I hate big occasions; I find them uncomfortable and I’m never quite sure about the formalities, what I’m supposed to do, who I should speak to, what to say. I’ve been to more than a few, of course, in my time - even once to Buckingham Palace, at the invitation of Her Majesty - but it’s never got easier; I’m always something of a fish out of water at these events. I envy those who take things like this in their stride and seem instinctively to know the ropes, those who have the right words to say, and probably wear the right tie. At big events I tend to play safe and be the last person to sit at table. That means I’ll probably be sitting next to the one person no-one wants to sit by. Unless, of course, that’s me.
I remember arriving once at a school concert where the hall was full. There were people standing at the back, so I joined them. The head teacher spotted me from her place at the top of the hall, bustled down to where I was standing, and urged me to come and take my seat with the VIP’s on the front row. I refused, which made her a bit cross I think - but it didn’t seem fair for me to sit in front of parents whose children were performing.
So this morning’s story from St Luke’s Gospel has a lot I can relate to. I can imagine being at the dinner party Jesus was at, where people were jostling for the best seats. But I don’t think I’d have been one of them. But Jesus has some good advice to give about how to do dinner parties and the like. If you grab the top seat and your host makes it clear that it’s reserved for someone else, you’ll be covered in shame. But if you go somewhere humble, maybe your host will bring you to sit by him, and then you’ll be honoured. And even when I’m just hanging around to see what chairs are left, it’s always nice when someone spots you and calls you over to say, “Come and join me here.”
At the height of his fame as a writer, Thomas Hardy ceased to write novels. His last novel, “Jude the Obscure” was published in 1895, but Hardy lived another 33 years, and he continued to write poetry. I like his poems, but I was fascinated to learn that, despite being so famous that any journal would have paid good money to publish his work, Hardy continued, whenever he submitted a poem for possible publication to include a stamped addressed envelope, so his manuscript could be returned if it was rejected. Humility like that is admirable, I think; it may even be the necessary mark of true greatness.
The late New York Methodist preacher and teacher Norman Vincent Peale, now best remembered as the author of “The Power of Positive Thinking”, once had one Donald Trump as his pupil. Apparently, he thought of Mr Trump as having a profound streak of honest humility, though maybe he’s lost a bit of that since. These days Mr Trump is humble enough to claim that Peale thought (quote) “that I was his greatest student of all time.” Now there’s positive thinking.
Humility has little to do with we look like on the outside, it’s the inside that matters. If a man went on purpose to take the lowest seat hoping he’d be called up higher and made a fuss of, he might well end up spending the whole meal seething with rage, if in fact he got overlooked and left where he was. True humility is when you sit in the lowest place and don’t mind at all if that’s where you stay. And humility like that does in fact require some positive thinking.
Positive thinking because we need to realise the truth, and to know where we really stand in the order of things. The world, and indeed the church if I’m honest, can be much damaged by the petty vanities and politicking of people who like to be big fish in little ponds. In a parish long ago, I had Ted. Ted was really a nice man, there was a lot about him that was genuinely good - but . . .
The but about Ted was that in twenty-two years as church warden, he’d made himself indispensible by de-skilling those around him, even whoever happened to be the other church warden. He managed to surround what he did with an air of mystique, adding job after job to the senior churchwarden’s role, and not letting anyone else know what he did and how to do it. All so he could be a big fish in a little pond, and so the church couldn’t survive without him. But, in the end, it did. Whoever we are, we don’t know it all and we can’t know it all. However important we may believe ourselves to be, or try to make ourselves, when we leave the scene - well, we may be missed, but in time the ripples smooth over, other people take over, the life and the work goes on. Or, if it doesn’t, then it wasn’t meant to.
It’s done me good to watch the Olympics. Watching amazing athletes doing things I couldn’t imagine doing puts what I do into perspective. Whatever we do, it’s good from time to time to compare ourselves with the real experts.
Jesus was in the home of a leading Pharisee. Pharisees were people who practised perfection; they were proud that they were able to keep every point of God’s Law. And Jesus struggled with people like that. God is best served not by people who think they’re perfect, but by people who know they’re not. Those are the people who know their need of God. William Barclay has written that “if we set our lives beside the life of the Lord of all life, if we see our unworthiness in comparison with the radiance of his purity, pride will die and self-satisfaction will be shrivelled up.” So here’s what I think. I am not important in the Kingdom of God, but we are. It isn’t as I stand out that God is served, but as we engage and work together. The measurement of me isn’t how high a place I’ve grabbed, or how highly my peers assess me; it’s what I can offer as part of the body of Christ, and as part of his apostolic Church.