Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Trinity, 25th June 2017
1 Samuel 24:1-17, Luke 14:12-24

When I was a graduate trainee (last year …), one day I was sitting at my desk, at lunchtime, having a sandwich and trying to complete a task which I had been set by one of the partners in the august marine insurance firm I was working in.

One of the senior partners, whom I normally never saw from day to day, appeared. Why had he left the corridor of power? I wondered. I never found out – but nevertheless, I soon had to deal with him.

‘Bryant, what are you doing?’ He asked. I said that I was trying to catch up with such-and-such a piece of work. ‘No, but what are you really doing?’ He pressed. I was at a loss. What was he on about?

‘What’s that in your hand?’ 

‘A sandwich, sir.’

‘You’re wasting the firm’s time! Get off your backside and go out: go and find a shipowner, and buy them some lunch!’

So I did. And I fear that my slightly less than streamlined shape is the result of my finding those shipowners and buying them some lunch rather regularly over the last 40 years.

Lunch – or dinner – is a powerful tool. And a nice stylish invitation just adds to how good it is. If you have a few of those nice cards on your mantelpiece, you feel all right. Well, everyone here has at least one of those, for Bishop Jo’s opening of St Mary’s Hall, followed by a hog roast, on 9th July. (If you haven’t got an invitation, please do see me after the service!)

Meals are powerful. The Alpha Course, the way in which more people have been introduced to Christianity in this country than by any other way in the last 40 years, involves sitting down together and sharing a meal. Somehow, eating and drinking together deepens the sense of fellowship and draws people in.

The Ancient Greeks, and the Romans after them, placed great store by banquets and feasts. You may remember Fellini’s wonderfully over-the-top film ‘Satyricon’, which was a dramatisation of that part of the Roman author Petronius’ satirical book which was called ‘Cena Trimalchionis’, Trimalchio’s Banquet. Trimalchio, the host, is a freed slave, and therefore almost by definition a nouveau-riche – and he has made up for lost time by making a lot of money, which he’s keen to show off to as many people as possible. It is pretty vulgar stuff – girls leaping, scantily clad, from giant pies, and so on. Not but what it’s great fun – although possibly not quite suitable for ‘Spiritual Cinema’.

We still remember – and celebrate – those ancient meals. Plato and several other Classical authors wrote descriptions of ‘Symposiums’, gatherings of men to discuss important topics over serious drinks, reclining on couches, what the Romans called ‘triclinia’. Plato’s book, called his ‘Symposium’, contains a big panel discussion about love – love between the sexes, that is. Food was taken separately: a ‘symposium’ was strictly a drinks do, whereas a ‘δειπνον’ was a meal where the discussion could continue.

But Jesus was concerned to add his distinctive twist to banquets and party invites. His banquet was not for the in-crowd, not for the glitterati. He told a parable about a posh dinner, where the intending host had sent out those nice invitation cards, but his friends were turning him down. They had various practical things to attend to: a new piece of land: ‘five yoke of oxen’, which must have had the same function in those days as one of those massive John Deere tractors that we see pulling trailers through the village today. Serious kit. And another one had just got married.

Difficult to see what the problem of being a newly-wed was, unless the banquet was a men-only do. After all, even the Reform Club only admitted women in 1980. But the other excuses were feeble. It sounded to the host as though they just didn’t want to come to his party, at any price.

So Jesus turned the whole thing on its head. He’d already indicated that he didn’t think you should invite posh people round to dinner and things, just so as you could get invited back. He had said earlier to the disciples, ‘But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.’

Bear in mind that in those days, if people were ‘poor, maimed, lame, or ‘blind’, it was looked upon as showing that they had done something wrong – they had sinned, and that had brought divine punishment upon them, which was why they were halt, and lame and blind. So Jesus was recommending that you send your party invites not just to rather unglamorous people, but also that you send them to people who were actually bad, bad, at least in the eyes of Jewish society in those days. It was another instance of Jesus being willing to make friends with anyone. Remember when he got taken to task for having a meal with ‘publicans’ (tax gatherers) and sinners.

You might just notice in passing that it’s a bit like what certain sections of the press and the media say about people who are on benefits or who have to get food from the Foodbank. They call them scroungers and imply that most of them are cheats. They’re in a bad way because they’re feckless. Perhaps some people’s attitudes haven’t changed much in 2,000 years.

So when his friends came up with excuses why they couldn’t make the party, Jesus’ bloke sent out ‘into the streets and lanes of the city, and brought in the halt and the lame, the poor and the blind – and got his man to make sure that the banquet was filled up with all these second-class citizens, and none of the proper lot who were first invited.

This is right in line with Jesus’ commandment of love, with his contrary way of doing the opposite of whatever conventional wisdom would have recommended. There were precedents for this kind of selfless generosity in Jewish history – our first lesson, the story of David sparing the life of King Saul, is a good one. But the point is that Jesus wanted to raise up the poor, the halt, the lame and the blind. Think of what we sing in the Magnificat:

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away’.

When we think of the people burned alive in Grenfell Tower, where they spent nearly £10m making the building look nice to the posh neighbours, but didn’t spend anything on sprinklers or proper fire alarms: when we learn that the council didn’t listen to the residents’ association when they tried to warn about the fire risk – perhaps because they were only poor people, maybe immigrants or black people – not worth listening to; somehow less important, less influential, than the rich people whose mansion flats looked out on the grotty council block in their midst: when we learn of that, we should think carefully about what Jesus was saying.

Jesus didn’t tolerate a huge gap between rich and poor. ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek’. He didn’t tolerate those who wanted to do the right thing, but allowed mundane practicalities to get in the way. Is it right that a nurse shouldn’t have a pay rise since 2009? Is it an answer to say that ‘there isn’t a magic money tree’? Jesus didn’t care. He wasn’t at all impressed that one of his guests had just bought a parcel of land, and another one had bought a stonking great tractor for his farm.

Jesus would have looked at our country today, and seen the rich getting tax cuts while the poor had to go to food banks and the Health Service teetered on the brink of financial collapse, and poor people being incinerated in a lethal tower block with no sprinkler system, which had been prettified at great expense – but just chiselling off the cost of fireproof cladding – and I am sure he would have been like the dinner host when his pampered guests turned him down for their own selfish reasons: ‘He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away’. 

And by the way, as you’ll see from the hand-outs which we’re giving out today, that even here in the second richest borough in the country, second to the home of Grenfell Tower, Kensington and Chelsea, even here in Elmbridge, in the Cobham area, demand for our Foodbank has gone up so much that we’ve run out of many vital food items. We are giving out over half a metric ton of food per week now, here in Cobham, to local, Cobham people. 

You may say that this is political. I would say that it doesn’t matter which party you are in, you need to lobby your party to adopt policies, or change its policies, so that the halt (that could mean those who have long-term disabilities), the lame (that could mean those who have been hurt, or who are ill), or the poor (they could be people working, but on a zero-hours contract) – and of course the blind – so that all those second-class citizens are no longer shut out of the banquet which most of us enjoy.

Shall we start with two things? Let’s take one of the shopping lists at the back of the church and do an extra trip to the supermarket this week, and buy some of the things that the Foodbank is short of; and let’s invite the Foodbank’s customers who live in Stoke D’Abernon to join us at our hog roast with Bishop Jo on 9th July. I think Jesus would approve.

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