s189g01 Somerton Park 2/9/01 Sunday 22

"When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." Luke 14:10,11

I must confess to be somewhat amused, as I read these words, that God stoops to bribery in order to encourage us to do the right thing. My mind goes to the bribery parents attempt to use on children, saying things like: "An apple a day keeps the doctor away". And bribery does indeed work for a time, but eventually children grow up and to a greater or a lesser extent rebel. In time we all realise that, of course, an apple a day doesn't always keep the doctor away. Eventually we all realise that an apple a day doesn't stop leukaemia or AIDS, sadly. And, in fact, all of the doctors I know are very nice, and they have lots of ways to help when we are sick. "Keeping the doctor away" is in fact not an especially commendable aim in life. Indeed it is downright stupid to not see a doctor when we're sick (if of course we are able and there is one to be seen). It is even more silly to consult a physician then refuse to have tests or to ignore what the doctor has to suggest. The same might be said for undertakers, we cannot avoid them, and the ones I know are very sensitive.

Along with the realisation that some of the conventional wisdom of parents is in fact limited comes, I suspect the seeds of doubt sown that there in fact may not be a reward at the end of this life. As I hinted at a couple of weeks ago, there may or may not be a magistrate at the end of time - I cannot say. There may be no carrots and no sticks whatsoever.

But surely the important thing is not to question the existence of the sticks and carrots at the end of time, but the doing of what the words imply - today. As I suggested then, I suggest again now, let us not let the debate about the end times blind us to the reality of the blessings today likely to be had by doing as God wants here and now.

Prophets, Bishops, Priests, Politicians, Revolutionaries, (and it needs to be said, some of them devout atheists) have, since time began, lamented the gap between the rich and the poor. And the words of Jesus say that it is up to you and it is up to me to do something about it.

The words from the Old Testament lesson - the etiquette attending a formal dinner - which are echoed by Jesus' words - show us the constant temptation to see others as rivals - to live like the animals - "the survival of the fittest".

I always find myself more than a little uncomfortable with these words, because if I was to do as Jesus suggests, in all likelihood, the host may easily be preoccupied and fail to notice the lowly place I am sitting and not in fact say "Friend, move up higher". If the purpose of my self depreciation is only so that someone else may ostentatiously honour me, I'd prefer to remain "at the back". I'm a good Anglican after all :-) It sounds like me getting my own back on other people - a little like the retribution implied in the verse of that most well known of psalms: "Thou spred'st a table before me - in the face of those who trouble me"!

I suppose it's all right to be amused that God might use bribery to get us to take notice, though perhaps some may find it confronting.

One of the other reasons that these words make me feel uncomfortable, is that they can sound just like "an apple a day" ... No one would get upset in the slightest if you sat in the lowest place attending a banquet, as Jesus suggests, just as no one would get upset if a person ate an apple each day. More likely those "up higher" at the banquet would be simply scornful and give them another reason to ignore and ostracise another person.

But it needs to be said that this is precisely what Jesus did - he sat down and ate with sinners - and it was precisely for this reason that he was crucified by the religious authorities, who wanted him to demur to them - not to other people. So these words, far from being kindly and wise advise, actually contain within them the reason Jesus was killed, and killed by the religiously rich and powerful, who certainly thought of themselves as wise and blessed.

For of course, the invitation of the King always includes the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, for God does not call people for the benefit that the kingdom might accrue by their attendance. God also does not wish to be repaid - God wishes only people come and enjoy the feast.

One of the other things I want to say, that if the resurrection of the "righteous" includes some people I know, I am not all that sure I want to be there to be repaid :-) I will be content to do what I can for others here and now, and to forget about ever being repaid.

But the silly thing is that the resurrection of the righteous is precisely the resurrection of those who have considered others, not those who have managed to keep all of the ten commandments ...

The reality is that for some, an apple a day would be indescribable riches. I still recall some of our older parishioners here saying that when they were young, they so much looked forward to Christmass each year when they received an orange as their present! It makes me ashamed when I think of all the orange juice we as a family would drink for breakfast, without even thinking.

This leads me to question how much do we take for granted our own riches, our own physical ability, our own health and "normal" sexuality. We have these not because we have managed to listen to what our parents have said, and eaten the apple a day religiously. The people who do not have these riches are not those who have disregarded the conventional wisdom of their parents and so can be criticised by those who have. Those who have not these riches are not necessarily ones who have travelled to the far country and squandered what they have on prostitutes ... and of course, what would it matter if they had? The parable tells us that God welcomes them as readily as God welcomes us. We are all only human.

God uses all the resources possible, future carrots as well as future sticks, to encourage us to look beyond ourselves to the others around us, here and now, for it is not easy, and we will not necessarily be admired for doing so, just as Jesus was hardly admired for doing this.

Some time ago I attended the funeral of a man, much my own age in another parish. He was a quiet and gentle man. He suffered from a mental illness and that was exacerbated by the fact that he was probably gay - with the attendant isolation that this brought. I suspect that he took his own life in absolute fear and trembling of having to face a repeat of an earlier psychotic episode which lasted some years. But this man spent a lifetime in the service of others and in the service of the Church. He helped, and probably was taken advantage of by, many on the fringes of society who would never darken the doors of the Church. I considered it a privilege to act as the server at the requiem eucharist celebrating his life, taking the place he had so often done in the past, for others. It makes me unspeakably proud of our church to say that the building was full for that service. Besides the three clergy in the sanctuary, I counted at least five others in the congregation. The man would have been astonished if he knew - he had no idea of the esteem in which he was held by so many people and how many lives he had touched. More than anything I have seen in a long time, this funeral showed me the real church in action and I was proud of it. The God I worship has welcomed him with open arms, as Jesus welcomed the hospitality and presence of all sorts and conditions of people. Despite the sadness, it is good to know that he is free of the fear that haunted him for most of his life. A truly remarkable man.

For Jesus did not take the lowest place at the banquet; he did not sit down and eat with sinners - to berate the sinners for their lack of ambition, success or devotion. He sat down and ate with them because often simply they were better company than those who considered themselves the "righteous"!

For God's call to "come up higher" is not directed towards me as an individual, it is, in Jesus, directed towards all those with whom he sat down and ate. Jesus whole life was spent in saying to people that God welcomes them as they really are - up to the "high table". Or, put another way, Jesus sitting down and eating with them meant that the "high table" had come to them. And it was precisely this perception that so enraged those who had spent their lives arranging the heavenly seating and anticipating precisely which pew had their own name on it, enraged them enough to have Jesus killed.

So the choice is before us all, to sit down in the lowest place as Jesus did, or to spend out time arranging the seating as we think it ought to be at the end of time, but, time and again, the words of Jesus tell us that the later occupation is simply a waste of energy. The Lord will do what arranging is necessary and I suspect God will have surprises in store for us all.

 

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