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19th July 2020

Seizing The Day

Passage: Luke 14;15-24


Suppose it was my party that no-one wanted to come to?
Suppose, like Naomi, I put a lot of thought and effort into organising it, sent out invitations and all my friends made pathetic excuses not to come? How would I feel?

First, hurt that none of my friends would give my party priority in their diaries.
Second, humiliated. I would wonder what was wrong with me, that no-one apparently wanted to spend time with me?
And third, angry. How could these people let me down like this?

Social events can be what you might call a “cultural exchange.” In other words, you invite me, and I shall invite you back. My friend asked me to her birthday party so I must invite her to mine. And although I am very happy to invite my friend because I enjoy her company, there is still that element of a deal.
Some social events can be about business. You play golf, have a drink, attend a business dinner with people who might be useful to know. And this does not mean you don’t really like them or that there is any kind of dodgy dealing going on. But there is still an element of exchange- I might be able to help you and you might be able to help me, so let’s have a drink together.

So, if I give a party that no-one wishes to attend, I come to the conclusion that I am a social and professional disaster. I have nothing to offer that anybody wants.
This would be followed by a predictable slide into comfort eating, indigestion, insomnia, social paranoia and depression. And my guess is that, as kind people you would say, “poor Jennifer. I am not surprised she is in a bad state after the way people have treated her.” We all know that rejection is very hard to take.

Reading Jesus’ story again, what struck me for the first time was the reaction of the host. Yes, he was angry, but he did not withdraw. He was absolutely determined to have some kind of celebration.
Maybe he had something amazing to celebrate? A special birthday or anniversary? Or he may have been ill but had now recovered and simply wanted to celebrate being alive? But if the people he had thought of as his friends would not celebrate with him, then he would find some more people who would.

Notice that there is no hint that this was any kind of cultural exchange. The people who joined this man’s party were considered the outcasts of society, who could not possibly do him any good, socially or professionally.
Nevertheless, this host was determined to celebrate, and he was not going to let his pathetic, miserable friends put him off.

What does this say about the kingdom of God? God’s way of doing things?
It suggests that God believes in celebration; that no matter what people do or say or think, God will keep on celebrating the gift of life. God will never give up on life, on humanity, on love, on renewal. And God will continue to extend the invitation to join Him in celebration no matter how many times that invitation is flung back in his face.

OK, but might this suggest that God is happily partying up in heaven whilst we struggle with pain and evil down here? Is he behaving like Queen Marie Antoinette, safe in her luxurious palace, so far removed from her starving people that she could suggest they ate cake when they had no bread?
I don’t think so. The host in Jesus’ story had come face to face with that level of human selfishness and irresponsibility which not only creates people who see no reason to be loyal in their friendships but also creates a society in which the poor, the sick and the disabled are left to starve on the streets. That is not cloud cuckoo land. That is bad stuff.

This host had also come face to face with his own hurt, humiliation and anger in the face of rejection. And that is dangerous stuff. Just think how many ruthless dictators, corrupt business leaders, school bullies and habitual heart-breakers started out struggling to deal with rejection and this is their way of getting their own back…..
The host in Jesus’ story set out to redress evil in the party he went on to create. He did not withdraw from or punish society for his disappointment but engaged with it creatively, knowing that he was rich enough to share food and hospitality with huge numbers of needy people who would never be able to pay him back. And by doing this, he was setting a whole new standard of behaviour and re-writing the rules of social obligation.

Celebration is not about ignoring need and evil. It is about getting the better of them. It is a declaration that love is stronger than hatred; hope is stronger than despair; goodness is stronger than evil; and that God has grace in abundance for all of us.

You only have to look at the person of Jesus Christ to see this in action. Jesus’ whole life was a celebration of God’s love. Yes, he was rejected over and over again. He was jeered at, told he was insane, thrown out of towns and homes and public buildings. He was spat on, beaten and forced to suffer one of the cruellest, most humiliating deaths ever invented. Yet he still poured out love, forgiveness, healing and grace in abundance. Rejection never destroyed his divinity and his generous offering of himself to us. The invitation to join the celebration of God’s kingdom remained open and still remains wide open to every single one of us.

In St John’s church community, we are now facing decisions about re-opening our church for public worship. At the beginning of the month the Government made the great, glad announcement that places of worship could re-open, backing this up with lengthy legal documents that make our heads spin. In the midst of this, may I say how incredibly encouraging it has been to engage with so many of you in our online zoom meetings this week and to receive written submissions from those who can’t “do” zoom but nevertheless have taken the time to share their comments. Thank-you all so much.

Our church is still alive and still faithful. And I am convinced that, despite the lengthy procedures needed, we shall eventually get back to worshipping in the church building together.

But I suspect that I am not the only person to wonder deep down whether people will actually come back to church when we re-open?
A lot will, understandably, remain deeply concerned about the risks to their health.
Some may come, but on finding a space, an act of worship which will -of necessity- be so very different to what they were used to, refuse to return, saying ‘this is not what I want church to be.”
And yes, although we are not to be there simply for our own members, but in answer to the call of Jesus Christ to reach out to the community, to provide space and time and worship and welcome in his name, we may well re-open and re-issue the invitation but will anyone come?

So yes, there are times when I can picture a handful of committed, hard-working church members spending hours preparing our building to re-open; working on acts of worship which comply with rules on social distancing, no singing and minimal socialising, only to find that numbers attending are disappointingly low.

This is not meant to be a guilt trip. I do understand the real and serious reasons for some people not to return to church and I respect that. I suppose what I am afraid of is that disappointment and hurt and frustration could easily take us over during what are likely to be months of uncertainty and this could sabotage our hopes for new life.

But if Jesus’ parable is telling us the truth about God and about life, then we have hope.
Because even if there are only six people in church on the first Sunday we re-open for worship, we will still have reason to celebrate.
Celebrate life- that we are still alive.
Celebrate love- that we still have people in our lives whom we love and who love us.
Celebrate our NHS- the jewel in Britain’s crown- ensuring that everyone has access to health care.
Celebrate the faith and creativity of our members who have found new ways of making worship, faith development, pastoral care, community care work in a pandemic.
Celebrate the commitment of those who have worked to keep our buildings safe and fit for purpose despite the lengthy legal documents.
Celebrate the generosity of past members whose gifts have created financial reserves enough for us to keep our work going and the generosity of present members who continue to give.
Celebrate with the God who never gives up on life or on us and who will continue to offer the lavishness of his grace to lives that are lonely or grieving; hurt or humiliated; frightened or frustrated.
No matter how long it takes for us to feel that church is really “church” again (and it may take less time than we think) God’s invitation remains open- Come, celebrate with me. The feast of my kingdom is open to all. Amen.