Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Trinity: Being a godly guest and being a godly host – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 28 August 2022 by The Reverend Robert Green. (Hebrews Ch 13: v 1 – 8, 15 – 16; Luke Ch 14: v 1, 7 – 14)
Luke has more mealtime scenes in his gospel than any of the other Gospel writers, and while he sees our Christian life primarily as a journey, it is also having parties. The parable of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, and the Prodigal Son all end with a party, and this morning we have two more of them. In the first we are guests, and in the second we are the host.
Both of these parties are not simply stories, but parables, and so there is a deeper meaning to each of the accounts. In the first as the guests all jostle for a seat, it is not just social etiquette that is at stake here, there is a much broader canvass. Jesus is talking about the way in which people of his day were jostling for position in the eyes of God. They were, so it appeared to him, eager to push themselves forward, to show how well they were keeping to the law, to maintain their own purity. In Jesus’s day it was all too easy for the well-off and the legally trained to imagine they were superior in God’s sight to the poor, to those without opportunity to study, let alone practice the law.
At the same time as Luke was writing there was an obvious wider meaning, for in his lifetime thousands of non-Jews had become Christians, that is they were also guests at the dinner party prepared by God. Many Jewish Christians found this difficult to understand or approve. They were so eager to maintain their own places at the top table they could not grasp God’s great design to stand the world on its head. As Tom Wright says “Pride, notoriously, is the great cloud which blots out the sun of God’s generosity”. We are all God’s guests, and none of us deserves to be there. If I reckon that I deserve to be favoured by God, not only do I declare that I don’t need his grace, mercy and love, but I imply that those who don’t deserve it, shouldn’t have it. We depend on God’s grace, and it is only when we truly know this that we can grow in genuine humility and delight in being at the table at all, and see that the “lowest” place is as honourable as any other.
In the second parable we become the host. Who do we invite? I have no doubt that we all have our social diary, and we can so easily get caught up in a cycle of dinner parties. Now none of these are wrong, but Jesus is saying something different. This is not about giving to those who are poor, but welcoming people into our lives, eating and drinking together, rather than making a donation to the food bank and walking away. I well remember in my last parish when a gentleman appeared at a morning service who clearly had slept rough the previous night, and was quite dishevelled. He came and joined us, and a member of the congregation showed him where we were in the service book. Afterwards over coffee we chatted with him, and because he had felt welcomed, he began to come regularly, so much so that he joined us at Lee Abbey when we had a Parish Weekend. However this story has a tragic end, for we did not know that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and some months later he took his own life. A goodly number of us were at his funeral.
It would be some forty years ago when one morning a man called at the vicarage around breakfast time and asked for some food. He also had slept rough- there was straw in his hair! He cleaned himself up in the cloakroom leaving a quantity of straw on the floor and joined us for breakfast. He was clearly of mixed race, and we discovered he was a Barnardo’s boy. This was to be the first of a number of occasions when he joined us for breakfast, and then he told us he would be moving to a different area and we saw him no more, but our lives were enriched by sharing a meal with this man who lived a very simple life.
If we are serious about wanting to live the Kingdom life, our desire will be to take our place among those who seem to have so little and to open our hearts, not just our wallets, because in the Kingdom we are all guests. Each person, poor or wealthy is a means of grace to every other. As we saw in the first parable no one is any less to be honoured than anyone else. It’s a radical way of looking at society; no wonder Jesus was so unpopular with wealthy people!
It was Henri Nouwen who said: “Our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared” Even in this 21st century where some family relationships may be very complex, we are called to learn the true nature of hospitality – sharing our lives, opening hearts, eating and drinking together, welcoming the stranger, and as we heard in our reading from Hebrews- even entertaining angels unawares.