Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity
1st Sep 2019
Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity Year C
“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled and all who humble themselves will be exalted”. Luke 14.10.
It is six years since the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney died. The Irish Prime Minister at the time Enda Kenny commented that “For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as people”. He was a Catholic Irishman from Londonderry and yet he was every Irishman. A citation he was given in 1995 for The Nobel Prize for Literature read “for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”. Our former poet laureate, Andrew Motion commented that to read Heaney’s poetry was to “feel the benediction of his kindness”. .
Only a humble man could be given such accolades. Only someone, who spoke the truth, as we understand it in its most profound sense. One of the strains that the Brexit debate puts upon us is that we don’t quite feel we are being told the truth but only various forms of half truth. In today’s Gospel we are given the simple figure of the instruction in humility. It is the parable of the invitation to the wedding banquet and with it two pieces of advice, the first one is to the guest to take the lowest seat, so that he may be called higher. Secondly there is the advice to the host, instructing him to invite those he would never imagine inviting, the poor, the lame and the blind; in other words beggars who could not re-pay the invitation in kind. On its own the parable would be quaint were it not for the context in which it is being delivered. Related as it is to the life of Christ and his Gospel message, it becomes for the Church a parable for Christian behaviour.
The earthly banquet equates to the heavenly banquet as the occasion which sees the gathering in of those who have been invited to the feast, the place in which the divine and the human life finds its place of understanding and rest. But this parable also has ‘teeth’. For when Jesus teaches the values of the Kingdom, and where this parable points to the quality of humility, so a strong and searching light is cast on those types of behaviour where human pride is to the fore, and where there is recourse to take, if needs be by an act of greed, or force or vanity, the higher place where we may assert our own right to be ‘on top’, our own privileged place of right, maybe at the expense of others or of wisdom.
The death of a great poet is a powerful sign for our own times. Only a life of deep reflection is capable of recognising that which is most profoundly true. It was Bishop Richard Holloway of Edinburgh instructed Christians “to live the examined life, which tests itself for its own prejudices”. At least know how many times we get things so wrong. We judge, we misunderstand we turn our backs on all kind and generous thought where it does not suit us. It is useless to gain our own kind of knowledge divorced from the lives of others whom we barely know. The invitation to the wedding fast speaks of the inclusion of those who would normally be excluded, air brushed out of things. Only a Heaney could put all this into poetry, which has at its core a language which speaks of the heart and what lies at the heart of things.
The word ‘humility’ signifies a very grounded closeness to Mother earth. It relates to the Latin word ‘humus’ meaning earth. It is not the false humility which is full of itself. As a farmer’s son, 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, he used the image of the thousand years old bodies, dug up in Irish bogs, to write about time and the consequences of the 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 this 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 for all our decision-making. 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’. .0
When Jesus teaches the values of the Kingdom of God on this earth, his is leading where the poet follows with the learning of the essential and wise things ‘by heart’, the leading of the deeply active/reflective life, the weighing of words and elements and the wonder at their meaning and depth.
“The things of God are very deep and we must go (dig) deep to find them
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.
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’.