Sermon 11 August, 2013    Luke 12:32-40

In recent years there has been on TV a continued interest in the theme of “Upstairs Downstairs”. First there was a series with just that as its title. Then there was “ Gosforth Park ” and more recently the ongoing drama of “Downtown Abbey”. In all of these, one of the principle interests was the strict social distinction between the family upstairs and the folk who worked downstairs. This sharp division in grand houses only arose in the nineteenth century, possibly because of those who were recently wealthy. Because of this, we might find it difficult to image Lady Grantham, for example (i.e. Maggie Smith) preparing the dining room table and then waiting upon those people from downstairs. In fact, if one of the upstairs people entered the downstairs dining room during the meal the staff had immediately to stand up. The only occasion of which I know where this happens elsewhere is in the army when, on Christmas Day, the officers wait upon the other ranks.

I mention all this because in today’s Gospel we read something rather surprising. In the parable, the Lord and master, alluded to as the “Bridegroom”, arrives at an unexpected moment. He is greeted by the servants who had waited faithfully to greet him. No doubt these downstairs folk would not have stood up; rather they would have prostrated themselves on the floor. We, of course, know that this arrival of the Lord and master is a reference to the coming of Jesus at the end of all things. It reminded me of seeing painted, on a railway bridge near Middlesbrough, a sign in red which said “Jesus is coming” to which a wit had added “Only if he remembers to change at Darlington ”.

Here in this scene of the parable we have the transcendent divinity – the Lord descends into the immanent world of the servants. Transcendance is immanent!

Now comes the shock – the scene we expect is turned upside down. The Bridegroom raises the servants up from the floor and places them, seated, at the table. Then he begins to wait on them. Of course, here we recall the Last Supper and the foot washing. Jesus said “I come as one who serves”.

Exposed in this parable is the mystery of the incarnation; something of which no human mind can fathom the depths. We become lost in a cloud of unknowing. The cloud which surrounded the creator of the universe on Mount Sinai has descended into the dining room. This amazing part of today’s Gospel may indeed be good news for us. As disciples of Jesus we experience this unfathomable mystery in many ways but there are two particular experiences when we are, each of us, exposed to the mystery of the incarnation.

One is in our own personal times of prayer. We long to pay attention, to adore the beauty of the Lord who is transcendently other to us. However, we all experience the struggle of the immanent here and now of our own daily life; the anxieties, the hopes, the plans and the fears. We seem to be entangled in these distractions and there is a battle between what we are supposed to be doing and what we are actually doing. This can appear to be a failure in paying attention to God; a failure in love. However, this parable suggests that the Lord and master who is the utterly transcendent one is also the immanent ground of all that exists, here and now - in the dining room, in our distraction. If this is so, then the Bridegoom is present both in our own contemplation and in our experience of distractions. Unless we are deliberately sinning, God is present to us always, here and now. Because these distractions disturb us and become such a struggle in trying to get rid of them, today's parable might encourage us to leave them to God to deal with and return our attention to contemplation.

Some years ago a retreat conductor suggested to us, when a guest insists on helping us in the kitchen, we advise him or her to return to the other room and let us get on in the kitchen. Maybe God wishes we would do the same with our distractions - leave Him to sort them out in the kitchen of our distractions.

The other time when we are aware of the mystery of the incarnation is during the Eucharist and, particularly, at the moment of Holy Communion. Through the eyes of faith we believe what reason would say was impossible ("Faith our outward sense befriending"). The Bridgeroom comes as the Lord who is profoundly "other" to us and in the here and now intimately feeds us with the whole of his being - in the bread which we eat. We experience the Bridegroom in the dining room waiting upon us. Put simply, paradise which is our future is present in us now! Upstairs is downstairs and downstairs is upstairs in the word made flesh here this morning.

            Simon Holden CR