…finding peace by choosing to be last
(Sermon at St John the Baptist, Felixstowe – 28 August 2022 – Trinity 11)
Text: 12 …‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ (Luke 14.1,7-14)
God give you peace my Sisters and Brothers
It was on the evening of 11 February 2014 that I thought I had finally made it the centre of the Church of England and had become one of the ‘shakers and movers’ at the centre of the faith. It was during my first term of service on General Synod that I received a formal invitation in the post requesting my attendance at Canapés and Compline – a Drinks Reception followed by Evening Prayers at Lambeth Palace.
‘Yes!’ said I to myself, whilst offering imaginary fist pumps, ‘This is it! I am finally being recognised as God’s gift to the church!’ This was going to be my chance to let the Archbishop of Canterbury, (and anyone else who was listening) know what was wrong with the Church and how I had the perfect vision and strategy to see the Conversion of the whole of England to Christianity within a Decade.
The reality, unsurprisingly, was not so grand…
It turns out that Canapés and Compline is a commonplace at General Synod (I am scheduled for my third one next February) as the Archbishop, over the five-year life of General Synod, hosts every member of General Synod at least once. Nothing special about me at all ☹
Not only are they a commonplace when it comes to the grub they are also a bit rubbish. The Lambeth Staff are expert at waving a silver salver full of tiny vol-au-vents under your nose for a nanosecond. Fail to grab one at once and they flit away to someone with better reactions and you get to go to bed hungry. Fortunately on my first visit Bishop Nigel Stock, who became Bishop at Lambeth after being our bishop in Suffolk, knowing about the paucity of the grub had invited our representatives to a lovely Chilli that his wife Caroline had cooked after Compline.
When it comes to church ‘banquets’ I much preferred the Bring-and-Share lunches I used to attend at Christchurch Kenilworth in Cape Town. There it was considered de rigeur for members of the Young Adult group to pitch up with a Cheese Sandwich (past its best before date) as our ‘offering’ and eat someone else’s Roast Chicken.
Jesus spoke a truth, well known by the Lobbyists, the Sycophants, and the Cronies of the Wealthy and Powerful, when he cautioned his new friend the Pharisee about inviting his friends for the First Century version of Canapés and Compline.
There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Every bite we take, be we host or guest, comes with a price that goes beyond the cost of the food on the table.
If you invite someone to eat with you who has influence or power,
if someone seeks to eat with us because we have influence or power, there will be a price to pay.
Everything – even those things we give away – has a price.
So it is that Jesus asks this leader amongst the Pharisees to be careful about whom he invites to eat. To be honest Jesus is being just a tad ungrateful and cheeky and his words may well have stuck in his host’s craw. After all it’s not very often that a guest responds to your hospitality by checking out, and then criticising the other people on the Guest List! And that after having said a few words to everyone present about squabbling over sitting at the top table!
There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Everything comes with strings attached.
This is why we should encourage each other daily to walk the way of Jesus.
Mind you doing that has its own challenges as, instead of entering into a deal that has strings attached we will find ourselves in places where we are called to carry a cross instead.
How we relate to others, especially those who can reward us for our deeds, is a matter of faith.
Giving to get back, as the guests at the Pharisees feast were tempted, is a sign of faithlessness.
When we depend on others to ‘reward us’ we stop depending on God.
When we seek nourishment at someone else’s table we give a lie to the Lord’s Prayer and make a mockery of the words, ‘Give us today our Daily Bread.’
On the other hand giving to those who cannot give back, who cannot reward us for our generosity, is a costly act of faith.
It hurts to give without question and offer help without condition.
People question our motives. We can end up accused, often at the same time, of being Do-gooders yet also being Holier than Thou.
It is hard work, this volunteering to take the lowest place. Every fibre of my being urges against it and I find I constantly beat myself up as too often my response to requests for aid and understanding is not always the Biblical, ‘Yes and Amen’, but the very human, ‘perhaps, maybe’ and even straight out ‘No!’….
‘…But when you give a banquet, (Jesus teaches us) invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
As they say, when we work for the Church we don’t always get paid for our efforts but the ‘fringe benefits’ are out of this world.
When we seek to serve the Least, the Last and the Lost it will be costly. And the paying of money to help support those in need help will be the smallest of the prices we will pay.
People will complain that we are making problems worse.
People will tell us that help isn’t really needed and these beloved children of God are simply scroungers and ne’er-do-wells.
People will turn away and end our friendships with them because they don’t want to be seen with ‘those sort of people’.
But Jesus, Jesus will smile on us.
In God’s Realm treasure has never been about possessions but about people and how we ‘treasure’ each other. One of the earliest Christian martyrs lived that out this way;
St Lawrence the Deacon
As a deacon in Rome in the third century, Lawrence was responsible for the material goods of the Church and the distribution of alms to the poor. When the treasures of the Church were demanded from Lawrence by the Emperor Valerian, he brought forward the poor, to whom he had distributed the treasure as alms.
‘Behold in these poor persons the treasures which I promised to show you; to which I will add pearls and precious stones, those widows and consecrated virgins, which are the Church’s crown.’
The emperor was so angry that he had a gridiron prepared with hot coals beneath it and had Lawrence placed on it. After he had suffered pain for a long time, legend has it that he said, ‘I’m well done on this side. Turn me over!’ From this St. Lawrence derives his patronage, unsurprisingly of cooks and chefs but also of comedians.
In the last year or so there have been one or two barbecues in the Vicarage garden for those who use Pushchair Pitstop and I really do hope that none of our guests would think of putting Philip, Glen, Julia, or myself on the fire! But they have been lovely occasions, as are our weekly Holiday Hot Lunches and Daily Parish Pantry where we have been given the joyful opportunity to put ourselves at the foot of the table and, in Amy Carmichael’s wonderful words about the Christian call, be given ‘A Chance to Die’.
But wait, Jesus’ teaching is not just about food banks, Holiday Hot Lunches, and a cuppa and a natter at Pushchair Pitstop.
It’s about putting all sorts of other people first and valuing them more than ourselves.
Putting that family member who always upsets family gatherings at the heart of our prayers.
Being patient with that friend who seems to endlessly repeat conversations you have heard too many times.
Forgiving your colleague when they have messed up yet again and you are left with yet more work to do.
Taking time to let someone get to the end of a conversation before jumping ahead to add our own conclusion. (Gentleman, this is often what is called mansplaining).
Valuing everyone’s opinion and realising (alleluia!) that we are definitely not God’s gift to the Church.
And, perhaps hardest of all, choosing to be vulnerable and like Jesus, generously open our hands to embrace all people so that everyone, even we, is welcome at the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb
[For some earlier thoughts on ‘taking the lowest place’ please visit this blog post about the Rule of the Third Order.]
[This blog ‘Pecking Order’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2022]