The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      1st September 2019
Welcome at the Table
Paul Gurnham

Proverbs 25.6-7
Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16
Luke 14. 1, 7 -14

Before coming on placement to Hampstead Parish Church I heard a few things about this place: that the previous incumbent was an expert in opera; that the current curate was a renowned art historian and well known on social media; that there was a good smattering of doctors, solicitors and barristers, a high court judge and a peer of the realm, a well known writer; I could go on. And it’s all true. A number of you use your professional skills in the service of the church, especially on the PCC and as church wardens. You are such a gift to this church. 

And yet you can be merrily chatting with someone at coffee and have no idea about how renown that person is in their field, or how they have done immense charitable work.  

Whatever ones professional or educational status as might be important in most walks of life, these can pale away as incidental, giving way to a shared sense of ‘mutual love’, as the writer to Hebrews in today’s epistle puts it [Heb. 13.1] It’s a bit of Greek we all know: ‘Philadelphia’, literally ‘brotherly love’. It is a love among equals, irrespective of rank. And when we see this mutual love, this brotherly and sisterly love, there is a sign of the Kingdom of God. 

What do I mean by that? Let’s look at the Gospel reading from Luke. The scene is tense. Jesus had been invited by a leader of the Pharisees.  And he and the other guests (which included lawyers – experts in Jewish law)  were watching Jesus closely. The implication is the leader of the Pharisees was trying to catch Jesus out. In the omitted verses 2-6 a man with dropsy (oedema - an accumulation of fluid under the skin) appears in front of Jesus and Jesus asks the lawyers and Pharisees if it is lawful to cure a man on the sabbath. They are silent. He heals the man. Jesus confronts them saying surely they would help their son or ox if they fell in a well. Yet they are silent.

Now Jesus was watching them. Imagine one of those really awkward moments at a party when someone has said something offensive or embarrassing. Everyone is embarrassed. This is at a fancy event – hosted by a leader of the Pharisees with some top class guests -  I’m imagining first century fizz and canapés. People start moving away from Jesus. Surely it’s time for dinner, but at this dinner there is evidently no seating plan.There’s an unseemly rush to get close to the dinner host, to get to the best seat, or rather couch. This is where the top people are, where quality contacts can be made. Some Sabbath.

When Jesus gives his advice on being a good guest – to take the lowest not the highest seat - he is of course not just giving good advice. As advice it wasn’t new, and should not have been new for the Pharisees and lawyers. Jesus’ advice is straight out of Proverbs [25.6-7]: 

‘Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better for you to be told, "Come up here", than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.’  

Well, Luke specifically says Jesus tells them a parable. It is not simply about how to behave socially – it has a double meaning. Like so many of the parables it looks forward to the coming Kingdom of God. And it is a sign of the Kingdom when there is humility and service. 

To be a lawyer or a doctor or a teacher or whatever, you will have had to work very hard, often struggling in adversity even having to overcome prejudice and those who put you off pursuing such a path. You very properly receive due respect for your professional skill and knowledge.  

But thanks be to God: to be close to Jesus, the true host of the heavenly banquet, we can simply take the lowest seat and he will lift us up. No exams, no coursework, no competition, no heavy lifting, no marketing, no networking. He loves us as we are. Stripped of our worldly status, poor, crippled, blind and lame, Our Lord draws us into the bosom of his Father.

If we had continued reading in Luke’s Gospel we would come to the parable of the great banquet [14.15-24] which our lectionary skips. When someone gave a great dinner and all those who were invited gave their excuses and do not come. The host then ordered his slaves to bring in ‘the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame’. These are the ones who are brought into the heavenly banquet. Those who realize their need for God. And it is hard to realize your need for God if you think you are entitled to take the place of honour at the banquet.

At the 8 o’clock service we had the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, which appears later, in Luke [18.9-14]. It’s the broken, sinful tax collector who realizes he needs God. The Pharisee is blinded by his own virtue, his almsgiving and his fasting and simply thanks God he is not like the sinful tax collector.

All of us in some degree are poor, crippled, blind and lame. Our faith weak, burdened by sin, yet we are - all of us without exception - loved by God as his dear children irrespective of how the world may view us. 

Now the parable spoken to the guests and the parable of the heavenly banquet might make some sense: We are to be humble and God exults us; God invites all of us to the feast, whatever our worldly status or inner brokenness. 

But I've skipped the bit where Jesus addresses the host of the meal, forming a second parable within our reading [14.12-14]: when you give a luncheon or a dinner. And this is the thing about the Kingdom of God. It is something in the future, and it is something happening now. And we are called – as extraordinary as it sounds – to be like Jesus, the true host. 

We are to invite all, in whatever way they may be poor, lame, crippled or blind, into the fellowship of this church. The church on earth is called to be a foretaste of the church in heaven, where pride and earthly walls must come tumbling down. Let me encourage all of you to continue in that mutual love. That this place grows in its vocation to be a place of humble service, affirmation and welcome; a place where burdens of sin and shame can be laid down and drowned in the waters of baptism; a place where all might come and receive the Precious Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ in the most Holy Eucharist, the place where the church of earth meets the church of heaven.


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