Time and again, Jesus challenges those who believe that the way to God can be mapped out according to human rules and values, but the words of Luke and the Letter to the Hebrews tell us that nothing could be further from the truth; the ways of God are gloriously contrary to the ways of the world.
Dave Smith is an inspiration. He is the founder of two Manchester based Christian charities – The Mustard Tree which works with the homeless and marginalised, and the Boaz Trust, which helps destitute, refused asylum-seekers and refugees by providing accommodation and support and campaigning for a more just asylum system. Those who work for the charity experience on occasions the joy of seeing clients who have received ‘Leave to Remain in the UK’ notices and Dave Smith wrote the following after one such experience:
Today the letter came.
Today you came in to the office,
with the letter, smiling,
no longer the same.
I have seen you smile before:
not often, in the last six years of waiting,
and always wistfully,
always tinged with sadness,
always hiding the hurt beneath.
because of the letter
your smile was wide,
your hug intense
your brow unfurrowed,
your frown unfurled,
your worry-lines ironed out,
you eyes alive with light –
all because of the letter.
If only they understood
what the letter means to you,
and thousands like you.
If only they understood
why you were willing to suspend your life
until the letter came.
I wish I could frame your smile,
bottle your new, light heart,
capture in print your unburdened soul,
and send them a copy.
Maybe then they would understand
that you are not, and never were
a number to be counted
a statistic to be quoted
an inconvenience to be ignored,
but a living being
and most of all,
a child of God.
as you smiled your freedom smile
I could see, almost for the first time
the image of your creator
that the letter had
In our churches, through the grace of God, we have a banquet to offer all people, and especially people in need. It isn’t just a banquet of worship and prayer, but also of space and sanctuary, food, friendship and hospitality. God has no seating plan for his extraordinary guest list. This morning Jesus challenges us – do we do all that we can to offer hospitality, inviting, encouraging people to share in this banquet? And if not, what are we going to do about it! Amen.