Living for The Moment

Sunday 9th October 2011
Year A, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Isaiah 25:6-10
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

There were three things which my grandparents never tired of when I was a child which didn't so much annoy as puzzle: the first was the centrality in their lives of tea, a phenomenon which I now understand; the second was the huge amount of time they spent discussing their health and that of other people, an obsession that becomes more close to home as we and our friends grow older; and the third was the assertion that: "When we were young we made us own fun", to which my reaction then, and now, was that they couldn't have had all that much of it, in the narrow sense of what we would think of as fun! But society in general in the 1950s, even after the government centralisation needed to fight the Second World War and six years of a Labour Government dedicated to a high degree of central planning, was a massive and complex tapestry of local activities. We were increasingly united by national television calendar events like the FA Cup Final but most of what we did was self generated and local; indeed, my grandparents actually enjoyed going to committee meetings but, then, they and most of their peers didn't own televisions. Then came the Beatles and the Forsyte Saga to vanquish the committee meeting and the AGM. This cultural explosion was the result of renewed prosperity after war-time austerity, a period of rising expectation, choice and consumption which came to an end in 2009. During that time most of us became more prosperous but we also, in spite of our protestations to the contrary, expected the state to provide more and better education, health and other services; the outcry over university tuition fees is instructive.

So my grandparents weren't wrong when they said that, at least in comparison with us, they made their own fun; and, indeed, we might want to reflect that the only major English institution that clings to the old Christian calendar and the love of Committees is the Church of England. We still do make our own fun and, because we live in the kind of village we do, the village makes its own fun in fair and Festival, although I noticed at the recently concluded Festival how many people complained about minor problems with an aggressive sense of entitlement, forgetting that they were being served by volunteers and, even more so, forgetting that they might fix themselves what they didn't like.

Enter, then, the puzzling figure of the man in Matthew's Gospel not wearing a wedding garment. He was physically but not emotionally present, he was of the party but not having a party. He might have been dragged in by the steward instead of being one of the few who came voluntarily but he reminds me of an increasingly large number of people who turn on their mobile phones during the interval at a concert, not really living for the occasion, not living for the moment, but worried that something in their big, self-centred world will somehow have got past them.

As for the majority of the man's friends who stayed away, we might reflect on the same story in Luke (Chapter 14) where those who refuse the invitation to the banquet make their excuses. Perhaps our contemporary weddings are ever more extravagant because we need to put on a big show to deter excuses.

Whatever the complex reasons for where we are now, it is certainly true that we are ever more private and separate. In a strange denial of the old truisms of party politics, we have managed simultaneously to abandon personal responsibility and solidarity, which makes the debate about their relative merits somewhat arcane. If we are dissatisfied with the society we live in we have two, traditional and still valid, courses of action: to fix what we can ourselves; and to band with others to fix what requires a collective response. Only after that are we entitled to call for the organised, tax funded, solidarity of Council and Government. This is not to deny the importance of state provision in an increasingly complex world but it will no longer do for Christians to make excuses for not joining in with a full heart.

Of course we could take the reading from Isaiah and the Gospel to be talking about the sacred banquet of the after-life, an image which quite naturally appealed to a culture where the only medium-term form of food storage was livestock; for people who spent most of their lives wondering where the next meal was coming from, for people who had no idea whether there would be a harvest next year, the banquet was an enticing prospect but I suspect it has rather lost its attraction for us. Still, the Lord's promise in Isaiah and the Gospel is genuine but not literal. Personally, I don't fancy an endless diet of smoked salmon and fillet steak, and I'm not fond of the harp.

One other aspect of today's readings which we need to note is Paul's assertion of the unity of the Church in his letter to the Philippians; and it seems to me that what he is calling for in a Church that, even then, even so young, was threatening to fissure, was the responsibility of the community to be involved in dialogue. A major consequence of our sense of entitlement, of our individual rights, of our abandonment of responsibility and solidarity, is our ever more limited capacity for dialogue based on social imagination.

In summary, then, today's readings call for us to renew our sense of personal responsibility, to intensify our obligation of social responsibility and to make an effort to engage in constructive dialogue with those around us and with our wider society. My suspicion of the idea of the heavenly banquet is that it may divert us from the here and now to the distant prospect of the sunlit uplands; it is for us to build the Kingdom of God here and now, on this earth, through what we do individually and collectively, in society and in the Church. And that means living psychologically much closer to Jesus and his audience; we should live for each moment, for what it brings and for what we can give.