Sermon preached on the Last Sunday after Trinity (26 October 2014) by The Reverend Sarah Eynstone, Chaplain

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Sermon preached on the Last Sunday after Trinity (26 October 2014) by The Reverend Sarah Eynstone, Chaplain

The Reverend Sarah Eynstone looks at the idea of self-worth in society through the story of Jesus' account of the wedding feast to the Pharisee.

Schools can be hard places to be; especially as teenagers when everyone in their insecurity becomes acutely sensitive to what their peers think of them; where everyone is highly attuned to their place in the social pecking order.

When I was at a school there was a boy who was known as ‘Bonesy’. Bonesy wasn’t popular; he was physically awkward and uncoordinated, he looked different, he wasn’t especially bright and he was unable to stick up for himself in the face of bullying. One day a teacher made Bonesy sit next to a girl who was at the opposite end of the social spectrum - the sort of girl who was invited to all the best parties - and she shrieked in horror. She moved to the far edge of the desk and behaved as if Bonesy had some terrible contagious disease.

So why did she react so strongly? Maybe because adolescence is a time when we depend largely on our peers for our self-worth. This means that our lives can become a reflection of those around us. We welcome those whom our social group welcomes and we exclude on the same basis. If this very popular girl had not so publicly rejected Bonesy she ran the risk of being excluded herself. In this sense Bonesy’s presence was like a contagious disease in that his reputation posed a risk to her own.

Human beings have an innate desire to be recognised and to be held in high esteem by someone else. Each of us depends on someone other to give us our sense of self-worth. This may be exaggerated in our teenage years but we are all, whatever our age or social background, powerfully motivated by this desire.

One of the repeated challenges Jesus put to his contemporaries was ‘To whom do you look for a sense of worth?’ and ‘On whom do you depend?’. 

In the New Testament lesson we heard this morning Jesus has been invited to the home of a lead Pharisee - a bit like being invited to dinner at a Bishop’s Palace. This invitation potentially gives him social cache: Jesus is being welcomed by someone at the top of the social and religious pecking order.

And then Jesus goes and ruins it all. He tells the assembled company a parable of a wedding banquet and urges his fellow guests not to sit in the place of honour - as in fact they have all being trying to do - but to sit at the lower place. On first reading this might look like a self-interested lesson in social etiquette; rather than risk disgrace by elevating yourself aboveyour station, go to the lower place and then enjoy that moment of exaltation when your host invites you to come up higher.

And then Jesus turns his attention to his host and instructs him not to invite his friends or family or rich neighbour ‘in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.’

The rightful guests are the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind; those who cannot reciprocate the host’s invitation. In short those who cannot play the social game and who have no role in enhancing the image of their host.

In this parable Jesus is challenging the ways in which we seek worth from our peers; how we gain our reputations and how we meet our very human desire to be noticed and recognised.

We often seek to imitate one another’s values and prejudices as a way of being affirmed. In this way we also become rivals, all seeking the place of honour at the top table.

The danger of this is that we end up no longer knowing who the ‘I’ that I am seeking to elevate is.

‘I’ may become little more than a fragile, empty construction formed by years of seeking to maintain my reputation and ensure that my peers value me.

The alternative, which Jesus shows us, is that we receive our sense of worth from God. God freely gives us a dignity and worth we could never gain for ourselves. We can never manipulate God or play social games with our Creator. There is no need and no room for social insecurities in the Kingdom of Heaven.

But the danger of this gift freely given is that God doesn’t necessarily have a good reputation in the eyes of those we secretly wish to impress. The scandal that Paul refers to in his letter to the Corinthians is that God’s reputation and the reputation of the victim- the poor, the lonely, the unlovely- is virtually the same.

In the parable of the wedding banquet Jesus shows us that looking to God for your sense of self also involves being ready to lose your reputation in the eyes of others.

We live in a highly-ordered social world where our self-worth is often obtained by being ‘more than’. More intelligent, more beautiful, more accomplished, wealthier, moresociable and even more moral, than other people. As well as being bad for our mental and spiritual health this prevents us from acting in solidarity with those of no repute- with those who are ‘less than’.

Our tendency to compare and to seek to be more than, is of course not new, nor was it in Jesus’ time. In fact it is a recurrent theme of the Old Testament.

In the Ancient Near East the tribes of Israel were of little account; situated as they were between powerful nations they were always at risk of being defeated by one great neighbouring power or another.

The Israelites were at the bottom of the international pecking order – they were a bit like Bonesy - despised by their neighbours and often unable to stand up for themselves. That God chose to have a unique relationship with this small, insignificant tribe is of course very important.

The people of Israel however were always looking to their powerful neighbours for safety and validation. Again and again they turned from God and instead sought the affirmation of other nations. So we can read the Old Testament metaphorically as an account of the human tendency to gain our sense of worth from our peers, rather than God.

God has never withdrawn his invitation to the wedding banquet. He always gives us the freedom to take up his invitation or go in search of something or someone else. But if we recognise the invitation for what it is we will find ourselves relating differently to social hierarchy and social inequality. Not all at once and perhaps slowly and painfully, and over a long period of time as we learn to relocate where our investments lie. Ultimately we will rejoice to invite the Bonesys of this world to the seat of honour, not because of what they can do for us but because God invites us to love others as we have been loved by him.

A prayer of Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)

O Thou who in almighty power wast weak, and in perfect excellency was lowly, grant unto us the same mind. …O Saviour, since thou, the Lord of heaven and earth, dist humble thyself, grant unto us true humility, and make us like thyself; and then, of thine infinite goodness, raise us to thine everlasting glory; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost for ever and ever. Amen