Sermons from St Faith's

'Let all your lamps be bright'

Fred Nye, November 6th, 2011

Jesus told his followers many memorable stories about the Kingdom of Heaven. In several he compared God’s reign to a party, and in particular to a wedding feast where there is good food and drink, and good company. In these stories the hospitality and welcome extended to the wedding guests serve as both a picture and a promise of our heavenly Father’s infinite love and mercy. But the parables also contain a warning to anyone who has preconceptions about who should be on the guest list!

In one story Jesus tells of a king whose chosen guests turned his invitation down: they all seemed to think that their own lives and pre-occupations were far more important. And so the king tore up the original list and instead opened his door to a motley collection of odd characters, the good and the bad alike, They didn’t seem to have any particular qualification to be at the party at all! But of course the point of the parable is that the only thing that our heavenly Father requires of his guests, requires of us, is that we have a change of heart. We must have the humility to turn away from our own self-sufficiency and trust only in God’s mercy and love; to have the humility to realise that he accepts us unconditionally for what we are, despite all our weaknesses and imperfections.

But of course there is another side to this coin. Just because there is such a wideness in God’s mercy that it includes even us, then we mustn’t be surprised if our fellow guests at the wedding include several odd characters we would rather not know at all. In fact there is a requirement, on all of us who are invited, to ‘sing for our supper’ so to speak – so that we make each and every one of God’s guests feel at home, however strange they may seem to us. At the heavenly wedding reception we must learn not only to get to know our fellow guests but to help our host to entertain them and make them welcome, and yes, for heaven’s sake, even to join them on the dance floor!

Jesus didn’t just preach about this great truth, he actually lived it out -  by opening his door and entertaining at his table the sort of people the Pharisees referred to disdainfully  as ‘tax gatherers and sinners’. It is easy to see why the Pharisees themselves would never have accepted Jesus’ invitation to join the party and to sit down with all these undesirables! Some people, it seems, will always include themselves out of God’s love and mercy.

Our Lord’s uncompromising ‘open door’ policy has always caused some degree of difficulty and embarrassment for his church, in other words, for us. We’ve recently seen this challenge being played out in a modern-day parable, set in St. Paul’s Cathedral churchyard. I’ve no wish to be overly critical of the Cathedral authorities: they were faced with an unavoidable dilemma when protestors against our capitalist system set up camp on their very doorstep. And yet, when the doors of the cathedral were closed and the protestors became threatened by the possibility of eviction, the church sent out a message which runs against the grain of the gospel. When the press and the public ask the church who’s side it is on, then perhaps we should do the same.

Of course the activists are no angels. When they couldn’t stage a sit-in at the Stock Exchange they may have seen the Cathedral precinct as a soft target. Perhaps their protest is coloured by a tinge of envy: but then who amongst us is ready to cast the first stone?  We cannot escape the irony: that their protest against corporate greed, and economic injustice and inequality, is one which many Christians would be happy to support. We ought to be able to sit next to them, at the same table, without too much embarrassment.

This morning’s gospel reading gives a further warning. We don’t know the circumstances in which Jesus first told the parable of the ten bridesmaids, but we can be pretty certain that it was aimed at his followers, in other words at us. The bottom line of the story is straightforward and uncomfortable: far from being in a position to criticise the other guests, we cannot assume that our own place at the table is guaranteed.

The five careless bridesmaids were confident that they would be among the guests of honour at the wedding feast, but they had forgotten that they had responsibilities as well as privileges. The light from their torches was needed to illuminate the feasting and dancing at the bridegroom’s house, but they didn’t really take this seriously. They just couldn’t be bothered to bring any oil for their lamps, hoping that the good nature of the other bridesmaids would see them through. When they finally got to the wedding, extremely late and probably empty handed, they found that the door was shut against them. When we realise that, to the Jews, oil was a symbol of repentance, we get the message!  We have to take our Christian discipleship seriously, both our Christian living and our Christian giving. We have to tend the flame of truth and love that Christ has given us, and to keep it alight in his service and the service of others.

The Lord’s wedding feast is truly a party, but a party like no other. As we have seen, it can be an occasion for judgement on anyone who is not prepared to accept what God has on offer for us. But for those with a generous heart and a desire for equity and justice, it is a feast where God’s kindness and mercy runs over. It is a feast where God’s love and acceptance are freely available to all, and where everyone is treated equally as one of his children. Happy are those who are called to his supper.

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