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‘I couldn’t have liked it more’

2nd Sunday after Trinity BCP

25 June 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

Noel Coward in explaining the inspiration behind his song ‘I went to a marvellous party’ talks of a ‘beach’ party he was invited to by smart friends in the south of France, and how he and the comic actress Beatrice Lillie, plus Grace Moore the slightly unconventional opera diva, were asked to ‘come as we were’ and that it would be ‘just ourselves’. Only to discover ‘just ourselves’ meant about a hundred people in the last stages of evening dress…and the poor darlings were expected to entertain. They had no warning and refused. What a glittering inspiration

therefore for the wonderful ennui in the song:
‘I went to a marvellous party
With Nounou and Nada and Nell,
It was in the fresh air
And we went as we were
And we stayed as we were
Which was Hell.
Poor Grace started singing at midnight
And didn't stop singing till four;
We knew the excitement was bound to begin
When Laura got blind on Dubonnet and gin
And scratched her veneer with a Cartier pin,
I couldn't have liked it more.’

A party in the sense of ‘gathering for social pleasure’ attained its meaning around the time this church was built. In those days it might have been a dinner party or a hunting party, and speaking personally, the dinner party remains at the top of my list of ways to enjoy a convivial evening. I was most impressed by the former Bishop of Stepney, now of York, when he invited all his clergy to dinner over a series of parties. He cooked. It seemed so kind, generous and costly, in terms of time and effort, and a much more effective way of communicating, than the normal way a Bishop entertains 40 or 50 people at a stand up supper. You’d be lucky to talk together for more than a minute at such a large gathering.

Most people love parties…the fun, sharing good food and wine, being together, in good company, with amusing friends…the Queen is due to throw children’s fantasy party tonight, and no doubt a number of you here had a good party this week at Ascot with her as well!

A party (understood as a feast or banquet) is an enduring image throughout Old and New Testaments. It is especially used with reference to the last days. In today’s gospel, the story of the great supper is really a narrative about salvation and the kingdom. The invitations have been sent out…everything is ready for the moment of truth. The servants are the prophets of the Old Testament. The fullness of time finally arrives. The reminder to come along shows God’s patience – in St. Matthew’s version there are in fact two reminders sent out by a king. And the excuses make us smile perhaps at our own limp efforts when trying to wangle out of things. But to ignore divine invitations, or the promptings of the Spirit, to use other language, is a serious business.

Matthew and Luke use the same story to make different points. The latter today describes Jesus urging the wealthy to show kindness to the poor and maimed, who couldn’t afford to repay it. St. Luke is encouraging generosity to the needy, and breaking down social barriers. Rather different is Matthew’s emphasis that the feast is open to all who accept the invitation – a challenge to Jesus’ religious enemies who will not respond. Reference is being made to allowing outsiders, the gentiles into the Church.

Taking both accounts together, first of all the poor, blind, lame and maimed are ushered in. But there is still room left. And so another invitation is issued for all to come, ‘go to the highways and compel them all to come along’ – go onto the streets and find the druggies, the trannies, the weirdos, you name them, to fill the house with good and bad alike.

If we are brave and imaginative enough to respond to the invitation and hear the call to metanoia, a change of heart and live the gospel, we discover the kingdom of heaven is here all around us, and the party has already begun. But the Lord is a jealous God, and angry that those bidden to the party did not respond. It is easy to be Christian in name and yet fail to be converted, and to believe we are invited to the banquet whilst remaining indifferent to those who throughout the world have empty plates in front of them.

Week by week our plate is full at the altar with the richest of nourishment, and we understand the holy mysteries of the Eucharist to be a taster, but the ultimate banquet will be a singular endless party that celebrates the end of death – at which there are no more tears for absent guests, but rather joy and peace. We are in danger of being so absorbed in the whirl and dull routines of life that we do not even notice the invitation. And instead of seeing and understanding what God offers, we have done what should be impossible, and turned religion itself into yet another wearisome dull routine, lacking the sparkle and vigour of life in all its fullness for all. ‘I couldn’t have liked it more’ in the words of Noel Coward.

There are no ulterior motives in the divine invitation, as there were in the invitation given to Coward, Beattie and Grace to ‘come as they were’ to that Riviera beach party. There is no requirement to sing or entertain for one’s supper. Just to come along, as we are.

‘Just as I am’ O Lamb of God, I come.
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