Matt. 22: 10 'So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find.'
Is 25: 9 'When it happens, everyone will say, He is our God! We have put our trust in him, and he has rescued us.'
Jesus' parable of the great marriage feast is both one of the most joyful and one of the most challenging of his stories; and it speaks very directly to us as we gather here today. It begins with the picture of a great monarch who wants nothing but to invite people freely to feast with him. He has made all the preparations; there is enough for everyone to eat; he wants his guests to be joyful and fulfilled – in body and spirit!
And then the responses begin to arrive. One after another, the guests he wishes to honour find excuses for not accepting his generosity. They are too occupied with their own private interests to come and share a great public celebration. And so the king throws the doors open and invites anyone and everyone who is willing to come – anyone who is hungry enough to walk through the door, anyone who is eager enough for happiness and welcome to come and enjoy it. All the king wants is that his gifts should be received and that they should create joy.
Our God is a God who wants us to receive what he gives. He pours out his gifts in the world – the gifts of natural resources, the gifts of human skill, the gifts of human love and understanding – and he invites us to use them so that together we may find joy, together we may grow to maturity, together we may be glad and grateful for each other. His purpose is justice: not an abstract idea of fairness, but a situation where every person has the fulfilment God desires for them, without interference from others who want – in Jesus' own words – to shut up the Kingdom of Heaven against them. 'You lock the door to the Kingdom of Heaven in people's faces, and you yourselves don't go in, nor do you allow those who are trying to enter!' says Jesus to his enemies in Mt 23.12.
Because this is part of our problem. It is not only that some refuse the invitation of God to share his abundant love and generosity. It is all too easy for us human beings to try and block that love and prevent it from reaching others. You know very well, dear brothers and sisters, what it means to have doors locked in your faces by those who claim the name of Christians and Anglicans. You know how those who by their greed and violence have refused the grace of God try to silence your worship and frustrate your witness in the churches and schools and hospitals of this country. But you also know what Jesus' parable teaches us so powerfully – that the will of God to invite people to his feast is so strong that it can triumph even over these mindless and Godless assaults. Just as the Risen Jesus breaks through the locked doors of fear and suspicion, so he continues to call you and empower you in spite of all efforts to defeat you. And in the Revelation to John, the Lord proclaims that he has set before us an open door that no-one can shut. It is the door of his promise, the door of his mercy, the door into the feast of his Kingdom.
In your faith and endurance, you have kept your eyes on that open door when the doors of your own churches have been shut against you. You have discovered that it is not the buildings that make a true church but the spiritual foundations on which your lives are built. And as we together give thanks for the open door that God puts before us, we may even find the strength to say to our enemies and persecutors, 'The door is open for you! Accept what God offers and turn away from the death-dealing folly of violence.'
There is the message that the Church of God exists to announce. God has poured out his gifts in abundance: why must we human beings wreck and spoil these gifts by our sinfulness? God has given us the promise and hope of his mercy in Jesus Christ: why is it so hard to admit mistakes and sins? How strange it is that we so often behave – yes, even we who are Christians – as though we cannot survive unless we silence all voices of challenge or criticism. And God has given so many gifts to this land. It has the capacity to feed all its people and more. Its mineral wealth is great.
But we have seen years in which the land has not been used to feed people and lies idle; and we have begun to see how this mineral wealth can become a curse – as it so often has been in Africa, as people are killed and communities destroyed in the fight for diamonds that will forever be marked with the blood of the innocent. A few months ago I was in Congo and saw and heard some of the tragedies that arose out of a war fuelled by greed for minerals. Can we hear the voice of our Creator crying to us - like the blood of Abel 'out of the ground' itself – 'Why will you turn my gifts into an excuse for bloodshed? Why will you not use what you have for the good of a community, not for private gain or political advantage?'
