Into Temptation…

February 17, 2013

SERMON FOR LENT 1 (YR. C)

(Psam 91, 1-2 & 9-16; Romans 10. 8-13; Luke 4, 1-13)

Christ-In-The-Wilderness-Ivan-Kramskoy-small

When the ICET (International Consultation on English Texts) was working to translate the services of the Church into modern English, one of the phrases which caused them most difficulty was the last but one petition of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation’.

Part of the difficulty stems from the possible meaning of the original Greek of the text in Matthew and Luke, and even of the Hebrew behind that. For instance, the Greek verb translated ‘lead’ could mean taking in an active sense, to lead by going before, or simply to announce. And depending on the understanding of the Hebrew  behind this clause, again it could be active, meaning to cause something to happen; or permissive, to allow something to happen. So, the Syriac version of the New Testament translates this “Do not make us enter into temptation”.

Modern Lord's PrayerAgain, the preposition ‘eis’ and its Hebrew original could imply simply ‘into’ or ‘as far as’ but, more strongly ‘to be placed under the power of’. So, one translation could be “Do not allow us to fall under the power of temptation” that is, be overwhelmed by it.

However, the word which gave the translators most difficulty was the word translated ‘temptation’. The Greek original is found rarely in secular Greek, but very often in Biblical Greek, both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, with a variety of meanings. It can mean simply an attempt; it can mean a test in the sense of testing a metal or testing somebody’s competence or conviction (and in this sense it is often used of God testing human beings). It can mean a malicious attempt to trick someone, and is used in that way of the attempts of the Scribes and Pharisees to catch Jesus out by asking him trick questions. It can be used to mean the seduction into sin which is the usual modern meaning of ‘temptation’.That’s how it is used to describe Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert. It can mean a trial or ordeal. It can mean to tempt God. In all of these meanings, the form of noun used implies a continuing process, not a one-off event.

Some interpretations of the text are more difficult for us to accept, not because of they don’t translate the original Greek correctly, but because they run counter to our beliefs about the nature of God, and of human beings.

For instance, we believe that God is good, and wills happiness and good for human beings. So how can we even think that God would deliberately seduce us into sin or put us under the power of evil?

Secondly, it is nonsense to pray that we won’t be tempted, because temptation is part and parcel of the human condition. God gave us free will – but there would be no point in having free will if there were no circumstances in which we were tempted to choose to sin. It is  a mark of being a real human being that we can be tempted to do wrong – and that is why the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is important: it shows that Jesus was, as Hebrews says, “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are”. (Heb. 4.15) The one difference is, as Hebrews goes on to say, “yet without sinning”.

So, if we are not asking God not ever to put us into a situation where we are tempted, and we cannot conceive of God deliberately trying to make us commit sin, what are we asking in this part of the Lord’s Prayer?

Modern translations of the New Testament have used a variety of phrases, most of them designed to express the hope that God will not test us beyond what we can cope with, or allow us to be overwhelmed by temptation.

The Good News Bible has “Do not bring us to hard testing” and the New English Bible “Do not bring us to the test”. The Jerusalem Bible has “Do not put us to the test” and the NRSV “Do not bring us to the time of trial”.

Most of the denominations have used a variation on that last phrase in their modern language Trad Lord's Prayerservices, and pray: “Save us from the time of trial”. You will find this version in the Methodist, the URC, the Roman Catholic and other Anglican churches, such as the New Zealand Church. The Church of England could not agree to use the internationally agreed text, and kept  “Lead us not into temptation”  in their modern language Lord’s Prayer as well as in the traditional language one.   I rather like Jim Cotter’s free modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer, which  has: “In times of temptation and test, strengthen us; from trials too great to endure, spare us; from the grip of all that is evil, free us.”

When we pray this petition, we are asking God to be with us as we face the everyday temptations of human life. We are asking for divine protection when we face situations where the urge to sin becomes overwhelming. We are asking for divine guidance when the prompting of our own nature, or the urging of others, bring us to situations where we may be tempted to flirt with sin. We are asking God not to abandon us when our faith, or our bodies are under assault.

