A sermon preached by Maggie Guillebaud on 26 October 2019
Let me tell you the story of a Franciscan monk in Assisi who, some fifty years ago, was to have a profound effect on me many, many years later as I began to sense the first stirrings of a priestly vocation.
He was called Mario Trippolini, a local man, of deep faith, great charm, who spoke virtually no English, just as I then spoke very little Italian. But we got along just fine.
He had been to England on a rather unsuccessful English course, and was as much bemused by this strange new language as he was horrified by English food: on his first night his hosts, in order to make him feel at home, had given him spaghetti hoops with chips. But at least they had tried.
As I got to know him better I asked him one day why he had become a monk? His answer was the last thing I expected.
As a child he had had some kind of problem with his leg. I cannot remember if it was an accident or infection, but his parents were told that the leg would have to be amputated, and soon. Horrified, his mother gathered the entire family together, and they spent the whole night in prayer. The next day his leg began to heal.
Now, he said, what else could I do but become a monk? I had no answer to that.
But as we all know, prayer is not often answered in quite such a dramatic fashion.
Today’s gospel is surprisingly tough. Jesus’ parable of the two men praying in the synagogue continues his teaching on prayer from last week, where we learnt the beauty of perseverance in prayer, as evinced by my Italian friend. In this passage his teaching is aimed at ‘some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and regarded others with contempt.’ Contempt – that is a very harsh word. And the figure of the smug Pharisee, standing by himself, secure in his own virtues, is equally unappealing.
I think in the modern idiom the Pharisee might be accused of what is known in some circles as ‘virtue signalling’. One of those who know, absolutely know, that they are right and we are wrong, and rejoice in it. Pick your favourite cause: veganism, vaccinations, trust in politicians, Brexit – the list is endless. I’m right, and you’re wrong: I don’t need to hear your side of the argument. How much of our public discourse over the last three years has sounded a bit like that?
And then we have the term ‘woke’, meaning that you are alert to injustice, especially racism. No harm in that, but if we use it as a badge of differentiation – that is, I stand on higher moral ground because I am woke - I think we may need a conversation. When does your inner conviction of what is right become intolerance?
The last three years have been deeply unsettling for our society as the arguments about Brexit has compelled people to take sides. That, in a healthy democracy, should not be a problem: we take different sides on all kinds of issues, from domestic to global, on a daily basis. But what has been worrying about this particular issue has been the way in which the two sides have become so polarised. And this polarisation has divided our society in a way which I have never in my lifetime seen before. Both sides claim the high moral ground. And that is potentially dangerous as it can become, I believe, a breeding ground for intolerance and contempt.
This morning’s gospel shows us that contempt has an ugly twin: the Pharisee’s sense of moral superiority, the very opposite of the humility that the tax collector, always a person of suspicion and mistrust in Jesus’ day, embodies. After all, he collected taxes on behalf of the hated Romans, the occupiers. He knows he is a sinner, he knows he has done wrong. He is miserable about it. He implores God for mercy. And it is he, we are told, who goes home justified, not the smug Pharisee, ‘for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
The idea of humility is not popular in a world of me, me. Yet what it means to Christians is relatively simple: a profound understanding of our proper relationship with God. Its root is the Latin for earth, humus. It means being grounded, one might say rooted and grounded, before God. God chose to manifest himself on earth by sending his Son to live among us, a Son who humbled himself and became a servant of all, one who spent his comparatively short life on earth pouring himself out for us, finally dying on a cross for us. At the end of his life he was humiliated, but never humbled, because he had a very acute sense of where he stood in relation to his heavenly Father - ‘not my will, but your will be done’ were his words as he wrestled with his fear before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.
Now for me intolerance and a sense of moral superiority can too often translate into another tricky concept, tribalism. In an increasingly uncertain world, how much easier it is to identify with people who look like us, who sound like us, who behave like us. But that is not the message Jesus proclaimed in his parable about all those important people who were too busy to accept the invitation to the King’s great feast. The King was impelled to send his servants into the highways and byways to gather all the marginalised, the suspect, the unimportant, to his banquet. Our heavenly Father welcomes all to his great heavenly banquet, regardless of who they are or where they come from. He does not belong to any one tribe.
Not so long ago I was walking through the Close and came upon one of those litter-filled groups of young people making quite a noise and generally not behaving as us oldies think might be appropriate. I decided to tackle them. ‘Hey guys’ I said, ‘ before you go home, don’t forget to put your rubbish in the bin. We have only one groundsman here, and he needs all the help he can get.’ I waited for a push-back. But what happened next astounded me. ‘Yes’, said one of the boys, ‘and leaving rubbish around is disrespectful’. Disrespectful! You could have knocked me over with a feather.
And yet, and yet. It was ME who had made assumptions about this group, based on my own tribal background, and I was so wrong. These were just young people enjoying being with each other, a bit rowdy, but weren’t we all teenagers once? When tackled with a smile, they were charming. I like to think they did pick up the rubbish.
We must be careful, it seems to me, as a congregation, as a church, as a society, to beware of the assumptions we make about those who are not like us, who don’t agree with us. And we must also resist the Pharasaical tendencies, which lurk unbidden in our own hearts, to judge those very same people. If Christianity means anything, it means we are all equally loved, valued, and cherished by God. Virtue signalling, intolerance, a sense of moral superiority – these are inimical to the Gospel as we have received it. In God’s eyes there is no them and us, only us.
- This cathedral has borne witness to extraordinary events: countless wars, feuds, plague, the Reformation, the rise and fall of Empire. It is the repository of the hopes and fears, and most importantly prayers, of the people of this diocese and beyond for 800 years. It has been sustained by prayer and worship.
As we live through yet another period of turbulence in our national life it is well that we remember that we have been through worse. And what matters now is that we dedicate ourselves afresh to prayer, and to the healing of the nation as we begin to dress the wounds of the last three years. We must stand in solidarity with the tax collector, humbly before God, resisting the temptations of the Pharisee to judge, to exclude, to believe that we are in the right, rejoicing in our own moral superiority. That is not God’s way.
As we prepare to meet Christ in bread and wine we are eternally reminded of this. It is the inclusivity of love which holds us together humbly before God. And that is what will sustain us, whatever the future holds.