Sunday, 1 September 2013

Trinity 14: a place on the top table

There have been two anniversaries celebrated in the media this week. The first was the fiftieth anniversary of the civil rights march in Washington D.C. at which Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. The other was the first anniversary of the opening of the Paralympic games in London. Both were events which had an impact because they enabled stories to be told and voices to be heard which had often been neglected, ignored or even actively silenced. After the March on Washington, no one could pretend they didn’t know about the suffering of African Americans. After the Paralympics no one could pretend they didn’t know about discrimination against disabled people and about how much these Paralympians had achieved despite that. There is a long way still to go on both fronts but after those events it was as if  the genie was out of the bottle, and it wouldn’t go back.  

And that brings me onto today’s Gospel reading.  Martin Luther King had a dream, but he’d have been the first to say that it didn’t begin with him. His dream grew out of the dream, the vision, that Jesus had, a dream of the kingdom of God, where people would live according to the ways of God, where the first would be last and the last first, where every person would be regarded as God’s beloved child. It’s the dream that inspired Jesus words at the dinner we heard about today, which took place at the house of a leader of the Pharisees, a powerful religious figure. Everyone was watching Jesus at this dinner, we’re told, but he was also watching them. In particular he was watching the way they chose their seats – the subtle power games they were playing, which revealed a lot more about them than they realised.

Jesus points this out by asking them to imagine another hypothetical celebration. “Imagine,” he says, “that you went to a wedding banquet and discovered, too late, that you had sat in the place reserved for a guest far more important than you. Imagine that the host came in and unceremoniously demoted you? What would you be thinking as you took that long “walk of shame” down from the highest place to the lowest?”  Almost anyone anywhere would cringe at the thought of this, and Jesus’ hearers would have done too. If it were me I’d feel mortified. How could I have got it so wrong? Why had I thought this place was mine?

And that’s what Jesus is hoping his hearers will be asking themselves too. How do they decide who fits where in the pecking order? What are the assumptions they make when they calculate the worth of others and of themselves? Most of us judge far more than we ought on the basis of appearance, wealth, family background, educational achievement. But God’s view is quite different, says Jesus, and those who want to be part of his kingdom had better get used to it. Mary sets the tone in Luke’s Gospel, in the song she sings when she hears she will bear Jesus. Through him “God has put down the mighty from their seat and exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.” The way the world ranks people and the way God ranks people are completely different.

I don’t suppose that either those words or ideas are unfamiliar. I hope not, anyway, because they are absolutely fundamental to the Christian message and if you come to church at all regularly you shouldn’t have been able to miss that. But knowing a thing in our heads is different from feeling it in our hearts, let alone living it in our actions. We may think we’ve understood Jesus’ message, but if it were really so then there should have been no need for a March to Washington for civil rights, and no need for people with disabilities to have to struggle against the attitudes of a world that makes their lives twice a difficult as they already are. We’ve had 2000 years to make Jesus’ dream a reality, but often we don’t seem to have got very far. The 17th Century mystic Thomas Traherne wrote “What a world would this be, were everything beloved as it ought to be!” Amen to that! But it wasn’t so then, and it isn’t so now either.

So how do we get from where we are to where Jesus calls us to be? It goes without saying that it’s not an easy journey, otherwise we’d be there by now, but today’s Gospel gives us a clue. It’s all tied up in the image Jesus uses of that place of honour, the seats on the “top table”, if you like. Sitting there wasn’t about having a chair with more legroom or thicker cushions or a better view, like a first class train seat or a place in the dress circle at the theatre. What mattered was that it was a seat near the host. It was a coveted place in Jesus’ time, and still is today, because when you sat in that special place you had access to whoever was throwing the party, someone of power and influence – the king, the boss, the leader. You could make your point, pitch your idea, lobby for your cause over the course of the meal, and the fact that they had put you in that position implied that they wanted to hear what you had to say, that they believed it was worth hearing.

It’s really important that we grasp this because it changes what Jesus is saying. It isn’t about kind to the poor or caring for the downtrodden; it is about listening to those whose stories are different from our own, listening and taking what we hear seriously, listening with the possibility in our minds that what we hear might change us.   That applies both to the one to one conversations we have here and now, but also to the way we listen to history and to the wider world. Whose stories do we hear and record and take notice of? Whose voices get swept aside and forgotten? And what wisdom might we have lost as a result?

To many people at the time Jesus himself was an outsider, a shocking law-breaker, stirring up trouble with his message. His was a voice that many people would rather have ignored. Repeatedly his critics try to put him in his place – a place of silence.  “Who does he think he is? How could the son of a carpenter from a backwater of Israel be God’s Messiah, God’s chosen one? Surely if God speaks it will be through the High Priest, or a member of a leading family…or at least someone who keeps the laws and obeys the rules.” They are offended by the acclaim he gets from the crowd when he rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. “Can’t you keep your followers quiet?” they demand. “If I could,” answers Jesus, “the stones would start shouting hosanna instead…” You have to wonder though – if it hadn’t been for the resurrection, would Jesus’ words have been forgotten, like those of so many other dead martyrs?

Perhaps because he knew how it felt to be pushed aside, his own ministry focussed on those who didn’t usually get noticed. A blind man who called out for his help was told to shut up by the crowd, but Jesus heard and healed him. A Samaritan woman, apparently ostracised by her own community, who met him at a well, found herself deep in theological discussion with him in no time at all. Women brought their children to him, despite the disciples’ best efforts to send them away, and he gladly received them – the babble they brought to the conversation was just as important to him as the words of the learned religious experts. We treasure and ponder the words that Jesus spoke, but his ability to listen had just as much impact. It was this which communicated to people that he really did mean it when he said that God valued them.

Jesus reminds us that the voices of the marginalised need to be heard, not just out of kindness, but because they have things to say which matter. A part of the picture, a part of the message God speaks to us through one another is missing without them.
“If you just invite your friends and family and rich neighbours to dinner” says Jesus, “you will have received all the reward you are going to get.” You’ve had a pleasant evening together, with everyone saying the same old things about the same old topics, reinforcing the status quo, but that’s that. It’s a closed circle. There’s no chance of hearing a different perspective, a challenging viewpoint, a new thought. It might feel more comfortable to stick with what we know and those we know, but doing so leaves no room for God, no room for the transforming joy of his kingdom to break into our lives. It’s when we give up those games of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” and simply let ourselves meet people as they are that we will find the blessing we really need. Fifty years ago the voices of African Americans enriched all those who heard them as they told their stories both of suffering and of the hope that sustained them in it. Last year, the voices of Paralympians did the same in different ways. 

So today’s Gospel reading leaves us with the same questions as it did those guests at the Pharisee’s dinner.
How do we decide who matters and who doesn’t, who gets to sit at the top table, who has a voice worth hearing?
What about our own voices? Do we think we have anything to say? The testimony of the Bible says that we do, whoever we are. If our voices aren’t heard then others miss out on the gifts God wants to give them through us.
Most of all this story calls us to listen like God listens, not just to those who have the gift of the gab but to those who can only manage a few halting words, not just to those who are at ease in the corridors of power, but to those who struggle get by at all.
Every one of us has something of God to share, a sacred story to bring to the great and loving conversation which is God’s dream for his world. Amen

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