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Sermon for Ordinary 22    Humility

The Reverend Charles

So Brian Belo won Big Brother and the £100,000. I was surprised to hear this on the main radio 4 news on Radio 4. Apparently the series is in 'Big Bother' because viewing figures are down, Max Clifford, the PR expert, yesterday said he believed the Big Brother format had peaked.

"It's been very successful as a gimmick, but now people are looking at it from a value point of view and of course there is no value to it. Big Brother is just exhibitionists being outrageous because of their own egos and desire to be famous."

Nevertheless, an average of 3.8 million people had turned on their televisions to watch. This is because we live in a society where everybody wants to be famous, there is the cult of the celebrity, many young people believe that all they have to do is be discovered and they will be famous.

'What do you want to be' young people were asked, they did not want to be great poets or inventors, but just to be 'famous'. So the queues will continue as thousands of young people audition for X Factor and dozens of other programmes promising fame.

This seems as though I am being critical of all young people, I am not, nowadays it just seems young people want to work their way to being famous. But let it be said, in each generation we have all seen people who will do anything to get on. It’s not even just a secular thing, people in the church regularly try to climb the greasy pole of clerical success, to gain the admiration and subservience of others. The Church Times this week tells the story of a Bishop of London who when visiting a church in his diocese objected to where he was seated and “Comes to something,” he growled, “when I’m given a back seat in my own diocese.”

So the Bible Reading today is bang up to date as Jesus speaks about the human desire to get noticed, to be important, to have position and prestige in society.

Luke, records an incident in which there was a party. It would have been one to which everybody wanted to go. It was being held at the home of a prominent Pharisee and so it would be important for the social climbers and career clergy to get an invite and get noticed. Jesus was invited, but probably not because he was on his way up through the ranks. He was invited most probably as part of a trap, at best a floor show. We are told that they ‘watched him closely.’ They would have done this if it was a trap, an opportunity to test Jesus on his approach to the sabbath.

Jesus was faced with a man with dropsy, his swollen appearance would have set him apart from the great and good at the party. Of course Jesus did heal, he knew it was a trap, but he met the human need around him. Jesus was uncompromising when met with human need, a day would be too long to wait for Jesus. He broke laws, taboos, rituals, religious sensibilities. He cared not for what other people thought about him, as long as he was convinced that God believed it to be right.

So how are we ? Are we uncompromising when faced with the needs of the vulnerable? Is compassion more important to us than religion; rites, rituals and theological debates about God?

We are told that his opponents stood silent. To stand silent when the power to heal is within reach; that is sin. In the face of great injustices silence is consent. There is so much that we have to do in our society today.

So this is the first part of the story - Jesus focuses his attention on the poor and their needs, those who know they are in need of God. He is not one who courts favour with the powerful. He does not care about 'getting on' or making an impression, why should God made man care about human approval?

Jesus went on to reinforce this message by telling the assembled gathering a story. Just as they were all going for their seats, scrambling to get the best and most prestigious seat closest to the host, just at that moment when they were about to sit or lie down, Jesus tells them they should choose the most lowly seats. This was the message to the guests, then Jesus turns his attention to the host. He announces that when compiling a guest list, we should not invite our friends and the rich neighbours, instead we should invite the poor the crippled - the down and outs. Looking around the room the assembled guests would see that their party included only the rich and people who could return the favour. Indeed the only guest who resembled the kind Jesus advocated, was the man with dropsy who had been wheeled in as part of the trap to catch Jesus out!


So let's try and bring this teaching of Jesus ban up to date and ask ourselves, 'are we concerned about the same people that Jesus would have cared for in our community today?'

Let me look at two areas of significance, I could pick lots but let me choose two which are both topical and local. I am aware of teh danger of doing this, it was Dom Helda Camara, who said that when he told about the need to give the poor bread they called him a saint, when he said how to give the poor bread they called him a communist. But he goes!

We heard this week of the prison strike in England. Striking is not allowed for Prison officers, but these men and women are not happy with their conditions of service or the state of our prisons. Apparently inmates in Cardiff prison taunted officers on the picket line with shouts of, "you're breaking the law".  It is good to see some humour in a dreadful situation. However we are locking up more and more people, and politicians tell us that we have to build more and more prisons. There are now more than 80,000 inmates against 61,467 10 years ago. Our prisons are places of great injustice. It has been said that he greatness of a society can be measured by its treatment of the least. On that measure our society has serious problems, our prisons are full of the uneducated, the mentally ill, and the drug addicted.

