22nd Per Annum 2019 SMC
Well, we can all feel terribly proud of ourselves, my friends, because we have chosen the best thing imaginable for a Sunday morning, to worship God in His House. We could have done anything else: stayed in bed, watched TV, gone shopping, say we were busy, be persuaded by family to cook for them. But here we are praising the Creator of Heaven and earth who descends to the altar to be among His people. Pat yourselves on the back.
You and I will do a whole load of other good stuff too and we can be glad for that; but this mustn’t lead to spiritual pride. The Lord tells us two parables today which are counters to such haughtiness. First, “Make your way to the lowest place and sit there.” Yes, where we sit indicates a sort of possession and is a precious thing, though it might seem trifling or unimportant. Think of those fit young men and women who sit in the seats on the bus reserved for the elderly, the disabled and those with children! Naughty people. Here in Church too, I always encourage people to sit where it will be of most benefit to others so that late comers and new people can find somewhere to sit comfortably so that they don’t have to come all the way to the front.
Humility is the key to this because we’ll realise this is God’s House and therefore He sets the invitation list and indeed the seating plan is set by His priorities. The second parable we heard today is under no illusion as to what that list will look like: “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” Maybe you can see someone who struggles to come to Church and ask them if you can help them? By sharing a taxi or offering them a lift. Hear the Lord’s words: “That they cannot pay you back means that you are fortunate, because repayment will be made to you when the virtuous rise again.” Make that offer, you who drive, you who can. Having to pick someone else up might even mean you organise yourself sufficiently so as to be on time for Mass, and heal you of that particular problem.
Sometimes we rent out spaces for Spurs fans to park at the front of Church: not if there’s something else on, of course, and the funds go to our Church and it all helps pay the bills. One young woman parked here one day in a rather flash car and I got chatting to her and I was saying that sometimes during the week people park at the front who don’t have permission because they’re going shopping or working at one of the local businesses. Her response was, “Yeah, well I’m not surprised given people round here.” I turned round quick as a flash as she’d insulted our community; and said, “No, it’s not because of what people round here are like because if they were from round here they wouldn’t need to park here, would they?!” I flounced off, annoyed that she’d been so rude.
The poor don’t have a voice and so often in society it continues to be seen to be alright to make rude and condemnatory statements about people who are homeless, or smelly or have mental health issues. I always think there’s an unspoken element to Jesus words’ in Matthew 26 (and John 12) where He says, “You always have the poor with you.” You’ll remember the context of those words: Jesus is telling the disciples once again of His approaching Death and a woman pours costly ointment on Him. “Why this waste?” the disciples exclaim, “This ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” “You always have the poor with you,” is a response which is to provoke the disciples to realise they’re not very good at treating the poor well. It’s a lesson we too need to hear. For the loopy, the smelly, the homeless may well be in that queue to Heaven a lot further up than me or you and we must never exclude them from God’s House. The Church should be a place where truly everyone is welcome and we each need to play a part in ensuring God’s House is so ordered as to make that the case.
For this to be effective we can’t just be content with procedures and signs and happy stewards and smiling in a nice way. It has to be a conversion of our heart, which brings us back to humility. Paul exhorts us: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself” (Philippians 2:5-7). The Lord Jesus whom we follow was content to have all sorts of things said about him, to be embarrassed and shamed, to leave behind His Mother, so that we might die for the world. Moreover, he continually subjects Himself to humiliations by being on altars across the world. You know, some won’t acknowledge Jesus’ presence on the altar and won’t even bother coming to receive Him under the form of bread and wine. If I was treated like Jesus is treated, I know I would stop after a while and say, ‘Well I can’t be bothered if they can’t be bothered.’ But Jesus’ love is greater than that, greater than mine. He goes through the humiliation of unattended altars for the sake of the few.
Today, 1st September, is the Feast of St Giles, a not-much-celebrated feast in England anymore. St Giles was born in the middle of the seventh century in Athens and moved to France, longing for solitude and a chance to say his prayers in peace and quiet. Soon others gathered around him to share that peace and to say their prayers with him. Soon churches dedicated to him became associated with care for lepers and the isolated from society because these places were dedicated to St Giles on the edge of cities. You may be able to think of examples of cities where churches dedicated to St Giles are on the edge: Oxford certainly has one. You may also know St Giles’s Cripplegate in the Barbican, which when the first building was erected was built was on the outskirts of the old Roman wall, by the Cripplegate. The life of St Giles teaches us the Lord’s love for the outcast.
Our Lord’s humility and His patient suffering of the major scandal of the Cross, as well as all the petty insolences he endures: these teach us similarly to be humbly obedient to His will and this will take us to uncomfortable places or to places at times when we really don’t feel like ben there. This isn’t us doing God a favour; this is us being more Christ-like, living up to our baptismal identity to turn to Christ, to follow Christ, to submit to Christ as Lord.
One final example of how us being humble will take us to uncomfortable places. The Old Testament’s eye for an eye mentality has a certain appeal. The desire for vengeance can be a sin that besets us all when someone hurts us, even when it’s a small pain. Hebrews 12 reminded us this morning that the Blood poured out that we celebrate and offer this morning - the Blood of Jesus - this Blood is one of forgiveness not vengeance. There was a reference we heard to Abel, murdered by his brother Cain in Genesis 4. Instantly Cain is concerned about being killed by someone who seeks revenge. God prevents this by placing a mark upon Cain. The blood of Abel cries out for point scoring and tit for tat. The Blood of Jesus offers forgiveness, healing and eternal life. The humility we are to embrace, the insults we are to bear will not only take us to places we’d rather not go, nor will they only lead us to be along the poor whom Society isolates, our humbly following of Jesus will also lead us to be forgivers as we behold the Lord’s Blood, poured out for the world. Amen.