A friend alerted me recently to the Facebook page of a church in the south of England, where a sermon was quoted approvingly. His reaction and mine were similar, and incandescent! The preacher had compared, favourably, our present Prime Minister with the Apostle Paul.
What can you say? I’m sure the preacher was sincere; quite possibly the rest of the sermon was perfectly fine. But I’m equally sure that if another preacher so much as gave a positive mention to Jeremy Corbyn, let alone claimed he was the Messiah the local bishop would be inundated with letters in green ink (or whatever the email equivalent is).
Preaching politics from the pulpit has been happening for hundreds of years. The Church of England was nicknamed ‘the Tory Party at prayer’ a long time ago, and the tradition goes back well before that, at least to Emperor Constantine.
It’s a dangerous thing to do. Whatever sort of politics you’re preaching; left, right, or a compromise in the middle. It’s a particularly dangerous thing to do right now when our country is split down the middle and accusations of treachery or betrayals of democracy are being flung around on all sides.
It’s not only dangerous, it’s not what preaching is about. My job, and the job of all of us who stand here during the worship of the Church, is to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. That means that the preacher, first, and then those who listen, should ‘hear the Word of God’ and allow ourselves to be changed by that Word.
If we don’t do that, the danger is starting from our own point of view and editing the scripture to fit. It’s easy to find words in the bible that back up any crazy ideology, if you read them out of context.
But what happens when you read scripture prayerfully? When you allow your whole self to be transformed by the Word of God? When your religion becomes not a badge or a slogan to bash others with, but the heart of your life and the lens through which you look at the world and the whole of reality?
It’s like the experience of Lewis Carroll’s Alice when she climbed through the looking glass and found herself in a totally different world. A world that in many ways was just like the one she had left, but at the same time strangely transformed.
By our prayer, by our participation in the sacraments and our meditation on the scriptures, we are drawn into the life of the Kingdom of God. The world which is in many ways a mirror of this world but with very different values.
Look at the world our Lord describes in these parables. A posh wedding, and a banquet hosted by a rich man for his friends among the so-called ‘great and good’.
In the first example, Jesus seems to be telling us that ordinary people, like you and me, should make way, to leave the high places clear for the ‘distinguished’ people of privilege. But then he plunges us into the Alice in Wonderland world of the Gospel. The ‘distinguished’ people aren’t those who this world thinks are important: the Pharisee in his long flowing robes; the celebrity; or the city financier. The distinguished people are the ones like the woman getting an early morning bus to work as a cleaner for the minimum wage (or less), or the Big Issue seller, or the single parent struggling to keep a family together on meagre benefits, or the asylum seeker traumatised by war at home and near-drowning as he clings to a raft to escape. Or any one of us, provided we know our need of God.
So imagine this splendid banquet… think Town Halls and Lord Mayors, or the Guildhall in the City of London… and ourselves standing timidly at the door waiting to be seated, knowing that the great and good will take their places at the top table. And then to be told, don’t wait for them: you are the great and good; yours is the place at the top table.
Because what gives us human beings our distinction is not things like wealth, or influence, or education…. Every single one of us has a dignity which is greater than anything a vast income, or political power, or a string of university degrees can confer. It’s a dignity which comes from us being created by God in the image and likeness of God.
And that’s the truth that our Lord came to proclaim. Not just in words but by his life; and not just by his life but by his death. He was crucified because he challenged those who wanted the world to run for their convenience, to entrench their power. Where he taught us to look for God’s presence is amongst ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’ – the outcasts of society. And no-one could be more of an outcast than Jesus himself, crucified on the city rubbish tip.
Because, as the letter to the Hebrews puts it – just in the next passage to the one we read today – ‘here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.’ The real world, the world of gospel values, is not at home in this world of greed and pomposity, of status and power. Our dignity is based on none of these things, but on the fact of our creation in God’s image.
And that is the political message of the Gospel. We have something much more substantial to proclaim than mere slogans. We’re not trying to have our cake and eat it. We believe in the real world of justice and peace which is God’s kingdom.
And in that world we are all invited to the heavenly banquet. We might not live in heaven, we might indeed be a long way off heaven, but every time we come to communion we get a little taste of heaven. The eucharist is a foretaste of that heavenly banquet. Where all are welcome, no-one is turned away. As we say, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to receive you; only say the word, and I shall be healed.’
And not just “I” shall be healed, but the whole of society, the whole of creation, shall be healed. Our political hope is the same as our spiritual hope, our personal hope: that in the words of the Blessed Julian of Norwich, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’
laying open your table to the deviant and deranged,
setting a place for the foreign and unwanted:
overturn our tables of power
and teach us to receive bread
from strange and wounded hands;
through Jesus Christ, the One given for all.[Steven Shakespeare]