I don't know if you've been to a wedding this summer, or if you've been involved in the planning of a wedding. Especially if you've been involved with helping someone plan their wedding, you'll know that, well, it's a minefield. How many people to invite, whether or not to include children, who to seat with whom, and who gets to sit on the top table, which in these days of blended families can get very complicated, are just some of the challenges people face. The ever-present fear of forgetting someone important, or offending someone, or putting the wrong people together combine to make wedding receptions a social minefield. On the popular parenting website Mumsnet there is a section called 'AIBU': Am I Being Unreasonable? People explain a situation, then ask if their response or behaviour is reasonable. It's a sort of make-it-up-as-you-go-along modern guide to etiquette. An unreasonable number of the questions asked there are to do with avoiding a wedding reception disaster. Of course what brides and grooms usually want is to invite as many people as possible and to honour the close relationships with families and friends. The seating plan at a wedding reception, usually with its top table, is a fair indication of the significant people in a couple's lives. But, as I say, it's a minefield.
Other seating plans are less complicated because everyone already knows their place. At the Oxford University college at which I assisted in the chapel for a while, the choir who sang Evensong were paid in food, getting a decent, wholesome meal sitting at long tables in the dining hall whist the fellows, dons and selected guests sat at the high table eating a completely different and far more elegant menu, and drinking very good wine which the students certainly didn't get on their tables. If a student had taken a place at the high table, it would have been very presumptuous indeed; access to the high table was exclusively at the invitation of the college Master.
Churches, too, can have their own seating plans. There are still churches around with box pews, with the names of the owners of that pew listed on a little brass plaque on the door of the box pew. Much more common are the informal seating plans in churches, and looking around this morning, I can see that we all have our 'spots.' There's nothing wrong with that; we are creatures of habit and it's nice to settle in to your spot on a Sunday morning. That's why I decided to give this sermon from the vicar's chair this morning; not because this seat says that I am any better than any of you, but simply so that I can do the job that I was sent here to do, to lead you in worship and easily be seen and head by you.It can be tricky, though, for new people coming in; I remember visiting a church once and being paranoid all the way through the service that I'd sat in someone else's space. There's nothing wrong with having our own favourite spot in church, as long as we remember that it's not ours, it's God's, and as long as we are ready to give it up if someone else inadvertently takes our place.
What seating plans are about, really, is relationship. We get an idea about who someone is and where they fit in to any group of people - a wedding party, a college, a church congregation - by where they sit. We come to social events by invitation, and it's normally the person who sends the invitation who gets to decide who sits where. Seating plans are about relationships, and in particular about a person's relationship with the host. So the Gospel reading we heard this morning is a parable about a first century wedding reception, every bit as perilous a social minefield as it is still in our own time, and also about our place at the table, in other words, our relationship with God.
I think that there are two opposite and equal dangers that we can run into when we think about where we sit in the table of heaven. We may be so painfully aware of our sins and shortcomings, our doubts and darkness, that we slink, inwardly, to the very back, keeping half an eye on the door in case someone tells us that actually, our name isn't on the list after all. We may be so supremely confident of our place at the table that we do the spiritual equivalent of striding up to take the place of honour, telling ourselves that the church should be jolly grateful we are here.
The answer to both of these dangers is the same, and it's the same one you learnt in Sunday School: Jesus. To the doubter slinking away at the back, Jesus extends an invitation that says yes, you are sinful - we all are - but I am good, and in my goodness you are forgiven and set free. To the supremely confident Jesus extends an invitation that says yes, you do a lot of good and useful things, you use your talents wisely - but a seat at this table isn't dependent on your goodness, it's dependent on mine. In my goodness your self-centred pride is forgiven and you, too, are set free.
It's worth pondering that no-one can declare him or herself to be a saint or a prophet. It is God who makes us holy through the goodness and holiness of Jesus, and it is God inspiring the church to recognise the saintly ones and the prophetic people in our midst. These high places at the table of heaven are exclusively by God's invitation.
That same God bids us all come, and gives us a wonderful way of coming to his table week after week at the Eucharist. There are many wonderful things about the Eucharist; one is that in this meal, there is no seating plan. The altar isn't the high table, it's the staff kitchen table. We kneel together to receive, and when we do that we are saying with our bodies that we are all equal, regardless of all the status markers of wealth, class, education and so on that normally define us. We come at God's invitation, and he wants all of us to come as close as possible, to draw as near as we can in our hearts to the host who sends our invitations day after day, week after week, into eternity, who will never stop inviting us to this stylised but real meal in which our relationship with him is recognised and renewed.
And this meal should shape all our meals. The parable ends with Jesus telling us that when we throw dinner parties of our own, don't just invite those who have something to give you, a return invitation or a bit of social glory to bask in. Invite those with nothing to give, because then we might understand what it means to come to God's invitation with open hands and a humble heart as we start to realise that actually, we have nothing to give the God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Invite the blind and the lame, Jesus says. Maybe to us he'd say 'Invite the isolated, the lonely. Invite those who never get invited out. Invite the dull and the boring, and extend to those the same love I extend to you.' This meal should shape all our meals.
I am going to use some words of invitation at this morning's Eucharist that I haven't used before, and I am going to read them to you now so that you can hold this invitation in your heart through the rest of the service. I end with this:
Come to this table not because you must, but because you may.
Come not because you are strong, but because you are weak.
Come not because any goodness of your own gives you the right to come
but because you need mercy and help.
Come because you love the Lord a little
and would like to love him more.
Come because he loved you and gave himself for you.
Come and meet the risen Christ
for we are the body of Christ.