Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Your Place at the Table

Trinity 18
13 October 2019
10.30 Eucharist

Revd Nicholas Mercer

I have been very much enjoying the recent programme on BBC 2 called “Inside the Vatican”

The series follows the lives and work of those at the centre of the Catholic Church.

It goes behind closed doors following the Pope and some of his highest ranking officials

But it also follows others such as the choristers and cleaners and the papal gardener.

One of the most moving scenes of the first series, however, was the visit by the Pope to the Regina Coeli Prison in Rome on Maundy Thursday

He went to wash the feet of twelve inmates

The programme interviewed one of the prisoners called Ali Bahaze

When interviewed, the prisoner said “Are you kidding me?” “Do we wash his feet or does he wash ours”?

But nevertheless the Pope washed his feet

The prisoner said “I didn’t tell anyone for a month – because, I am Muslim”

The Pope was accompanied by Archbishop Becciu (Becu) who commentated

“I don’t know what they (the prisoners) have done, but it must have been something quite serious

Now they are being kissed by the Pope, the best known man on earth”

The washing of the prisoners’ feet, of course, imitates Christ before the last supper

As we know from John’s Gospel, before the meal, Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet

Not surprisingly, like the prisoner in Rome, Simon Peter expressed his surprise

“Are you kidding me Lord?”  “you will never wash my feet”

Jesus replied “unless I wash your feet, you have no share with me”

Jesus  takes on the mantle of a servant and does something  that only the lowliest in society would normally do

It is an act of deep humility, performed by, no less, than the Son the God

In this vein, both readings this morning are about humility, first from the book of Proverbs and then from Luke’s Gospel,

These acts of humility are couched in terms of having an important position at court or at table

The image is easy to relate to

We have all probably been moved up or down in one context or another

We may also have felt a sense of envy when we have been put at the end of table rather than further up

However, having an exalted position can also be a mixed blessing

There is the story of the guest who was once seated next to Princess Margaret

Almost paralysed with fear, he found himself struggling to make conversation

When the waiter put the main course down on the table, he turned to Princess Margaret and said

“I see they have seated me next to the goose”

But the illustrations in the readings are entirely in keeping with the life of Jesus himself

We know that Jesus was humble because he tells us from his own mouth

“learn from me” he says “ for I am gentle and humble in heart” (Mtt 11:29)

He instructs his disciples to show humility telling them

“The greatest among you must become like the youngest, the leader like the one who serves” (Luke 22:26)

Naturally, St Paul reminds the early Church, repeatedly, of the need for humility

To the Corinthians

There is no love without humility”

To the Philippians(2:3)

“Do nothing from selfish ambition [or conceit] but in humility”[regard others as better than yourself]

To the Colossians (3:12)

“As God’s chosen one… clothe yourselves with… humility”

 Not surprisingly, the New Testament tells us that the humble will be exalted (Matt 23:12)

But, above all, we are reminded by St Paul that

“Jesus humbled himself as a servant, becoming obedient even unto death” (Philippians 2:7)

Humility is defined as the quality of having a modest or low view of one’s importance”.

And is something with which we all struggle with, not least, because we all have our pride

It is one of the principle reasons why Buddhism, for instance seeks anatta or destruction of the self

There is a story of a group of parishioners who were discussing this subject during a Bible Study

Each member of the group was invited to describe a situation to the others when they had truly humbled themselves

Each recounted their story in turn

But when it came to the vicar, he was completely stumped.

Make of that what you will but ask yourself the same question – when have I been truly humbled?

I was very taken with an article in the Church Times last month about the Worker Priest Movement

This was a movement established in France in the 1950’s where the worker priest, unlike the parish priest was

“freed from parochial work by his bishop, lived only by full-time labour in a factory or other place of work, and was indistinguishable in appearance from an ordinary workingman”

Priests sought to model the life of Christ by living, as they put it,

“like Jesus…clothing themselves with humility”

The movement fell away but, nevertheless, there are a small group of priests across Europe who still pursue this style of ministry

  • Father Vandenbriele in France, a Catholic Priest who works twelve hour shifts as an ambulance driver
  • Anne Marie Koot a former Catholic Pastoral worker who works as a cleaner and carer
  • Maria Janes Wenstrup  a former nun who left her convent to work as an inventory checker in a  supermarket

This model of ministry is not without its critics

But, nevertheless, all these worker priests have attempted to followed Christ by humbling themselves as a servants

As CS Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity

“As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things… and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see that which is above you.”

But despite the difficulty for all of us acting with humility, I think that all men and women are humbled in their lives whether they actively choose humility or not

In the Old Testament, it states in the Book of Deuteronomy

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments” (Deut 8:2)

When I was at Theological College I did some experiential research into the call to ordination in later life

Almost without exception, those who had been so called had been humbled in their earlier lives

Sickness, divorce, bankruptcy, bereavement had laid them bare

Even that great man of faith, John Henry Newman, who will be made a saint today, said of his early life “Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years”

However, whether we have been humbled or not, the famous quote from St Paul should resonate with all of us

“Jesus humbled himself as a servant, becoming obedient even unto death”

However exalted we might believe ourselves to be, we will all be humbled by death

And that plays into the narrative about our place at table

In the light of our mortality where does it matter where we are put?

The late Malcolm Muggeridge, who was converted to Christianity later, in life wrote a book called Jesus rediscovered

In the book he wrote

“I am like a man on a sea voyage nearing his destination. When I embarked I worried about having a cabin with a porthole, whether I should be asked to sit at the Captain’s table, who were the most attractive and important passengers. All such considerations become pointless when I shall soon be disembarking”.

But despite the news about our place at table there is an added twist because, wherever we are placed, the best known man in heaven and on earth will be washing our feet.

“Are you kidding me?” said the passenger “He will never wash my feet”

Jesus replied “unless I wash your feet, you have no share with me”