Sermon: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Texts: I Thessalonians 2:7b-9,13; Matthew 23:1-12
In the name of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I am not going to spend any time on the significance of Matthew 23:9 “Call no man Father”, as I have written extensively before on it in both the parish magazine and the little leaflets “Why do they do that” which you can still obtain from the Narthex at the ludicrously cheap price of 5p a sheet; If you still have difficulty in calling a man under 40 Father then you need to understand that it is not me who is Father, but the Christ whom I represent at that altar.
No, today I want to look at Matthew 23 Verse 12: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
For I believe that we really have got it all wrong.
Our values for success in society are really messed up. The first thing we do when we encounter someone at a party is ask them “…and what do you do?” and usually use that as a way of judging their worth, either to society or to ourselves.
We equate greatness with the size of our pay packets, prestige with the number of hours we work, our worth in the eyes of others.
And as a result, we are really not happy.
And we need to ask ourselves whether this unhappiness can be addressed by a pay raise, a promotion, a bigger car or a DVD recorder.
We really have got it all wrong.
This is a foretaste of what you need to start doing – bring your own copy of the Scriptures to Church, for if we are going to be a people that walk with God we need to walk closely with the Scriptures. So, I will be asking you to turn to the book of Ecclesiastes 2:4-11 (NIV)
4 I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.
5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.
6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees.
7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me.
8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well— the delights of the heart of man.
9 I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labour.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, the preacher as he is often called, had great success but it turned out to be meaningless: a chasing after the wind.
The preacher realised he had got it all so wrong.
Charles Schultz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip wrote this (which I have anglicised slightly). He asked:
1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world.
2. Name the last five Epsom Derby winners.
3. Name the last five winners of the Miss World competition.
4. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize.
5. Name the last half dozen Oscar winners for best actor and actress.
6. Name the last decade’s worth of FA Cup winners.
So, how did you do? I don’t expect you to do this now, but you get my drift.
The point is, none of us remembers the headliners of yesterday. These are no second-rate achievers. They are the best in their fields. But the applause dies. Awards tarnish. Achievements are forgotten. Accolades and certificates are buried with their owners.
Here’s another quiz. See how you do on this one:
1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.
2. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.
3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.
4. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.
5. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with.
The lesson: The people who make a difference in your life are not the ones with the most credentials, the most money, or the most awards. They are the ones that care.
We really have got it all wrong.
Paul took another, alternative view: turn if you can to his letter to the Philippians 4:12-13
12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
13 I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Paul has been there, done that, got the T-shirt and seen that what really matters is “I can do anything through him who gives me strength”.
Take this scripture to heart: “I can do anything through him who gives me strength”, and we all know who him is, don’t we?
The values of the wider Society are not the values of the Christian, and are not what we are called to. This walk with God that we are engaged on is for the creation of a new society, one that breaks the mould of conventional wisdom and has done so since Our Lord first proclaimed these truths. They may not be new truths, but they certainly are radical, the humble exaulted, the exaulted humbled. Paul could see how such a topsy-turvy kind of thinking had legitimacy. In America, some have taken an obscure part of the book of Chronicles (1 Chronicles 4:10) and used it to justify their greed and abuse of the third world and Paul sees right through this and showed that something else is both possible and necessary through Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
As you are aware, I have been walking with this parish for a year now. It was just over 12 months ago that the Bishop and the good people of Southsea were trapped on the other side of a police siege and a roadblock while I waited outside with the rural dean for the signing of my license here as Priest in Charge. Last week, I took the opportunity to review these first 12 months in a document, to analyse Sunday attendance figures at the 10am Mass, to look at initiatives and prayer opportunities, courses and fellowship events.
I promise I will share that document with you shortly, after the PCC have had the opportunity to consider it. But, the overall summary is promising: numbers at Mass are up, the eucharist offered during the week, the church open twice daily for the offices, coffee, lent and advent courses, it all looks good…
…and then I read something else on my email which drew me up. Just after I had completed the review for the standing committee, this email quoted someone and said:
“Many are so used to counting success by the ABC’s – Attendance, Buildings, Cash, and we have got it so wrong. We should not be counting Christians, but weighing them – judging success by the depth of our Christian engagement, not by the volume of our headcount”
We really have got it all wrong.
I really did get it all wrong.
• If one single person comes through these doors, and engages with God, for just a moment, whether in the sacred quietness of midweek, or the bustle of the Mass, then we will have done the Opus Dei, the work of God.
• If someone comes here to this Mass, either willingly or reluctantly, and thinks actually, that meant something for just a moment, and this begins them on a journey with the sacred, then we will have done the work of God.
• If someone who has been coming for years, who has settled into a comfortable let’s-not-think-about-it sort of religion but finds a spark of faith which revitalises the habit of many years, then we will have done the work of God.
• If the truth of the Gospel dawns on just one of you here, and your engagement with God is enriched by juts one little bit, then we will have done the work of God.
Sometimes we have to realise, that just being a part of the whole is not enough to not be a part of the problem. In our Gospel text, Our Lord speaks out against the Pharisees who wear the proper uniform of piety: big tassels on the prayer shawl, and these strange things called phylacteries which are little bits of Scripture placed in a box. It’s strange that the Torah forbade the wearing of all tattoos, as the Cananites would tattoo the name of their God on their bodies, but the Pharisees thought this was somehow different and somehow acceptable.
The phylactery is more to do with outward piety, a bit like praying on street corners. Look at Matthew 6:5
5 And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full.
than it is to do with adherence to the faith. Coming to church is not enough, I’m sorry. We are called to go a little deeper, to engage with God, to rediscover the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives, to live in the love of Jesus Christ our Lord, to make our faith, which may be just as little as a mustard seed (Luke 13:19)
19 It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.
To make our faith, little as it may be, weigh, like rich fruit.
So, think again about Society’s values, and how much of a slave we are to them. Think about Charles Schultz’s criteria for achievement, and what is really more valuable to both our lives and to our society.
Maybe we have been getting it wrong. We can see the benefit both to our selves, our lives, our society if we get it right. We have that opportunity to turn it around.