Shame and Grace

A sermon by Revd Dr Sam Wells.

Readings for this service: Luke 14: 15-24

To be street homeless – to be a person who sleeps outside – is to face many challenges every day. The day probably begins early: the patch on which you’re sleeping is likely to be needed as an access door, or your presence is challenged by a park attendant or security guard. Immediately you have to work out where to put your things, how to source some breakfast, where to charge your phone. Then the day begins in earnest. It’s largely spent seeking to improve your situation, in the short term by gaining some income by doing some casual work, or in some cases begging, and in the long term by seeking to address your health needs, any other bureaucratic obstacles, and ideally making yourself more ready for regular work and finding some more sustainable accommodation. In the process you build up a network of relationships, with places you can get cardboard to sleep on, a sausage to chew on, hot water for tea, and space to leave your belongings; maybe there’s a support worker who can assist you, another homeless person you can talk to, or an agency that will give you a chance to wash, do laundry, find nutritious food and human company.

People become homeless for all sorts of reasons; people remain homeless for a bunch more; people sometimes become homeless again after a more stable season; and the majority of people who are homeless find a way to exist that doesn’t involve sleeping outside. But every category of homelessness is characterised by one common feature: and that feature is shame. Shame, because you’re without most of the sources of dignity and prestige our culture prizes: you have no home and therefore no castle; your clothes are rough and unstylish; you face daily humiliation by having to ask others for food, money, respect, assistance, eye contact; you face constant judgement that you have brought this situation about through your own shortcomings, fecklessness, foolishness, folly; you have little security, few if any friends, little trust, a very small foundation on which to build a better future. All of us know what it feels like to be embarrassed, humiliated, exposed, judged, rejected, crushed – it’s what we strive to avoid with all our hearts. But to be homeless is not just to feel these things – it’s to feel them all the time.

I want you to stay with what it feels like to be profoundly humiliated as we look together at the parable of the great banquet in Luke chapter 14. The story comes in four scenes. In scene one, a man invites the great and the good to a grand dinner, and begins to make preparations. The story takes for granted that everyone wants to come to that dinner; why might anyone possibly say no? In scene two, the dinner is served and a servant duly goes to collect the guests. But here comes the shock: one guest says he needs to inspect some land, another says he’s bought ten oxen, a third says he’s just got married. Now it would be easy to say, ‘How unfortunate, it’s disappointing when you want your friends to come over and it turns out they’re all busy.’ But that would be to miss the point. In the first place these people have already promised to come, and make no effort to say otherwise until the food is already prepared. In the second place they’re all offering excuses about things they would have been aware of plenty of time in advance. In the third place their excuses are phrased in such a way as to cause maximum offence: the field is something that could obviously have waited, the oxen is a huge investment but one that requires meticulous calculation to match each pair in strength and size, not something likely to be done in one evening, while the third is a crude and culturally inexcusable statement that the invitee is so taken up with the pleasures of the flesh that he has no regard for his host’s hospitality.

The result is that the host is utterly humiliated. He could be angry, vengeful, bitter and vindictive. Many of us are, when the shroud of shame falls upon us and the light of dignity is removed from us. There’s no point being nice about it: whatever their motives, the guests have set out to cause wholesale humiliation and they’ve succeeded. But the host doesn’t internalise the embarrassment or turn shame into anger. In scene three he improvises and says, ‘Why don’t we give the food to someone who wants it? Why don’t we turn a formal function into a playful party?’ He instructs his servant to go around the town inviting those who would never normally be invited to any such gathering, because whether through their social or their physical condition they knew what it meant to experience perpetual shame. In other words, in the heat of his shame, he chose to share what he had with those who knew shame better than he did. But it turns out that even when the shamed of the town were invited there were still seats left at the table. This tells us just how many of the original guests, beyond the three whose excuses are recorded, must have turned the host down. So in scene four the host tells the slaves to go beyond the town limits and into the countryside and find the ultra-shamed, that’s to say whoever is so ostracised that they’re cast out from the town altogether.

Now what I want you to see is the way this anticipates the story of Christ’s passion. Jesus is first tried among those whom one might expect to welcome his ministry. He’s then paraded through the streets and lanes of Jerusalem and is exposed to humiliation and scorn. Finally he’s taken outside the city to the highways and byways and is put to death by the most shameful method known to the ancient world. But he doesn’t internalise that shame. Instead he expresses forgiveness to his persecutors and in due course through his resurrection he turns that shame into grace. The cruelty and injustice of his tormentors he turns into hospitality and hope. The heart of the banquet story is the same as the heart of the gospel: shame and loss become grace and joy.

Let’s return to our own context and reflect again on what we might call three kinds of homelessness. The first is what we all see and know but whose deep reality most of us can only imagine: the plight of the person whose life has got into such a crisis, whose relationships are so fragile or non-existent, whose legal rights are so inadequate, and whose options are so exhausted that they experience the daily shame of being regarded as shiftless, pitiful, and a lost cause. The second is our own homelessness. Many of us are searching; some are isolated; others pine for belonging, relationship, home, acceptance, or an end to prejudice, exposure, failure, humiliation, or scorn. When you ask people, ‘Why do you like spending time with homeless people?’ and you really want to wait for a reply, the answer almost always is, ‘Because it helps me recognise and understand and find companionship in my own homelessness.’ It’s the same journey from shame to grace.

But there’s a third kind of homelessness – and that’s what we get a glimpse of in the parable. Jesus is saying, then and now, ‘I have no home but yours. Yours is the heart where I belong. Yours is the home I long to enter. Yours is the life I long to resurrect. Yours are the burdens I long to share.’ And the door is continually closed, or slammed in his face. That is the shame of God, not just on the cross, but today, every day, every minute, from those from whom we might most expect there to be a welcome.

The homelessness of the streets, the homelessness of ourselves, the homelessness of God. There’s a moment when these three kinds of homelessness come together. And that’s at the Eucharist, where we Gentiles celebrate that God’s invitation went not just to God’s own people the Jews but to us who were in the highways and byways; the Eucharist, in which the rejected of the world, the failures of our lives, and the broken heart of God meet; the Eucharist, in which the shroud of shame is lifted and the banquet of grace begins; where a formal function becomes a playful party, and injustice, ignominy and isolation are transformed into joy.