Eating Together

Our Church has adopted the Holy Habits programme  for this year and will be looking at one of the ten themes each month. This month the theme is Eating Together and all preachers have been asked to follow the theme.


This sermon is based around the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14) and also draws on the story of Abraham’s hospitality (Genesis 18:1-8). It was preceded by the worship song Come to the banquet, there’s a place for you and followed by another Walls, mark out boundaries, both of which I learned whilst living in Australia.

Out theme for this month has been “Eating together” and so far the focus has been on eating and on food. This morning I’d like us to focus on the “together” bit. Who, as Christians, should we be eating together with?

Earlier on a retold the parable of the Great Banquet. At face value that parable is about food, about who to invite to a feast. Except of course it isn’t really is it? It’s allegorical – an extended metaphor. The story isn’t really about a banquet, it is about the Kingdom of God. It’s not really about the rich man’s friends, it’s about a religious establishment that pays lip service to God love but then ignores him  when he challenges them to take action.  It’s not really about the poor and starving town’s people, it’s about those who are seen as outside the religious establishment but truly understand what it would be like to be loved by God, people who have never been invited to share that love in terms that are meaningful to them.

The older I get the more and more important I consider this parable to be. I have no memory of it being given any particular emphasis in my earlier experiences of faith. I can remember being taught about the parables of the Prodigal Son, or the Lost Sheep, or the Good Samaritan. I remember being taught about the miracles and healing acts of Jesus, but I don’t remember this particular parable making any particular impact on me until my time in Australia. There it was foundational to the ministry of the Uniting Church minister who happened to be at the church that we joined. I don’t remember him preaching about it specifically, but I do remember the two songs that we sang on many occasions – the one we sung earlier and the other that we will sing after this sermon. Since that experience this parable has shot up the league table of important passages within the Bible in my mind and now maintains a place pretty near the top.

Its power, as in so many of the parables, comes from its allegorical nature. As I’ve said it is not really a story about food. It is about how we view religion. In Jesus’ day religion was defined by the observance of a number of religious practices – only eating certain foods, washing yourself in a particular way before eating, saying prayers at a particular time in a particular way. Those who observed these rules saw themselves as righteous and assumed they would inherit the Kingdom of God. When a group starts to identify itself as righteous, of course, it will automatically start to identify everyone else as unrighteous and this is what had happened by the time Jesus came along.

But of course we are often guilty of this ourselves both superficially and at a much deeper level. We tend to assume that the church is composed of that group of people that want to come to church for an hour on Sunday mornings and sing hymns and say prayers and drink cups of tea or coffee afterwards don’t we? If people don’t want to do that then we’re at a bit of a loss to know what to do with them aren’t we? What would you do with someone who said I want to learn how to love Jesus but I’m not particularly keen on singing hymns or sitting still?

At a deeper level protestant theology is rooted in the division of people into those who have been saved and those who haven’t. More aggressive Protestants tend to assume that it is obvious which is which, more generous ones may admit that this may not be so clear. But most of us here, deep within our religious psyche, hold to an assumption that God’s salvation is restricted to a certain number of people. Many of us can be rather lazy and put these two concepts together and assume that the saved are those that want to come to church and sing hymns and share a cup of tea afterwards. If we are even lazier we extend this to the assumption that those who do not want to live like this are the unsaved.

When we read the story of the Great Banquet and remember the context in which it was told then we often appreciate the absurdity of how those within Judaism in Jesus day viewed the world. What’s really important though, and what makes this story so relevant to the modern world, is that it should also alert us to what is absurd in how we view the world. It tells us that we need a broader view than we have at present of where value lies in this world. We need to move away from the assumption that all that God values in the world is tied up in the church and those who choose to attend. We need to open ourselves to the truth that there is much of value within this world that lies outside these doors, both literally and metaphorically.

One of the issues that came up in our house group the other day was that of how we relate to the spouses and families of many of our church members who choose not to come to church themselves. Maybe a theology that seeks out the good in anyone, whether they identify themselves as Christian or not, provides a basis for such a ministry. How this works out practically isn’t clear in my mind but maybe just thinking in this way might open doors.

