“Friend, move higher.”
Baptism of Grace Lewis – 28 August 2016
Readings: Psalm 112; Luke 14:1, 7-14
Now, I promise I won’t go on about the Olympics too much but…last Tuesday saw British Airways flight 2016 touch down at Heathrow airport, bringing the vast majority of Team GB – both the athletes and support teams – home to a rapturous reception. And now that they’re all over, looking back, I wonder whether you have a favourite moment or memory from the Olympics. Perhaps it was Justin Rose’s hole in one, Bolt’s triple treble or Mo’s double double…it might have been Andy in the tennis final, Trott and Kenny in the velodrome, Adam Peaty in the pool…or maybe it was when Nick Skelton, the 58 year old showjumper who had overcome a broken neck and was getting used to a new hip, became Britain’s oldest gold medallist at his seventh Olympic games?! Well, whether you were hooked by or hated the Olympic TV coverage, the event with the greatest viewing figures this August wasn’t at the athletics track, the rowing lake or anywhere in Rio. No, the competition that beat all the Olympic events in ratings came this past Wednesday at 8pm, when a marquee, some gingham cloth and a string of cooking double entendres awaited 12 home bakers. That’s right – it’s time to prepare for showstoppers and soggy bottoms again as the Great British Bake Off comes back to our television screens. Now, up until last year, the show had mostly passed me but after some friends of mine stayed for a few days and insisted on us watching an episode, I was completely hooked! And whilst perhaps beneficial for my culinary abilities, watching the show is not particularly good for my waistline because I’ve yet to go through an hour of sumptuous syllabubs, glistening ganache and tempting tarts without reaching for the biscuit tin. Or cake tin. Or both! Watching the batter ooze, the cakes rise and the drizzle…well, drizzle…you can’t help but want to enjoy the fruits of their labours.
This first week – spoiler alert – Lee Banfield, a minister from Bolton was the first to leave the show after making an unholy mess of the jaffa cake technical challenge.
I don’t know whether or not Jesus would have fared better at a baking competition, for the gospel writers don’t comment on his cooking abilities but they do all suggest that Jesus was a bit of a foodie. In fact, the Jesus found in Luke’s gospel is pretty preoccupied with eating. He teaches over lunch, preaches about dinner, tells stories about feasts and banquets, and even gets accused of being a glutton and drunkard by his critics. One of the reasons why Luke’s gospel is probably my favourite is because his vision of Christian life can be viewed as one party after another. And in today’s reading, we find Jesus round the house of one of the chief Pharisees, the strict religious leaders who put great emphasis on the law and purity system, and we hear that they’re checking out this Jesus fella –
“Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees,” Luke tells us, “to eat a meal on the day of rest and there they watched him closely. And when Jesus noticed how the guests chose where they sat, Jesus told them a parable…”
Now I imagine the first readers of Luke’s gospel, as perhaps some of us here today, woke up a bit when they heard the words ‘Jesus told them a parable’ for these are the sideways stories which have twists and turns, which offer radical new ways of living, which excite and infuriate and challenge Jesus’ listeners. So far in Luke’s letter we’ve heard the one about the sower chucking his seeds everywhere, been discombobulated by the confusing message of the dishonest manager, been wowed by the paradox of the Good Samaritan among others and now we prepare ourselves for another treat. Another vivid tale to get our imaginations racing –
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,” Jesus begins, “Do not sit down at the place of honour in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by the host…”
Hmmm. As Jesus goes on we hear how it’s better to be bumped up the seating plan rather than risk being pushed down. Hmmm. At first reading, if I’m honest, I’m a little underwhelmed! Don’t get me wrong, it’s sound advice, isn’t it? It’s hugely embarrassing to be told to move down the pecking order when you’ve sat somewhere pretty good – as I found to my cost at the athletics stadium in Rio, where my friend and I had misunderstood the ticket system and were a level lower, closer to the action than we should have been! But whilst it’s solid advice, it doesn’t exactly seem world-changing, does it?
Well, in the time I’ve got left, I’d like to suggest that maybe it is. That maybe, in those seemingly innocuous words about seating plans and party invites, Jesus was hinting about the radical nature of God’s new realm – that at that meal, over bread, dip and wine, he revealed something about an idea that might change the world, an idea so central to our Christian living that it can be found in each of today’s hymns and is even embodied in the newest member of our family, for that idea is GRACE.