When we face these situations (as all of us will) the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us how God answer this petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

We do not have to take this story literally. Jesus may have had an experience like this when he spent time in the desert after his baptism by John, but since he was alone, and the conversations went on inside his head, how would anyone else have known the details? Mark has the simple statement that ‘he was tempted by Satan’; it is only Matthew and Luke who provide details of the threefold temptations. But these are temptations which Jesus would have faced during his whole ministry, as they are temptations which face any of us who try to bring others into the Kingdom of God. So it is perfectly possible to see the story of the time in the wilderness as a word picture of the temptations of ministry for Jesus and for ourselves.

The first is the temptation to bring people into faith by providing for their material needs alone. Perhaps there are secondary temptations also; to provide the basic necessities of life, but only to those of ‘our’ faith; or the temptation, which is so prevalent in our society, to believe that the accumulation of goods will bring happiness, or is a sign of God’s favour. Jesus answers this by affirming the supreme importance of the spiritual – the Word of God – rather than the material – bread.

The second temptation is to use political power, including force, to bring people to faith. We can all think of examples of Christians giving in to this temptation throughout history – from the way the final texts of the Creeds were arrived at, to the Crusades, and the wars of religion that so disfigured Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Jesus rejects this by quoting from Deuteronomy a verse that insists that worship must be given to God because of God’s character, and not in response to political power or force, which are seen as works of the Devil.

Finally there is the temptation to encourage faith by demonstrations miraculous power, which is, in effect, to tempt God. Again, we can all think of times when churches have tried to prove that they have the one true faith by appeals to signs and wonders, or miraculous cures to which they alone have access.  Jesus again quotes from the Hebrew scriptures which forbid testing out God’s support in this way. During his ministry he always refused to provide miracles ‘to order’ to prove his credentials.

Jesus was saved in his time of trial, and delivered from  evil because of his close relationship with God, and his total reliance on God’s love and support. Psalm 91 assures us that God’s love and support is with us through the difficult times too. For Jesus, his relationship with God was founded on his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the tradition (in his case the Jewish tradition), his constant reference to God  through prayer, and his submission to God’s will in humility.

As we face the tests and temptations of our lives, these same resources and this same relationship with God can  save us too from trial and temptation and deliver us from all evil.

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Waiting for the End Times.

November 18, 2012

 

( Daniel 12, 1-3; Hebrews 10, 11-25; Mark 13, 1-8)

Do you like watching disaster movies?

One of our children was devoted to the film ‘The Towering Inferno”. I lost count of how many times we saw all those different people escaping from that sky scraper! Some of the most popular science fiction films, like The Day of the Triffids, and Independence Day and Judgement Day predict the end of the world coming as a result of something coming from outer space. Then there are films about those smaller disasters, caused by ships sinking or aircraft crashing.

There seems to be something in human beings that enjoys being scared silly by contemplating the awful things that might happen to them.

A look into the Bible will show that such ‘disaster stories’ are nothing new. Both in the Old and the New Testaments we have passages, like those in today’s readings, which speak about the awful trials which will come at some time in the future, in The Last Days, or The End Times or The Day of the Lord, as it is variously known. You’ll find passages like chapter 13 of Mark in the three synoptic gospels, and in some of Paul’s epistles and in Revelation.

The technical term for these disaster scenarios is ‘apocalyptic’, which means revelation or unveiling. The apocalypse reveals to the faithful what is to come, in order to strengthen them to endure the tribulation, in the sure hope that right will prevail, the righteous will emerge triumphant, the evil people will get their just deserts and the good rewarded.

Biblical scholars are divided about whether Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet, who actually spoke these passages, or whether they reflect the views of the early believers, who saw Jesus’s death and resurrection as ushering in the End Times and the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Whether they were spoken by Jesus or not, they were not meant to be crystal ball predictions, or a timetable to help us spot when the end of the world was coming, as some Christians have tended to treat them. What they described was not the future, but the present reality for the persecuted community, be it the Jews of Daniel’s time, or the Christians of the post-resurrection community. The purpose of apocalyptic was not to allow believers to predict the coming of God’s Kingdom, but to strengthen them to remain faithful no matter what happened.

