Saturday, February 27, 2016

No such thing as a free lunch - a sermon for Lent 3C at All Saints High Wycombe

There's no such thing as a free lunch!
That's the sort of popular wisdom that can make the job of a Christian priest kind of challenging.
How do you persuade people that actually everything that really matters is gift when their learned experience has been that the good things in life are only available to those with enough wealth to procure them or enough cheek to blag them?

How do you speak into a culture of scarcity, a prevailing sense that there is never enough to go round...that a gain for you is a loss for me...with news of overwhelming abundance there for the asking?
There's no such thing as a free lunch – except when there is!

Sometimes it seems that what ought to be one of the easiest bits of the gospel to share– God's amazing grace – becomes instead one of the hardest challenges for the world today.
Rather than responding to God's great invitation with eager hearts and open hands, we hang back, deliberate, finally turn away because, perhaps, we're just not thirsty today, thank you.
You see on the whole we like to feel we have earned whatever reward we receive
We relish the illusion of control...the idea that we can pick and choose which invitations to accept, weigh up for ourselves whose hospitality is good enough.

And of course the snag with Gods hospitality is that it is so extremely indiscriminate.

Last month at Coventry Cathedral we launched a new service within our regular informal series that we call OPEN. OPEN Table does exactly what it says on the jar...It offers hospitality – food and friendship, to anyone who happens to turn up. The significant thing about it is that the service is held at the back of the cathedral nave, beside the great glass screens and miles away from the Graham Sutherland tapestry that dominates the space behind the altar. THIS table is spread where everyone can see....And hopefully they can see that those who are gathering aren't the usual beautifully scrubbed retired academics who form the bulk of our Sunday morning congregation...
At our first OPEN table we had recovering alcoholics, and Mother's Union stalwarts... guys struggling with overwhelming mental illness and professional couples with children at uni... ..middle-aged, middle class clergy and atheists turned reluctant believers, post-graduate students and people who left school at 14 without passing a single exam, people with a troubled and troubling past and West Indian ladies whose whole lives have been shaped by their trust in God.
We sat round the table together and we ate and we talked about life and maybe, a little, about faith...
And we laughed and sang and God was present.
Oh goodness, God WAS present...but so was everyone else.

And maybe that's just too much for some of us to deal with, specially if we're not really sure that we're either hungry or thirsty. We have places we'd prefer to be, rather than shoulder to shoulder with this motley crew of hungry, thirsty souls.
We seem, on the whole, to be getting on quite nicely spending money on fake bread, expending labour on short-term satisfaction
We think we're doing alright – stars and directors of our own shows.
We're not really hungry, not really in need of anything much at all...

But amid the language of invitation and abundance, speaking through Isaiah God makes it clear what is really on offer:
Incline your ear and come to me.
Listen , so that you may live.

If that doesn't bring us up short, - well, really, it should.
This, it turns out, is a matter of life and death.
Isaiah is speaking to a nation in exile, tempted to blend in to life in Babylon, to risk losing their core identity as God's people...but invited to something infinitely greater.
You shall call nations that you do not know..”
They are offered the chance to tell the world that God's unconditional embrace extends towards those who were not at first part of his chosen people – and we, and they, discover that HE chooses everyone.

But – here's the rub – we have a choice too.
We might argue that God was unwise in allowing this – but there it is.
God wanted people capable of relationship, not robots constrained by pre-determined programs.
We have a choice.
We can seek the Lord – there is opportunity right here in this place, today – and any day that we pause to turn our hearts and minds God's way.
He is always to be found...always, always closer that our closest thoughts...
It's not that hard, I promise.
We can change direction, abandon our attempts at pointless independence and return to the Lord who will have mercy...
But we do have to choose.

Much of my personal theology was shaped by a childhood spent repeatedly re-reading
C.S. Lewis's Narnia books. Through the stories feasts happen again and again, to celebrate a new order, a restoration of how things should be...but the feast that I remember most clearly is the one in the Last Battle – the one that the dwarves refused to recognise at all.
If the book is unfamiliar, do read it...but for now, the situation is this:
A group of dwarves who, in the midst of the last battle of Narnia, sided only with themselves, fought against both sides, and in the end, were captured and thrown into the stable by the Calormenes. Despite the fact that Aslan, the great lion who represents Christ, had enchanted the stable door so it would bring the people safely home into the true Narnia, the dwarves could not grasp this. They believed they were in a stable, without light, and anyone who tried to suggest anything else was tricking them...
And here in the new, true Narnia, a feast was set...

"pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a Stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said, ‘Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.’ "

Amid all the delight of finally reaching the new Jerusalem, of celebrating home-coming in all its joy
( “I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now...")

it was this picture that stayed with me through 5 decades.

That little group whose determination to hold on to their own independence meant that, in the end, they excluded themselves from all the joy that surrounded them used to break my heart.
MY heart!!!

Just think what our own intransigence does for God...

For this is the God of the second chance, the God who is a patient gardener, whose will is that nothing shall be lost, but all in the end harvest....the God who sets his table for all, and bids us come to the feast.
All we have to do to qualify is to be hungry and thirsty, to long for Him and his ways and thoughts that are so much greater and higher than ours.

Perhaps that's were we falter.
Can we believe there is a place laid even for us, that our longing for God is far far outstripped by God's longing for us?

30 years ago I reluctantly accepted that, without further funding, my PhD on George Herbert would never be completed...Nonetheless, it is to Herbert that I turn again and again as I try to disentangle my own inconsistencies, my longing for and flight from the God whose table we will set in just a few minutes.
You'll know these words, but listen and hear the drama played out in your own life and your own soul. May you choose life, and come to the place made ready at God's great feast.

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.
A guest,’ I answered, ‘worthy to be here.’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.’
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
Truth Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my 
So I did sit and eat.

1 comment:

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

Thank you for this, Kathryn! Rather better, I think, than my take on the subject! I find I am also preaching next Sunday, on the Prodigal Son, and wonder if I could use some of yours in it?