Of course, to say this is at once to recognize that it was just this natural wealth that provoked the greed of colonists and imperialists in the past. No European can say these things without being aware of what one of my predecessors, Michael Ramsey, once said about 'the debt we owe to Africa' after generations of white rule. For a long period in this country, an anxious ruling class clung on to the power they had seized at the expense of the indigenous people and ignored their rights and their hopes for dignity and political freedom. How tragic that this should be replaced by another kind of lawlessness, where so many live in daily fear of attack if they fail to comply with what the powerful require of them. As we together give thanks for the gifts of nature that God has given us and the gifts of solidarity and the gift of freedom from foreign exploitation, can we stand together to say to all our political leaders and rulers, 'Listen! Not only to the voice of those who suffer but to the voice of God himself, grieving over the way we ruin his creation, the voice of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, longing for his people to open their hearts to justice and peace and mercy.'
This Eucharist is the sign of God's purpose for all of us; it is a feast in which all are fed with Christ's new life, in which there is no distinction of race, tribe or party. In this community there can be no place for violence or for retaliation: we stand together, sinners in need of grace, proclaiming to the world that there is room at God's table for all people equally. What the Church has to say to the society around it, whether here or in Britain, is not to advance a political programme but to point to the fact of this new creation, this fellowship of justice and joy, this universal feast. It is on the basis of this vision that we urge all people to say no to violence, especially as the next election approaches in this country; to discover that deep reverence for each person that absolutely forbids us from treating them as if their welfare did not matter, from abusing and attacking them.
The message we want to send from this Eucharistic celebration is that we do not have to live like that – in terror, in bloodshed. God has given us another way. He has opened a door of possibility that no-one can shut. He has announced that he will welcome all to the marriage feast of his Son – and so we see that all, even our bitterest enemies, still have a place in his peace if they will only turn and be saved. Did you hear what St Paul said in today's epistle? 'Fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are noble, right, pure, lovely and honourable.' We need to feed ourselves and most especially to feed our young people with such things, to hold before us that great new possibility opened up by God for our minds to be transformed, to be excited not by the false thrills of violence and bloody conflict, by the overheated language of party conflict, but by the hope of joy and reconciliation.
And this also lays upon us the duty to keep alive our own concern for those lest able to help themselves. The Church of God is – or should be – the great hope of the poor; not just as a source of material help, important as that is, but as a source of hope and a guarantee of human dignity. The Church could not exist with any integrity if it forgot that every person is of immeasurable value in God's eyes and so immeasurably worthy of our attention and service. In this country in recent years, you, our Anglican brothers and sisters, have been more and more active and courageous in this practical service, and in reminding the whole society of the universal dignity that the gospel implies. You have also been faithful to those who suffer from the HIV pandemic, which has ravaged a whole generation; and, like Christians elsewhere in Africa, you have been at the forefront of challenging the stigma that can make the suffering so much more bitter and can prevent people from facing the problem honestly. You know that the truth will make you free. To tell the truth about the sufferings and fears people endure, but also to tell the truth about their value in the sight of God – this is the most effective way of banishing stigma and prejudice and superstition.
Dear friend in Christ, you have given so much to the Church worldwide and to your neighbours in this great and troubled country. Day by day, you have to face injustice and the arrogance of 'false brethren' as St Paul would call them. You must often have prayed with the Psalmist, 'We have been treated with so much contempt. We have been mocked too long by the rich and scorned by proud oppressors' (Ps 123.3-4). Yet you must know that we give thanks to God for you – for your patience and generosity and endurance. Your life here is tortured by uncertainty and the constant risk of attack, yet it speaks to all of us in the worldwide Communion of the victory of Jesus Christ and the undefeated will of God to welcome people into his Kingdom and to seat them at the table of his Son so that we can celebrate the marriage of heaven and earth in the fleshly life and death and resurrection of the Lord. 'We have put our trust in him and he has rescued us.' Today we are able to enjoy a foretaste of that rescue and that heavenly feast in the Eucharist. And the free invitation of God to be reconciled and healed, to leave behind the paths of violence and injustice, is once again spoken out as we gather – spoken out to this country and to the whole world. What can we say or pray except to cry out with Our Lord, 'Whoever has ears, let them hear!'