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Sermon 28 August 2016

It’s good to be here. It seems quite a long time since I went off and I have travelled many miles (which they are still called in UK!), have met old friends and made new ones and been in some beautiful places. You were in my thoughts and I know you have been well cared for.

One of the things about travelling around is being made very aware of everyone’s different lifestyles. I would never have thought there were so many ways of having porridge! How many different ways showers work! Or even taps! I had evening meals any time for 5.30 to after 9 o’clock. Along with all that I found there was a continual challenge not to think that my own ways were what is “normal” and, I have to say, it isn’t a very big step then to thinking that my ways were the “right” ways. Now, I spent time with people in many different places, from the Scottish Highlands to Iona, to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, and there even, on its quite remote west coast; to Glasgow and Edinburgh and then London, and places in between. How can there be a “normal”? But I realised that it is very easy to see others as different, and sometimes, I have to admit, there can be an edge of judgement in that.

On Iona, I was walking down the little narrow road from the farm where I was having bed and breakfast. It was quiet, there were flowers growing along the sides of the road. The sea and the hills beyond were beautiful in the morning light. As I got down the road near the Abbey I saw a throng of people approaching, making their way from the ferry up to the Abbey. Day tourists. My reaction was one of “Oh no. Now the peace and quiet, my peace and quiet, is disturbed.” But then I stopped myself, and I realised that each one of them had come here consciously or unconsciously looking for something in this special place. I realised that each one of us was being held, and I visualised that as if in the open-cupped hand of God. I realised that each one of us was a loved and treasured person. All different. All “normal” to ourselves. All probably “right”.

And so it was too on a Sunday morning three weeks ago when I went with my friend to the little Church of Scotland service in the nearby village, Carloway, on the west coast of Lewis. It was a different style of worship from here. The 45 minute sermon was clearly the climax of the service that had begun, after a sung psalm, with the only prayer, a long extempore prayer. Why did I approach this in a critical frame of mind? I had to tell myself that this was a service from their own culture, in which Gaelic is the first language, a culture where Sunday is still, largely, the Sabbath Day, where no-one would dream of hanging out washing, where no shops are open and only recently have ferries on a Sunday been allowed. They hold onto something special, and they do it with open hearts and friendliness that was very evident at tea around a large table afterwards. This was not, primarily, to do with being “right” or “wrong”.

Now this is a sermon, not a travelogue, so I turn to Luke, who has actually been guiding my reflections as I went along. Jesus had very clear views about people’s perceptions of right and wrong. I know that over several weeks you will have been thinking of the accounts that tell of the Luke’s understanding of the gospel: stories of women, of the sick and the poor, of God’s concern and love for all of these as Jesus reached out to them. Of how his treatment of these was of greater importance than the rigours of the Law; of how he called on them to read the signs of the times, to see beyond their own traditional viewpoints.

Today we hear of Jesus once again at a meal. Doesn't a lot happen around the table! And we all have our own table customs according to our own culture, our family practice, our own comfort. I have seen that so much on my travels! In the Graeco-Roman world, feasting was very important, as was the status that it could demonstrate. There was certainly an “A” list. And, as we hear today, where you sat was important. It wasn't just the case back then was it? Have you been to an event where you go into the big dining room and have to check the seating plan to see which table you have been placed at? If you are tucked away in a corner you know you are not as important as the people who are placed near the front of the room.

But in today’s story, it is the guests who are trying to elbow their way to the most important seats. As you probably know, honour was very highly rated in Graeco-Roman society. It was a finite thing. Someone acquiring more honour did so at someone else’s expense. And so people were on the look out for things that might belittle them as well as opportunities to become more highly regarded. When we see it in this light, we understand a bit better what was going on as people tried to manoeuvre themselves into a good position. Note that Jesus doesn't criticize this honour system directly. But we can understand how radical a suggestion it is that Jesus makes, about taking the lowest seats by choice, even if it was in order that they might then more conspicuously be moved up the table.

