Today’s readings present the core values of serving God by serving others and putting others before ourselves. They talk of focusing not on ourselves but on the needs of others, taking the lowest place at a wedding banquet so that we may be called up higher but certainly fall no further. They talk of giving without expecting anything back – reaching out to those who seemingly have nothing to offer in this life….and even offering hospitality to strangers for we may be entertaining Angels!
They are in fact, both the epistle and the Gospel reminiscent of the themes that we find in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount where all the values of this world are reversed and we hear such extraordinary things such as ‘Blessed are the Poor’…’Blessed are the meek’ …. ‘Blessed are the persecuted’
Ask anyone today who falls into those categories whether they feel blessed and it could well be that we would feel the wrath of their anger and who could blame them!
Looked at through the eyes of our value systems poverty, humility, victimhood are not seen as anything to celebrate and in fact are an embarrassment in a society that still accords so much value to those who manage to accumulate great wealth, power and things.
Mind you it may be that things are changing when the death of a poet in our land completely takes over the news and conversation on this Island. Poets and prophets are not that unalike and they often help us to see the ordinary and everyday with fresh eyes – to re-examine all the prejudices and assumptions we have inherited.
That essentially is what the epistle and Gospel are asking of us – to look at our world, our lives, ourselves and even God with new eyes or even perhaps to open eyes that were previously closed, the eyes of faith.
And the difference is dramatic when we do that – anyone who has ever seen newborn kittens will know that they are born blind and only open their eyes at 8 days – Overnight their behaviour changes as they are no longer fumbling aimlessly and nervously but now purposefully seeking out new and exciting adventures.
God wants to open our eyes too – and if already open to clean the sleep out of them so that we may see more clearly. Jesus himself is the instrument of that and his whole earthly life bears witness to the values proclaimed in today’s readings: poverty, humility, reaching out to the stranger, and even subjecting himself to the death of a criminal on a rubbish heap outside the city walls.
And we wonder how he was resurrected – well when you go that low the only way is up – when you humble yourself to the worst that humanity can throw at you there is no longer anything to fear. It is only when we refuse to let go of ourselves completely that we are vulnerable to the hurts of others but when we let go of everything and fall into God then we are beyond the reach of their torment.
There is a basic wisdom in Jesus words – ‘when you are invited go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”….and ‘be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you” – So often out of our own sense of self importance we want to sit at the higher seats but in those seats is not just privilege but also responsibility which we are not ready for….. Our God knows our limits and our abilities and he will use them to the full if we let him but we need to leave that initiative with God.
It is almost as if we are called to forget ourselves so that we may remember God.
Perhaps a poem from the late Seamus Heaney is an appropriate way to finish – It’s called St. Kevin and the Blackbird and speaks powerfully of this self-forgetfulness:
St. Kevin and the BlackbirdAnd then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.