Mark’s description of war, famine, rebellion, the destruction of holy sites, and the preaching of false prophets reflected what was happening in his community’s time. But they are things which happen in every age, including our own. So, the message of apocalyptic passages like Daniel and Mark 13 are not just meant for the believers of the post-Resurrection community, they are meant for us too. What do they tell us?

The book of Daniel provides assurance that, at the End Time, ‘those whose names are written in God’s book’ will be saved, those who have died will be brought to new life and all will be judged on the basis of their deeds. It is those who do God’s will whose names are written in God’s book, and Daniel promises justification for them.

Hebrews also assures its readers that the destiny of those who are faithful to God is already decided. Rather than using the metaphor of battle that we find in Daniel and Mark, it uses the imagery of the sacrificial system, which was used in the Jerusalem Temple to put the people right with God. It compares the daily sacrifices made on behalf of the people by the human High Priests, with the one, perfect sacrifice made by Jesus through his death, which gains access to God’s presence, not only for himself, but also for all who follow him. Then  the image of warfare comes in, when Jesus is envisaged as a favoured commander of God’s army, who has scored a decisive victory and is now waiting in glory with him until the last enemies have been rounded up. Because of Jesus, we can all look forward with hope, Hebrews says, since he is already where we are destined to be.

Mark 13 also uses the Jerusalem Temple as a symbol, but now not of the place of encounter with God, but of the system where religion  is allied with wealth and power. He tells his disciples that before the End Times arrive, and the Kingdom of God is fully established, that alliance of religion and power  must be destroyed.  Violence, war and ridicule are weapons which the secular powers often use against those who seek to follow Christ’s example.  There has been a tendency for religious groups to respond in kind; and  when religion gets mixed up with secular power systems, they tend to adopt the secular ways of persuading people to conform, including indoctrination, physical force and persecution. Jesus demonstrated in his life and death that this was not God’s way.

The Bible passages we heard show us that what we should be relying on is Jesus’s path of self-giving, non-retaliation, forgiveness  and loving to the utmost. The way of the cross is to abandon power, absorb pain and violence and to engage in the work of reconciliation, rather than retaliation. Powerless peacemaking is the only way of life that brings us into the right relationship with God that Jesus enjoyed and demonstrated. It provides a sharp contrast to the power plays of the world, but it is something which has been all too rarely demonstrated by the Church.

These apocalyptic passages urge us to take the long view and preserve confidence in the way of the Kingdom which Jesus taught, rather than taking a short cut by using the worldly solutions of force and violence.

Bishop Justin Welby

This contrast was illustrated for me by the pictures of the Archbishop of Canterbury designate, BIshop Justin Welby, last week. He wears an ordinary black clerical shirt, not an episcopal purple one, a sign of humility and servanthood, and around his neck he wears a Coventry Cross, formed from 3 nails. This stands both for the nails of the cross of Christ, and also for the nails retrieved from the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, and formed into crosses which were sent by the Cathedral to the cities of Kiel, Dresden and Berlin as symbols of forgiveness, reconciliation and hope in 1940,while World War 2 was still being fought.

Justin Welby has been part of Coventry’s ministry of reconciliation, which continued from its war time beginnings to  become a network of partners all over the world, committed to working for peace and reconciliation in some of the world’s most difficult and longstanding areas of conflict. Bishop Welby’s work took him into dangerous situations in the Middle East and in Africa.

The Centre for Reconciliation is also committed to resourcing the church in the practical outworking of reconciliation as an integral part of Christian worship, witness and discipleship. We may not be in a position to do very much except pray about reconciliation in the large political conflicts of these ‘End Times’, but all localities and human institutions have their conflicts and power-plays, and as followers of Christ, we are called to walk the Way of the Cross and bring reconciliation there too.

This will mean accepting that the old situation in which the church had an established and respected place in the community, both physically and traditionally, is no more. Our fine construction of stone, like the Jerusalem Temple, is being broken down, and we have to find a different way of engaging with the people who need to learn about Christ’s way of peace, love and reconciliation from expecting them to come to us, and to be taught about our beliefs through the public education system.