An officer in Bedford prison was quoted in a national newspaper this summer as saying.
"People don't realise that around 80% or 90% of the prisoners have some sort of mental illness through substance abuse, either drugs or alcohol." Little wonder then that there are about two suicides a week in our prisons

More people agree with the statement "prison doesn't work, it turns people into professional criminals who then commit more crime" than think "prison punishes crime, keeps criminals off the streets and deters others".

What would Jesus say about locking people up because we won’t spend the time sorting their problems out. In the reading from Hebrews today we are exhorted to think about people in prisons as if we were their fellow prisoners. If we had to be in prison we would be calling for reform. Instead, too often prison is seen as a dumping ground, take all of the problem people and and put them 'out of sight, out of mind.'

As Christians we are not only allowed to speak on these issues, we have a duty. We should not be silent in the face of injustice.

There are lots of these issues, we don’t need to look very far.

The week before last I was out delivering leaflets in Brickhill inviting people to Church and enclosing copies of Partnership News. I was asked for help by a young mother with three children under the age of three. Their father is in Angola, he was an asylum seeker who has been here in our country for seven years, but he agreed to go back to Angola willingly to sort out paperwork. Now he can’t get back and his wife and children have been without him for months.

All I can do is to write letters and try to persuade our authorities to do what they can to help. But I have written about other people who end up being sent off to Yarlswood and and disappear.

When you read about all the thousand of people who are flooding our country and the calls to send them all back. Think of those who are unable to be with their families. Our society has many injustices, we don’t have to go to other continents to see poor people struggling, exploitation and a widening gap between the rich and the poor.

These may sound like political issues, and they are, but I believe that Jesus would have spoken out against such injustices and the systems which create them. Well you and I are his voice and we have to speak his words.

We all have to look around us and see with they eyes of God’s compassion and care.

We might say ‘what can I do.' You may feel that you can only do a tiny bit. Listen to the words of Mother Theresa. Born in Albania in 1910 Mother Teresa of Calcutta worked with the poorest of the poor in India. A journalist once asked why she bothered working with the poor in Calcutta, because it was all just a drop in the ocean - there being millions of poor people in India. Mother Teresa said in reply that she was not concerned with a big way of doing things - she was concerned with individuals: "This person", she pointed to someone, "thinks it makes all the difference!"

Mother Teresa said, "We do no great things, only small things with great love."

When Jesus spoke to the assembled guests, one of the main sins which he spoke against was pride. It is often pride which prevents us from seeing the needs of others. We are concerned about ourselves and our own needs, we ignore the needs of others. We might think that the reason why we don’t end up in prison is because we are better people and live better lives. But the sad truth is that if we grow up lacking educational opportunities, if we are brought up in poor homes, then we have much more chance of ending up in prison. We end up in prison because of the postcode where we live, not because we are more or less worthy. It is our society which has allowed drugs to be freely available on our streets, can we wonder that our children get into trouble, that we eventually have the situation where young children are shot on our streets every week.

We must learn to have humility to recognise the truth of the statement,

‘there but for the grace of God go I’

As we grow in humility, we realise that which allows us to advance in life is a gift. Nothing intrinsically better about us. Humility is grounded in this deep psychological awareness. Therefore, how can I boast?

If we took the words of Jesus to heart it would change so much in society. We could never have endured years of slavery, we could never have had the sitgma of society placed upon groups of people whose only crime was to be different

Jesus spends his ministry trying to press this message home. Do not place yourself above others, be willing to serve. Jesus told his followers to serve others, as he washed the disciples feet. Pride is a great cloud which block out God's an awareness of God's grace. 

There is a always a place at God's table, not because I am great, but because God is! I am not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs. This is in a sense a terrible phrase because it makes us sound like worms, but in the other senses it says, I am highly favoured by God, because of who he is, irrespective of my own goodness. It is a word of reassurance.

So we leave today, mindful of Jesus calling to avoid the desire to impress others and get on. We take to heart his call to care for those at the bottom of the pile. We remember that as we show kindness to the poor, the outcast and the unlucky, as we care for the least of our fellow human beings, so we show care for Jesus himself.