Joyful Banquets – Sermon for Pentecost 19

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I guess that if we were each asked to describe our perfect paradise, we would all come up with something slightly different. Depending on our temperament, we might go for peaceful seclusion or bustling conviviality, warm Mediterranean climes or cool northern skies, music to dance to or silence to soothe us. So if we are more disposed towards something a little quieter, we might be put off by the recurring image in the gospels of the Kingdom of God as a wedding feast. To those so inclined, I would simply offer the observation that, even at the noisiest wedding, there’s always a quiet corner where you can find others taking a break from the inevitable carnage of an Orcadian Strip the Willow.

Whatever our preferences, I think there are fundamental truths in the image of the wedding feast which are enduring. The first is that the image of our ultimate destiny as a thoroughly communal affair rings true. We are made to interact with each other; we are made to learn the art of living a good life in the company of others; we are made to find ourselves when we move beyond self-concern and into love for our neighbours; and we are made in the image of God who is not solitary but relational. And in this time of restriction, we crave our vital social connections more than ever. But I’m intrigued that Jesus chose the image of a wedding feast as his basic paradigm of the Kingdom of God. Why not a family or a community or a nation? Well, apart from the fact that these social realities are fraught with complexities of their own and each risks a sort of exclusive or restrictive dimension, there is something about a wedding feast that these other groupings doesn’t quite capture. Above all, the wedding feast introduces a note of unrestricted joy that is not necessarily present in these other examples.

I don’t think we talk enough about joy in the spiritual life. We seem more disposed towards thinking of the sterner virtues, or the instructive possibilities we find in hardship, or the notion of heroic sacrifice and we can dismiss joy as frivolous in comparison. But joy is also a kind of sacrifice in the sense that it is a giving up of po-faced self-control in favour of self-forgetting delight. It is a letting go of self-importance so that we may truly and simply enjoy the gifts that someone else brings to the party. It replaces the anxiety that can so diminish our spiritual wellbeing with light-heartedness and delight.

I think there’s something almost comic in today’s parable when it recounts the terribly worthy excuses given by those who not only refuse the first invitation but even continue their joyless sulk when the messengers draw their attention to the smell of the best food being prepared under their very noses. Enough with your partying, they say – we’ve got work to do. We are people of substance and have no time for your trivial interruptions to the serious business of commerce. Where the wedding feast speaks of abundance for all, a time out of the grind of daily life, those who refuse to come are concerned only with their own gain. One of the miserable so-and-sos who does turn up even refuses to put on a festal garment in an act of self-righteous reproach to the celebrating partygoers.

But for all its comic impact, the parable sets before us a rather stark reminder of the choices we must make day by day. As with all parables, it is not intended to make a single point but confronts each one of us with a deeply existential question. In this case, the question is about what we truly value. Are we too concerned with our own security or self-image to let ourselves go for the sake of another? Are we so much invested in our own advancement that we shun the gifts offered to us by someone else? Does our own little world take precedence over the much bigger reality that opens up before us when we allow the stranger to take a place at the table alongside us?

In these difficult days of constraint and anxiety, there is always a risk that our world will shrink in the way it did for those who refused the invitation to the wedding banquet. There is a risk that we prioritise our own nation or tribe over the greater family of humanity. There is a risk that faith becomes a private matter rather than a fundamentally communal reality. And there is a risk that our bigger vision takes second place to our more immediate concerns.

In the face of these constraints, Christians continue to offer participation in a wedding feast. Every day, we set a table in the face of our fears and place there bread to strengthen our bodies and wine to cheer our hearts. For now, the feast may not be as sumptuous as we would like, but it is a feast nonetheless. It bids us rejoice; it invites us to set aside self-concern in order to meet one another and, in doing so, to meet the God who is our bounteous host. Whatever else we do, we must continue to offer this joyful sacrifice because, in doing so, we offer a foretaste of the coming kingdom and we learn the art of being together at a table where none is left behind. This Holy Table points simultaneously in two directions: it draws us away from self-concern and towards the heavenly banquet; and it draws us away from self-concern towards those who are hungry here and now. It is, at the same time, the gate of heaven and the serving counter of the Steps to Hope van that parks outside our door. The Liturgy here and the Liturgy after the Liturgy are one joyful sacrifice. How could we resist an invitation to such a feast?

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