Sermon preached on 1 September 2013

Quite often, Jesus talks about things that I don’t know much about. A man may have gone out to sow – but I know precious little about agriculture. A father may have said goodbye to a prodigal son but I know nothing about having a jealous brother. A young man may have been told not to look back from the plough – but my soft hands, have clearly never touched a plough in their life.

However in the Gospel today, Jesus does stray into an area where I know a thing or two.

He is talking about seating plans at a wedding.

Now, I don’t know whether or not you go to many weddings. For a priest they can be something of, shall we say, an occupational hazard. I’m not able to go to the wedding breakfast of all the weddings that I conduct but sometimes I do find myself there. These are generally very enjoyable and there is little that one likes more as a member of the clergy than being in the middle of a great crowd of people all having a good time.

Clergy have certain functions at weddings. Obviously, we sometimes get to take part in the actual ceremony. I know how to do it these days. So long as I stay in charge and fill the forms out properly, all I have to do is ensure that I upstage the bride with a more glitzy outfit than anyone else present and my work is done.

But the reception is another business altogether. All kinds of social forces play out. Sometimes one is asked to say grace and sometimes one is not. Sometimes you are placed at the top table and get to keep an eye on the best man and chief bridesmaid. And sometimes you are placed in the traditional clerical seating position.

I’m not sure quite how it happens but it does seem to happen so regularly that it isn’t a coincidence.

I suspect it is to do with Question and Answer columns in bridal magazines. Brides and grooms the length and breadth of the country have trouble sorting out the seating plan.

The problem is this: Aunty Tallulah has hitchhiked to Tibet to meditate in silence with the Buddhists for 3 years and now can’t stop talking about it. Whom should she be seated next to? Cousin Jeremias surprised so many people when he started urging everyone he met to be born again in the name of Jesus. But where should he be seated? And Great Aunt Millicent is intent on getting everyone to pray using her hand-knitted rosaries that she will sell to anyone who wants one for a small consideration. But next to whom should she be placed?

The answer is obvious. Any wedding etiquette expert will instantly know that the best place for the religious nutter (and every family has one) is next to the priest. The well behaved cleric may even get one from each family on either side of him if he is really lucky.

Let me tell you, where you get seated at a wedding matters.

Having been to many a wedding, I’ve become an expert on seating plans. Once upon a time, it was common for tables to be numbered. You went to the plan and got your table number and then went to sit down.

These days, a great many wedding venues don’t number the tables but give them names. Tables might have the names of whiskies or rivers or mountains or whatever.

When I first encountered this, I asked someone in one of the hotels why all the tables had the names of well known Scottish Malts and not numbers.

Ah, he said. It is because of the fights.

What, I said, fights?

Yes – because of the fights that break out if the tables are numbered and someone or other thinks that they have been placed at a lower table than they think they deserve.

Many hotels completely outlaw numbers on tables because of the trouble that they cause.

And with that we step straight into this morning’s gospel reading.

Jesus knew a thing or two about weddings. Very many wedding services mention that “Jesus was, himself, a guest at a wedding” without mentioning his behaviour there. Egged on by his mother, he did seem at the wedding at Cana of Galilee to be responsible for rather a lot of unexpected booze.

And there are lots of wedding breakfasts in his stories. Wise and foolish virgins wait on their bridegroom. The kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet. And the guests are all in a lather about what seat they are in and whether their seat represents their own perceived social standing.

It all feels very real to me.

The obvious way to think about a story like this is to think that Jesus is telling people not to be so proud.

I can see why this snippet about seating at the wedding reads like that to many people.

Pretend to be humble and know the joy of getting a social upgrade.

Is that the message that the Lord of heaven and earth comes to bring us though? I’m not really very sure that it is.

I think that when I read this story, it makes me think that seating plans are quite often a feature both of his life and his narratives. And it is his habit to upset and disrupt hierarchies of social convention. It seems to be his way to inhabit hierarchies and then subvert them from within.

The king of kings picks up the towel at the feast and washes the feet of his friends.

The Lord of heaven isn’t prepared to be leaned on to hand out the best seats in heaven to the mother of two of his disciples.

The God of all we survey seems to have an attitude problem whenever there is pride to puncture and a hierarchy to be turned on its head.

One can imagine him at a wedding sneaking in and rearranging the place cards at a wedding.

(Something I’ll never admit to doing no matter how likely it seems that I was involved).

I blame his mother, of course, for teaching him that Magnificat – but we’ll leave thinking about her until next week when we celebrate her birthday.

For now though, let us reflect on her Son who has the perverse cheek to think he can butt into all our planning meetings and ask why the poor and the outcast are not included in our plans.

He is insistent. He goes on about prayer. He goes on about the poor. He goes on about pride. And he has a habit of turning up unannounced.

Well, every family has a religious nutter remember.

Where do you want to seat the Lord of heaven and earth in the banquet of your life?

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.


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