So what is grace about? Well, in Jesus’ parable, he talks about a wedding banquet and tells those he’s eating with, the Pharisees, not to grapple for the best seats but to be humble for then the host might say to you “Friend, move higher” and you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. Well, just like today, seating plans at weddings in ancient Palestine were a bit of a big deal. At the feast, men would recline on couches, with the centre couch being the place of honour and reserved for the man with the greatest wealth, power, or office. If a more important man arrived late – can you imagine such a thing Beverley?! – someone of lesser rank was asked to move down to a less prestigious seat!
So what’s all this got to do with grace?! Well, throughout his ministry, Jesus uses the picture of a wedding banquet – a great feast celebrating joy and love and community – he uses this as an image of God’s kingdom. The way that God wants us to live right now and the world that is to come is like a great wedding party, Jesus says. So his advice not to go grabbing the best seats is saying a lot more than a comment on social etiquette. Jesus is in fact challenging the Pharisees and their view of God.
You see, the Pharisees were key supporters of the purity system in which access to God was limited. In their understanding, God’s love was limited to those who were holy enough. God was the God of Israel so if you weren’t a good Jew, you wouldn’t get a look in. If you weren’t male, tough luck. If you weren’t free of disability, wealthy enough to afford study, worthy enough to become a priest, your access to God was limited. Only the most important priests and the best Pharisees could gain access to the Temple, where God was to be found. In their religious seating plan, they were to have the best seats, they were to be nearest God because they were special and superior and had earned it. So when Jesus suggested this system be turned on its head, when he told the parable and advised the listeners about not grasping for the best seats, he was dropping a bombshell about God’s new world.
“It won’t be like your system of purity and privilege,” Jesus says. “So don’t assume you’ve earned the right to be closest to God for this is not something you earn but that God freely gives. To those who assume they’re closer to God – to the proud and presumptuous – the order, ‘Give this person your place’ will be given. No please, no thank yous, just move.”
Now see just how different are the words given to those on the outskirts – “Friend, move up higher,” they will be told. Jesus then, is telling the Pharisees, is telling us, that God’s new world is all about grace. It’s about being given a free gift, not one that you earn. You’re invited to God’s party, you’re given access to God’s feast, God’s love, God’s presence, not because you’ve earned it for none of us could earn such a thing. Instead, God blesses us with a surprise party and with a gift list that includes welcome and forgiveness, that comes with complimentary compassion and extravagant love. And when the world says that you’re not good enough to have it, God says, “Friend, move higher”. And when family or society or religion say that you’re not clever enough, pure enough, attractive enough, God says, “Friend, come closer.” When you’re struggling to let go of past mistakes or guilt, when you find it hard to look in the mirror, when there feels like a million and one reasons to remain on the outside God says, “Friend, come sit by me”. This is what we hear in the seemingly innocuous words from our reading – that God invites you to the party and calls you a little closer, not because you’ve earned it and not because you’re better than anyone else but because you are like everyone else. A broken, beautiful, beloved child of the gracious God who embraces us as we are and draws us out to be the people we were created to be.
And there’s more. Just as watching the Great British Bake Off can make us want to share the joy of eating biscuits and cake, so might hearing of God’s grace make us want to share such grace with others. So go and be grace-filled people, Jesus says. Don’t invite to dinner those who can invite you back in return. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the outcast – exactly those excluded by the Pharisees purity laws, those who cannot invite you back – for in that way, you will be blessed. In that way, you will be living a life of grace. God blesses you with grace, Jesus says – with the free gift of God’s love – now go share that grace with the world.
This morning then, we rejoice that Grace has been seen in our midst. We give thanks for her reminder that we are all lovingly held in the arms of a gracious God. We give thanks that we have been able to welcome Grace and her family whilst demanding nothing in return. We give thanks that we are all invited to God’s party and that we get to invite others along too. So bring your party-poppers and showstoppers, your signature bakes and jaffa cakes, for the banquet is ready and your place is prepared. Thank God for Grace. Amen.