Going back to our Bible story though we may get clues. Jesus clearly spent considerable time eating with this disciples, he also spent considerable time eating with other people as well. The context of this story is a meal at a prominent pharisee’s house. Jesus has chosen to dine with someone with whom he disagrees quite fundamentally. Not only this, but we are told explicitly that Jesus was being “carefully watched”. He has chosen to dine with someone who is suspicious of him, who is spying on him, who may be plotting against him. The first lesson we can learn from this story is that when we talk about eating together we need to think about eating together with others as well as eating together amongst ourselves. The heavenly banquet is laid out for all people, not just for us; however we choose to define “us”.

But Jesus goes further than this he chooses not only to dine with others but to talk seriously with them about things that matter. He goes into a potentially hostile situation and presents his vision of the world. We’ve got a convention in Britain haven’t we that at a dinner party the conversation should steer clear of sex, politics or religion. Even if we regard such formal guidance as a little old-fashioned, a lot of our conversations, when dining out, particularly with people we may not know so well, do tend to the superficial and ignore the issues that really matter. Jesus is demonstrating the opposite, he is choosing not only to dine with people who have different views to him but to engage in a meaningful conversation with them. He is choosing topics that might bring about a difference of opinion, that might challenge. Indeed we can go further, he is choosing topics that will bring about a difference of opinion, that will challenge. He is doing his hosts the honour of taking them seriously, of talking about things that matter rather than the merely superficial.

For want of a concrete example of this I want to turn the tables on their heads and tell of a time when I was invited to a meal by people of another faith. It was shortly after the September 11th attacks in 2001. We had been living in Melbourne for just over a year. As in so much of the world there had been a wave of anti-muslim feeling. In response the Islamic community in Melbourne chose to invite people from the local churches to share with them in their Iftar feast. Most of us think of Ramadan as a time of fasting but the fast is only for daylight hours and on the evening after the sun has set the tradition is for Muslim families to share a celebratory meal called Iftar.

So I drove across Melbourne to large house in the northwest suburbs. There I met a muslim family and small group of Christians drawn from from across the city. A young woman welcomed us in and made us welcome. She told us about the feast and how it is a Muslim characteristic to be hospitable. She traced this back to the example in the Quran of Abraham who invited three strangers into his house, the story we have read earlier from our scriptures this morning. We started the meal with a date – apparently it is not good to break the fast to quickly, and then moved on to more substantial fare. Having shared some of her tradition with us and something of the fear that her community had for the future, she invited us to tell stories of our traditions and to share our hopes and fears for our communities. Over the meal we talked of things that mattered. We learned to understand, we made friends with people we had never met.

I left that meal in a state of grace. I remember driving back through the dark with a feeling of elation and filled with the spirit. We had some special experiences in the nine years we were in Melbourne but I don’t think there was a night when my heart was moved as much as it was that night. I felt truly blessed.

So let’s not just think this month about what we can and should eat. Let’s not just use it as an excuse to dine with old friends. Let’s look around us and see if there is anyone we can invite to our table as an act of outreach and mission. Let’s look out for people in  our community who are different to us and who might disagree with what we think. Let’s look for opportunities to invite them to a table to talk about things that matter, to seek what is of value in their lives as well as expressing what is of value in ours. Who knows? God’s grace may settle on our table in the same way it did on the table I dined at on that evening fifteen years ago on the other side of the planet.


Relating to other faiths

This is a sermon preached on 26th October based on the readings Revelation 21:22-22:5 and Luke 6:27-42.

I want to talk about our relationship to other faiths this morning. What I have to say will be generalisable but will focus on our relationship with Muslims. Clearly there is much fear in our world about Muslim fundamentalism. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to preach since the beheading of Alan Hennings. He was the Salford cabbie who went to Syria  to try and help. Although I’ve never met her his wife, Barbara, works in my department at the University where there has been  a particularly strong and emotional reaction to the news.