We don't know where Jesus himself might have been placed, but we know that he was not the slightest bit concerned about his own dignity. We are told that he was being carefully watched. He had just recently silenced those with religious standing by making clear how it could indeed be the right thing to heal, or liberate someone on the Sabbath, as he had reached out to the woman bent double for eighteen years. The strongly held traditional views of what was right and what was wrong were not as important as trying to discern if such rigidity was actually a Godly or a human thing.

In today’s story about the places at the table and in that of the healing of the woman on the Sabbath when he raised her so she could see things around her again, there is a strong, deep thread of freedom that creates a new order and that is the foundation of a new culture and community. Here, religious strictness that tries to mould people into one particular shape of certainty is shown to run the risk of missing the point. That is a trap we all so easily fall into, because things seem safer that way. But Jesus never talked about safety. He did talk about having faith in God, about trusting one’s life, one’s ways to God, whatever is happening. Just as so much of the Scriptures do. What Jesus is doing is telling people that there are not just two possibilities: right/wrong, good/bad, black/white. He is showing people that there is often a third way, a way in which God breaks through our ideas and opens up new possibilities.

Doing this always asks us to step back from what we think of as normal and right. This often seems counter-intuitive because I think we all like to feel we have a grasp of things, that we can hold onto hard facts and answers, or be told what is what so we can feel secure. In this way of things, we think that if we have used our reasoning, then we have a handle on things and know what is right. Now Jesus never told people to leave their brains behind, but he did question the entrenched mindset that he so often encountered. Many people believed then, as they do now, that faith is about holding tightly to sets of beliefs, but, sadly, all too easily, this becomes more about people and power than God.  To live in faith asks us to pause, to set aside our instinctive judgementalism about right and wrong in religion and to see if there is another, a third way of seeing.

Now I am certainly not saying that there is no such thing as right and wrong. Jesus was very clear that some things were very definitely wrong, against God’s way. He spoke out against hypocrisy, lack of love, systems that oppressed people and so on. He was challenging his listeners to see how their own attitudes might become part of what was wrong rather than what was good. Jesus was always asking his followers to do things that seems to go against what they had previously thought was right and proper. He didn't mind associating with those who were so often disregarded or thought unclean: a bleeding woman, a demon possessed young man, a leper, tax collectors and so many more.

He was setting people free, and not just those he helped directly. He was showing people that the rules are not what was important, nor the hard facts of tradition. Security was not the currency he dealt in. He was showing what faith is about. Faith is different from certainty. I read recently the phrase “silence is the language of God”. “Silence is the language of God”. We maybe have to rest with that for a while for its sense to become clear.

I think back to times when I was away when I encountered so many different lifestyles and ways of being, when I had to quieten my mind from making judgements, and put aside my own perceptions of what I thought should happen or not. It was only when I could begin to do that that I realised how really unimportant these matters were in the bigger scheme of things.
But we are given a real challenge to our ways of thinking in the concluding part of today’s reading when Jesus suggests that people shouldn't be inviting just their friends, relatives and rich neighbours to their banquets in a never ending cycle of invitation and response. He made the preposterous suggestion that they should invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, people with absolutely no honour who could never repay the invitation. He must have known such a thing would never happen. But he is offering an understanding of who is welcome in God’s company; of what the community of free people should look like.

And we too are left wondering what this means for us. It isn't comfortable, this challenge to set aside our own ideas of who is honourable, respectable, even suitable. We are challenged to pause and try to see ourselves and everyone as equally people of God whatever our background, status or lack of it.

After my travels, it is good to be here, in this place, in this community of faith as we all seek to learn more of what Christ means for us in our lives, for the sake of the world we all share, within the church and outside it. It was Dr Martin Luther King Jnr who said “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls, as well as a quantitative change in our lives”. I think that is what Luke has been telling us about today as he points us to Jesus and how he demonstrated the way of God.