All of Us Invited
When we lived in the UK and Princess Diana was a huge celebrity, a story went around about a visit she made one day to a nursing home. She was welcomed with huge affection by the residents and staff, but at one point she noticed an elderly woman sitting by herself and paying no attention to all the hoopla around the Princess’s visit. Diana approached her, and gently asked, “Do you know who I am?” “No dear,” replied the woman. “But if you’ve forgotten just ask the matron and she’ll tell you.”
It’s a funny and sad story at the same time, putting the ranks and status hierarchies of our world into a completely different perspective, where a world famous princess is seen as just another frail human being with memory loss. And I believe there was enough humility in Diana for her to be able to smile at that.
Jesus uses the example of a fancy gathering, a wedding banquet, to make the same point. He says don’t be that guest who takes the place of honour. As if! Who would sit down at the top table, in the bride or groom’s seat? Who would ever have the pride and self-importance to do that? No, he says, take a lower seat. Don’t set yourself up at the top of the pile. He’s using a comically extreme example to make his point.
You see, he’s been watching people at a dinner he’s been invited to, and he’s seen how some of them angle to get the best seats. So he begins with this teaching about pride and humility. And it’s one of the threads that runs right through the fabric of Jesus’s teaching about the nature of the kingdom of heaven – the way to live here on earth as if in heaven: that it’s often an inversion of the normative values of status, wealth, and worth. Gospel values lift up the lowly and humble the proud; gospel values lead the rich to sharing their wealth not hoarding it; gospel values notice who’s on the outside and needs to be drawn in.
Being humbled isn’t comfortable.
David and I were travelling by train in England a couple of years ago from London to York. We boarded the train, but found that most of the seats were reserved, and we didn’t have reservations. So we hauled our suitcases up and down the train, and finally found a quieter carriage with a couple of unreserved spots. So we sat down with relief….. only to be told a few minutes later by the ticket inspector that we were in first class, and could either pay a hefty fee or get out of them.
We ended up sitting on our suitcases in the space outside a toilet between two carriages. And it took me a couple of hundred miles to get over the sense of outrage and humiliation.
Humility as a gospel value is a tricky thing. It’s not about being humiliated and made to feel worthless. It needs to be hand in hand with a deep knowledge that you are valued and beloved. Its opposite is the kind of self-important pride that puts others down and shuts God out.
Maybe we need another word, but let’s says simply that there’s good pride and bad pride. Bad pride is judgmental and superior and creates division. Good pride leads to gratitude and connection. Our area bishop, Kevin Robertson, recently posted a picture of himself and his husband Mohan on Facebook, saying how thankful he is that they met ten years ago. That’s good pride: pride and gratitude for his marriage, their two children, and the joys and sorrows they’ve shared along the way. And I’m proud of him for that. That’s what Pride parades in many communities across the world are about: LGBTQ+ people coming together and affirming their own and each other’s self-worth.
Bad pride is when a person (or nation or group) asserts that they’re better than others, richer, more powerful. And it puts others down. Anger and violence and intolerance are hallmarks. That’s why the reading from the Book of Sirach on pride concludes by saying, “Pride was not created for human beings, or violent anger for those born of women.” (10:18) And it starts by saying, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord.” And that way leads to destruction.
There are so many layers here: pride and humility; hubris and humiliation; a healthy sense of self-worth versus crushed self-esteem, even self-hatred. The fundamental issue is, does our sense of self lead us closer to God or further away? Do we become more open to others or more closed off?
Jesus links the question of pride and humility to that of hospitality. He encourages people when they’re having a celebration to invite the poor, the blind, the outcast, not just those who can repay you with a lavish party of their own. We tend to live comfortably in our social and family bubbles of people like us, most of the time. So one of the good things about a church community, and one of the signs of vitality and gospel, is when it can be truly diverse and welcoming of all sorts of people.
Church of the Redeemer downtown is a good example of that sort of inclusive, hospitable church community. While David was interim priest there I worshipped with them a few times, and saw it in action. There are certainly some eye-wateringly well to do, high-powered folks there, with Yorkville incomes and careers, but in church every Sunday are also people who have no homes or no income; people with disabilities; people struggling with addictions and mental illness; people who might display odd behaviour during a service, but they’re carefully attended and accompanied. And all are invited to the table.
What these reflections on pride and humility boil down to is really this: we’re all welcome at the table if we make room for one another. Pride which pushes another down is not part of the kingdom. Humility which has tipped over into low self-esteem is not part of God’s plan for us. In God’s realm we hold the door open and save the best seats for the broken and outcast, even if that means we end up sitting on a suitcase outside a toilet.
Just as importantly, it means acknowledging the poor, weak and blind parts of ourselves, and accepting them as loved by God. The author Richard Holloway, former Primus of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, has written a book about getting older and facing one’s own impending death [Waiting for the Last Bus], and he sees the final stage of our lives as opportunities to put down the masks we so often wear to project an image of everything being fine, when below the surface we’re bruised and unsure and all too fallible. If we can accept those parts, we become both more vulnerable and more empathetic to others – both more humble and more whole.
Do you know who I am? Do I know who you are? May this be a community where we can be humble and whole, inclusive and proud: proud to be children of God and followers of Jesus, limping along together towards the vision of heaven on earth. Amen.