We are being challenged, many believe, to try new ways of living the way of the Kingdom without the security of buildings and support of the state and traditional culture. That will mean not just exploring new ways of teaching and worshipping, like Messy Church, and food banks and debt counselling, and help for refugees, but also thinking again about what is the real core of the Christian message, and how that can be expressed in the language and concepts, and through the media in which the majority of people nowadays are at home. We cannot speak peace to our communities unless we are part of our communities, both physically and theologically, and in order to do that, we will almost certainly find ourselves having to let go of things that we value, or at least see them gradually take up fewer resources than those things which speak to those who need our ministry. There may need to be changes not only in the way we do things, but also in the way we express our beliefs, in the concepts we use and the way we interpret scripture, if our faith is to be of use in this post-modern world.

The people for whom Daniel and the author of Hebrews and Mark wrote were waiting eagerly for the End times, expecting God to intervene in history in some dramatic way, with legions of angels, and geological and planetary disruption.

I don’t think many people expect that sort of End Time any more. I certainly don’t. Rather, we know now that we are always living in the End Times, and that if the conditions of the End Times – war, deceit, famine and so on – are ever going to cease, it will only be when we all live as Jesus showed us how to live – generously, lovingly, sacrificially, – so that we and everyone else can experience that life in all its fulness which is the life of the Kingdom.

Amen

Eye of a Needle

October 14, 2012

(Amos 5,6,7,10-15; Hebrews 4, 12-16; Mark 10,17-31)  (Proper 23 Yr B)

An ordained colleague was telling me recently about the conversations he had been having with the two churches he was responsible for, about where their Harvest gifts would go. The plan was for them to support the local Food Bank. One church is situated in a prosperous area. The congregation there gives little in proportion to their income, normally, and they didn’t think food banks were necessary: ‘No-one is in that much need in this country,’ they said.

The other church serves an area of social housing. They have little money but are generous with what they have. They support the food bank because they know it is necessary – some of them have had to use it.

Jesus said: ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God’. The prophet Amos spoke words of judgement against those who trample on the poor and push aside the needy. And the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews warns us that the Word of God is not just theory, but is living and active, and reveals all to the One before whom we are all being judged.

The contemporary church seems to outsiders to spend an awful lot of its time talking about sex, marriage, divorce and sexuality; it doesn’t appear to spend as much time talking about the use of money. Yet, while  there are comparatively few verses in the Bible which talk about sexual morals and marital relationships, it has been estimated that there are anything between 2000 and 2500 that talk about wealth and money. It would seem from that statistic alone, that how we deal with money is more relevant to our life in the Kingdom of God than our sexual morality, important though that is.

Some of these Bible verses state the commonly held belief that earthly riches were a sign of God’s favour. That’s a thread that runs through the Old Testament, especially the Deuteronomic history, and is still current today in those churches that preach a ‘Prosperity Gospel’, which says if you give your money to the church (or more often, to a particular evangelist) you will find favour with God, and he will give back to you one hundred fold. You can even find justification for that view in part of today’s Gospel reading.

But alongside that is another thread, also found in Deuteronomy, which warns that earthly riches bring responsibilities for those living within God’s covenant – responsibilities to those who have little and to those who are unprotected and economically vulnerable, like widows and orphans, and the landless poor. If you claim to be part of God’s holy favoured people, if you live under the covenant, you are obliged to share its benefits fairly.

The prophet Amos pronounced judgement on the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the 8th century. They were living in a time of unprecedented prosperity, which allowed some of them to expand their landholdings at the expense of poorer people, and to build themselves houses of stone. It was an unequal society, in which the rich held all the cards and used their wealth to enrich themselves further, cheating the weak by perverting the justice system, taking bribes, and overtaxing the landless poor. Their wealth had blinded them to the needs of their fellow Israelites and hardened their hearts. This was causing the breakdown of society, as it became divided into the haves and the have-nots.  The punishment Amos decreed in God’s name, was that the nation would be defeated by a foreign army, its leading citizens deported, so that they would no longer enjoy their prosperity, and their land would be taken over by strangers; and that is precisely what happened when the Assyrians invaded and occupied Israel and deported its aristocracy in 722BC.

