Episode 4 of 4 in our series, The Challenges of Following Jesus.
Have you ever had the experience of Not Being Picked for something you really wanted to be involved in? I have.
At school, I was the tubby kid who was always the last pick for any sports team. I didn’t mind that – I didn’t particularly want to be running around the field anyway. But when the school set up a School Council, and I wasn’t picked for that, it smarted. So I kindly but firmly pointed out that it wasn’t fair for one person to represent the whole Sixth Form – there should be reps for upper and lower sixth. The staff agreed! They opened up an extra position, for which I was eligible. And guess what? I was Not Picked again!
Later, when I was completing my degree at Oxford University, I started applying for PhD places at prestigious universities. I applied to stay at Oxford – Rejected. I tried Cambridge – Rejected. Imperial College London? