Sermon for Trinity 14 High Mass Sunday 28 August 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
Jesus, invited to the house of a leading Pharisee for a meal, observes his host’s friends, proudly religious people, scrambling for the best places at the meal, showing that the real source of their pride is vanity and selfishness: their motive in appearing at dinner was to assert their status. Happily there is no social advantage in attending any church these days, so we may be able to avoid that pitfall this morning. Even so I have frequently been astonished by people, in every church I’ve worked in or attended, finding ways to gain a sense of status superiority from what they do in church, which church they attend, or which flavour of church they belong to. That’s the topic here: are we simply happy to be at the banquet because the Lord is here, or are we after something else.
Our first reading was from Ecclesiasticus or the Wisdom of Sirach. Ecclesiasticus was among the books directed to be read by the Book of Common Prayer, but only fairly recently restored to Anglican lectionaries, after a couple of centuries of protestant-fuelled neglect. As often in this Wisdom book (as in similar books in this biblical genre, like Proverbs, Psalms and Job) we hear teaching about that sin of pride which underlies the behaviour observed by Jesus at this dinner. The heart of the teaching is that Wisdom, the true way of understanding the world, God’s way, is the opposite of pride. The proud cannot be wise, nor are the wise proud. Pride is a sign, the teacher says, of separation from God. As Jesus would say, it is not characteristic of God’s kingdom.
I have a daily experience in this church of meeting people who didn’t know it was here. Especially when the doors are open – which is for as many months as we can stand it – passers by, often just trying to avoid Oxford Street, see an odd cramped-looking little building with what they may or may not know is a sculpture of the Annunciation outside and wander in. Many of them utter exclamations of awe when first walking though the door. That awe, which we may still feel when caught unawares by this extraordinary building – an experience which we should indulge – proceeds from a proper sense of humility before beauty.
Here it is more than simple beauty (there is little that is simple about this building); it is truly beautiful because it is so well-used for prayer and worship, as more sensitive visitors often remark. And that activity, in which we are engaged this morning, should always lead us to a proper sense of humility, rather than pride; it should also not be taken for granted.
Being a slightly jaded church-crawler I hadn’t quite processed, until I came to live and work here, just how extraordinary this building is. I suppose my first impression on walking into it in 1985 was relief, relief to find all the ‘right’ things in place: this remains a professional trap, as any of you who’ve persevered with my Parish-Paper travelogues may have noticed. I wasn’t over-familiar with it, but I was looking at it from a rather functional perspective. To this first time visitor, as I’ve told some of you before, it seemed a beautiful but uncomfortable place. First there was the choir. I’d been used to churches where the choir was heard and not seen, and I found them a bit distracting. Then there were the chairs. The old chairs, you may remember, were astonishingly uncomfortable. But worst of all was the welcome: there wasn’t one. I decided never to come back here, thus tempting God’s sense of humour.
The mistake I made was to think that my presence here was about me. Jesus’ teaching indicates that our presence at this sacred banquet is about God and about each other, about how that makes us into the Body of Christ. That is why we don’t have to like one another, though a little effort in that direction does help: we are here as siblings who cannot avoid our relationship, so we need to make the best of it. Focussing on God rather than ourselves helps with that.
True Wisdom lies, the writer of Ecclesiasticus might conclude, not in ourselves, but in the common fact that we are children of God. Every Sunday we are invited to a banquet, the banquet of the Eucharist. Here Jesus is the host and we the guests. There aren’t any special places; here privilege, status and rank have no meaning; differences don’t count. Here we are just ourselves, children of God.
Jesus’ host, in giving that dinner, seemed to be doing something generous, until you saw the guest list. It was exclusively made up of people who would invite him to their houses in return. That is not generosity, but a form of investment, which he would get back with profit in their return invitations. This is the standard and very hierarchical model of hospitality in much of the ancient world, codifed in the Roman system of patronage. Jesus predictably subverts this with the suggestion that if the host were generous, he would invite the kind of people who would never be able to invite him to their houses (indeed many who had no houses).
There are obvious enough questions for us all in this. Why are we here? How do we regard our neighbours at the banquet? Do we offer our service to the Lord and to others with a price-tag, even if that is just someone’s approval. Giving, of time, energy and resources is only properly directed to God if it is disinterested and truly generous, like Jesus’ love for us on the cross.
A great priest of the last century, Canon John Vanstone, who I was fortunate to hear preach one Good Friday, wrote a wonderful poem about this generosity at the heart of God, which appears in our hymn book supplement:
Morning glory, starlit sky,
Leaves in springtime, swallows’ flight,
Autumn gales, tremendous seas,
Sounds and scents of summer night;
Soaring music, tow’ring words,
Art’s perfection, scholar’s truth,
Joy supreme of human love,
Memory’s treasure, grace of youth;
Open, Lord, are these, Thy gifts,
Gifts of love to mind and sense;
Hidden is love’s agony,
Love’s endeavour, love’s expense.
Love that gives gives ever more,
Gives with zeal, with eager hands,
Spares not, keeps not, all outpours,
Ventures all, it’s all expends.
Drained is love in making full;
Bound in setting others free;
Poor in making many rich;
Weak in giving power to be.
Therefore He Who Thee reveals
Hangs, O Father, on that Tree
Helpless; and the nails and thorns
Tell of what Thy love must be.
Thou are God; no monarch Thou
Thron’d in easy state to reign;
Thou art God, Whose arms of love
Aching, spent, the world sustain.