Minister's Sermon - 1st September 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSermon for Chandler’s Ford Methodist Church

Sunday 1st September 10.30am 2019

Reading 1: (Ecclesiasticus) Sirach 10.12-18

Reading 2: Luke 14. 1,7-14

I guess you’ll be familiar with the saying: “we are what we eat”? When we say, “we are what we eat,” we’re talking about the need to eat good, wholesome food, food that will feed our bodies so that they’re healthy and disease free. We usually think of it as something personal. At most the private concern of families. ‘Though when the government gets involved and determines how many calories we should eat we say they’re politicising food. This summer, though, with foodbanks running short of food this summer and the fear of food costs soaring if there’s a no-deal Brexit - it’s become political with a Big P. We are what we eat – or we don’t eat. But I think it would be consistent with today’s Gospel reading, to create another saying, by changing one word, and adding another. To turn it into: “we are who we eat with.” We are who we eat with. So, as I begin, think about that for a moment. Who do you eat (or drink) with? Who do you sit with at the end of a service? When you come into the Dovetail Café during the week? Who do you eat with at work? Who do you invite to your home? Or who do you go out with? Those are just a few of the questions today’s Gospel reading asks of us. And I’ll come back to them later.

Jesus wasn’t known for his politeness at the dinner table. He seemed to have received and accepted many invitations to dinner, but they usually ended with him challenging his host or their guests or with a scandal. It makes me wonder why they kept inviting him! This is the third dinner invitation Jesus has accepted from a Pharisee in Luke’s Gospel. At the first, a woman of dubious reputation anointed his feet, and washed them with her tears. At the second, he denounces the Pharisees and the lawyers, for neglecting God’s justice and love. And in this, third invitation, he’s already interrupted this sabbath meal to heal a sick man. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has a complex relationship with Pharisees. Even ‘though some of them express hostility towards him, he continues to be invited to their meals, and to engage with them about what faithful religious observance looked like. Some Pharisees felt Jesus should have a distant relationship with “sinners and tax collectors” that didn’t involve meals and foot washing. Others argued he should wash his hands before all meals, and should not heal people or allow his disciples to harvest, on the Sabbath. Yet, they were also amazed that Jesus could heal and forgive sins, and some even warned him when Herod wanted to kill him. They continued to invite him to eat with them, because eating, always involved talking. And even ‘though this was clearly a feast for the social elite and perhaps wise, influential, and admired Rabbis like Jesus, he didn’t refuse. At dinner the Pharisees watch Jesus closely. And Jesus watches them. When he “noticed how some of the guests were choosing the best places… he told this parable to all of them.” And afterwards, he spoke specifically to his host, and told him who he should have invited. All because, we are, who we eat with. I want to start at the end of this reading, this week. With Jesus’ words to his host. And I’ll come back to the parable in a little while.

Jesus says to his host, that when he invites people to dinner, he shouldn’t invite his “friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbour.” Instead he should invite people on the margins. People who are poor. People who are physically challenged because they are blind or disabled. People who are socially or economically humbled. He should include people who can’t return the favour of inviting him to a feast. Luke doesn’t tell us how Jesus's listeners reacted. In one of her reflections on this reading, Debie Thomas says, “we don’t know if they laughed in discomfort, shook their heads in disbelief, questioned Jesus's sanity, argued back, or followed his advice. All I know is how I react as I read and re-read this story. I feel an uncomfortable combination of surprise, scepticism, and fear. As in: Really? Is Jesus serious? Does he have any idea what he's asking?” She continues like this. “Every once in a while, just as I'm growing comfortable with my faith, a story like this one comes along to mess with my complacency. (1) I’ve wondered about this complacency – ours as well as hers – as I’ve read these news stories over the summer.

