Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 29 August 2010

29 August 2010 at 11:00 am

The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon of Westminster

Readings: Prov 25:2-7; Heb 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7-14

The Gospel we have just heard is about squabbles over who sits in the best seats at banquets, in the synagogue - or in church.  The news this week makes all that seem very petty as we see the pictures of the terrible flooding in Pakistan.  One picture taken from a helicopter sticks in my mind.  It was of a family wading or swimming – you couldn’t see which – through an ocean of muddy water.  For a moment I couldn’t think what possessed them to set out on such a dangerous journey – until I realised that as the waters went on rising they must have had no alternative.  I guess that, like me, you have never seen anything like it.  It is a shocking reminder of the need we all have to be safe from floods, to have shelter, access to clean water, to food, to medical care, to roads and to land where crops can be grown.  I gather something like a fifth of Pakistan is under water and floods like these have not been known in living memory.

As soon as there is space to reflect on the tragedy, the old questions will rightly spring up: How could a compassionate God, if there is such a God, allow these things to happen to the creatures he supposedly loves?  How much of the tragedy can be blamed on God, and how much must be blamed on human beings for the way we have abused the earth?  Is the flooding the product of man-made climate change?  If so, what are we to say about the massive injustice of disasters like this being visited not on those who pollute the most - but on the poor who follow a traditional way of life and pollute the least?  These are vital questions, but I do not want to focus on them this morning.  This morning the readings, and especially the Gospel reading, point in another direction.

The story Jesus tells about the guest at the wedding banquet who is ordered to take a lower place is based on the worldly wisdom of Proverbs, which we heard about in the Old Testament reading.  What we have there is prudent advice:

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 took that advice and turned it into a parable.  Nobody wants to be humiliated by taking too prominent seat at a banquet and then being publicly demoted.  In God’s kingdom, ‘all who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted’.  In God’s kingdom we are all guests, and nobody can presume that they should have a more important place than anybody else.  When the disciples were arguing about who would have the most important place in God’s kingdom, Jesus rebuked them.  It’s God who arranges the seating plan at God’s table, and in that seating plan we are told there will be some real surprises.

This is something the poet George Herbert understood very well.  His poem, Love, depends precisely on God – or Love - being the host at the feast and the poet being a guest, who knows he has no right to be there.  You probably know the poem well:

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back, 
      Guilty of dust and sin. 
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack 
      From my first entrance in, 
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning          5
      If I lack'd anything. 
  
'A guest,' I answer'd, 'worthy to be here:' 
     Love said, 'You shall be he.' 
'I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear, 
      I cannot look on Thee.'   10
Love took my hand and smiling did reply, 
      'Who made the eyes but I?' 
  
'Truth, Lord; but I have marr'd them: let my shame 
      Go where it doth deserve.' 
'And know you not,' says Love, 'Who bore the blame?'   15
      'My dear, then I will serve.' 
'You must sit down,' says Love, 'and taste my meat.' 
      So I did sit and eat. 

When the poet is invited to the banquet, his soul draws back ‘Guilty of dust and sin’, but Love takes the initiative, asking whether he lacks something that would enable him to feel comfortable just being there.  ‘A guest’, I answered, ‘worthy to be here’; Love said ‘You shall be he’.  So the poem goes on, with Love drawing the poet in - to the point where he offers at least to serve at the feast.  But even that is not good enough for Love.  Love insists that the guest must share fully in the banquet, so the poet finally accepts: ‘You must sit down’, said Love, ‘and taste my meat’. ‘So I did sit and eat’.  Herbert’s poem turns the practical worldly wisdom of Proverbs, and even the story Jesus told, into the pure truth of the Gospel invitation.  This is not a poem about being promoted or demoted at the feast.  The one thing that matters is sitting at table on the same basis as everybody else – by God’s invitation - and receiving God’s welcome like every body else. 

There is a link between the way we respond to the invitation to God’s banquet, and the way we respond to the needs of the people suffering from the floods in Pakistan or from the other disasters we hear about in the news.  Just as we are guests at God’s heavenly banquet, so we are guests at the banquet of life in earth.  At the banquet of this world’s goods, we have, most of us, been given extraordinarily privileged places.  There are those who have no place at the banquet at all.  If we do not demote ourselves to invite them to share in this world’s goods, we shall in the end be demoted because of the way we have kept the banquet for ourselves.  God’s heavenly banquet - which we share this morning - teaches us that God’s earthly banquet is for all.  None of us has a place by right.  Each of us is responsible before God for the way we use the place that has been given us at the banquet of earth’s goods.  Is it to welcome others or not?  Every time we break the bread and share the cup at God’s heavenly banquet a question is asked of us, ‘What are you doing – what am I doing - to make the banquet of this life more like the banquet of heaven?

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