The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity


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Lord, we pray thee that Thy grace may always prevent…
Ephesians 4:1-6
Luke 14:1-11

During a visit to Israel my hotel lift automatically on the Sabbath stopped at every floor. My first reaction was irritation at what seemed like a rather nit picking approach to rule keeping; why would it matter if I pressed the odd button? On reflection, however, I saw a profound seriousness in the prohibition: for the rich and active the Sabbath was a restraint against endless grafting; for the poor it was a protection against exploitation; for all it was a chance to curb the instinctive, the compulsive and the aggressive, to be deliberative and reflective; and, as we have found to our cost in secular Europe, the only way that the Sabbath retains its power is if it is universally observed; even if we refrain from work and shopping and attend church twice or three times on Sundays, our physical and mental space is still contaminated. The Pharisees were right to insist on strict observance but what they failed to see was the underlying reason for it. Self-restraint and reflection are of little worth if we are as hard-hearted on Monday as we were on Saturday; the enforced day of calm is not to be spent in grim resentment of time wasted and opportunities lost but is supposed to give us the chance positively to orient ourselves to God, our neighbour and creation. On that basis, argued Jesus, it was perfectly proper to do good on the Sabbath; it wasn’t the action of brain or hand which counted but to what end they were turned. In other words, Jesus was pointing out the difference between appearance and meaning. Luke then links this with an apparently unrelated parable about precedence at a banquet. Jesus, customarily combining principle with pragmatism, says that we should not over-estimate our own social significance by going to the top table but should, rather, start well below the salt from which position there is only one way to go. Today at a mass catering function such self-denial might at worst result in receiving food that is a little scrappy and less than hot but in Jesus’ day the sacrifice was much greater. Society was much more stratified so that everybody would notice where everybody sat and that was reflected in the quality of what was served; so when Jesus urged his listeners to deny themselves he was talking about reality and not, as we might suppose today, about symbolism. The two parts of the Gospel, therefore, alert us to the importance of distinguishing between reality and appearance and urge us to reflect not only on what we are doing but why we are doing it.

Paul, a Pharisee himself, was well aware of the dangers of confusing appearance with reality and he urges the Ephesians to follow their vocation to Christ with “all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of The Spirit in the bond of peace.” As I write, the first Diocese has broken away from The Episcopal Church (TEC) of the USA over the consecration of a gay bishop which makes Paul’s plea all the more urgent. As long as we have been able tactfully to retain an appearance of unity by ‘turning a blind eye’, the individual and corporate cost has been low; but the price of real unity, of forbearance, of ranking love above judgment, is, we are discovering, very high indeed. Appearing not to know and doing nothing comes naturally, being known to know and doing nothing calls for immense restraint.

For all its impediments to social justice, personal development, intellectual enquiry, cultural diversity and openness to the unexpected opportunity, socially stratified society does have the advantage of enabling dialogue to take place under mutually accepted rules. The problem of a society based on individualism, as we have learned in politics and are now learning in the Anglican Communion, is that we have lost the means of respectful dialogue. We believe that self assertion is not only a right but a positive social benefit and, to compound this, we exercise power almost without noticing. Of course, that is what the Pharisees did but what others do is not our moral problem.

This continual exercise of self will and power imposes enormous stress on ourselves and pours ever more adrenalin and contention into society. In the face of this evident crisis, some will continue to try to turn the clock back by restoring the 19th Century Sabbath but we will more likely have to learn how to build our own Sabbaths. We who do not labour from dawn until dusk and then collapse in exhaustion can surely restrain the brain and hand and leave ourselves open to the Word of God in Scripture and in silence as a regular feature of our daily lives.

Reflecting both Jesus and St. Paul, the call to reflection is pragmatic as well as principled. If we consider the amount of repetition, assertion, impromptu decisions and opinions, tedium and trivia in our lives and the degree to which we try to mitigate these by consumption and escapism, it is obvious that there is a better way. That way, which we should seek for ourselves and our Christian communities, is also the necessary precondition for resolving the problems of the Church community at large. The argument about gay clergy has little to do with God; it is a dispute about authority and morals in the context of deep-rooted social attitudes to sexuality. Those who urge sexual restraint should practice verbal self restraint.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of socially stratified societies and contemporary individualism
  2. What is the underlying purpose of rituals governing eating, drinking and social conduct?
  3. Should we continue to campaign to restore the ‘traditional’ Sunday?
  4. In praise of self restraint
  5. Does St. Paul advocate church unity at all costs?

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