On Friday, I read that in the most deprived areas of this country, food banks are “critically low” on supplies because of higher demands over the school holidays. Donations are always down in the summer, but this year, there has been a 20% increase in requests. And as well as the usual 3-day emergency supplies packages, some food-banks have been asked to run holiday programmes for families, with hot lunches, breakfasts, activities and trips. Many are looking forward to harvest festivals to replenish stocks. ‘Though some are still anticipating high demands, at the end of the summer holidays, as families buy school uniforms. In the Food-bank run by a church in Preston city-centre, one of the volunteers said, the “the last month has been a particularly ‘emotional’ time. ‘We get lots of people who feel really ashamed to be here, and lots who are crying – especially mums… they are often so upset.’” (2)

At the end of July, I read an article about working parents who were really dreading the summer holidays, because they didn’t know how they were going to afford child care costs. In the South East, child care costs on average £162 per week per child. Low-income families on universal credit, can claim 85% of the costs back, up to £175 a week for one child or £300 for two. But no more. And costs have to be paid up front and claimed back, which means taking out loans, and paying back interest. Those who can’t, rely on “a fragile patchwork of play-schemes, grandparents, friends, neighbours, and time off work where possible.” (3) Local authorities are doing what they can, but cutbacks have limited what’s possible, so community groups and churches are trying to fill gaps. I was so glad that there was such a good response to John’s request for helpers for Dovetot’s Plus. It was really good that it could continue over the summer. And it’d be great if it could open again for the autumn half term. So, thank you if you volunteered, and please consider doing it again.

And just in case we think this struggle will soon be over and things can return to normal as children go back to school, 30 individuals and groups concerned with children’s health and wellbeing, have written an open letter in The Times calling on the government to protect school meals in the event of no-deal Brexit. They’re particularly worried about the 3 million children in the UK who depend on a free school meal for one of their main sources of nutrition. If there is a no-deal Brexit, it’s anticipated that supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables will be disrupted, and food prices might rise by anything up to 10%. The letter – which the President and Vice-President of the Methodist Church have signed - ends like this. “We are concerned about how schools who are already experiencing budget shortages will cope with limited fresh food supplies and price hikes. The public sector caterers will be hit harder as they will not have the same buying power as their private sector colleagues. It will be the most vulnerable school pupils who will end up losing out. The Government needs to reassure schools urgently that extra funding will be reliably available to ensure schools can continue to feed children well.” (4)

You might be wondering what these things have to do with who we eat with. Well, who we eat with, is about the choices we make. Not just personal choices about who to invite to dinner, or sit with over coffee, after church. But the choices our nation makes – and that includes all of us – about who will eat and who will not eat. Over the past 10 years or so, the changes this country has chosen, have had more impact on the poorest and most vulnerable, than on those who are richer. The result us an ever-more divided country. With the rich affording to eat with others like them. And some poorer people – many working – are turning to food banks simply to survive. We’re becoming who we eat with and becoming ever-more distant from others. So, like Jesus’ host, we need to hear his challenge to sit and eat with those who are living on the economic and social margins of this country. And rather than think first about those who can give something back, think about those who can’t. To many people in today’s world, this won’t make sense, it’s too counter-cultural. Maybe for us too. But, as Debie Thomas’ says, “this is what God wants from us. God, the Great Reverser of our priorities, our hierarchies, and our values. God, who turns us inside out and upside down because there is no end to the miserable human game of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out,’ and God in God’s wisdom knows that our anxious scramble for greatness,” and for more, “will lead to nothing but more anxiety, more suspicion, more loneliness, more hatred, and more devastation.” (1)

At dinner, the Pharisees watch Jesus closely, and he watches his hosts’ guests too. Maybe we can imagine some of the guests scrambling, even jostling for front row seats, for the most prestigious places, closest to the host. After watching this drama for a while, Jesus calls them out, with a parable. “When you’re invited to a wedding banquet, don’t sit down at the place of honour. Go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Jesus knows that what they’d done was acceptable within the social rules of his day. But he invites them to turn their back on them. And calls for a revolution. “Not a revolution in arms,” says Debie Thomas, “but a revolution in table manners.” (1) Mitzi Smith tells the story of registering for a religious event. She paid the lower, early bird rate, but if she’d paid 35 dollars more, she could have had a VIP seat. She didn’t choose the VIP option. The idea that her ability to pay, should determine her importance in the eyes of the organisers and perhaps other participants, appalled her. “Our social status or financial resources,” she says, “should not establish our significance in the eyes of others or in our own minds.” (5) Mitzi’s decision reflects table manners consistent Luke’s Gospel – right from the beginning. When Elizabeth, a childless married woman conceives, she declares that God has taken away her social shame and exalted her. We’d have expected Mary, a young unmarried virgin, to have been ashamed of her situation since she’d have been the object of her social derision. But her song tells the story of how God looked favourably on her humility and reversed her status. Over and over again, Luke tells us stories of Jesus lifting up the lowliest, most humble people, in his community. Of Jesus encouraging those who follow him to do the same. And inviting those who are secure and comfortable to be humble. To develop the table manners of God’s kingdom.

