Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (15 October 2017) by Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

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Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity (15 October 2017) by Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

The Precentor considers the difference between confidence and certainty in our faith and how we might leave ourselves open to God's grace. 

The piety of Christians may be compared to a journey up the escalator in a department store: people taking it for granted that there are sumptuous goods in store for them on the floor above and serenely sailing upwards to their confident joy and delight. But, as they travel upwards, they look across at the downward escalator and, to their considerable chagrin, they see Jesus on his way down to muck in with the crowds in the bargain basement.

That’s pretty much what’s going on in the parable in this morning’s gospel lesson from St Matthew’s Gospel: overly confident religious people suiting themselves, not responding to God’s call, and then missing out on the heavenly banquet or at least getting there only to discover all the reprobates they’d spent years disrespecting already there.

And I almost wonder if we’ve had another version of the parable presented to us on Saturday night television recently: an openly gay vicar who lives with his male partner, dancing the night away in silk and sequins, on Strictly Come Dancing in front of twelve million people, for two or three weeks, while the General Synod of the Church of England gets stuck into about ten years of debate about whether openly gay vicars can marry their same gender partners or not – for the benefit of the fewer than a million people who go to Anglican churches in this country.

The hospitality of this morning’s gospel lesson better articulated by the BBC than by the C of E.

And part of the problem for the Church of England (and indeed other Christian denominations too) is this business of what we take for granted about our church membership and thus also about our destiny. How do we know that we’re on the same escalator as Jesus and do we ever look across to check whether we’re still on track? That was the problem with Jesus’s antagonists and with the original wedding guests in the parable: they took their election by God and their rewards with God for granted.

And they were probably so busy telling other people that they hadn’t been chosen by God and weren’t going to get any rewards that they didn’t notice that the ground was slipping away from under their feet. God’s angels had put heaven onto and everyone was pouring in.

I’m too much of a universalist to say that the religious people won’t actually make it to the wedding banquet but they’re going to feel pretty awkward sitting at the feast while Richard Coles does a tango paso doble down the middle of them.

I’ve said before how a wise old priest in my Cambridge days advised me always to approach each issue on the assumption that I might be wrong. It was a good lesson in humility and one which I think might be lacking in the approach of some clergy to their teaching of the faith.

We have of course to be confident in our faith but I think there might be a healthy difference between confidence and certainty. There’s something sustaining and embracing about confidence but something narrow and hard-edged about certainty.

When C S Lewis said that a doctrine never felt dimmer to him than when he had just successfully defended it, he meant that a successful defence can be akin to shutting the debate down and preventing further light being shed on the argument.

I always enjoy talking to Christians who talk about their faith being like a journey as opposed to a closed shop. I used to be opposed to the ordination of women. I was 18 at the time and also voted Conservative. My journey has taken me far and I hope it will take me further because, despite my great age. I still have a lot to learn.

I remember a splendid retired headmaster who, when he visited National Trust properties always asked for the student ticket rather than the old aged pensioner ticket (even though they were actually the same price) because, he said, he was still learning.

The original wedding guests in this morning’s gospel lesson have a lot to learn and they don’t listen to the people who come and prompt them to respond differently to God’s call. It doesn’t occur to them that they might be wrong. They’re too certain about their destiny and, as a result, don’t realise that they’re travelling in the wrong direction.

They think access to God’s grace is only open to them and those whom they judge to be fit for the occasion while – in fact – access to God’s grace is open to everyone. And God will judge, not humans. Whether those who turn up to the feast choose to prepare themselves for the time when they will stand in God’s presence is another matter. But God will judge, not humans.

That many are called but few are chosen is sharp and harsh but Matthew is a brilliant story-teller and how else will he penetrate the hard edges of religious certainty and get his listeners to sit up and take notice other than by a short sharp shock at the end of his story?

So Strictly Come Dancing or a House of Bishops report? Heaven or hell? I couldn’t possibly comment – but I’m glad it’s up to God to decide.