We heard yesterday of the death of Muhammad Mehdi Hassa, the fourth of six young men from Portsmouth who went to fight for Islamic state. Somehow, we don’t know how, they and an estimated other 500 British Muslims have been convinced that this is what their faith requires of them. Most of us are horrified and bewildered. An all too easy response, particularly I think amongst Christians,  is to assume that this is  further proof of  the error of Islam. It’s this that I want to explore this morning.

The first and most obvious point I want to make is that there are a wide spectrum of beliefs within Islam just as there are within Christianity. My daughter has just finished her GCSE and is now taking A-level religious studies. At GCSE it was considered appropriate to write about “what Christians believe” or “what Muslims believe”. At the new level she is working at she has been told that this is no longer appropriate. She needs to write about “what some Christians believe” or maybe about “the official view of the Methodist church” or to mention the views of a specific individual who has a particular faith. Just because we are appalled by the actions of some Muslims does not mean we should condemn all Muslims or the faith of Islam.

We lived in Northern Ireland for several years just after the first IRA ceasefire was announced. During that time we lived within a Christian community that was appalled about the deeds that had been done by people who considered themselves Christians and truly believed that they were doing what God wanted. We as Christians wanted nothing to do with the acts of Catholics working within the IRA or of protestants within the Unionist paramilitaries. Most of us within this church this morning would be appalled to hear those acts portrayed as the acts of Christianity. Why then, do we fall into the trap of assuming that the isolated acts of small groups of Muslims involved in terror activities are representative of Islam?

We also need to develop some historical perspective. The trauma that some parts of Islam are experiencing now is extremely similar to trauma that some parts of Christianity passed through several centuries ago. 16th and 17th century Europe was riven by religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants every bit as brutal and uncompromising as the current rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East today. On St Bartholomw’s day in 1572 between 5,000 and 30,000 innocent French protestants were murdered by Catholic mobs in Paris and across France. (The only hard evidence for numbers is a bill for workers in Paris to remove 1,100 bodies from the Seine and bury them).

This is just, of course, one particularly horrendous example but history is littered with others of how feuds within Christianity have led to tyranny and death in different communities across the world. (The secular world does not escape either of course. There can be no stronger example of the senseless beheading of innocent victims than the French revolution, perhaps the first time a secular state emerged within the Western world).

In our reading this morning we’ve been reminded of Jesus’ words that we “should take the plank out of our eye” before “taking the speck out of our brothers”. In looking at the state of parts of current Islam we need to recognise that this is where we, as Christians, have already been. Our first response should be one of recognition. Our second response, perhaps, should be more positive, in recognising that  this is a place that we have come from (albeit more recently than many of us would care to acknowledge). Perhaps there is help we can offer their community from the previous experiences of ours.

Of  course this assumes we would want to. Why should we offer support to a different religious community, one who some would see as  in competition with our own – a community that some within Christianity would see simply as wrong and misguided? Shouldn’t we be fighting against that community as part of our responsibilities as Christians?

Whilst there are certainly writings within the New Testament that can be used to support such attitudes I don’t think that those we’ve heard read this morning do. The injunction of Jesus for us to love our enemies is perhaps one of the most preached about and least implemented in the Bible. What credit do we get for loving people who are just like us? What God wants is for us to love people who are different to us. How, in the modern world can we best love Muslims? That is the question we should really be asking. Of course the paradox within this is you cannot love your enemies – if you love your enemies they become your friends.

There is disagreement here within Christianity (its actually a good example of the variety of opinion within Christianity that I outlined above). Some Christians are extremely confident in their particular brand of Christianity. They believe that through the Bible and Jesus that we know the truth and that everyone else is wrong (there are plenty of passages of scripture that can be cited to reinforce this view). For this group of people the most loving thing we can do for Muslims is to show them how wrong they are and convert them to our way  of seeing and doing.

