Let Mutual Love Continue

Revd Sarah
Sunday, August 28, 2016 - 5:45pm

Sermon Proper 17 – Luke 14: 1,7-14; Hebrews 13:1-8.

 Let mutual love continue

 I wonder...what kind of thoughts go through your mind when you’re invited by a kind host? What’s the seating plan?  Who else will be there?  Should I accept again when I haven’t yet, or can’t, reciprocate? When I don’t feel I deserve my place?

In today’s gospel reading, the parable Jesus tells to the Pharisees and those fixed in their religious hierarchies and rules, can tell us a thing or two about entertaining and hospitality: taking our rightful place alongside others in equality with all, rather than finding our pride has disgraced and distanced us in our higher seat; noticing and reaching out to those who can’t give back – at least not in the same way. 

And just as this parable unusually speaks directly into the very scene and context the Pharisees sit within as Jesus tells it, so in our daily 21st century lives we can perhaps think of extraordinarily similar examples where our warm and generous hosts have offered us the kind of hospitality Jesus speaks of here, when we return home realizing we’ve just seen and felt the gospel lived out in humility and faith.   

So, is this an unusually direct parable where we can simply explore the many aspects of hospitality and our shared lives with others?  Well yes......but as usual, Jesus’ words also turn our lives upside down and inside out when our starting point is changed.

Jesus frequently uses the image of a banquet to represent the kingdom of heaven – showing us where and how to live to help shape God’s kingdom here and now, around us and within us. When our host is God, and the party we’re invited to is God’s banquet (the kingdom of heaven), we wonder how we can possibly earn our place at the table, how should we live to deserve salvation. 

But God’s banquet is not about our merits or just deserts, but about our host’s incomprehensible, unfair, extravagantly abundant generosity and gift to all – including ourselves.

Our focus and direction of travel, and who we travel with, not for, changes when we recognize that everything in our lives is in God’s gift, and when we live in the self-forgetfulness and freedom of our own humility. When we glimpse through God’s eyes the kingdom of heaven which surrounds us as we entertain angels through the abundance of God’s love. When mutual love continues.

Our questions change from how can I earn my place and where should I sit, to how can everybody be invited. Our focus changes from struggling to sit alongside others in the lowest place of poverty and weaknesses, to living freely in humility equally in that place where our vulnerabilities and weaknesses and love are honestly shared. Where those society marginalizes as the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, might equally be raised up as host, restored to the dignity of giving as well as receiving. Where mutual love continues.

Jesus speaks, in our passage from Luke this morning, of inviting people who won’t be able to repay in kind, but who know their need, and in humility receive in mutual joy and generosity in each other’s company.  Giving without receiving is selfless generosity, but how hard is it also to receive without giving in return? To receive as a rough sleeper has to every day when begging on the street corner. To receive from a visiting carer, when isolated and incapacitated at home. To receive rather than curl up in exhaustion when we feel spent in grief, rejection, failure, unloved.  To receive in humility in our pilgrimage through life, desiring to be known as we are not as we would like to be (Merton), recognizing our need in mutual love, as we travel equally together in humility.

Last Friday a happy band of us from St Mary’s pilgrimed to the far-off lands of Winchester, winding along the beautiful way of the river Itchen.  Despite being intrepid pilgrims at heart, our 2hr route from Ovington to Easton is hard to compare with the great Camino, the way of St James which arrives in Santiago di Compostella in Spain.

Yet picking up on the symbol of the scallop shell, the emblem of St James and the Camino, we too carried with us our pilgrims’ shell brought to us by fellow pilgrims from the shores of Scotland.  Now ours is not the mighty scallop as you can see, but the appropriately humble limpet............which seems much more suited to our St Mary’s pilgrimages where all speeds of pilgrims are of course always very welcome!

With its grooved lines running from outer rim to shared centre, the shell represents the many different starting points and pathways each person treads on their own unique spiritual journey, where individual struggles and stories lead us together to an equal meeting at our journey’s centre, to where our lives are lived together in Christ. 

The scallop shell was carried by medieval pilgrims, to humbly receive their measure of food and drink from churches and other establishments along their way. Our humble limpet didn’t provide us with much lunch, but a shell is often carried by pilgrims today as a symbol of our need and trust in God’s provision for every step of their journey, trusting in the hospitality of strangers (which we certainly received), and shedding our own self-sufficiencies and pride by recognizing in humility an equal need of others, and of God.

Let those who exalt themselves be humbled, says Jesus. All who are exalted in the falsity of pride will be humbled not by a jealous God, but by our ‘interior murmuring’ as Thomas Merton puts it, in the self-exhaustion of our fears and false ideas.

St Augustine likens pride to smoke rising from a fire, where the further it rises from its source the more puffed up and lofty it gets yet dissipates into the air – raised up but vanishing into nothing. When we raise ourselves up, elevating ourselves in separation from others and God by our own defenses, fear or pride, we move further away not only from our common humanity with others in mutual love, but away from our source, our life and sustenance, God’s love.

Without humility our lives cannot rise up to God. As St Benedict explains, humility is a spirit of self-forgetfulness through obedience and trust in the grace and will of God, the sacrifice of our whole being to God. Christ shares his glory with those who share his disgrace, Merton reminds us. We walk with Christ through all our weaknesses, we dust ourselves down and open our hearts, and in living in the truth of our vulnerabilities and need we become better able to love.

St Benedict, (whose ‘little rule’ with his 12 stages of humility is full of wisdom and a very short and worthwhile read if you haven’t already) explains, the humble man does not regard himself as the last in a collection of criminals but the last in a community of saints. Because he has so much love, he can see the wonders of goodness and grace in all, and rejoice in the fact that he is one of this communion even though the last. He sees in himself sins which he knows, but doesn’t see in his brother sins which he doesn’t know. He sees Christ in his brother, by faith)

Humility accepts all things from God, in courage, faith and love. In the courage and faith of living in humility, we can accept God’s never-ending invitation as our eyes, our hearts, and our lives are raised to God.

Let mutual love continue, as we walk together in Christ, as we live in the humility of faith in God’s abundant love, as we entertain strangers and recognize angels all around us.