Sermon: Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
Sunday 28 August 2016
The Revd Canon Alison Adams, Canon Pastor and Sub-Dean
Parable of the wedding banquet
The problem of seating people at a formal dinner! Not something we do every day, but certainly something many people face at some time in their lives – be it their wedding or some other occasion. Who goes in which funeral car? Who processes? And the angst if you get it wrong, or at least if someone thinks you’ve got it wrong. It can be an issue here at the Cathedral: I was much exercised about the processions for the KRIII service recently, for example.
It is tempting to say ‘why bother?’ That the apparently arcane mysteries of liturgical processions, for example, only matter to people like the Canon Precentor. But in the grand plan of things… Well, for sure, God is neither making our place in his Kingdom contingent upon our knowing these things nor chalking up penalties against those who get these things wrong. But, whether Cathedral processions, weddings, funerals or whatever, the line-up is essentially about the role rather than the person. When it gets tricky is if this is misinterpreted – when someone feels personally entitled to greater status.
That’s exactly what Jesus was talking about. One can imagine him with a wry smile watching the religious elite jostling for a position on the high table. Perhaps it was a verbal exchange that prompted his little homily? The text says they were watching him closely – where should he sit? But the prompt for Jesus was not that there might be a seating order, but the jostling for position. The assumption of importance and status – and from those who should know better, the religious leaders. Who should have known our Old Testament text (and others like it) around the sin of pride.
When have you felt your nose to be out of joint? I’m sure we all have at times. It happens, and sometimes it’s justified. Jesus’ little tale tells us how to deal with such moments with dignity. However behind all this may lie an unpalatable truth about how we view our own importance. And, by implication, the importance of others around us. Have you ever had a conversation with someone you realise is not really listening to you but looking around the room for someone more important to talk to? That’s happened to me so many times! Or been fobbed off because of how you look or present – fussy, old, doddery, female, untrendy…….etc. etc. I may be wrinkly, female and a bit over weight, but I hate being called ‘dear’! At such moments my husband was a master at turning on an impeccably over-emphasised educated accent with which he would, oh so politely, tell the other person what a XXXX they were! Sadly, we live in a society where such judgements are made constantly, stereotyped and reinforced in the media. Remember Christopher Jeffries, Joanna Yeates’ landlord in Bristol, whose appearance and perceived eccentricity convinced media and public alike that he was clear murderer material?
Our Prime Minister yesterday launched an audit to examine disparities in public services for people of different backgrounds, saying that ‘we should not be apologetic about shining a light on injustices as never before. It is only by doing so we can make this country work for everyone, not just a privileged few.’ I had the privilege to steer Bishop Tim’s Poverty Commission where we learned about virtual invisibility – where people in crisis feel like non-persons within a system which reduces them to be identified only by their problems, and usually then only one issue at a time. I’ve never been in that particular situation – some of you will have – but I suspect even the most cushioned of us here have either experienced or witnessed the sense of dehumanisation which can occur, for example, in the NHS, maybe if you are elderly and in a poorly functioning hospital. Jesus speaks directly into such situations: in naming the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind he says, ‘You will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.’ That how we treat people should have absolutely nothing to do with what we might get out of it. And, by extension, that there is no hierarchy of worth, dependent on wealth, position, religiosity or anything else. In a society that’s becoming increasingly unequal and divided that should, for us as Christians, surely be a fundamental principle.
If you’ve read anything of Jean Vanier or know something about L’Arche communities, you’ll be aware that these communities of people with a mix of abilities and disabilities are predicated upon a core Christian theology of community – that everyone has a place of belonging in the fellowship of Jesus. Living together in mutual belonging, regardless of their background or abilities, all learn, benefit from and rejoice in mutual relationships. Here is strength in weakness lived out.
Where does all this take us here? As individuals and as community? Well we certainly can and should challenge any behaviour, either from individuals or from the machinery of Government which runs counter to the humanity and dignity of the person. And when we engage with others in our wider community, whether we are thinking about the homeless, refugees or whomever, even when we are rightly interrogating statistics and seeking to make sharp and wise decisions, we must talk the language of personhood, of names not numbers and of the value of each individual. That thinking, deep within the heart of God, is not, of course, exclusively Christian and we will find many companions along the way.
We should, however, also look within ourselves as community. How do we treat one another? We don’t physically live together, but how do we fit together? Do we all feel we belong? Are the most vulnerable among us honoured? Do we recognise Jesus in each other, whoever we are? Given that there are a multiplicity of roles here, how do we behave towards one another? Is there mutuality and reciprocity and if not, where not and why not? That’s not to say we don’t have a hierarchy – there is a need for leadership and accountability – but each of us has a responsibility to one another and to God to live in communion.
For some years I was part of a Church which, in many ways was very vibrant. But at the core lay a deep problem, an oligarchy of power, which assumed total authority (which I suspect was assumed from God) and admitted no weakness. Some of you will know such problems first hand – where a few people have held the reins for a long time and ‘know best’. That Church was no community and, while the winds of the Holy Spirit certainly blew in that place, they blew outside of the PCC or any other such mechanism. As we journey with PMC, as Leicester Cathedral Revealed gathers pace, as we shape our Community Committee, as we develop our pastoral care, our community social life, our social action…..whatever… let’s ensure that the quietest voices may be heard and that all have a place. Never strident, never patronising, let’s be gracious and gentle with one another: as our Hebrews reading says, ‘Let mutual love continue.’ We will disagree, but let’s always listen to one another lovingly and continue metaphorically to hold hands.
Jean Vanier talks of the way of the heart. He writes, “Power and cleverness call forth admiration but also a certain separation, a sense of distance; we are reminded of who we are not, of what we cannot do. On the other hand, sharing weaknesses and needs calls us together into “oneness.” If we are wise and courageous enough to drop our masks and be ourselves, we are drawn into new wholeness both as individuals and community in communion with God. Then who knows…?