Friday, August 17, 2012

Pentecost +11B

Whenever I think of the word, 'banquet', the image that springs to mind is not the meagre 14 course succession of dishes you can order in some restaurants when you have a group of four or more – but the picture of four tables pushed together and laden with food – just the first course, mind you, the kitchen bench behind covered with desserts and lollies and crackers and extra bottle of wine, the whole extended Pederick family having gathered for the annual Christmas lunch.  When Alison and I first married, I think she was slightly alarmed the first year when one of my sisters announced it was time to start planning Christmas lunch – in early August.  But actually, there isn't too much planning involved, the unspoken rule is just that each household does its speciality and brings twice as much as anyone could possibly eat – there is about a week of frantic shopping and cooking beforehand and on the day everybody talks and laughs and hugs each other and eats more than they would in any normal week.

You probably have banquets like that sometimes.  I hope so.

So there are banquets today in our readings.  In Proverbs we have the wonderful image of Lady Wisdom – that slightly subversive strand of tradition in the Hebrew Bible that portrays Wisdom as God's right-hand girl, the master worker in the act of creation and God's go-between who involves herself in human life and is the inspiring muse in commerce, law and religion, the love of Wisdom being the delight and aim of human existence – today Lady Wisdom invites us to a feast, she has slaughtered and prepared her animals, her tables are groaning beneath their burden of rich food and wine.  It is an image of exuberance, the things that we're invited to feast on are all the life-giving gifts of God's creation – the idea seems to be that we're meant to enjoy the goodness of God's creation but understand what our proper part in it is, what our proper relationship is to everything else.  You might have heard me preach on this before – the image in this strand of Hebrew thought is of a God who celebrates with us, who wants to fill us with goodness, with laughter and who lays down all sorts of surprises for us in the way Creation is put together.  The God who sets up shop and then calls us in for a good time.  The image is one of hospitality, of generosity and even extravagance.

It's this strand in the Hebrew tradition that inspires Jesus, I think, and that is in the background of his stories about feasting as well as his consistent practice of hospitality.  'The Son of Man', he complains, 'comes eating and drinking, and you call him a glutton!' But what he is doing is demonstrating the generosity of God, and in the end he goes further than lady Wisdom ever did – because for Jesus, the Word and Wisdom of God, the feast he provides is ultimately – himself.  This, of course, is the gist of our Gospel reading this morning, and we are right to connect these images with the Eucharist, but the deeper meaning is of delight in creation, the generosity and extravagance of God, and an image of human life that is expansive and relational.

But this morning we continue our reading through the Letter to the Ephesians.  We've made the connection in earlier chapters between being right with God and being right with one another, between living 'in Christ' and our own practise of justice and forgiveness and generosity, and now, Ephesians says, choose Wisdom, not Folly!' It is of course the same Wisdom tradition that is being connected with Ephesians' practical wisdom about Christian living – with a caution – because if our lectionary writers had allowed us to go just a bit further in Proverbs this morning we would also have heard from Lady Wisdom's imposter.  Like Wisdom, Folly also calls us to a feast, calling out to the simple and those without sense, come in here and eat and drink, 'stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant!' [1] Where Wisdom calls us to generosity and insight into the goodness of creation, Folly beckons us with our own self-centredness and greed.  But the sales pitch is deceptively similar, the line between them is blurred, and when we choose between Wisdom and Folly we need to have our wits about us.

So Ephesians is cautioning us to be discerning, to use our intelligence and to be observant.  The verses just before this allude – without being terribly specific – to some of the dangers that stalk the Christian community – warnings about false teachers and wrongdoing. The point is that Christians – and faith communities – do face dangers, and some of them come from our own human capacity to kid ourselves.  To lie to ourselves about our own agenda or motivations.  To mistake an essentially self-serving preoccupation with the past, for God's leading into the future.  Are we following God's leading?  Or are we responding to our own fears and following our own desires?  The reason we do theology – the reason, in other words, we need to think carefully about what God is like and what the Bible is telling us – is because we need some critical tools to be able to tell the difference between froth and bubble and what is authentically Christian.

And then Ephesians hits us with a big challenge.  It doesn't sound so big in our English translation, unfortunately.  'Make the most of the time', we read, 'because the days are evil'.  There are dangers to Christian living, both inside and outside the Church, our own age has quite as much evil as the age of Ephesians and we need our wits about us.  But to what end? 'Make the most of the time', our translation reads, but in the original language the word for time is not chronos, regular working-day time, but kairos, God's time, in a sense the eternity that lurks inside each present moment, the unrepeatable but eternal present instant in which all things are lost or fulfilled – and in the Greek we are called not just to make the most of it but to redeem it, to purchase it, to rescue it – exagorazo.  We are brought back with a snap to the cosmic vision Ephesians started with in chapter one – this vision of Christian living is not just for our benefit but for the redemption of creation itself.

And, finally, our reading from Ephesians connects all this with our worship, with firstly, a cheeky contrast between wine and the Spirit.  Wine, of course, is on Lady Wisdom's table, and it is also on the table Jesus invites us to.  Wine is a metaphor for the fruits of creation, and for enjoyment and celebration.  A little too much wine leads to over-excitement and exuberance.  Well, if we are to have that, Ephesians says, let it be because we are drunk on the Spirit of God!  It's a challenge, isn't it? Is our spirituality exuberant? Is our worship joyful? Are we brim-full of God's Holy Spirit and on fire with love?  Is our worship filled with mutual encouragement and wonder?  That's what Ephesians suggests it should be about.  The Eucharist, of course, is a banquet.  I remember Archbishop Carnley commenting once – in his wonderful, dry way – that the Eucharist is a little foretaste of heaven.  Well, I thought, heaven must be pretty darn exciting.  Apparently – according to our NCLS return – a quarter of us get bored in church, at least some of the time – well, we're only human, but what would it take for us to worship with a sense that heaven, in fact, is indeed like this?  We get out of it what we put into it, of course.

Sing hymns, Ephesians suggests.  Play music, and sing.  I'm on Ephesians' side.  It's not even a metaphor; singing and music are an essential part of a worship that really can lift our hearts to God.  I remember once singing in a choir, struggling week after week to sing some difficult piece, and eventually the conductor said to us – put your music down.  You've had your heads buried in it for weeks, you must know the score off by heart by now.  And she had us stand in a circle and told us to look at the person opposite us, and listen to the people on either side.  You can't sing without being aware of the people you are singing with, staying together and supporting one another, without getting your head out of the book and lifting your heart and enjoying yourself.  You can't worship without watching and listening to and encouraging God's other people in their worship.  Did you know the best way to stay in tune is to smile?  To lift up your head and breathe and smile.  It's a new hymn?  Wonderful!  Listen and learn and breathe and sing.  Bellow out a few wrong notes, trust me, God can take a joke.  Have a go at playing the piano.  Sing praises to the God who sings the music of the galaxies.  I don't believe the Eucharist can be celebrated without the joy of music, and I feel sorry for congregations who don't – or who tell themselves they can't – sing.  There should be way more singing in church.

Choose Wisdom.  Be discerning, not a sourpuss.  Come to the banquet.  Eat and drink, be filled with God's Holy Spirit.  And sing.


[1] Prov. 9.17