The Dean - The Very Revd Andrew Nunn
Proverbs 25.6-7; Hebrews 13.1-8,15,16; Luke 14.1,7-14
There are lots of hidden treasures around – sometimes you just need to know where to look for them. So, if you go to the Ikea on the Purley Way in Croydon, the one with the twin chimney stacks you can locate from a long way away, you’ll drive close to one of the churches in the diocese that doesn’t stand on a main road
St George’s Waddon is in the middle of what we used to call a council estate, so it’s a bit off the beaten track. But if you can spare just a few minutes from buying some unpronounceable piece of flat pack furniture or Swedish meatballs and lingonberries, go to the church.
In the side chapel there’s something utterly delightful and utterly unexpected. Cicely Mary Barker is best known as the artist who drew the flower fairies, those rather mawkish little cherubs that look out from around flowers. She was a resident of Croydon and first published those paintings in 1923. But a few years later she painted a picture for the church, not of fairies but incorporating real, identifiable people from the Waddon and Croydon area, the real hidden treasures.
The painting is called ‘The Great Supper’ and it shows Jesus welcoming his guests to the kingdom supper. There’s a long procession of people arriving, all dressed in the clothes of the mid-twentieth century, young and old, some with sticks, some bent over, others strong, some in uniform, some dressed for manual work, all, it has to be said, white, because that was the world out of which she then painted.
It’s a powerful picture when we set it alongside the readings for this Eucharist, for this Great Supper, to which each one of us here has accepted an invitation.
The banquet is a familiar theme in the gospels because Jesus was a regular guest at the meal tables of others. So many encounters take place in this setting. After the street, where most things in the gospels seem to happen, it’s at the table that the critical events occur – including those two great moments of divine revelation that bookend the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – the Last Supper in the Upper Room and the meal at the table in Emmaus. In both, bread is broken and Jesus is made known; in both is this feast in which we’re sharing, pre-figured; at both, the lives of those sat alongside Jesus are transformed.
The humility and the compassion, the humanity that comes through so clearly in each of the readings that we’ve just heard contrasts so sharply with the events of last week.
Very few of us outside General Synod generally used the word ‘prorogue’, now it’s on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s consciousness. The decision by the Prime Minister and the members of the Privy Council to close down Parliament for longer than is necessary, to close down the chambers for debate and decision for this nation at such a time as this, such a critical time as this, is an outrageous challenge to our long and proud history of parliamentary democracy. We’re in a situation in which every day counts, so the loss of just a few days of debating time is a huge loss, but also the principal involved, however legal the action may be, is the reason why it has provoked such anger amongst those of us who do not want to see us crashing out of Europe on Halloween.
I was one of the well over one and a half million who have signed up to the on-line petition against the proroguing of parliament, not imagining that it would make a huge difference but needing to do something, needing to register my anger and my protest. Now we wait to see what will happen this week.
None of us really knows what a no-deal Brexit would actually mean but what we do know is the effect that the whole Brexit debate and the events of last week in particular are having on our nation. I was delighted that the Archbishop of Canterbury has tried to intervene, delighted that we’ve all been called on to pray, because God knows we need prayer and we need reconciliation.
The deepest danger is not so much about whether we’ll have Brussel Sprouts on our Christmas dinner plates, the deepest danger is in the sharp and multiple and dangerous divisions that’ve been created in our society and some might say have been consciously and deliberately and cynically created. It’s easier to divide and rule, some imagine. But we know that isn’t so.
And this is where the Great Supper comes in. Church is one of the few places left where we meet on an equal basis. Where else do you go during the week where you spend time in such an inclusive and diverse and equal gathering as the one you and I are in now? I know that we all come from very different backgrounds, that we all have very different backstories, that we’re ethnically and culturally very diverse. But beyond the obvious, superficial differences you may know nothing really about the person alongside you or in front of you or behind you. And yet we’re all here on an equal ticket and on an equal invitation. There are no better seats at this banquet, the invitation to each of us is the same. Whoever you are, whatever your story, your background, your status, your ability, you are of equal value and you are equally welcome. Where else can you be in this kind of setting but in the church and at this meal, at this table, at God’s invitation?
The Second Reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, comes from the final chapter of that book and it begins with those few, rounding up words
‘Let mutual love continue.’
In a time of huge tension, of threatening division, in a time when confidence is being lost in the very institutions which have served this nation so well and given us huge stability, we need to keep that call before us, ‘Let mutual love continue’. And it’s the mutuality that’s so critical.
Mutuality does not recognise division or difference and that’s what we’ve been trying to model and live out in this cathedral for years and not just around the issues that we’re well known for – the place of women in our church, honouring and supporting the gay community, valuing and welcoming people of colour – it’s around everything from our theology into our life and into our loving.
The invitation to the Great Supper, the inclusive table, the community that shares in one broken bread is at the heart of it all and that is why now, at this moment, at this time, we are being church at its most powerful.
I can’t remember how many times I’ve quoted R S Thomas’ poem ‘The Kingdom’ to you, but I have to again, and I don’t apologise – it says it all.
It’s a long way off but inside it
There are quite different things going on:
Festivals at which the poor man
Is king and the consumptive is
Healed; mirrors in which the blind look
At themselves and love looks at them
Back; and industry is for mending
The bent bones and the minds fractured
By life. It’s a long way off, but to get
There takes no time and admission
Is free, if you will purge yourself
Of desire, and present yourself with
Your need only, and the simple offering
Of your faith, green as a leaf.
We need strength to face the week ahead, we need food for the journey. The reading from the Book of Proverbs has an invitation to us, to you, ‘‘Come up here’. It’s the God of the banquet who invites ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’ and you to share the supper without any need for payment – it’s all grace, it’s all free, all here for you and me.
Come up here, all of you, eat and drink, without division, without distinction and model a life and a kingdom for all people. God knows we need it.