Readings Ecclesiasticus 10.12–18, Luke 14.1, 7–14
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
For the baptism of Florence Hirt and Edward Townsend
You may know the good news already. Dallas is back on British TV. You can see (again) most of the old members of the Ewing clan who held us rapt in the 80s, now joined by a younger generation of grasping Texans for us to fall in love with, all courtesy of Channel 5.
Back then, Clive James’ TV review often covered ‘the doings of the Ewings’, and he calculated that in an average Dallas episode a meal would occur every four minutes, usually on the windswept patio of the Southfork ranch house. This was a good device, because the breakfast/lunch/dining table is a good place for scheming and arguing and humiliating people, which is what I remember the series was largely about.
Meals happen almost as often in Luke’s gospel. Some, like the one in today’s reading, are of the Southfork variety – we hear that as Jesus arrives at the house of a religious bigwig they are ‘watching him closely’ – but when people are willing to go along with Jesus, a meal can become a moment when you catch a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is like. Those of you who’ve come to celebrate the baptism of Edward and Florence, I hope your parties today are going to be the second sort.
Today, Jesus gives a tip about how to handle an invite from the rich and powerful, which is to aim low and let the host invite you up to a better seat. Shrewd. You can find lots of advice like that in the Bible, in what is called Wisdom literature: proverbs and handy hints to help you negotiate life. The first reading is from one of these books of wisdom. These passages take the view that it’s God’s world, that God is good, and so in God’s world you do well by doing good: get up early, work diligently, consume sensibly, floss regularly (actually, not the last one), and life will be OK. Avoid arrogance or pride, above all hold close to God, and life will be more than OK: you will live the good life.
There is real truth in this view. Research from US universities has found that, while atheists tend to have higher IQs, people of faith tend to live healthier, more fulfilled lives; and help others to be fulfilled, because they give more to charity. I hope you who are parents and godparents of Edward and Florence will encourage them in Christian faith not just because it’s true but because it works.
Then there are the times when it doesn’t work; not, at least, in the sense of warding off tragedy, or hardship, or loss. What then?
An idea popular in Jesus’ day (and not unknown in ours) is that all illness or accident is your fault. And whenever Jesus comes across this idea, he says, Untrue. What he offers is not a pill to take away the pain of being human. In fact, his followers will discover that sometimes life would be easier if they’d never known him. Edward and Florence need to know this too (as do we all): that what they receive today in baptism is not a diplomatic passport to whisk them through life ‘without let or hindrance’; that the trials of life are no less likely to come to them than to anyone; that Christian faith is a wellspring of strength to face the trials of life; and that sometimes it will place demands on them that others don’t face, so that they need to be stronger than others. Christians in Egypt and Syria and Iraq can tell us all about that.
Jesus’ main point today, though, is about parties. In the first part of the reading, you and I are party guests, and he tells us how to handle things. But then he casts us as hosts. So you’re having people round, he says. Who will you invite on to your windy patio? Will you go the Dallas route – friends, family, rich neighbours? How about the people who can’t have you back, or scratch your back, those on the underside of life because of poverty or sickness? Make room for them at your bash. You won’t regret it.
We will soon have a chance to follow that very specific teaching of Jesus. On Sunday September 22nd, St Mary’s hosts the Vineyard lunch, when we ask as our guests men and women who find themselves on the underside of these tough times, with no housing or shelter, or perhaps just with no company. We have a great group of helpers, but we need more. You, perhaps?
Why ever give time and energy to such a thing as that? What would be the point? No point, really; except that it will turn out to be a privilege to be in that company; that you will get more than you give; that you will, as Jesus says, be ‘blessed’; no point, except that it will be where God is, and so it will bring you closer to God, who is the point of everything.
This is the company Edward and Florence are joining today, a movement of people following someone who, in the words of a modern writer, says to us:
God doesn’t want your careful virtue. He wants your reckless generosity. Try to keep what you have and you’ll loose even that. Give it away, and you’ll get back more than you bargain for, more than bargaining could ever get you.
He is the one whom we meet each Sunday in this meal that he gave us, and who will now welcome Edward and Florence as they come to be baptized.
Research from US universities Sean Thomas, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/seanthomas/100231060/are-atheists-mentally-ill/
God doesn’t want your careful virtue From Unapologetic, by Francis Spufford, Faber, p. 116.