Sermon delivered on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity the 28s\th August 2016 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban’s Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands in the service of the Holy Eucharist.
Scriptures: Proverbs 25: 6-7     Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16     S. Luke 14:1, 7-14

S. Luke 14:8,9 “When you are invited by any one to a marriage feast, do not sit down in a place of honour, lest a more eminent man than you be invited by him; and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.”

Jesus often taught on the themes of greatness and humility. It seems certain that the attitudes of His first disciples over such matters sorely troubled Him, and we can be sure He is often troubled still by the attitudes of us His disciples today. He taught that the whole Mission of the Son of Man was to serve rather than be served, right up to giving His life as a ransom for many, and that those who followed Him were to follow that pattern too. In today’s readings from the Old Testament and the Gospel, it is instructive to look at the context in which this sort of teaching is being applied.

The Old Testament lesson gives us a single proverb about not putting ourselves forward in the presence of the great, with the warning that if we do so we might be humiliated, rather than leaving open the possibility of real promotion. “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great, for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” The proverb refers to “the king” and to someone translated variously as “the prince”, the noble, or the great one. The ethic of this proverb seems to be incorporated in Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel about not assuming a place of honour when invited to a marriage feast. As an ethic it has considerable force of application to our daily life. Affecting people in different walks of life differently, "putting oneself forward" to seek elevated status may cause the influential man in a community to become a complete bore and in the end a figure of mockery, while it can cause the so-called “little” man to contemplate such things as criminal acts or foolish betting ventures which in the end are likely to serve to impoverish him, and any family he is responsible for, all the more.

It is interesting to me that the context of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel was “one Sabbath when He went to dine at the house of a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees”, or as the King James version has it, “as he went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath day”. My commentary says that this would be a meal after the synagogue service on the Jewish Sabbath. Although this was not a prince or a king, still this chief Pharisee was someone of great substance and regarded locally as very important. Yet when Jesus taught at this person’s feast about not going to sit down in a place of honour in case the man who invited you asked you to give way to someone else, he substituted another context, that of a marriage feast. A marriage feast could be hosted by more ordinary sorts of people than his current host, but the “places of honour” there would be places near the host in the same way as at the chief Pharisee’s house. As we often see, the marriage feast was a favourite image of Jesus’ for the kingdom of God, and He certainly would see the marriage feast as a better context than the actual circumstances of that moment, for associating the teaching of Proverbs about not taking the highest place with the eternal kingdom of truth. Jesus taught that when it is the host of the eternal banquet who says to you, “Come up higher” it is like a dream being fulfilled in reality, but when it is you who put yourself forward and invite honours for yourself, your dreams are liable to be shattered by the reality that awaits you. There is a postscript to the account too, in which Jesus turns and teaches the chief Pharisee who had invited Him. Jesus taught this man that the attitude a host has in inviting people to a function is important, and the invitation list can in an eternally significant way show what is in that host’s true heart.

The passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews comprising our New Testament Lesson today makes an interesting ethical postscript to the epistle as a whole, which has throughout its chapters concentrated on a theological theme: the great new reality of the new covenant, of which the elements of the old covenant were but earthly representations. The writer of Hebrews teaches that we are privileged to approach, through Christ, the heart of reality, of which all the previous religious ideals of the Jewish people were but dreams. It would be an ambitious but very valid exercise, I believe, to make the attempt to recast the Letter to the Hebrews addressing it not to Jewish Christians in danger of relinquishing Christ in favour of their Jewish heritage and mythology, as is thought to be the original context of the writing of the book, but to us modern Gentile Christians tempted to relinquish Christ in favour of a new secular religion based only on human ethics. (An equivalent recasting might be done for Gentiles of Christian heritage tempted to become Muslim, and such an exercise might profitably also have been done fourteen centuries ago when Islam began.) The recast book for secular religionists would again show that we - Christian or post-Christian Gentiles - are in the gravest danger of exchanging reality for dreams. In the last chapter of the book, part of which was our New Testament lesson, the presence of the unshakeable kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, is manifested within our age as actions of empathy, such as hospitality which expects no return, and relieving those who suffer ill-treatment of any sort. Our minds and hearts being caught and held by the true reality, we are not to be swayed by the temptations of unreal dreams, such as immorality and adultery, and the amassing of monetary fortune as if those were the means of the unfettered fulfilment and security we think we need. Just as God had told Joshua “I will never fail nor forsake you”, as quoted in v. 5 of our Lesson - so these words now proclaim our fulfilment and security in Christ in whom the dream and the ideal gives way to the real. Membership of Christ’s Kingdom has its privileges, and it has wider consequences too. If we indeed practice membership of the Kingdom, consequences such as humility, disinterested love, contentment with what we have and lack of covetousness follow, as do privileges such as real security and fulfilment. If we forget to exercise our membership, we will soon be covetously clamouring for what is not ours, and for the plum positions, the equivalent of the prominent seats at the marriage banquet. In such forgetting we will dream that by these means we will attain a fulfilment and security that at present we lack, but alas, all this will indeed prove just to be a dream to be forcibly dissolved when the true daylight finally appears.

In today’s world, Christians are being sorely tested, and no more so than in places such as Syria, Egypt, Nigeria and Pakistan, but increasingly in the West as well. The test is often in the form of a loss of the earthly status that would be accorded the person if he were not a Christian. Extremism is becoming abundant, when individual active Christians are thrown into prison and when family homes and churches are torched. Reliable accounts tell us of buildings in neighbourhoods of Egypt being marked with an “X” – a black “X” if it is a Christian building and a red “X” if it is Islamic. Later in the times of Islamic State the distinguishing mark is the Arabic letter Nun or "N" for Nazarene. It seems as if we are back in the Nazi days of Europe when Jewish buildings were marked before being damaged or destroyed, only this time it is the buildings marked with a "Nun" that are being torched and the rest protected. But in such extreme circumstances as well, the Christian is called to remember that called as a member of Christ, the child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven, and sealed by the Holy Spirit, he can never improve that true status by denying his Christian allegiance, even to preserve his home, his occupation, his liberty, or life itself.