The Mark passages is made up of four separate sections: the story of the rich young man, sayings about wealth, promises of future good fortune to faithful disciples, and the saying about the first shall be last, which is found several times in different contexts in the Gospels.

The story about the rich young man is likely to be more challenging to us than it was to the disciples, or to the people of Mark’s community. Not many of them, we understand from Acts and the epistles, were well off or influential. But we live in one of the wealthy nations of the world, and, however limited our income, however little property we own, we are still far wealthier than the vast majority of the world’s population. I read this morning that around a billion people woke up hungry this morning, not knowing where their next meal would come from. That’s more than the population of the US, Canada and the EU combined.

We are the rich young man. How does his story challenge us?

His question was asked as Jesus and the disciples travelled on the way to Jerusalem. Perhaps that is just an insignificant detail; but perhaps it indicates that this is actually a story about how we follow the Way of Jesus.  The same word  (odos) is used for both, and it was as “the way” that  the first disciples described their faith.

The young man begins by flattering Jesus, by calling him ‘good teacher’. Wealth is always useful for gaining access to people of influence, for buying attention. But as James pointed out in the reading we heard from his letter a few weeks ago, it is how wealthy Christians speak and act towards the poorest members of their fellowship that is the real test of their commitment to Kingdom values. How do we rate ourselves against that standard?

Jesus’s reply turns the focus away from himself, and points the young man towards God and the divine.

He goes on to remind his questioner about the commandments; not all of them, but the six concerned with relationships between humans. And in an echo of the Amos passage, he changes the final commandment from ‘don’t covet’ to ‘don’t defraud’, recognising that the desire for wealth so often leads to criminal activity against the vulnerable.

The young man proudly boasts that he hasn’t broken any of these. We would probably say exactly the same – but Jesus makes clear, that is not enough to meet Kingdom standards and issues the young man a devastating challenge: “O.K. If you really want to be part of the Kingdom life, give it all away and live as I do”.

The story tells us that the man went away shocked, because he was very rich; and we don’t know how the story ends. Mark tells us that Jesus issued his challenge in love, to help the young man to find his true path in life, to recall him to true covenant and Kingdom values. The story leaves open the possibility that, after the initial shock, the man in question did change his values and his way of life. We don’t know, and it is not up to us to judge. Jesus said that with God, even the most unlikely change of heart is possible.

But we do have to ask ourselves, how would we measure up in that scale of things?

Jesus is probably not meaning anyone to take his answer literally, just as he didn’t really expect us to cut off our hands or tear out our eyes if they lead us in to doing wrong. He is using exaggeration to shock us into considering what our basic values are, and whether they measure up to life under the sovereignty of God. Because this is not talking about what happens to us after we die; we are not supposed to live this life with our eye on the next.

The Kingdom of Heaven is a present reality!

It’s about how we live now, how we put into practice the petition in the Lord’s Prayer which asks “Your Kingdom come on earth as in heaven”. In particular it asks us how we view our wealth. Is it something we regard as a gift to be shared with others, and to be used for the enhancement of other people’s lives as well as our own? Or is wealth our true security, to be clutched to ourselves, to be increased no matter who we trample on as we do so, to be preserved for us and for our heirs?

Do we posses our money, or does it posses us?

Our world is full of poor people. Poor in monetary terms, without food or clean water or secure homes or proper sanitation; poor in terms of security, subject to warring factions, or climate change, or natural disasters or corrupt legal systems; poor in educational terms, without access to education or opportunities to use the education they have; or poor in emotional terms, lonely, frightened, confused or in the grip of addiction.

In relation to them, we are wealthy in all those aspects; and our wealth can so easily blind us to their needs, and to the truth that they are our brothers and sisters in the Kingdom, and through Jesus, God asks us to share our wealth with them. Wealth is not a bad thing in itself; it is bad when it functions in a way that insulates us from the realities others live with and blocks our empathy for those who lack what we have been given.

 

We don’t have to give away everything. We don’t even have to give away all our financial resources. We do have to use it not just for ourselves and our own comfort and security, but to advance the comfort and security of all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We can give time and sympathy and friendship as well as money. We can stand alongside those who are voiceless, and use our position and our access to communications to be advocates for change. We can be for those who are poor what Jesus was for us according to Hebrews “one who sympathises with our weakness”.

