Pentecost 12: give me the lowest place
Sermon by the Revd Dr Brutus Green
Readings: Proverbs 25:6-7, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1,7-14
Give me the lowest place: not that I dare
Ask for that lowest place, but Thou hast died
That I might live and share
Thy glory by Thy side
Give me the lowest place: or if for me
That lowest place too high, make one more low
Where I may sit and see
My God and love Thee so.
Christina Rosetti, being ever-so-humble, captures the message of today’s Gospel. The principle behind it accords very nicely with British social anxiety. For British people, who love to demur and hate the idea of being one of those pushy so-and-sos who think they’re better than they are, we’re naturally inclined to underplay ourselves and avoid confrontation. And who wouldn’t enjoy being told, “Oh no, you are much more important than that, come and sit on this table.” The English, of course, get around the problem by wherever possible having seating plans.
In this, the armed forces always struggle with where to put clergy. They don’t quite fit into the rank structure so they don’t follow the recognised order. And you couldn’t have someone saying grace so far away that the commanding officer couldn’t hear. I usually found I was placed on or near the top table but usually at an awkward corner seat, slightly out of the way where it was very difficult to talk to anyone. Like an ostentatious pet.
But avoiding confrontation and politeness is not the same as humility; although, while people often dismiss the Church of England for caring more about politeness than ethics, and more about good taste than piety, manners may be seeded in a richer soil, and politeness is at least a first step to putting others before yourself.
But all virtues also have their back-door vices. So good manners may conceal not humility but a priggish and judgemental character, or the hypocritical show of concern. So too service is the bedrock of Christian discipleship, ‘The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve’'; but many is the volunteer who finds in their service the opportunity to create their own little fiefdom of power; who discovers in helping others a place to puff up themselves.
Humility goes beyond manners. But it’s not neurotic self-disgust or low self-esteem. Humility is the practice of self-forgetting. It’s the person who’s not concerned with themselves at all, for better or for worse, but for whom others have become larger than life. Humility is putting to one side your discomfort, your hunger, tiredness, your success and failure, to attend to the person in front of you. Of course, we do have such people at St Margaret’s, but I can’t tell you who they are as it would likely go to their heads.
Now I was struck in a conversation with a parishioner recently when she complained how unlikely the Christian story is. Consider this: According to a well know internet search engine, a calculation was done estimating that up to 1995 the total number of human beings who have ever lived was 105 billion. I’m not sure why 1995. Probably that’s when the research was done, but it may also have been that scientists having listened repeatedly to “Rednex” singing – I use the term loosely – “Cotton Eyed Joe” decided that this was probably it for the human race, and started coming up with a final score. The same sources tell me very definitely that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old and the universe 13.8 billion years. In this context, how likely is it that one human life spanning just over 30 years, should have the not just global but universal impact Christians claim? It seems unlikely. And yet.
If we accept that our world is created such that every creature is of infinite value, and that the creator wished those creatures to understand that, is not the most reasonable way to demonstrate this that the creator would enter into it as one of them? Show them this love in word and deed, not as a wealthy or powerful person but as the most ordinary person imaginable, except for this incredible revelation they would unfold? And how would you inspire your followers not to seek power and prestige but to protect the weak and seek out the lost but by living with those ordinary people and doing it yourself? And is it not frankly a little bizarre that this philosophy which favours the poor and ordinary, that emerged from a remote occupied state and saw all its early leaders killed, should now carry the belief of over two billion people today?
It is perhaps the difference between an objective and a subjective view; but don’t think that the objective is more true. That’s a little bit like admonishing your daughter for not getting better GCSEs when the national average has risen by 0.5%. Or explaining to your wife exactly what childbirth will feel like, having watched a documentary on a well know streaming service, or trying to cheer her up by telling her that statistically a huge number of women, many of whom were terribly frail or fearful, have already managed it. Sometimes the subjective approach contains more truth.
With Jesus’ parables there is always an ambiguity. Here he is on the surface, teaching the importance of humility, of the discipline of learning to put others ahead of us. But like so many of the parables it also is a picture of Jesus. Jesus is the wedding guest who ought to be at the head of the table, as God amongst us. And yet he chose to place himself at the lowest point; to ask God to make a place more low that he might also sit with the least of us as we measure it. And by doing so God has raised him to the place that is exalted above all. So while in St Paul’s letter he instructs us to be hospitable to all, as in doing so we might also entertain angels; by putting ourselves, wherever we are, in the lowest place, once there, we may also find that we share that place with Christ. Amen.