Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Trinity: The humility of God – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 2 October 2022 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (Habakkuk Ch 1: v 1 – 4; 2: 1 – 4; Luke Ch 17: v 5 – 10)
I had a dream a little while ago that I was in a shop desperately searching for shaving cream. At last I found some but it was part of a complex and expensive dispensing device which plugged into the mains electricity so that when you pressed a button a measured dollop was placed on one’s shaving brush.
These days, if men shave, they do it themselves with razors – electric or bladed. But old westerns always seem to picture barber’s shops with people, not having their hair cut, but being shaved, their faces copiously covered with lather and the barber wielding a fiendish knife. It was part of life then.
In a similar way, in Jesus’ day, it was part of life for dusty feet to be washed as a courtesy. Few people wore shoes – they were very much a luxury item and those that were worn were very often open sandals. In households with slaves or servants it was considered a kindness for a servant to wash the dusty feet of the guests. But it was a demeaning task and not the sort of job that anyone else was expected to do. That is why St. Peter is so scandalised at Jesus’ action at the Last Supper of washing their feet. There seemed to be a contradiction between Jesus, whom the disciples regarded as their Lord and Master and his action as a servant. It was too much for Peter – that is until he understands what Jesus is doing and then he wants Jesus to wash more of him!
Well Jesus is doing something which speaks to us of his character. He is also doing something for us to imitate. And he is doing something that speaks to us of God’s character.
Jesus is making a gesture of humility and service. You might think that God and humility are quite opposed. After all we ascribe to God all power, all creativity, all knowledge, all goodness. How could such a being show humility? But we also speak of Jesus as sharing the nature of God and humility for Jesus was not impossible, far from it. Furthermore, Jesus attacked pride as being contrary to the spirit of love which should guide our relationships with other people and with God. The story of the pharisee and the publican for instance highlights the pride of the pharisee as being a greater barrier to his relationship with God than all the sins of the publican whom the pharisee despised so much
God has truly a free choice. Although we share to some extent in that freedom of choice, we are inevitably hedged about by our upbringing; by the situations we meet; by our innate reactions. God has no such restrictions. He chose to create. He also chose to be hidden so that we are shielded from his glory.
St. Paul writes about Jesus sharing God’s divine nature. Part of his choice was to become truly human so that that divinity was, in a way, surrendered. He chose the path of humility by being born as a tiny dependent baby. He chose the path of obscurity in much of his early life. And finally, he was ready even to accept death on our behalf. That takes humility to a new level.
Because he chose such a path, he is able to demand from us a renunciation of all Pharisaic self-righteousness as our little parable in today’s gospel explains. St Luke places it amongst words addressed to the disciples but it seems unlikely that that company included farmers who possessed fields, cattle and servants. Indeed, it must have been a small farm if the one servant had to do both field work and housework. The original simile was more likely addressed to the crowd or to Jesus’ opponents. “Can you imagine that any of you when his servant came in from ploughing or tending the cattle would say: ‘Be quick, and sit down to your supper?’” Jesus is not complimentary about those who reckoned that their exemplary behaviour gave them a claim on God. “We have been good. Where is our reward?” gets a dusty answer. Doing what we should do does little to merit any extra approval from God.
As always, we look to our understanding of God’s ways and the example of Jesus to show us the way. God chooses the path of love and vulnerability in his dealings with us. He is no all-powerful tyrant who compels us to follow the direction he wants and demands. Instead, he loves us, guides us, helps us but he does not force us.
The washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus speaks volumes about Jesus himself and about God. But the ideal of caring and serving others has also passed into Christian consciousness. How many loving actions, how many lives of devoted service have, I wonder, been inspired by that record of a simple action by Jesus. And many of the tributes to Queen Elizabeth II have recalled her life of service and the inspiration she gained from her Christian faith.
We too in our Christian lives are called to follow Jesus. We are to be on the lookout for opportunities, which regularly occur, of helping others. And, of course, those who act in this way do it in a manner which means that their deeds are unsung and often unknown except to very few. Jesus said: “I have set you an example: you are to do as I have done for you.”