Alison Cockburn must have been incredibly charismatic and intelligent. Having lived for several years with her father-in-law, a strict Presbyterian who disapproved of drink, cards and dancing, she moved up to Bristo Street, where these pastimes soon became integral to her life. This was 1753. Her modest house and, later, her less modest residence in St Andrew’s Square, was to become the centre of the Enlightenment in Edinburgh.
At her salons Mrs. Cockburn brought together the intellectual and cultural minds of the day: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, David Hume, Robert Adam, Adam Smith – do you want me to go on? Her circle demonstrates why French philosopher Voltaire said “We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation”.
We don’t have a salon culture these days. At most dinner parties a good host will actively avoid controversial topics and debates. And there is much to have opinions on – we are still trying to understand ourselves post-Brexit, aware that many see independence as the future for Scotland, others challenging the economic structures that see growth in foodbanks rather than salaries, different views on how to address the climate emergency. Such conversations are either polemical on social media or considered in depth by academics writing behind journal paywalls. Our world isn’t short of opinions but unlike our Enlightenment predecessors, there can be an absence of intellectual debate and rigour. We could learn much from Mrs. Cockburn.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is at a meal on the Sabbath, the guest of a leader of the Pharisees.
We are told the pharisees are “watching him closely”. Sounds a bit sinister doesn’t it? One biblical commentator suggests that the Pharisees aren’t viewing him with hostility, more curiosity. As Enlightenment intellectuals were willing to learn from each other, the Pharisees may also have been genuinely interested in the new radical perspectives taught by Jesus.
You may notice that our Gospel reading leaves out some verses. In the missing text Jesus heals a man with dropsy – despite it being the Sabbath – asking the Pharisees whether they would have done the same given it was against the law. Luke says they were unable to respond to this. It may be easy to presume the Pharisees complicit in their silence. But I wonder if Jesus was asking them questions they had just not encountered before. These are intelligent, educated men who may embrace being challenged. Perhaps they are curious about the one getting them to think differently. Maybe they wanted to be, shall we say, enlightened.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus eats with Pharisees three times. He tells us in chapter 11 about a time when a Pharisee invited Jesus to dine and, during that meal, Jesus rebukes both the Pharisees and…. dare I say it…. the lawyers. The Pharisees then became hostile and questioned Jesus, trying to trap him.
Think about that. You’ve invited somebody into your home and given hospitality – perhaps your best Macallan single malt has made an appearance. Yet before the After Eights have gone round a second time, your guest denounces you and your friends for their professions, your family for the way it behaves, and questions your whole outlook on life. I mean, this goes beyond a faux pas doesn’t it? Was Jesus a terrible guest with no social skills or is the Gospel writer drawing us into a deeper narrative?
There are more references to eating and drinking in Luke’s Gospel than in any other. For Luke, it is often through table fellowship that Jesus reveals himself, his mission and the grace of God. Jesus enters people’s lives at the most mundane, sitting and eating with them. Some meals are large banquets where men, and only men, would have reclined on cushions around the food; others were simple gatherings of families and friends. Think to the intimacy of that meal with Mary and Martha we heard a few weeks ago. Sometimes the host, but most of the time a guest, Jesus is always there on his own terms.
So can you see them? A group of men, dressed in their Sabbath finery, recline on plush cushions around a spread of meats, dates, olives, braided breads, fruit and wine. Their guest has already shocked them by working on the sabbath and healing a man, what will he do next? What are we witnessing? Is this fashionable society craving the latest novelty or an expectant gathering wanting to be taught something new and different?
As the meal continues, Jesus comments on how other guests chose the places of honour. But what he says isn’t new or revolutionary. As Pharisees they would be familiar with aphorisms around table etiquette from the Book of Proverbs. They also would have known about humility, even if they didn’t always practice it.
And then things become more challenging: “When you give a banquet invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind”.
Jesus is giving us an insight into the Kingdom of Heaven. And the Kingdom of Heaven is not an all-male club with members jostling for status and position. God’s grace is all-inclusive, an open invitation to all. The Pharisees may have thought Jesus their guest, but Luke suggests it is Jesus who welcomes us to the feast instead. In curing the man of dropsy, Jesus physically cleanses and makes him new. It’s the Pharisees, in their exclusiveness, who remain spiritually unclean.
What does it mean for us to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind today? Who are the unclean, the forgotten, the ones we can’t bring ourselves to accept? Who is on the outside, looking in?
Some of you may have attended the creative workshops by Mousa AlNana a couple of weeks ago. The “Outside In” installation from those workshops is on display in the Charles I chapel. Art has long been a brilliant way of articulating the difficulties faced by those on the outside. And in the joyful diversity of Edinburgh today, we like to think ourselves as inclusive, outward-looking progressive people. But does art just mask our human failings?
Once the veneer of festival branding comes down, the tourists, performers and artists leave, there will still be outsiders. The drug addicts, the homeless, transient workers, hidden modern slaves, those not receiving the mental health support they need, people living isolated lives even behind big grand West End doors, those who sell themselves, the nomadic gypsy and traveller groups camping on private ground.
Do we suddenly seem less inclusive, less welcoming? Like the Pharisees, we want others to obey our rules, our way of life, to conform. And that doesn’t fit everyone. And it doesn’t fit Jesus. Jesus didn’t dine because he was looking for acceptance, he shared a meal because he wanted to save.
“And you will be blessed because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Today we welcome two new members as they are baptised into our church family. The fountain of Living Water that Jeremiah spoke about is ready to cleanse and embrace. Parents, Godparents and we, as a fellowship of believers, will make a commitment to them and must remember our duty to lead by example.
So what church family are they being welcomed into? Are we as enlightened as we like to think? Our Epistle from Paul’s letter to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Jesus challenges us now as much as he did the Pharisees two thousand years ago.
The Christian family is one with a troubled past, and often a difficult present. We’re a family that can do better. Our origins are as outsiders and that should, I believe, make us a genuinely loving family: one brought about not by accident of birth but by commitment to Jesus and each other. One that seeks the outsiders and is willing to learn and grow – to be enlightened.
And finally, we are a family that comes together to share in fellowship over a meal. As Jesus gathered the twelve, so we gather and share in the bread and the wine, remembering that sacrifice made for us. We are imperfect, humbling ourselves as Jesus instructed the Pharisees, waiting for sustenance and to meet Christ himself, present for us in the Eucharistic feast.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh
28 August 2022