Sermon delivered by the Rev Sydney Maitland
It has been pointed out that during the Second World War, the divisions in society of class, accent, taste and position, were to a great extent subsumed by the simple, common task of survival and of the common effort against the enemy.
The community was still highly stratified by military or service rank, but the aims of keeping going in the face of the threat of invasion, and then in the face of the urge to victory, tended to overrule all else.
The 1950s became noteworthy for the political slogan “You’ve never had it so good,” while the 1960s and 1970s became a culture of self-realisation and self-determination.
Here the self reigned supreme: economically the rat-race consumed its losers, and culturally the self became overlord of all it surveyed. The community became an abstract for debate in the use of power and control, but neighbours became more like competitors and rivals.
Jeremiah shows this sense of turning away from the common good. The nation had been forsaking its common faith in God in favour of its own contrivances. For us also political action has replaced a social conscience and the market became debased to reflect the morality of those who operated it, with bad money driving out good.
Rather than derive faith and meaning and significance from the glory and bounty of God it would be more entertaining and fashionable to reject Him and to despise those who held to Him.
In this way the fountain of living water was replaced by cisterns: voids sealed by the technology of plaster to hold stagnant water but which were never that secure and being stagnant were liable to slime and micro-cultures what would have been washed away in the living waters of a fountain.
But they were self-designed, self-made, and self-deceiving. The people had chosen worthless things and had become worthless themselves in doing so. Like their own inventions they were soon to be outdated, outranked and out-performed by the next fad and fancy of the public square.
Jesus noted the same social competition at a Sabbath meal. It was to be a public occasion where the host would be able to display his wealth and generosity – to carefully selected guests.
They would include those who were friends who would appreciate the hospitality and return it in due course and of course those who were not actually friends but who had to be impressed anyway out of a sense of obligation or in order to shame or embarrass them.
There would be competition for places at the high table, and the closer to the host the better – especially if one could be seen to be in favour. Then there would be those who ostentatiously chose the less favoured places expecting to be raised to a more eminent position. And the host would indeed honour some by raising them and would snub others by ignoring them: that was probably why they were invited anyway.
And Jesus says do not even compete for this kind of passing fame. Take the lowest place anyway. If you are raised up – fine, and if not then enjoy the company that is around you.
If you want really interesting company then find the poor, the rejected, the crippled, the abused and the outcast, all who will have their tales to tell and will never be able to return your generosity even if they later surprise you with their own kindness.
Those who really want to get on will do so in the presence of those who think that they have nothing at all to offer in return.
The epistle to the Hebrews also provides simple counsel to a healthy social and church life. Let mutual love continue without weariness or resentment. Honour the stranger who others will seek to cheat and exploit. Remember those of you who are in prison, and visit them and supply them with their needs, for the hospitality of their gaolers will definitely be in the thin side. Maintain the sanctity of your marriages, but do not sanctify your money or wealth.
During this week when we have recalled the great speech of Martin Luther King, we would be well to recall his dream that a person would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
Today perhaps we should add that a person should not be judged by the nature of their accent, their schooling, their profession or housing or fashion sense or sporting enthusiasms. Rather it is the person within that we should seek to know and to honour, accepting that their temptations are ours while their failures are ours also but are shown up differently.
We may well mourn the things that drag other people down – but we should not resent their successes. Equally, we can never deny the equal salvation open to all in Jesus Christ for all have sinned and are short of the glory of God. And all are equally offered the richness of the salvation of Jesus Christ in whose presence we meet.