Guests at the Banquet

On 2nd September 2001 Eileen preached a sermon based on two stories which Jesus told about dinner parties (Luke 14:7-14).

In the first story Jesus referred to the actions of the guests who scramble for the highest place and are then asked to move. He said they were to take a lowly place - if we respect others more highly than ourselves, and act accordingly, then we will be accorded dignity and honour by those around us - and by God.

In his second story Jesus referred to those hosts who only invite those of their own kind to their parties. He said “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the lame and the blind - then you will be blessed.”

Jesus, as ever, turns common human attitudes upside down. These stories must have really worried his distinguished audience. They were concerned about status and rewards. These stories say that God has entirely different criteria. No amount of working your way up the religious or social hierarchy is going to guarantee admission to his feast, and when by grace you get there you might find yourself in very strange company, and not in the place you would like to be.

These parables ask us to be humble in our estimation of ourselves, and to be hospitable to everyone in the open and generous way of God.

Linking those words ‘humility’ and ‘open and generous hospitality’ calls to mind for me the words of the Prayer of Humble Access,

We do not presume to come to this…

That prayer links our own unworthiness (using the homely metaphor of a dog waiting for scraps under a table) with the manifold and great mercies of God.

I recently read a book called Dare to Break Bread which very powerfully reflects on this connection. In it the author Geoffrey Howard, a priest, explores various themes within the Eucharist. He wrote the book whilst on a three month Sabbatical, living in a hermitage in the Sahara Desert. There, in the space and silence, he reflected on the implications of the Eucharist in the context of the urban Salford parish he had left behind. The challenges he throws up are extremely sharp and devastatingly pertinent to our situation here at St Peter’s today - a church which celebrates the banquet of the Eucharist at least five times during each week, while many of the needy and rejected of the city sleep, beg and loiter and make a mess under our walls. I quote from the book.

After fourteen years at one Salford church, it is time for me to move on. One month before going to Assékrem, I accept my bishop's offer and move from my inner-city parish to a neighbouring one. The new church, thanks to the laity and my predecessors, is beautifully maintained, an oasis in the middle of an Urban Priority Area. It’s a picture-postcard of a church. Around it, what was an untidy graveyard is now a well-kept lawn. It is a ‘Waterloo’ church built of Yorkshire stone in 1832 and has a fine tower and belfry.

The railings or lack of them around the churchyard is the only imperfection. Over 160 years, they have rusted and fallen or been taken down. Even that will be remedied. The city council is to replace them with a replica of the ornate 1832 originals. The interior of the church is bright. The heat is on twenty-four hours a day so it's warm and comfortable.

Round the exterior of the building are ventilation grids for the cellar. Through one of them comes a blast of warm air from the boiler. It has been discovered by homeless alcoholics. In cold weather two or three of them sit over it with their bottles. At night they sleep there. There is no public toilet nearby and so they foul the churchyard under cover of night.

They are sprawled there in their stinking and stained clothes as we come to church. Dishevelled, drunk and dirty, they are surrounded by chip papers, bottles and cans. They spoil a near-perfect scene and, though they have never been violent, terrify the old and the very young by their appearance.

After only twenty-nine days in my new parish, I set off to Assékrem to keep a longstanding engagement. I leave behind the question of alcoholics in the churchyard.

In the heat of the day, I sit in the hermitage by a small window. An open Bible and prayer book are on the table in front of me. I am struggling with the Prayer of Humble Access. ‘Lord, we’re not fit to gather crumbs from under your table but we still feast in your house. Can the unworthy inside deny crumbs to the unworthy outside? Can we who have been dragged from the hedges and alleys show no mercy to those we have left behind? The crumbs of our Eucharist are not bread and wine but heat from the flue. If someone doesn't use that heat, it will be lost. If we deny alcoholics heat, we will be like those who put scraps in the bin while the hungry dog looks on. If the police evicted them from the churchyard we would be masking the problem, sending it down the road, not alleviating it. While the alcoholics are with us, they are a reminder of our inability to address sickness in society. They show up our failure to be salt, light and yeast. If they were to leave us, we could remain insulated from the sin, pain and sickness in the world and we could get back to congratulating ourselves on the beauty of our building - and its worship.

‘And yet, Lord, leaving them and their filth in that draught of warm air is not doing them much good, either. What sort of life am I encouraging them to lead? I am a sentimentalist. That warm air is a substitute for the gospel that I am at a loss to interpret for them. If I cleared them off, they might be forced to find hostel accommodation. But, I have a nagging doubt that they might end up in someone else's doorway.’

I pick up a pen, make a few notes and step outside. I scan the mountains, valleys and rocks. Nothing moves. I am far away from people and their pain in everything but thought.

The three months is now up. In preparation for my return, the congregation has cleared the churchyard of bottles, cans and excrement. As I am walking to church for the first time I see, from the distance, that the city council has put up the railings. They are ornate, with stout spirals topped with cast-iron flower heads, painted black and bronze. They are sturdy and pleasing to the eye. On three sides of the churchyard, there are double gates to match. As I enter those on the west side, I stop and grasp them. They seem to be made to be touched. I examine the newly forged metal and then hold them at arms length looking them up and down. The railings and gates cost £110,000. As I admire them, I wonder how many homeless alcoholics could have been given shelter for the cost of them. I tell myself that they would not be homeless if they had not spent their money on drink. Then I wonder if it is fair that their sin robs them of their homes and families but my sin does not rob me of mine. And, to what extent is an addiction a sin, anyway?

I grip the metal bars. Did Mary waste the ointment she poured on Jesus? Is it wrong to adorn at great cost the place where God is worshipped? Is not worship the act of showing God his worth? Isn't he worth £110,000? I look at the railings admiringly. They put the finishing touches to a fine building.

I loose my grip, walk down the church drive, and am greeted by folk chatting outside the west doors. ‘I can see you like the railings’ says one of them. ‘You'll be pleased to know that while you've been away, the church council has decided to padlock the gates when the church is not in use.’ I have a mental picture of a winter night. A dishevelled man, bottle in hand, has his face to the padlocked gates, watching hot air rise.

It’s so close to our situation, it hurts.

Note that Geoffrey Howard comes up with no easy solution - there aren’t any. What is important is that we never stop struggling with the questions - and never ever lose sight of the fact that Jesus said ‘when you give a banquet invite in all who are weak and maimed in mind, body, emotions and spirit’. It isn’t just about specifics - what we think of the rough sleepers and the street beggars - it’s about a whole attitude to living - about continually striving to live in the image of the God who showers manifold and great mercies on everyone - even when it goes against common sense and self-preservation, and we can see all the very good arguments against it!

Eileen McLean
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th September 2001