A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Andrew McKearney on 1 September 2019
As the intensity of our political life deepens and all sides fight their corner more and more ferociously, many of us may find ourselves at odds with friends, neighbours, family members, colleagues at work and fellow Christians at church. We hold differing views and as time has gone on these differing views are now often held with even greater conviction!
That’s certainly been true of myself! In the referendum I voted Remain and since then I’ve become more convinced not less, that this is the best option for us. But I know that a fellow priest in the Church of England, Giles Fraser, whom many of us will have heard and whose views I respect, argued strongly before the referendum that we should leave the EU – and I’m not aware that he’s changed his mind! Very few of us have! Our convitions are deeply held!
And we need to remember that as a church we too are trying to find a way to resolve the differences between us about a number of matters concerned with our sexuality. We don’t find this at all easy. Convictions are every bit as deeply held. And as with Brexit, argument and debate only gets you so far – we don’t easily change our minds!
We’ve obviously not heeded that warning – don’t talk about politics or religion!! Well here we are!!
Archbishop Justin has asked whether as members of Christ’s church we can disagree but disagree well? And surely the same holds true for us as citizens – can we disagree but disagree well?
A theme from today’s readings is worth reflecting on. It’s not a theme just in our readings, but in the whole Christian tradition – and that’s the virtue of humility. Christ said:
‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
The longest chapter in the Rule of Saint Benedict is devoted to humility. It’s a 12-step programme that Benedict outlines, beginning with these words:
‘The word of God in scripture teaches us in clear and
resounding terms that anyone who lays claim to a
high position will be brought low and anyone who is
modest in self-appraisal will be lifted up.’
He then goes on to use a common image for the spiritual life of a ladder between heaven and earth, an image taken from Jacob’s dream in the Old Testament.
‘On that ladder angels of God were shown to Jacob
going up and down in a constant exchange between
heaven and earth. It is just such an exchange that we
need to establish in our own lives.’
Benedict urges his readers.
But instead of seeing the rungs of the ladder as steps that we can take in our upward progress towards God, he subverts that whole way of thinking!
‘Our proud attempts at upward climbing will reallybring us down, whereas to step downwards inhumility is the way to lift up our spirit towards God.’
It’s a little hard to visualise such a ladder! It’s rather like one of those drawings of stairs by the Dutch artist Escher in which as you follow the stairs round with your eye, thinking that you’re going down, you somehow end up higher than where you started!
The word ‘humility’ is from the Latin term for earth or soil. It’s about being grounded – coming to a right judgement about ourselves – not exaggerating either our gifts or our faults – being free of pretence.
In my mind I see Saint Francis lying naked on the earth as he wished when he was dying! Few have lived the way of humility to quite the extent that Francis did.
His was a deeply incarnational faith. ‘Most high glorious God’ was a phrase that was often on his lips. So he held in reverence all the more the humility of God, who in Christ was willing to leave the royal throne, come down from the bosom of the Father and be laid in an animal’s feeding trough. Francis connected the humility of God with his own experience of the Eucharist, in which
‘The Lord of the universe, God and the Son of God,
so humbles Himself that for our salvation
He hides Himself under the little form of bread!’
Some have even argued that the humility of God is embodied in the style of church architecture called Romanesque, of which this church is a wonderful example.
A few months ago I referred to this in the parish magazine. In an interview that Metropolitan Anthony Bloom gave he highlighted the tension and contrast between Gothic and Romanesque church architecture.
His interviewer was speaking in very similar terms to Anthony Gormley about the experience in Gothic churches of being drawn upward within a vast cosmic space filled with light, finding here an example of sacred art that guides humanity towards knowledge of the real. The stained glass, the upward movement of the columns, the cross-vaulted forces of the ceiling, all transmit a sense of greatness and mystery.
Metropolitan Anthony was having none of it! He replied:
‘I have always been revolted by Gothic….and for a
long time I did not understand why. But when I was
living in Paris I came to understand it. All that
aspiring, aspiring upward…. The Romanesque church
is an utterly different idea. In Romanesque something
has already come down to us: love.’
This movement down to us – in Christ, in the Eucharist and perhaps even in the architecture of this church – all reflects the fact that humility is the hallmark of Christian life and faith.
And the more we let ourselves be rooted in the humility of God, the more we can accept that we are creatures, frail, often mistaken, but infinitely loved!
Back then to where I began.
In a time of division and conflict such as we’re in, humility keeps open the possibility of a future together, pointing the way to forgiveness and reconciliation.
‘Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me;’
our Lord said, ‘for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your souls.’