How high can you go without falling down? – a sermon and temptation for Lent 3B

A sermon for Guilden Sutton. Lent 3B. March 8th 2015.

On top of the World Trade Centre: how high can you go without falling down?

Well. Top of the morning to you.

Ever hear that expression? An Irish greeting – “top of the morning to you”, meaning “the best of the morning to you” – for which the response is “and the rest of the day to you”.

It’s a bit like our responses, “Peace be with you”, “and also with you”.

So “top of the morning to you” …………………

It’s a greeting of energy isn’t it – someone who’s got up at 5.30 and stolen a march on everyone else. “The top of the morning to you”. It’s the greeting of someone who is full of beans, feeling “on top of the world”: “On top of the world” as opposed to being “under the weather”.

I have a theory that we usually only ever see people who are “on top of the world”. People who are “under the weather” keep themselves to themselves in a self-imposed hiding, unless the weather they’re under is “fine”.

“How are you today?” “I’m fine thanks.”

But we see very few people who are really under the weather – those with depression, those who are drowning are hidden.

We are in a time of discipline. This is Lent when our consciousness of temptation is heightened and we are more likely to respond to the call to resist.

There are a number of temptations for those who feel “on top of the world”. Those “on top of the world” can be so annoying. “Cocky” is the word we’ll often use – the cock, who really is “top of the morning to you”.

Jesus had this temptation when he felt “on top of the world”. Do you remember the story (Luke 4:9-12)?

The devil had Jesus stand on the highest point of the temple and said “if you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here”. He said “you’ll be all right because God will send his angels to make sure you don’t get hurt.”

Here is the temptation to be wonder-full, the temptation to be Mr High and Mighty, the temptation to be Mr Big. It’s a temptation that takes place on the pinnacle of the temple – on the height of religious experience and achievement. Many people stand at that same spot, on top of the world, on to the height of religious experience and achievement … and they think they’re wonderful, proud that they’ve got there, looking down on others, judging and despising.

I work at Church House. We have staff prayers on Mondays. The person leading those prayers asked us to have some moments of quietness to reflect on how we were doing in Lent, where we were up to in our Lenten discipline. This came as a bit of a shock to me because at that stage, 5 days into Lent, I hadn’t got round to thinking about my Lent.

I had read a reflection that morning on Jesus’ 3rd temptation. That made my decision for me for this Lent – to be disciplined to keep my feet on the ground, to count the blessings of being down to earth, to appreciate the lowly, and to remember who I am when, as sometimes happens, I am lured on to high ground. The question, the very real question for me (and for all of us) is how we behave when we are on high ground, when we are on the moral high ground, when we are on top of the world, how do we behave?

I was reminded of a story by G K Chesterton about a curate who had taken to praying, “not on the common floor with his fellow men, but on the dizzying heights of its spires”. Father Brown goes up to rescue him. He says: “I think there is something rather dangerous about standing on these high places even to pray. Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from.”

He tells the curate: “I knew a man who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that, though he was a good man, he committed a great crime. He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor.”

You may ask what all this has to do with today’s readings. Paul (1 Cor 1:18-25) asked the Christians at Corinth to consider their own calling. He tells them “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the strong”.

The problems that Paul was addressing in his letter to the Corinthians are outlined in the same chapter. The Corinthian church is a divided community, torn apart by quarrels and people taking sides with Paul, Apollos or Cephas.

Paul’s response is that no one should boast about human leaders (3:21). He tells them that he came to them in weakness, in fear and trembling. “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the  power of God.” (2:4)

So when we’re feeling “top of the world”, on top of our game, doing well, think again. That feeling is the doorway of temptation. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the strong. How will you stand when you’re on top of the world? How will you behave? Will you resist the temptation to look good?

A Baptist minister talks about the robe that he puts on every Sunday. He says that it stands for his professional expertise and training. But he also says that it signals that “we’re all fools for Christ”. He says “I think of myself as a kind of court jester and freelancer in life.” He says that he is always wondering, wondering about God. He is an expert who knows his foolishness and his limits. This makes him a good facilitator of community and friendship.

What are we like? Whether we spend a lot of our time on the high ground, in high places, along corridors of power; or whether we are occasional visitors, what are we like? What do we do? How do we behave?