The thing that prevents some of the rich from living in the Kingdom is not their wealth, but the way they use it. The encounter between Jesus and the rich young man challenges us to decide how we will use the wealth we have – for the common good, or to trample on the poor.

A final image to take away with you. Jesus illustrates the problem by using what was probably a well known saying of the time, about the impossibility of pushing a camel through the eye of a needle. Its a lovely image and a striking one. One interpretation of it says the eye was not a literal one, but a narrow gate in a city wall. I understand that such a gate is pointed out to tourists in Jerusalem. But I feel that spoils the humour, and diminishes the impact of the saying.

But I also read in Morna Hooker’s commentary on Mark, that it is possible that the word ‘camel’ (camēlon) was a mistranscription of the word camĭlon, which means rope.

At first I thought that too would spoil the joke, but then I thought it could provide a good illustration of the point the story was trying to make.  If you try to push a rope through the eye of a needle, it won’t go. It’s like a rich person whose wealth ties him or her up in their own interests. But if you unravel it, and push the individual strands through one by one, it will go. It’s like a rich person who is not bound by their wealth but is prepared to unravel it and share it.

So which are we? A camel or a tightly bound rope, which will never get us through the eye of a needle into KIngdom life?

Or the individual threads of a rope unravelled, shared between many, so that all can go into the Kingdom through the eye of the needle of God’s sharp word?

(Proverbs 25, 6-7; Hebrews 13, 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14, 1 & 7-14)

Have any of you ever had to organise a wedding reception? It’s an absolute minefield!

How much do you spend? Where do you hold it? Do you have a formal meal for the older relatives and a disco for all the young friends, or try to combine the two and please neither.  Who do you invite? Can you remember who invited you to their wedding reception, and must you invite all of them back? Who stands in the receiving line to greet the guests? And, most tricky of all, who sits with the bride and groom on the top table?

I expect most of us can remember family arguments over weddings! And things have got much more complicated with the rise in divorce and remarriage, so that you have step-parents and half-brothers and sisters to include too. I know of several couples recently who decided the whole thing was simply too difficult to manage, and went off to get married quietly abroad to avoid the problems.

Even in today’s relaxed society, formal meals are a crucial part of social life. Who is invited and where you sit is important for defining status. But in the past, they had even greater importance. Formal meals were where you might gain the ear of someone important, and the impression you made might be crucial for your future influence and prosperity.

And in the Gospels, written at a time when hunger was so widespread, and large meals were held only on very special occasions, such meals symbolised  the coming of the Kingdom of God into the world; and a wedding banquet was a sign of the eschatological banquet that would mark the welcome of the chosen ones into God’s presence at the end of time.

So, although the meal that Jesus was attending was a Sabbath meal, when he spoke about it he talked about a wedding feast – an indication that he was talking about life in the Kingdom of God, not just everyday social etiquette.

He starts out by giving a piece of practical advice  that might have come from any book of ‘How to get on in society’ anywhere and at any time: don’t push yourself to the front; wait to be noticed by those in charge. You can see we find the same advice in the Book of Proverbs, and I’ve read it is found also in the writings other rabbis.

This practical wisdom advises the practice of humility; but it is not real humility. At its lowest level it is the practice of well-bread politeness – but you only hold back in the knowledge that it gets you places; you only take the lowest place in the hope that your host will very publicly invite you onto the top table, and so reinforce your prestige. This is the reverse of what God wants.

Another sort of humility involves self- hatred and self-abasement. “I am a miserable worm, the bottom of the moral food chain, hardly worthy of being here at all. Thank you for noticing me”. This is not what God wants either. The great commandment tells us to love our neighbours as we love ourselves; so you can’t love other people if you don’t love yourself first. Of course we need to be realistic about our good points and our bad ones – otherwise, as the psychologists warn us, we will tend to project our ‘dark side’ onto others and persecute them for what we cannot accept in ourselves. But God found us worthy of love, to the extent that he sent Jesus to save us; so there is nothing wrong with loving ourselves.

So, how can we find a way of being genuinely humble.

Many years ago, when I was a finalist in the Times ‘Preacher of the Year’ award, a clergy friend wrote to congratulate me, but also to warn me against getting too big-headed! He told me about a Catholic saint who used to practice humility by licking the floorboards clean with his tongue! I never tried it – and  I am sceptical about how good such ‘spiritual exercises in mortification’ are  in making people really humble in their interaction with other human beings.

Real humility comes from inside, from an acknowledgement that what we are and what we have comes ultimately from God. In the context of the wedding feast it comes from admitting that we are at the feast by the gracious invitation of God alone. We don’t earn that invitation and we have no right to it, nor to a particular place at the table; and what is more, the sick, the disabled, the sinful and the unworthy have as much right to be there as us clean and respectable folk.

So, in everyday life, to invite such people to share with us is true humility, because they can never reciprocate. There is absolutely nothing in it for us.

Luke tells us constantly that is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like; those whom the world despises will be the first into the Kingdom and will have first place in the queue for the top table. That’s made very clear if you read the Magnificat, a version of which we will sing at the end of this service.

Our reading from Hebrews tell us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever –  so as the Body of Christ, that is what our church should seek to be like too. But in practise that is a very difficult thing to do.

Some of the older ones among you may remember a Peter Sellers film of 1963 called ‘Heavens Above’. In it, Sellers plays an idealistic prison chaplain called John Smallwood, who after a confusion with another clergyman of the same name, is appointed to to a prestigious wealthy parish. When he invites the outcasts of his society – gypsies and criminals – to share his vicarage, sets up a free food supply that ruins local shops, and persuades a local factory owner to sell off her business, so that most of the townspeople become unemployed, the economy of the town collapses, and finally he is moved off to a parish overseas as a damage limitation exercise.

There was a more modern fictional example of the difficulty of putting this vision of the heavenly banquet into practice in the last episode of ‘Rev’ which you may have watched on TV recently. In this, the vicar, called Adam Smallbone (note both characters have’ small’ in their name – to indicate humility?) receives a really bad online review of his church and sermon from a ‘mystery worshipper’. The Ship of Fools website, which does publish such reviews, put a spoof review of this fictional church online. As well as criticising the sermon, it noted how unattractive the church would be to most worshippers, because there were tramps in the churchyard, some of the men in the congregation were unshaven and there was another tramp asleep in the back pew, snoring loudly.  Adam was profoundly depressed by this review, but perhaps in relation to our gospel reading today, this service sounded more like a foretaste of the heavenly banquet than you might think.

How to keep our churches open and welcoming to everyone, even those on the margins of respectable society, is an issue that all congregations have to return to again and again, as they seek to be Christ’s body on earth. There are no easy answers. The Hebrews reading gives some clues. It urges us to welcome the strangers into our fellowship, and tells us that in the past, people doing so have ‘entertained angels without knowing it’. Angels are the messengers of God, so this indicatess that we will find insight into what God is like and what God wants of us among the poor, the outcast and  the dispossessed. But if we don’t ever really meet them, and simply dispense charity from afar, we will have little chance of hearing the message that these ‘angels’ are bringing us.

Jesus also told us, in Matthew’s Gospel, that whatever we do for ‘the least of these my brothers and sister, you do for me’. That reminds us that (to paraphrase Bishop David Stancliffe) fellowship with others is not ours to give or withhold; it is God’s. We are in communion with others, even if they make us feel uncomfortable, even if we disagree with their views, because God invites us, as he invites everyone from the Pope and the poorest of the poor in Sudan, to the same heavenly table.

Hebrews tells us that if we do invite such people to share in our table, then our lives and our worship have a chance of being ‘a sacrifice of praise to God’.  Our faith tells us that whenever we entertain the outcast, we may entertain not only angels, but Our Lord himself.  Jesus is not likely to be an easy guest to invite to your wedding reception. He is likely to criticise your arrangements, challenge your values and bring in all sorts of uninvited guests with him.

But if you want to be at his feast, even at the lowest table, then guess who’s coming to your dinner?