My faith, and the faith of many other Christians, is different. I don’t have the same faith that the Bible represents the Truth in this way. Within the Bible are so many contradictions that you can’t say that it convey a simple truth. One of the Ten Commandments is that “Thou shalt not kill”. The teaching of Jesus would appear to reinforce this message. But then in Joshua we read of how God stopped the sun in the sky so that the Jews could complete their slaughter of their enemies. That’s just an example of a contradiction within the Bible. I’ve already given examples this morning of what happens when on top of this we layer the competing claims of different denominations and different interpretations of our scripture. It is ludicrous, in my eyes, to see Christianity as a single embodiment of the Truth that is either possible or desirable for us to inflict upon other people.

My faith sees all of us, all people throughout the world, as trying to make sense of life. For me it is important to start in humility with an assumption that we know very little. This is, to me, what Paul meant when he talked of our “childish ways” and how now we see “as through a glass darkly”. Christianity offers a framework through which we can explore what meaning life might have rather than a rigid prescription of what that meaning is. Before it was called the church the early Christian movement was known as “the Way”. It was a way of being in community, a way of exploring faith, a way of drawing closer to God. A God that was defined by people’s experience rather than by what had previously been written in the scriptures. For me the New Testament has a unique place in guiding my spiritual development but it is not the only place.

The images of the End within the Bible are incredibly important. I, with many other Christians,  believe they are poetic and metaphorically images of what we should aspire to rather than literal accounts of what will happen but they are no less important for that. (Indeed as science gives us clearer and clearer predictions of what how the physical universe is likely to end  I’d argue that a metaphorical understad=nding becomes more important.) The image we’ve had presented to us from towards the end of Revelation has very little to do with what we see as Christianity today. The reading says very explicitly that there is no Temple. In a sense religion has been brought to an end. When all people see the Truth there is no longer a need for a Way to guide them towards it. There is an undefiled city where all people can dwell, there is a river filled with the crystal clear water of life. There are trees that bear sufficient food to feed us all and whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.

This vision is of something bigger than the Christianity we practice today. It has no denominations, it has no church councils or preaching plans of flower distribution rotas. It is something different. It is somewhere I hope I am traveling towards  but it is also somewhere that I know I am a long way from. I look to Christianity as a guide  on that journey.  But this guidance will be needed less and less the closer I get to arriving, the closer I get to seeing face to face.

If I see myself as an individual who knows little and is travelling on a journey then I have no real difficulty in seeing members of other faiths as people who know little and but are traveling on a journey also. The journey is along a different path with a different guide but may still be towards the same destination. I have no doubt that the scriptures I revere and the faith experiences that I have had can support others on that journey. I will not stop preaching the gospel in which I believe. But I will offer that to a fellow traveller acknowledging that they may still want to walk along a different path.

Perhaps most importantly though I want to listen. If what I know and what I have experienced can help others then maybe what others know and have experienced can help me. If we are all one day going to share the same city, the same river and the fruit of the same trees, maybe we should start sharing more of our lives now.

One of the most special evenings of my time in Melbourne was in the home of a Muslim family. One of the responses of the Australian Muslim community’s responses to 9:11 was to issue an invitation through the local churches for people to join an Iftar feast within a local home. The Iftar feast is that which starts at dusk on each night of Ramadan when Muslims who have been fasting throughout the day can eat again. A group of us turned up on at a suburban house in the north of the city and were welcomed by a young woman wearing a head scarf. She and her husband sat us down and told us of their faith and gave us an opportunity for us to tell them of ours. As the sun set we turned on the television to hear the Muezzin’s call to prayer. They left briefly to say their prayers and then returned to serve food over which we continued to talk. Despite many experiences within Australian churches this was probably the most spiritually moving encounter I had in the nine years we were there. Driving home I felt truly blessed.

When people talk to me of Muslims the image that comes to my mind is not of a bearded terrorist. It is of a young Australian woman in a head scarf  whose house I entered into in a state of unknowing and left in a state of grace. For her role in helping me on my journey, I give thanks to God – whatever we may both choose to call him.

I’d selected the hymn, God is love let heaven adore, after I’d selected the theme but before I’d decided what to say. As we sang it in church just before I preached I was struck by just how closely its theme’s mapped on to mine.