But humility isn’t easy. It’s too easily confused with low self-esteem or complicity with abuse or oppression. And even when we manage to define it in healthy ways, humility betrays us. Because the moment we claim to be humble, is the moment, humility eludes us. But it’s worse than that, because there’s little in our culture that rewards those who are humble. And whether it’s politics, sports, entertainment or even religion, Western cultures tend to admire the loudest, the biggest, and the greatest. Just think about the slogans that have been popular recently. “Make Britain Great again.” “Make America Great again.” We’re not known for humility. And even worse, Christianity - especially as it has been practiced in the West - is not known around the world, for its humility. Whatever the rights or wrongs of the colonial era, the legacy of the churches allowing themselves to be used by governments, remains. So, when we don’t listen, when we assume we know what’s right, when we insist on having our own way, our behaviour is experienced as being far from the Gospel. As lacking in the table manners appropriate in those who first shared the Gospel. And the same happens here, when Christians relate to people, who do not belong to the church. The assumption that we have the answers, that others need, is not a helpful way to share the Gospel. We need to listen as well as talk. To explore other people’s questions, rather than give answers to the questions they haven’t asked. To have the humility to learn from those whose lives express Gospel values even when their words don’t. Most of all we need to live what we believe, as much as speak it, so that people can see what the table manners of God’s kingdom look like in practice. Whether that’s through helping foodbanks, supporting hard-pressed families through the holidays, or speaking up to ensure that the most vulnerable children are well fed.

This might not sound like humility, but I think it is, because it protests against the culture of upward mobility and competitiveness that surrounds us. It’s not easy and it’s not straightforward. Because in boardrooms, in government, in political parties, in decisions made about admissions for schools, colleges and universities, even in the church, winning, being the biggest, being heard, is what usually counts. Yet, Jesus asks us to believe that our behaviour at all of these tables matters. That who we eat with matters. Debie Thomas says, “Where we sit speaks volumes, and the people we choose to welcome reveal the stuff of our souls.” (1) This is what the short passage we heard from Sirach is about. Self-importance and personal exaltation, it says, draws people away from God’s priorities. The result is pride and selfishness, which can destroy our relationships with God, with other people, with the world around us. So, favour the ones who cannot repay you, prefer those on the edge. Choose humility, rather that the best seats, for that’s the way of greatness. For you are who you eat with. Whether that’s at the end of a service, when you come into the Dovetail Café during the week, at work, in your home, and who you go out with - it reveals the stuff of your soul. So show the world, that in God’s kingdom we don’t need to fight for the best table, the best food, the best company. There’s no need of jostling, or scrambling. Just the humility, generosity and hospitality that assures everyone that they’re welcomed, that the table has enough seats for everyone, and there can be enough food for all. Amen.

(1) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2334 25th August 2019

(2) Amy walker in The Guardian Friday 20th August 2019 p16-17

(3) Harriet Sherwood in The Guardian Saturday 27th July 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/jul/27/school-holiday-childcare-costs-poor-provision-headache-for-parents?utm_source=JPIT&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=10797832_August%202019&dm_i=1MV9,6FFNS,SJ3S2M,PH609,1

(4) https://www.sustainweb.org/news/aug19_school_meals_no_deal_brexit/?utm_source=Methodist%20Church%20House&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=10833769_The%20Week%20Ahead&dm_i=BVI,6G7E1,S4DC4Z,PKQBB,1

(5) https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4163

Sue Keegan von Allmen

1st September 2019

References

(1) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2334 25th August 2019

(2) Amy walker in The Guardian Friday 20th August 2019 p16-17

(3) Harriet Sherwood in The Guardian Saturday 27th July 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/money/2019/jul/27/school-holiday-childcare-costs-poor-provision-headache-for-parents?utm_source=JPIT&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=10797832_August%202019&dm_i=1MV9,6FFNS,SJ3S2M,PH609,1

(4) https://www.sustainweb.org/news/aug19_school_meals_no_deal_brexit/?utm_source=Methodist%20Church%20House&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=10833769_The%20Week%20Ahead&dm_i=BVI,6G7E1,S4DC4Z,PKQBB,1

(5) https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4163