Vicar's Sermon - August 28th 2016
Luke 14:1, 7-14
So, we are to award a Gold medal to John Major for introducing the National Lottery that has funded Olympic success, but, following recent price rises we are to take the medal off him for privatising the railways. Do any of you understand the pricing system on the trains? Why is it cheaper, sometimes, when the moon is in the third quarter and the wind is blowing from the east to buy a return ticket rather than a single? Why is travelling on a Thursday any different to travelling on a Friday? Why does being ‘on time’ not actually mean ‘being on time’…other than that by not being on time you might claim a refund? I don’t understand it. Neither do you. Neither does Jeremy Corbyn it would appear: photographed sitting on the floor of a Virgin railways train on his way up north to Newcastle.
You would think someone in his office knew how to book a train ticket but maybe they are as confused about the process as you and I. So many empty seats and yet nowhere to sit. Apparently there were seats in First Class but how many of us would have crossed that invisible barrier between Standard and First Class and nabbed a seat we had not paid for. Mr Corbyn chose to sit on the floor (until his upgrade) because he couldn’t sit next to his wife, though the pictures don’t show us where she was sitting…maybe she didn’t want to sit next to him?
We Brits know our place. We want to be at the Top Table of international affairs even if our Top Table must now be in a different room to everyone else’s. In public life we are very careful where people sit: how can we not be – everyone in the House of Lords has their place, gathered facing a throne (a seat). Where we sit matters, it says something about who we are. Class is shot through British Society – we ‘look up to him and we look down to him’ (as the famous sketch reminded us). We try to mask the divisions but we know they are there.
Here in church we are preparing an exhibition of parish life to mark the 150th year since St. Mary’s became a Parish in its own right. Seating was an issue way back then. The major reordering of this church building that took place in the 1860s included within its remit a desire to increase the number of seats in the building through the removal of the old boxed pews. It also ensured that no one had to pay to come to church by removing the necessity from the poor of paying a ‘pew rent’ to be here. The notice declaring all pews in this church to be ‘free’ is still there in the church porch: prior to this, the building was arranged on pretty hierarchical lines with large swathes of the parish unable to afford to come to worship even if they had wanted to.
At home do you have a favourite seat. I know I try to be careful going into people’s homes: I wouldn’t want to sit in the wrong place - ‘That’s Dad’s seat’, ‘that’s where mum used to sit.’.
You know where this is going don’t you? The Gospel reading was about people taking the best seats at a dinner. We like to think it doesn’t matter, but of course it does: anyone who has had the unenviable task of arranging a seating plan for a wedding knows just how much it matters (at least in anticipation) where people are sat. It’s the sort of thing the mother of the bride can lose sleep over: whether Uncle Bill will be offended if he is put here, not there. Whether, cousin Philip will mind sitting with Grandma.
Whilst we might fret there are some for whom this is small beer. Maybe they wouldn’t act out at a wedding but you, like I, have probably stood in a queue and marvelled at the brass neck of the person who jumps in ahead of you. Have you said anything? Very few of us do. Maybe you’ve pulled into the inside lane on the motorway as roadworks approach and then seethed at the drivers shooting past you expecting to cut in at the last moment. ‘Who do they think they are?’ As the guests took the places of honour at the meal was Jesus responding to a similar sense of unease amongst those who were sat ‘below the salt’?
‘Who do they think they are?’ perhaps that’s the question that encapsulates the problem. It is easy to have a wrong opinion of ourselves. So much of what we read in the newspapers or see on the TV is ‘puffed up’, full of hot air. People, places, things – they are all oversold: promising far more than they can deliver. When it comes to people there are certainly some who underestimate their gifts and abilities, many perhaps who need to be built up and encouraged. But then there are a huge number whose CV reads as if it has been written by a particularly shonky estate agent: the smallest grain of truth providing the foundation for the wildest of claims. Some folk seem to act as if the world ‘owes them’ big time: there’s no humility., and we know where Jesus’ sympathies lie. They are certainly not with the loud and brash, those who can flash the cash – they have their reward. Instead, they are with the folk who are too easily overlooked, ignored, trampled upon and pushed aside. They are with those who go through life doing their bit un-thanked, unacknowledged, head down, just getting on with the task in hand. Can you think of anyone who fits that description – and today offer them your thanks for all they do?
It’s no wonder that ordinary people loved Jesus. No wonder that those who thought more of themselves than they should found him too much to handle, an unwelcome guest. He had an acute eye for what was going on around him. He painted a picture of the Kingdom of heaven that ‘popped their particular bubble’: A vision of a place, or more a way of living that had room for the most unlikely guests: the tax collectors and sinners, the poor in spirit, the meek of the earth. The king’s guests at ‘the meal to end all meals’ would be the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. It is totally of a piece with all his other teaching that he should tell a story about someone ‘sitting in the lowest place’ who was then honoured by the host and raised up higher. For his whole life will model this way of living. How does it go…that reading we have on Palm Sunday? - ‘born in human form, he humbled himself, … therefore God highly exalted Him’. This really is the mighty being ‘put down from their seats’ and ‘the humble and meek’ being exalted – His mother Mary had been in on the secret from the beginning of His life in her Magnificat.
‘Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues’ said St. Augustine ‘hence, in the soul in which this virtue does not exist there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance.’ Without humility, we’re play acting. Again he said: ‘Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.’
How do we practice humility? We do it here. Where ‘we do not
presume to come to this table trusting in our own gifts and abilities but in
God’s generosity towards us…where we look for all that is praiseworthy and
bless God for it…where we seek to honour one another as brothers and sisters in
Christ and rejoice in one another’s gifts. Where we acknowledge that we are
part of the Body of Christ and that we need others. We practise humility in the
end on our knees before the one who sits on God’s right hand. And when the time
comes at the banquet in heaven that we pre-figure here in church every time we
gather for communion, there will be so many surprises as he gets up from his
seat to raise people up with the words ‘Well done good and faithful
servant….enter now in to the joy of your Master’.