Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
28th Aug 2016
Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity Year C
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted”.
The teachings of Jesus are either in parables, and come to us through the medium of a story, or they are more graphic, and set down an understanding of life drawn from human memory. Most of them are simple, like this morning’s gospel reading, which is a teaching on humility. Humility is to be the mark and proof of the Christian life, because it enacts the living of life from its true perspective. Jesus uses the idea of set places at a banquet to put into reverse the accepted order of class or caste or honour. Jesus challenges us all to live in the way of Mother Earth as its ‘humus’ and to recognise our common humanity as the true earthing of our being. The earth wire on an electric plug prevents the damaging short circuit. We use the English expression ‘salt of the earth’ or ‘down to earth’ to signify someone who is really human. This is not the false humility like Uriah Heep’s which is full of guile. It is a drawing back from things in order to experience their meaning more fully and in their proper depth. The poet Seamus Heaney had the soil of Ireland in his finger nails, and rather than rail against the Northern Ireland conflict, which was at its height when Heaney was writing at his height, he used the image of the thousand years old bodies, dug up in Irish bogs, to write about time and the consequences of living out of time.
He once said he had ‘an early warning system telling me to get back inside my own head’ whenever politics was discussed. Though he left the countryside and taught English first in Belfast and then in Dublin as a young man, he did not forget his farming roots. He fondly remembered watching his grandfather cutting turf for peat, and taking a bottle of milk to the old man who would straighten up just long enough to drink it before bending over his spade again. He pictured himself working in the same way, digging out words with the nib of his pen.
This for me is humility. Heaney was a great believer in what he called ‘learning by heart’. Especially learning poems by heart. And the Christian Faith lays great store on the heart as the place of strong understanding and discernment. Humility is the ground, the grounded place. It is the place where lies our true centre and personal, spiritual and moral equilibrium, our sense of balance and perspective and our true humanity. It is the place where we may ‘learn by heart’. We are asked to return once more to this state of true humility. This is not a place of weakened or thin humanity, but one which is most fully alive to the world in which it is living, and, one which shines that same strong searching light on the world and its vanity from a truer perspective. Hence humility has been termed ‘the cardinal of all virtues’.
When Jesus teaches the values of the Kingdom of God on this earth, his is very much leading where the poet follows on with the learning of the essential and wise things ‘by heart’, the leading of the deeply active/reflective life, the weighing of words and the celebration of their meaning and depth. Above all in Kingdom teaching, strong attention is placed on our lives on our own state of becoming and of the close relationship between the observation of things and the consciousness that as Yeats, once said, ‘everything we look upon is blessed’. The Kingdom is that place where life itself, wherever it goes on, whether as kind or brutal is in God always waiting for its own transformation into his likeness and being. Waiting for that which belonged to Heaney, ‘of the benediction of God’s kindness’.
A true and decent humanity never discards this possibility, and nor should we…
In this church we recently welcomed Sister Theresa Pountney, who has just celebrated 50 years as a Church Army sister. During that time she has served Anglican Parishes in Central London and always been at the heart of ministries which were imaginatively Caring Compassionate and Confident. Some years ago she worked alongside the then Fr Richard Chartres in Pimlico and at a recent service to celebrate her 50 years he declared that she had been his ‘tutor’ in the Christian way of life because her approach was so joyfully confident and yet never wanting to put itself forward or lead in a way which might have felt impeding to the smooth operation of God’s Holy Spirit. Above all, hers has been a giving and a generous ministry, and it still continues! Her visit to us was as part of the celebration of her 50 years as she has embarked upon a 50 stop tour of the London Underground, She has been getting off at places and church communities and praying and meeting the people in them. So for King’s Cross St Pancras Station read ‘Holy Cross Church Cromer Street!’
For us, Sister Theresa has provided a typically spontaneous and fun way of making the one important declaration we can make as a Church: that in us, in our churches and in the outworking of their mission and ministry, Christ himself is declared to be alive and active in our midst, and the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit, of love and joy and peace are being made manifest in them. I should say that Theresa’s fondness for Holy Cross was borne out of her coming to us 10 years ago, when, in the first week of my time here she came with a group of us on our first ‘Beating of the Bounds’ and was the prime mover in the starting up of our drop-in Friday group, which is still going strong.
Jesus uses the example of the places at the banquet where the meal is suffused with the atmosphere of humility and generosity. This example points to the promise of the Heavenly Banquet, where our generous and loving and God invites us in. This vision is the one which is the ultimate culmination of the Eucharistic feast which we celebrate this morning, whose purpose is to allow us to see God present among us in His Son Jesus Christ and to recognise the likeness of Christ in one another and and ourselves as servants both of Christ and one another. This can only be done as a casting aside of our own selfish instincts. This however, becomes a call to the active recognition of God’s presence in the world and to give to others what we have received in God – our very selves. As the chorus of our offertory hymn will remind us, we follow that living and happy contradiction, a servant King.
This is our God, The Servant King
He calls us now to follow Him
To bring our lives as a daily offering
Of worship to The Servant King…