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Sunday 1 September 2019

A place at the table

Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

By Jenny Bridgman

Parish Priest and Assistant Director of Ordinands in the Diocese of Chester

 

Context: a small, suburban congregation at an evening Eucharist which includes the laying on of hands with prayer and anointing

Aim: to reaffirm our place, and that of others, at God’s table

 

The Loneliness Experiment

Last year the BBC launched The Loneliness Experiment. Over 55,000 people responded, and 35% of all respondents said that they feel lonely ‘often’ or ‘very often’. In our parish of 22,000 people, there might be 8000 people on our doorstep who battle with chronic loneliness. Perhaps some of us here this evening would say that we are chronically lonely.

Nowhere can one feel lonelier than when surrounded by other people, particularly if one feels unaccepted or unloved by those gathered. I am struck by how lonely Christ might have felt at this lively dinner gathering. It comes immediately after his forlorn lament over Jerusalem, full of wistful longing for meaningful relationship with his people. Did Luke intend us to hold this longing in mind as he moves onto the account of the Sabbath meal?

Over dinner, Christ is surrounded by people, but things seem far from well, with the Pharisees ‘watching him closely’. In this lonely room, how much does the sense of Christ’s longing intensify as he begins to look ahead to a great heavenly banquet?

 

Jostling for position

Jesus’ teaching here was not a lesson in dinner party etiquette, even if it was triggered by the elbowing for position at the table. Instead, it was a caution against jostling for position before God. The Pharisees had form for this, concerned for their own piety and righteousness before the wellbeing and flourishing of the other. Christ’s warning was clear: when it comes to the heavenly banquet, those who think they are best in the eyes of God will likely be surprised to see divine honour bestowed on those less pure, less righteous, less worthy.

I wonder how we hear this caution today? Thankfully, the days of renting pews in church, of purchasing one’s position in the house of God, are long gone. But is there a warning here for those of us who are tempted to consider ourselves more holy, more spiritual, more committed, than another? Perhaps. Although I’d like to turn this on its head a little.

Father Richard Rohr writes: ‘If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it’. If we are tempted to jostle for position before God, I would hazard that our competitiveness is rooted not in an inflated sense of ego, but in a lack of it. We feel so deeply insecure, so mortally wounded by life, that we cover our pain with defensive frustration:

‘I have done my bit, why can’t someone else have a go?’

‘Why can’t they commit to coming more than once every couple of months?’

‘I don’t want them coming in and ruining my church’

We might think these things, even if we don’t always say them (but, believe me, say them we do!). What might be going on within us? What fear or pain lies beneath these thoughts?

‘I have done my bit – but is it really enough for God?’

‘I come every week, but they seem so much more at peace than me.’

‘This is my territory: the place I feel secure.’

Here, our deepest fears trigger unhelpful comparisons in our desperation to know that God has seen us, too. If we don’t begin to address these insecurities, we transmit them as criticism and competition.

 

Being transformed

Healing and wholeness are lifelong journeys. As we travel, it is not just ourselves who are transformed, but our community. The fear and self-criticism that we project onto others, when transformed into a love and acceptance of our self, leads us into deeper love and acceptance of others. When I value what I bring to the table, when I see that God values it, so I value the contributions of the other. My perspective changes; my vision enlarges. I see myself, and others, as God sees us: gathered around the table and ready to share in the fruits of his kingdom. Together, we are transformed.

If you feel lonely this evening, you are in good company. Imagine again Christ’s loneliness as he was surrounded by hostile companions at dinner. Imagine his loneliness as he went on to face betrayal, desertion, and death.

If you are worried this evening about whether there is a place at the table for you, then please cling to this image of the heavenly banquet, where the humble, the poor, the crushed in spirit, will be held in highest honour.

If you think that your place at the table is threatened by your unworthiness, or by the piety of another, then hear again: at Christ’s table, our own worldly standards are turned upside down, and there is room for all.

And if you feel moved to transform your own pain and to reach out with Christ’s invitation to another, then hold onto the statistic that one third of our neighbours are lonely. Perhaps a smile, a kind word, a thoughtful favour, might just be the catalyst that begins to transform the pain of another, and offers a foretaste of Christ’s heavenly banquet.

 

Sources mentioned:

BBC Loneliness Experiment: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-45561334

Rohr - Transforming Our Pain: https://cac.org/transforming-our-pain-2016-02-26/

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