The Out-Crowd

Sunday, 1 September 2019 10:00

But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. (Luke 14:13)

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I often start my sermons with references to 1970s television programmes. There’s a kind of reason for that. There’s a fighting chance that most of you will get the reference because in the 1970s television was much more of a shared culture than it is today. Families used to sit together to watch - especially on Saturday nights - and, because millions of people watched a particular show, chances are that when you talked to friends or workmates on Monday they’d seen what you’d seen. 

One of the staples of Saturday night was the sketch show. I’m thinking of The Two Ronnies in particular, but there were others. One of the staples of the sketch show was the dinner party or the cocktail party sketch. Thinking back I’m struck how much these were portrayed as middle-class events. The guests were always portrayed with cut-glass accents and you got the feeling they all worked as bankers or stockbrokers or the like. Working class people were generally cockneys  and worked down the pub. Nothing wrong with either group, but it was striking how little they seemed to mix. Each was its own in-crowd.

We’re encouraged these days not to talk about social class, as if it doesn’t exist. Of course it does. Just as it did in Jesus’s time. This passage from Luke would be utterly meaningless if that were not the case. We get the impression from what Jesus says that when you went to a banquet in his time you had to know your place - literally. Folk would be seated according to their social status with the important folk at the top table and hoi polloi at the back. One imagines that any riff-raff would be stopped at the door. What Jesus says reflects the harshness of this class system perfectly. Get your seat wrong - get above your station - and you would suffer the disgrace of being kicked out of the in-crowd to sit with those you regarded as your social inferiors. Egad! You might even have to make conversation with them. With the out-crowd.

An important point here is that Jesus is working entirely within orthodox Jewish tradition. What he says springs from Proverbs 25:6-7, as we heard this morning. This is important in terms of the people he’s talking to. This is the house of a leader of the Pharisees, so we can imagine that the guests were part of his in-crowd and were also Pharisees. The Pharisees regarded themselves as strict observers of scripture and the commandments. They knew what we call the Old Testament back to front and inside out. What Jesus does here is demonstrate that he’s no slouch on the knowing scripture front either. He’s saying that what he is teaching is entirely consistent with the teachings they’ve grown up with and observe. 

Then he ups the ante. He says to the leader of the Pharisees, “Look, next time you have a dinner party, don’t just invite your mates and your family and those you want to be seen coming into your house. Don’t just invite your in-crowd. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. You know - the people you walk past in the streets holding out their hands imploringly. Invite the out-crowd.”

It’s upping the ante, but there would be folk in that room that would know exactly what he was going on about. There was an idea among those who were looking forward to the end of the age - to the coming of the Messiah - that when the Kingdom of God came about on Earth there would be a great banquet and that all of God’s people, the rich and the poor, the weak and the strong, the mighty and the meek would be invited to gather at the table of the Messiah in the presence of God. It’s why the feeding of the 5000 was seen as such an important miracle that it appears in all four gospels. It’s why, even today, at Communion we gather around the Table. At God’s banquet there would be no out-crowd.

No out-crowd because in the love of God we all belong. Anyone can belong. In the love of God we are family. And that’s not just a metaphor. Do you know the actor Christopher Lee? In his autobiography he claimed to be a descendant of Charlemagne the great king who founded the Holy Roman Empire. Any descendants of Charlemagne here? I am - probably. So is everyone here. Each of us has two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents. The number of ancestors doubles with every generation. get back to Charlemagne’s time and you are a descendant of everyone alive at the time; including Charlemagne and including his lowliest servant. We genuinely are all related. Distantly, perhaps, but related.

For the Pharisees that Jesus was speaking to there was a fundamental division between an in-crowd and an out-crowd. There were the Jews - the people of God - and the Gentiles. The coming of Christ abolished that distinction. And every other distinction as well. In Christ there is no out-crowd. In Christ all are invited to the banquet including the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. Including the hungry and the homeless and the forgotten. Including all that are despised for their difference in terms of status, race or sexuality. In Christ we are family. In Christ we are children of one Father. In Christ all can belong if they just accept that they belong. If they just accept the love that God offers them.

This is the challenge for you and me - for God’s church - to be God’s invitation. We haven’t always got that right and for me it’s a bit personal. I have two Bibles I inherited from my Dad that he’d got as Sunday School prizes. The Mortons - as far as I can make out from family research - were active churchgoing people until some time in the 1950s. Then  my Grandad stopped going. I asked him why and he said that, for the Minister at that time, there were “those and such as those”. A mineworker living in one of the poorest parts of the town wasn’t among “such as those”. He didn’t feel part of the in-crowd.

This place, this building, this Church, this faith cannot - must not - be an in-crowd. It must bear witness to the idea that there is no out-crowd. It must bear witness to the idea that in the love of God all are invited, all are welcomed, all belong. More, it must bear witness to the idea that in the of God love there are no gradations. The poorest, weakest, most easily forgotten man woman or child in the eyes of the world is as precious and as important as any king, emperor or politician. This place, this building, this Church, this faith is a reflection of the great banquet in the life to come. A banquet to which all God’s children - the people to whom we are all, literally, related - are invited.

Let’s be that invitation! Let’s step outside the comfort of our in-crowd - and we all have them - and reflect in all we say and think and do that the folk in our out-crowd are just as important as the folk we love most in our lives. Sure, that’s hard; but when we do it we are what we are meant to be - children of God reflecting the love of God for all his children. Let’s throw open the doors of this place and of our hearts and welcome anyone and everyone. Let this place be a place where all invited because here all belong. Here all are family.

Lord, may we be your invitation. May we love the unloved. May we invite the forgotten. May we feed the hungry. May we tell the world around us that love matters and that all can know your love

Preached at Gretna Old parish church