Humility and Hospitality

Sermon at Colwall for Trinity 14 2016

Proverbs 25: 6-7; Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7-14

I look down on him because I am upper class.
I look up to him because he is upper class; but I look down on him because he is lower class. I am middle class.
I know my place.

I guess most of us remember that sketch with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. My sympathies, unsurprisingly, are with Ronnie Corbett. Actually, believe it or not, it’s now fifty years since it was first broadcast, 1966.

Our short Old Testament reading from the Book of Proverbs said:

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

And that was a forerunner to what Jesus had to say at that Sabbath meal in the Pharisee’s house. We’ve all, I’m sure, known people who are just too haughty and need to be taken down a peg or two. And also people, who despite considerable abilities and achievement, have possessed genuine humility. “Friend, move up higher.” And so Jesus summed it up by saying, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Of course as well as genuine humility, there’s the 'umbleness of Uriah Heep in Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield, cloying, obsequious, ingratiating and insincere, stooping and hand-wringing, most unpleasant. True humility is very different from that, and it’s a virtue that, explicitly and implicitly, runs right through the Bible.

Sadly, as Melanie was saying the other week, in today’s world humility is rather despised. You’re more likely to be taken seriously and to get on if you’re self-assertive, proud and even boastful of your own abilities, a bit arrogant, pushy. This can be true in all walks of life – business, politics, academia, entertainment, sport, maybe in the church as well. Of course there are many people who’ve attained excellence in all these spheres who remain nice people, and who retain an admirable level of humility. They don’t deny the talents which have led to their success, but they recognize that essentially these are gifts, for which they are grateful. They, in St Paul’s words, would take a sober estimate of themselves.

To be humble is to be grateful, and for us believers of course that means being grateful to God, the source of all that we have, indeed all that we are.

Another word for humility is meekness, and in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Blessed are the meek: not many people would agree with that. Current opinion says that meek equals weak. If you’re meek, you’re soft, vulnerable, easily duped and taken for a ride.

Again, “meek” is very much a biblical word, a favourite in the Psalms. Meek people are those who accept the authority and guidance of God, and who also accept what happens to them as coming from God – not easy at the moment if you live in central Italy. But meek people are never bitter or resentful. And what a blessing that is: just think how often bitterness and resentfulness are the cause of damaging division amongst families and between colleagues. The meek person is in fact not weak but strong, prepared to be angry with others when that is required, righteous anger in response to injustice, but in a measured way and never viciously. For to be meek is to be gentle.

Jesus said of himself, “I am meek and lowly in heart.” That comes immediately after words which those who come to the 8.30 communion service will know very well: “Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” And it goes on, “Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart.”

So, as followers of Jesus, let us avoid all boastfulness and pride – I must say I’m uncomfortable with people being constantly exhorted to be proud of themselves – let us avoid all boastfulness and pride and vanity and aggressiveness, and take upon us the mantle of true humility and meekness, even lowliness. The lowly, in God’s eyes, will be exalted.

Perhaps the greatest example ever of humility was Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. On that last evening that they had together, Jesus wanted to do something really personal and really loving for each of his friends, including Judas. That, I think, was his primary motive, but it was also to teach them the way of humility. It was an act of humble service, humility in action.

It has an obvious message for us. Jesus said, “I have given you an example. Do as I have done, and then,” he added, “then you will be happy.”

But there’s another lesson too. Peter said, “Not likely: you washing my feet: never!” But Jesus said that Peter could only truly be in communion with him if he allowed him to do this. And Peter, being Peter, said, “Then, Lord, wash my hands and head as well.”

It shows that we need humbly to let Jesus serve us first. He wants, so to speak, to kneel before us – no wonder Peter objected – he wants to kneel down in front of us and metaphorically wash our feet. We should let him do it – we can imagine it: only then can we fully comprehend his love for us and be in communion with him and, following his example, give his sort of service to others.

Humility involves giving due consideration to the needs and the feelings and the opinions and the enjoyment of others. And so, humility leads to hospitality. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” said our Epistle from the Letter to the Hebrews, “for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” And in the Gospel Jesus said, “Don’t invite just friends and family and rich neighbours. Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, those who won’t be able to invite you back.”

All of us naturally cultivate the society, the friendship, of people who are like us, people of our own kind, people we feel at home with. But the Pharisees had taken this a step further and made it a religious principle. They refused almost all contact with those who didn’t share their own beliefs and standards. They’d become exclusive. They’d developed a we’re-better-than-you attitude. And that’s an attitude that can extend to peoples and cultures and religions and international affairs. Exclusiveness – Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or whatever – exclusiveness is surely contrary to the will of God. That’s why Jesus said what he did. He was challenging the Pharisees; but of course he challenges us too.

So, let’s all try, if we’re able, to invite someone round who’s not in a position to invite us back. Jesus said that that sort of hospitality is a real blessing, and we might find we’ve entertained an angel or two.

But we must take it further than that. Shouldn’t our nation also show hospitality to strangers - people who, in order to save themselves and their families, have had to leave their homes and flee their country? We have as a country promised to take 3,000 child refugees or by 2020 20,000 from Syria overall. If we don’t think that’s doing enough, we could write to Theresa May and say so. Of course we understand that if you live in an area of severe housing shortage and high unemployment, you’re not likely to agree, especially if you share that predicament. And we can only write with integrity if we include in our own country our own village, if we’re prepared to receive and welcome refugees here in Colwall.

On a personal note, we (Jill and I) have fed quite a number of strangers, tramps, some of whom came on a more or less regular basis. It’s true of course we didn’t invite them; they invited themselves. And we’ve also occasionally had people staying with us: a mixed protestant and catholic couple and their two young children from the Falls Road escaping persecution from both sides in Northern Ireland; a Ugandan Asian expelled from Kampala by Idi Amin. Swindon Corporation allocated three houses in our parish to expelled Indian families and by donations our local churches managed to furnish and equip all three.

Now I’m saying this with humility, not with any boasting, just to show that this sort of thing can be done. Let us therefore, as followers of Jesus, be humble, and also hospitable, not only to family and friends, but hospitable to strangers as well. And as Jesus said, we shall surely find it a blessing.