A sermon preached by Canon Robert Titley on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (beginning of Creationtide), Sunday 1 September
‘The past,’ said LP Hartley in his over-quoted opening to The Go-Between, ‘is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ That’s the truth, but not the whole truth. Sometimes the past is like the flat next door, where some things are not so different at all. Listen to this:
…a period of instability with someone in charge of the country that not everybody actively supports and uncertainty in terms of the relationship with the continent…It is the sort of circumstances in which anyone might choose to bury their money.
What is the British Museum’s Gareth Williams describing? Not Brexit-anxious Britain in 2019 but the south-west of England in the aftermath of 1066, as he comments on the haul of coins recently discovered in Somerset.
Some other things that are the same yesterday and today are food and drink and the purposes you can put them to. When the series Dallas first splurged the Ewing clan across British screens in the 1980s, Clive James' TV review often covered it. James calculated that meals in a Dallas episode occurred every four minutes, usually on the windswept deck of Southfork, the Ewings’ ranch house. This was a smart device, because the breakfast/lunch/dining table is a good place for scheming and arguing and humiliating people, which is what I remember the series was largely about.
Meals happen almost as often in Luke's gospel. Some, like the one in today's reading, are of the Southfork variety – as Jesus arrives at the house of a religious bigwig we hear that people are 'watching him closely' – but when people are willing to go along with him, a meal with Jesus becomes a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
Today, Jesus gives a tip about how to handle an invite from a bigwig, which is to aim low and let your host upgrade you. You can find other shrewd advice like that in the Bible, in what is called Wisdom literature: proverbs and handy hints to help you negotiate life. These passages take the view that it's God's world and that God is good, so in God's world you do well by doing good: get up early, work diligently, consume sensibly, and life will be OK. Avoid arrogance or pride, above all hold close to God, and life will be more than OK.
This is not the whole truth of human experience – sometimes bad stuff happens to good people – but there is real truth in this sunny view of life. Recent research by Boston University shows that optimistic people tend to live longer, and what could be a greater generator of optimism, or – better – of hope, than to trust in a God who says (even as the forests burn and the courts debate whether we are being lawfully governed), ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’
Jesus now extends his masterclass in party etiquette as he turns from the guests to the host: Who are you going to invite to your next get-together? Will you go the Dallas route of friends, family, rich neighbours? How about the people who can't have you back, or scratch your back? Any room for them on your windy patio?
This is about hospitality, and who to show it to. Hospitality – the thing the letter to the Hebrews urges us not to neglect – is a good word for what God is asking of us in these days, globally, nationally, personally (though of course it’s all personal).
It was a thread running through this year’s Greenbelt Festival, from which some of us from the Cathedral returned on Monday: how to share a planet, a country, our lives in ways that are hospitable. Greenbelt 2019 gathered under sweltering skies and magnificent, shady trees in the grounds of Boughton House in Northamptonshire. In a venue dedicated to action on our overheating planet (called the Hot House) Mike Berners Lee, an expert on carbon footprinting (and brother of Tim, the daddy of the World Wide Web) talked about shifting our consumption, including the food we put on the table, and living with an eye on the unequal way climate breakdown bears on us and on others who make their home on this planet.
The whimsical Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig mused on the unfriendly pace of life: ‘The velocity of our present age would frighten our grandparents. Nothing can be loved at speed,’ while American Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber criticised the call-out culture – ‘Our drug of choice at the moment is knowing who we’re better than’ – and among some great music (including a stunning choral quartet from St Martin in the Fields) what stuck with me most was a song by the British punk-and-folk singer Frank Turner:
In a world that has decided that it’s going to lose its mind,
Be more kind, my friends, try to be more kind. (Be more kind)
At the centre of it all was an outdoor communion service in which groups of friends were encouraged to bring strangers into their circles on the grass. Not a bad rule for here, perhaps. Put these themes into the language of hospitality – Family hold back, My house is your house, All welcome (and no need to rush) – and you have the seeds of an agenda – global, national, personal – for these troubled days.
A test of big-tent events like a festival (or a big service like this) is the effect that they have (if any) when normal life is resumed. And the temptation this morning is to hear the hospitality challenge of Jesus only in broad and general terms – Climate, Brexit – when every week we have quite specific chances to follow Jesus’ quite specific instructions. That person who asks you for spare change: have you time to ask them if they would like a cup of tea, and get them one? And have you heard (I only just have) of Encircles, a charity that provides a free communal roast dinner every Sunday in Salisbury for anyone who is homeless or who would just like to do Sunday lunch with other people rather than on their own. Last week they hosted 90 guests. They need the predictable stuff – donations of food and funds, offers of time to cook or serve or wash up – but also people who are glad just to drop in to have lunch and chat.
Why do such a thing? What would be the point? Only that you could find yourself among angels unawares, that you’ll probably get more than you give; that (in summary) you will, as Jesus promises, be blessed. No point, really, except that those are the moments when (as here and now in this meal) you are close to God, who is the point of everything.