Do we remember our calling, to be salt of the earth, a calling of the foolish to shame the wise, a calling of the weak to shame the strong?

Do we remain down to earth, with feet on the ground? Or do we pride ourselves on our position?

Do we remain full of wonder? Or do our ways shout to those beneath us, “look at me, how wonderful I am”?

Oh, the temptations of high places and of doing well.

References:
Malcolm Guite. 2015. Word in the Wilderness: 3rd Temptation https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/tag/temptation/
Celia Allison Hahn. 1994. Growing in Authority, Relinquishing Control. The Alban Institute.

Leaving childhood: Holy Innocents Day

Massacre of the Innocents by Fra Angelico

Today is Holy Innocents Day, when we are called to remember childhood how children have been slaughtered. The focus is on the baby boys Herod slaughtered in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus, but also embraces the children slaughtered throughout history.

Jesus teaches that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18) This prompts the question about what childhood is. Is it something about vulnerability, dependence, naively and learning. Jesus added the word “humility”. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

And then we grow out of childhood, spending a lot of our time bigging ourselves up, taking ourselves out of reach of that kingdom Jesus spoke about.

I am reading organisations don’t tweet, people do by Euan Semple? He seems to suggest that the qualities that make for childhood are the qualities that are needed for leaders and organisations to be successful as he talks about vulnerability and humility in these terms:

“Being open about your failings isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and wouldn’t be acceptable in every workplace, but just a little more openness about your failings in front of your staff might be just be the best way to improve your working relationships. Being seen not to know, and being willing to ask for help, can be the best way to make other people feel valued. It also signals to them that it is OK not to know everything all the time. This creates the sort of culture where people are willing to open up and share what they know to everyone’s mutual benefit.”

Crossing a path on Palm Sunday

MA062S01 World Bank
It’s only a donkey! There was no horsepower to Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem.
Photo from the World Bank Photo Collection

In his excellent book Barefoot DiscipleStephen Cherry reminds us that we have misunderstood Jesus’ “triumphal” entry into Jerusalem and suggests that we should not be celebrating a triumphal entry on Palm Sunday but a “humble entry”. That is what Matthew makes of it. Matthew cuts the “triumphant and victorious” reference of Zechariah’s prophecy and simply says, “Look your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” (21:5). The crowd wanted a triumphal entry of a Saviour to please them. Jesus’ humble entry led to a humble end. He refused to play to the crowd (his last temptation?) who expected him to turn the tables on their occupiers, and then they turned the tables on him.

Like many Christians I joined the Palm Sunday procession yesterday. I was at Chester Cathedral. We went into the city. I have seen many processions, including many I dare not and could not cross. They were triumphal processions. They were pompous processions. Yesterday several people crossed our path.  This was an unpretentious procession. This was a procession you could touch (and the children loved petting the donkey!) I appreciated the soft edge of our procession and the hospitality of the ground that was given to all who passed by. If that’s the way of the cross, that’s the way to go.

How Jesus entered Jerusalem challenges our rather grand entrances. Don’t we like to wade in? Don’t we like to look big? Don’t we try to impress? I followed the humble procession yesterday. I’m not so sure how much I fit with my other interventions, my entries into conversations, rooms and situations. There’s a way to go: a way that is far more compassionate.

Stephen Cherry blogs at Another Angle

>h.r.l. – his royal lowliness

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this stone marks the lowest point on earth

Jesus starts at the bottom – and stays there.

Ten days ago we were rounding off the church’s year by celebrating Christ the King – it has to remain a private awards ceremony because so many in the world choose to disagree – and Jesus would never impose himself. He’s King only to those who want him as such. Humility is his middle name.

We start the new year with clues that it is not “Highness” to describe his position, but low(li)ness. It is his royal lowliness (no capitals please) that according to the Advent hymn O come, o come Emmanuel “from depths of hell thy people save”. Jesus’s ministry begins at the lowest point on the surface of the earth – in the River Jordan. His life proceeds along the same low level of altitude – the wrong side of the fault line – to his death on the cross.

Jude Simpson has a wonderful Advent Reflection called Broken Open which takes us along this low line. She traces Jesus’s movements through the lowest points of people’s lives.