The invite - A sermon for Proper C based on Luke 14: 1, 7-14
One of my favourite TV channels is Gold. This is a channel which shows comedies from the recent and sometimes not so recent past. One favourite comedy series of mine is Yes Minister. It portrays a deeply ambitious yet morally cowardly politician named Jim Hacker who ultimately rises to the post of Prime Minister. Hacker stands for nothing other than his own career and yet this is portrayed as a good tactic to clim the greasy pole to power.
I used to think that Yes Minister was somewhat cynical. Now I am not so sure. The abandonment of principle for advancement does not seem so far fetched at all judging from political memoirs and the like.
And of course politicians are not exactly a separate breed even if we sometimes wish they were. In many workplaces and organisations there is a tendency to seek the favour of those who can do us good in the furthering of our own ambitions. Even John McCririck who last week got nominated for eviction by every single housemate in Ultimate Big Brother nefore winning a bet on himself being the first to the evicted by the public, would seem to have found a way to use others to maintain his own profile and doubtless his earning power.
But none of this is new. The Palestine in which Jesus lives was a place where people knew their place. And this would be lived out amongst other ways in terms of presence and place at meals.
Now we live in a society that is pretty casual about food and drink. Some of us take either where we can get it so to speak. But food and drink was taken much more seriously in the world that Jesus knew. Indeed many significant events in the life of Jesus took place around food be it the turning of water into wine, the controversies around meals with which Jesus was often engaged or indeed the teaching of Jesus at that meal which we know as the Last Supper.
Indeed it was eating and drinking with others that often got Jesus into trouble with his detractors. Sometimes the criticism was that he was all too keen to eat with riffraff in a society in which much was learnt about a man by the company he shared a table with. Indeed there were those who were quick to condemn Jesus as a glutton and a drunkard.
Now to our scripture reading. Jesus is at the home of a Pharisee and Luke seems to suggest that he is being watched like a hawk. This may be because of the ongoing controversy regarding Jesus seeming to disregard the Sabbath rules. Indeed he gives his enemies cause to attack him by healing a man in the verses that the lectionary has missed out on for today. And so by the time he comments on what it is to be a guest or host, we can well believe that there is the sort of atmosphere that you can cut with a knife. But Jesus is not a of a mind to make things easier. In keeping with Hellenistic tradition he is a teacher who is only too keen to share his wisdom - in his case even if so doing will cause offence!
The advice to guests is commonsense. It is in keeping with ancient religious texts that suggest that it is unwise to elevate oneself in a social gathering. After all being demoted can be humiliating whilst being promoted can be a pleasure. Perhaps this is a reminder of the wisest of advice to treat others well on the way up so that they might treat you well when on the way down.
But the advice to hosts is much more radical. For here the emphasis is on inviting not those of standing or those who can do you good but instead inviting those whose presence might be an embarassment, those who can do nothing useful in return.
Here is a call to identify with the poor rather than the rich, the powerless rather than the powerful, the outcasts rather than the respectable. Uncomfortable yet in keeping with the path that Jesus himself lived out. For it is among the Nobodies that we so often find the presence of Jesus.
Back in the 1980s, Roman Catholic Bishops in South America spoke of a "preferential option for the poor." This was not because the poor are morally superior to the rich. It was because the needy have the greatest needs. And globally speaking just about every one of us gathered in this church is to be found among the rich. This does not mean that we have to divest ourselves of all the good things we have but it does call us into a real solidarity with those who live in need.
Back in the 1800s the philospher Karl Marx spoke of religion being the opium of the workers. He meant that religion often caused people to accept the world the way it is. Too often the church proclaims a gospel that is but a bandage for society's wounds. But Jesus is having none of this. He bucks the system by providing a challenge that his followers should reject the greasy pole and instead engage with those devoid of power, wealth or status. He calls us into the activity of being justice seekers who are prepared to have a healthy but not over lofty view of self so that others might have a healthy but not over lowly view of their selves. He calls us to build the relationships through which all may know that they are the precious, much loved children of God.
Back to Gold. Another favourite series often shown is Keeing Up Appearances. Here we meet the ultimate social climber in Hyacinth Bucket with her soirees et al. A truly grotesque character, she lives with an unending desire for every higher status. In this quest she is embarassed by her brother Onslow and the rather dysfunctional family that she is only too keen to leave behind.
But Jesus suggests that there is to be no leaving behind. We are to be caught up not in a narrow Me or Mine but in an unending We and Us that includes both diversity and vulnerability. None left behind for our roots are roots that we share. None left behind for our humanity is shared. None left behind for all alike are children of God, all alike are a part of his great family.
The ladder, the invite are for all!