Sally Sanderson's sermon
3rd July 2005
Last autumn there was a little problem at Tate Britain. As I admit I find some modern works of art are not to my taste I kept the newscutting from the time. It read, "A bag of rubbish that was part of a Tate Britain work of art has been accidentally thrown away by a cleaner." The bag filled with discarded paper and cardboard was part of a work said by the artist to demonstrate the 'finite existence' of art. The 78-year-old artist replaced it with a new bag and the gallery would not reveal whether he would be compensated. I don't know if he was, but he probably got much more money for his bag of rubbish that I will get preaching about it. I admit that get very little pleasure out of those sort of artistic creations that is because my values are just different from those of others like my husband who thoroughly enjoys the exhibits. Like the cleaner, I couldn't see the value of that bag of rubbish, but the artist and others obviously could.
If I had gone to the gallery I wouldn't have noticed if it were missing, but I'm neither the artist nor am I learned in these things. But if I were I would have recognised that the work of art was incomplete without it. When we turn to the gospel of Jesus Christ we see that the values that Jesus talks about are totally upside down to those of society, and particularly the society of his day. Those who were outcast, the poor, the disabled, those whom the bible calls sinners are considered by Jesus to be of the highest value and that the kingdom of God would not be complete without them.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is all about people being loved and being valued. He not only insists that people are equal, valued and loved; but that those who are rejected by the rest of society are lifted to a place of honour. In our gospel reading Jesus is concerned as to whom you invite to your table - bring those who cannot return the invitation to a meal,
We are asked to recognise that we have to consider who we consider to be outcasts in our society; those who we would naturally put at the bottom of the list or rather leave them off altogether if we are throwing a party. Who is on your list of undesirables? We often think of doing good for others, we are very good at that. We give to Christian Aid, Oxfam - and respond to the needs of others when there is call for money to assist victims of crises like earthquakes - how the tsunami appeal took off. But Jesus says "no, that's not truly loving and accepting the person." And he says to the Pharisee "you need to invite these people to your table because that's what it means to be the people of God. They give you the chance to live the faith you claim," it is easy to give charity at arms length, you need to get involved with these people. Then you know what they want, to feel loved and accepted.
Now Jesus was living in a time when status, one's place in society and therefore at one's host's table, was jealously guarded. Society was strongly hierarchical. There was a place on the ladder and for many it was a matter of survival to make sure they either stayed where they were or climbed higher. Position was not just a matter of individual achievement - it was a community value. Your value was inseparable from what others thought about you. Most to be feared was to lose your place, to be embarrassed, to be publicly humiliated by having to take a lower place. Losing face was almost like losing one's life.
I have just finished a project, which investigated whether people who were disabled (in any sort of way) were fully integrated into the life of the church. And I have had a mixture of responses to the questions that I have asked people. The change in the law in October 2004, made it necessary for access to be available for all people to all kinds of services in the public domain. This meant that churches have to comply with the law to have ramps for wheelchairs, Braille books and marked steps, loop systems etc. The problem is that people like me who do not have a disability think we know what others want, and this has been the case for years - able-bodied people choose for those who are disabled and don't listen to them, because we think we know best. Many erudite disabled people have written about this problem.
At Abbots Langley we thought we had done everything right - that is until I talked to several disabled people. A lady who has become almost completely blind said I have noticed you have painted the edges of steps, the ones I don't have to walk up. Pity you didn't do the one that I regularly trip over. It was only about 3/4" high so the painter didn't even notice their was a step. Although only two people of my survey had a hearing impediment, all the people interviewed said that others shouted them at. There are many difficulties for coming to the altar rail to take communion, and if you don't come up you feel isolated, outcast from the body of the church.
But the main thing people said was "there needs to be a change in people's attitude to the fact that they have a disability. In this country we have moved on from locking people away in large institutions. Many should never have been there anyway. Disabled people are now living in the community with the care that is necessary for their well-being. So now the responsibility of supporting them has shifted from a few nurses in the large institutions to society in general, and that means you and me. I see that we in the church have a fundamental role in supporting disabled people, encouraging them to live their lives as fully as you and me, and that is part of living the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus teaches that in the kingdom of God the rule book is turned upside down and those who are first shall be last and it is no good judging value, either your own or other people's, by what others think of you. He is also saying that the kingdom of God will not be complete without those who are disadvantaged. They are as integral to the kingdom as that bag of rubbish in Tate Britain. Paul's letter to the Ephesians describes the household of God as a whole structure joined together and growing into a holy temple in the Lord, and is does not make people outcasts.
Jesus is doing more than telling us a parable about how to live our lives. He's also teaching us about the kingdom of God. The party that will be hosted by God, who just keeps on inviting and inviting any who will come. The invitations come, not due to our efforts, not due to our merits, not dues to our wealth or social status or our glib conversation. The invitations to the banquet come only as a result of God's great love and as God's free gift. They cannot be earned, they cannot be purchased.
William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the war, is credited with these words: "When I get to heaven, if I do, I imagine I shall be surprised at three things. First, I'll be surprised that I'm there. Second, I shall be surprised at many of the other people who are there. Third, and most astonishing, will be their surprise that I'm there at all."
If seats at the table in the kingdom of heaven are assigned by God's free gift we may find heaven a surprising place. But we can make earth a surprising place as well, if we commit ourselves to the faithful, daily struggle to see others as our Lord saw them: not as problems, or annoyances or difficulties or as statistics - but as fellow children in God's family, swept up in the all-encompassing love of a God who measures value and worth in ways we can neither think or imagine. Whose love includes you and me.
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Comments about this site or problems? Contact Webmaster (Colin Richards) at firstname.lastname@example.org Last updated 07/07/2005 17:30 Author: Sally Sanderson