28th August,2016. 14th after Trinity
Jeremiah 2: 4-13. Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16. Luke 14: 1, 7-14
The most important piece of furniture in any community or household must be the table. Around a table we gather here at Hilfield four times a day – for food, for conversation, for engagement and banter, for welcoming visitors. A good table is the most valuable item of equipment in the house; get the table right and what goes on around it, and a lot more will fall into place.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that so many of the stories about Jesus in the gospels, and the stories told by Jesus, happen around a table: Jesus eating and drinking, laughing and longing, teaching and arguing and sometimes shocking. Table fellowship, says Jesus, is a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven, what life under God is really like. It speaks of the way God longs for us and the world to live; the Kingdom of Heaven is like a great banquet. Today’s gospel reading from Luke chapter 14 is set within a Sabbath meal in the house of a leader of the Pharisees, and Jesus speaks to those with him at table, and to us, of hosts and guests.
When you are planning a luncheon or a dinner party, says Jesus, don’t be too picky and choosy about the guest list. Don’t invite the obvious people: your friends and relatives, your business partners and clients – those who will be of advantage to you or who will make you feel good about yourself. No, invite those who seemingly have nothing to offer you in return: the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind – the forgotten people – because the Kingdom of Heaven is full of them. I sometimes look around our refectory table here and think what an extraordinary collection of people we are, a ‘rich soup of humanity’ as someone has described it. The letter to the Hebrews, our second reading this morning, tells us not to neglect to show hospitality to strangers, ‘for by doing that some have entertained angels unawares’. There are angels around our table – it’s a holy place!
The table is a holy place – and we are all guests of God. If so, says Jesus, then we need to act like guests. True guests don’t rush in as soon as the doors are open to elbow their way to the best places. Proper guests, guests who remember that they are guests at the feast, aren’t too fussed about where they are sitting or whom they are sitting beside. They are just glad to have been invited. Some friends of mine from Liverpool, true Scousers, received an invitation to a Buckingham Palace Garden Party. They never quite worked out why this dropped through their letter box; Brenda had done some work in the local community but they had never put their names forward for anything like that. She, being a staunch royalist was overwhelmed with excitement and immediately began to worry about a hat. Terry her husband on the other hand came from a family with Irish republican leanings and was not quite so excited. He said that he would go as long as he could wear his jeans. But go they did, Terry having been persuaded to buy a suit, and they enjoyed it hugely. They wandered around the state rooms and the gardens and they listened to the band – Brenda in stunned amazement and Terry engaging with everyone and offering his roll-ups. They never got near the Queen, though Brenda curtsied to the Countess of Wessex. The tea-cups were a bit small, but they were just so glad to be there – as guests.
The case against Israel, as presented in today’s first reading from the prophet Jeremiah, is that the nation had forgotten that it was a guest. The people of Israel had been guests when God brought them out from Egypt, out of slavery. They had been guests in the wilderness when God had supplied them with manna for their daily food and with life-giving water gushing from the rocks. They had been guests when they had entered the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. But now, hundreds of years later, they had forgotten this; they thought that they had an inalienable right to the land and all it contained, without any conditions of responsibility. And they had forgotten their host; they no longer asked ‘Where is the Lord?’, for they themselves and all they possessed had become their own lords. Because of that amnesia, because they no longer recognised that source of living water, that invitation to life, they had become, says Jeremiah, ‘cracked cisterns that could hold no water’!
I would suggest that as with Israel in Jeremiah’s day, the besetting sin of our own generation is amnesia. We have forgotten that we are guests – that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it’ as the psalmist puts it. We have come to see the universe as ours – as a giant warehouse of stuff there for our use and exploitation rather than as a community of creatures enjoying the hospitality of God. We need to be reminded by people like Francis that, like every creature, we are of the earth, brought into being, loved, shaped and sustained; that we are brothers and sisters to each other, utterly interdependent with the sun, the sea, the land and everything in it, dependent upon the love and generosity of our host. We need, like Francis, to rejoice that we are all sat around the same table. The fundamental requirement of wise ecology is the remembrance that we are guests. We need to be reminded by people like Dorothy Day, working among the homeless, like Jo Cox, murdered by someone shouting ‘Britain First’, like Lord Dunn and others campaigning to bring isolated children from the camp at Calais to safety in this country, that as guest we ourselves have no inalienable right to be here; no right above that of the Afghan, the Iraqi, the Syrian or the Sudanese. We have no privileged place at the table, no right to better food, better housing or greater opportunities than anyone else; and if we do claim that right then we risk the danger that one day we ourselves and our descendants will be displaced, will be told, ‘Take the lower place’. The life of the Kingdom is a process of learning how to be guests – guests in creation, guests before God – and Christian mission always involves first learning how to be guests to the other, the outsider.
In a short while we will be gathering around another table, guests at the Lord’s Supper. We have been given this sacrament as a sign of the Kingdom. We are here by invitation, by royal command. We are all here on an equal footing, there are no reserved seats. We stand in a circle and among us, as a guest, is our host. The Latin word, hospes, from which we derive our word ‘hospitality’, means both ‘host’ and ‘guest’. That’s how God does hospitality, how God shows us that we are welcome, have a place in the Kingdom – by becoming our guest, by taking a place alongside us, by walking with his people, by sharing a stable, by becoming vulnerable, body-broken. And by receiving this humble guest we ourselves are shaped to become guests in the world and to each other, and we can begin to share in the joyful feast of the Kingdom.