The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      4th October 2020
Radical Humility
Jan Rushton

Philippians 3.4b.14;  Matthew 22.33-46 (wicked tenants)

This is the third of four Sundays in the lectionary for Year A 
when we have as our New Testament reading, selections from the letter of Paul to the Philippians, a letter which contains some of the most moving reflections on Christian faith, and in particular, Paul’s reflections regarding the quality of humility.
Philippi is the leading city of Macedonia.  Founded by Philip, 
father of Alexander the Great - it had a lot to feel proud of! 
Commanding the pass between Asia and Europe, commerce 
coupled with historic mining of gold and silver had made its citizens wealthy.
They took great pride in their status as a Roman colony, a miniature Rome, 
fiercely observant of Roman customs and culture.
And it was here that Anthony defeated Brutus and Cassius 
determining the future of this empire.
We read in the Book of Acts that Paul on his missionary journey, 
finding his way barred by the cities of Asia Minor, 
Paul has a vision in his sleep of a man calling him to come to Macedonia.
Ever the strategist, he makes the city of Philippi his centre for mission, 
for spreading the good news of the gospel across the Greek cities!
His first convert is a woman of Asian origin called Lydia. 
She has significant standing as a merchant, trading in costly purple,  
and a new Christian community is established in her home.
Needless to say it is not long before the message of liberation that is the gospel, 
also attracts those whose lives are burdened, and in particular 
a Greek slave girl with a gift of divination, highly lucrative for her owners.
They and those whose exploitation of the poor 
is both challenged and disrupted by this new gospel, are furious.
Not surprisingly we read in Acts that Paul is dragged before the city magistrates 
accused of advocating customs ‘not lawful for Roman citizens’!
Attacked by the crowd, he is beaten and imprisoned.
And there follows an extraordinary story of an earthquake and conversion of the Roman guard! 
Now, claiming his Roman citizenship, Paul is released, 
and leaves the city commending his new - and multicultural congregation,  
to the protection of God - they now inheriting the persecution Paul has suffered.
A deep and lasting friendship has been forged, and this church 
does not forget Paul in his need, twice sending him gifts 
to support his ministry, first to Thessalonica and later to Corinth, 
and ten years later sending in person to Rome one of their number, Epaphroditus, 
to take care of Paul, once more locked up in prison.
In his prison cell Paul begins to hear of divisions within his beloved community.
Those recurring divisions over the application of the Jewish Law for Christians. 
He writes to them, his words on the matter fierce against what he sees as ‘selfish ambition’.  
But his letter is also full of great warmth and gratitude, 
Paul speaks of them as ‘his crown and joy’, as he encourages them to stand firm, calling for unity.   
We can infer from what he writes, that his opponents 
are seeking to infiltrate and persuade his precious converts to another stricter form of Christianity,
insisting on circumcision for the followers of Christ.
It would appear these infiltrators are also using Paul’s imprisonment 
as a sign that he does not enjoy God’s blessing - 
is mistaken in his understanding of the freedoms of the gospel!
Thus in our reading this morning Paul strongly asserts his credentials as true apostle of Christ!
He is indeed himself circumcised, an Israelite of the tribe of Benjamin, 
a Pharisee, before the Law blameless - even a persecutor of the Church!! 
Yet all this means nothing to him, indeed it is as rubbish 
compared to the surpassing joy and strength of knowing the resurrection that is in Christ!
And he returns again to his recurring theme in this letter: humility.
Paul has not yet arrived at fulness of life in Christ!  
He continues to strive after growing into Christ’s resurrection life!
Calls them to follow his example! In unity with one another.
In this Letter to the Philippians Paul repeatedly returns 
to this quality of humility as is exemplified in the humility of Christ, 
forsaking equality with God to take on human form.
Not the humility exhorted of worshippers in the church on Putney Common 
where I was priest at the turn of the Millennium.
A Victorian gem with something of the feel of All Saints Margaret Street, 
this church was lovingly built for the working classes, 
with windows by William Morris and Burne-Jones.
However these windows exhort those who regard them 
to patient acceptance of the burdens life may throw at you!
Temperance, Faith, Charity, Hope, Prudence, Fortitude!
Exhorting the poor of the parish to passivity!
True humility, far from being a matter of ‘knowing your place’, 
your lowly place, true humility is about being at ease within your own skin, 
at home with who you are such that you have no need of seeking affirmation in high status, 
such that your self-esteem is not dependant on the esteem of others - nice as that may be!
With such inner security rooted in our relationship with God
we have the freedom to focus on others, and their needs. 
A perspective far from that of the religious authorities who ruled from the Temple in Jerusalem.
The target of Jesus fierce parable this morning, the religious authorities 
presented as the tenants to whom the vineyard is leased.
God of course, is the landowner to whom the tenants owe everything.
And from whom God expects right worship, that is, worship expressed in the manner of their living - which is, a society built on justice and compassion!  That good fruit!
These tenants however, will hold onto their power at any cost!  
Jesus sees - and warns. Warns that their inheritance shall be taken from them and given to others!
This gospel is written at a point where this warning is become reality. 
God’s holy city and its Temple have been destroyed and her people killed, 
those who escaped scattered across the Roman Empire.
And this gospel is the only one to speak of a new entity, the Church, 
a concept yet to be imagined in Jesus’ own lifetime.
Here we see Matthew establishing a theological basis 
for the separation of the Christian community from its Jewish roots.
A separation which has already happened.
We know the scenario Jesus presents in this parable only too well! 
Holding onto power at any cost!  
Day by day we are observers of an attempt to do just this ‘across the Pond’!
A macho assertion of entitlement to power based on ‘merit’ - 
his personal achievement in every aspect of life, 
be that as billionaire businessman - questionable, or, until two days ago,
his personal ability to resist a virus which for most of us, is no respecter of persons.  
Perhaps wearing a mask does protect after all?
Democracy is rule by the will of the majority.
But it will not remain democracy if that majority does not also respect, 
actively create place for, that other - those losing minorities - 
which are also part of God’s good creation and precious to him.
And in particular those who are not ‘strong enough’ to ‘merit’ their place at the table.  
None of us can do this, earn, ‘merit’, accomplish, our own salvation.
It is God’s gift of grace to us.  How we think about these things matters. 
There are consequences to our attitudes, our perspectives on life.
As American philosopher Micahel Sandel said recently in a lecture for Theos, 
a think tank seeking to generate debate about the place of religion in society:
Meritocracy inflates the winners’ opinion of their own worth — 
and makes them look down on the poor. 
This moral corrosion generates hubris among winners 
and humiliation among losers — and breeds the kind of resentment, 
which has produced Donald Trump, Brexit, 
and populist hyper-nationalism across the globe.  Amen.

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