(Proverbs 25, 6-7; Hebrews 13, 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14, 1 & 7-14)
Have any of you ever had to organise a wedding reception? It’s an absolute minefield!
How much do you spend? Where do you hold it? Do you have a formal meal for the older relatives and a disco for all the young friends, or try to combine the two and please neither. Who do you invite? Can you remember who invited you to their wedding reception, and must you invite all of them back? Who stands in the receiving line to greet the guests? And, most tricky of all, who sits with the bride and groom on the top table?
I expect most of us can remember family arguments over weddings! And things have got much more complicated with the rise in divorce and remarriage, so that you have step-parents and half-brothers and sisters to include too. I know of several couples recently who decided the whole thing was simply too difficult to manage, and went off to get married quietly abroad to avoid the problems.
Even in today’s relaxed society, formal meals are a crucial part of social life. Who is invited and where you sit is important for defining status. But in the past, they had even greater importance. Formal meals were where you might gain the ear of someone important, and the impression you made might be crucial for your future influence and prosperity.
And in the Gospels, written at a time when hunger was so widespread, and large meals were held only on very special occasions, such meals symbolised the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world; and a wedding banquet was a sign of the eschatological banquet that would mark the welcome of the chosen ones into God’s presence at the end of time.
So, although the meal that Jesus was attending in our story from Luke’s Gospel was a Sabbath meal, when he spoke about it he talked about a wedding feast – an indication that he was talking about life in the Kingdom of God, not just everyday social etiquette.
He starts out by giving a piece of practical advice that might have come from any book of ‘How to get on in society’ anywhere and at any time: don’t push yourself to the front; wait to be noticed by those in charge. You can see we find the same advice in the Book of Proverbs, and I’ve read it is found also in the writings of other rabbis.
This practical wisdom advises the practice of humility; but it is not real humility. At its lowest level it is the practice of well-bread politeness – but you only hold back in the knowledge that it gets you places; you only take the lowest place in the hope that your host will very publicly invite you onto the top table, and so reinforce your prestige. This is the reverse of what God wants.
Another sort of humility involves self- hatred and self-abasement. “I am a miserable worm, the bottom of the moral food chain, hardly worthy of being here at all. Thank you for noticing me”. This is not what God wants either. The great commandment tells us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves; so you can’t love other people if you don’t love yourself first. Of course we need to be realistic about our good points and our bad ones – otherwise, as the psychologists warn us, we will tend to project our ‘dark side’ onto others and persecute them for what we cannot accept in ourselves. But God finds us worthy of love, as Jesus taught us; so there is nothing wrong with loving ourselves.
So, how can we find a way of being genuinely humble.
Many years ago, when I was a finalist in the Times ‘Preacher of the Year’ award, a clergy friend wrote to congratulate me, but also to warn me against getting too big-headed! He told me about a Catholic saint who used to practice humility by licking the floorboards clean with his tongue! I never tried it – and I am sceptical about how good such ‘spiritual exercises in mortification’ are in making people really humble in their interaction with other human beings.
I think real humility comes from inside, from an acknowledgement that what we are and what we have comes ultimately from God. In the context of the wedding feast it comes from admitting that we are at the feast by the gracious invitation of God alone. We don’t earn that invitation and we have no right to it, nor to a particular place at the table; and what is more, the sick, the disabled, the sinful and the unworthy have as much right to be there as us clean and respectable folk.
So, in everyday life, to invite such people to share with us in our worship and in our prosperity is true humility, because they can never reciprocate. There is absolutely nothing in it for us.
Luke tells us constantly that is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like; those whom the world despises will be the first into the Kingdom and will have first place in the queue for the top table. That’s made very clear if you read the Magnificat, a version of which we will sing at the later in this service.
Our reading from Hebrews tell us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever – so as the Body of Christ, that is what our church should seek to be like too. But in practice that is a very difficult thing to do.
Some of the older ones among you may remember a Peter Sellers film of 1963 called ‘Heavens Above’. In it, Sellers plays an idealistic prison chaplain called John Smallwood, who, after a confusion with another clergyman of the same name, is appointed to to a prestigious wealthy parish. When he invites the outcasts of his society – gypsies and criminals – to share his vicarage, sets up a free food supply that ruins local shops, and persuades a local factory owner to sell off her business, so that most of the townspeople become unemployed, the economy of the town collapses, and finally he is moved off to a parish overseas as a damage limitation exercise.
There was a more modern fictional example of the difficulty of putting this vision of the heavenly banquet into practice in the last episode of the first series of ‘Rev’ which you may have seen on TV. In this, the vicar, called Adam Smallbone (note both characters have’ small’ in their name – to indicate humility?) receives a really bad online review of his church and sermon from a ‘mystery worshipper’. The Ship of Fools website, which does publish such reviews, put a spoof review of this fictional church online. As well as criticising the sermon, it noted how unattractive the church would be to most worshippers, because there were tramps in the churchyard, some of the men in the congregation were unshaven and there was another tramp asleep in the back pew, snoring loudly. Adam was profoundly depressed by this review, but perhaps in relation to our gospel reading today, this service sounded more like a foretaste of the heavenly banquet than he might think.
How to keep our churches open and welcoming to everyone, even those on the margins of respectable society, is an issue that all congregations have to return to again and again, as they seek to be Christ’s body on earth. There are no easy answers. The Hebrews reading gives some clues. It urges us to welcome the strangers into our fellowship, and tells us that in the past, people doing so have ‘entertained angels without knowing it’. Angels are the messengers of God, so this indicates that we will find insight into what God is like and what God wants of us among the poor, the outcast and the dispossessed. But if we don’t ever really meet them, and simply dispense charity from afar, we will have little chance of hearing the message that these ‘angels’ are bringing us.
Jesus also told us, in Matthew’s Gospel, that whatever we do for ‘the least of these my brothers and sister, you do for me’. That reminds us that fellowship with others is not ours to give or withhold; it is God’s. We are in communion with others, even if they make us feel uncomfortable, even if we disagree with their views, because God invites us, as he invites everyone from the Pope and the poorest of the poor in Sudan, to the same heavenly table.
Hebrews tells us that if we do invite such people to share in our table, then our lives and our worship have a chance of being ‘a sacrifice of praise to God’. Our faith tells us that whenever we entertain the outcast, we may entertain not only angels, but Our Lord himself.
Jesus is not likely to be an easy guest to invite to your wedding reception. He is likely to criticise your arrangements, challenge your values and bring in all sorts of uninvited guests with him. But if you want to be at his feast, even at the lowest table, then guess who’s coming to your dinner?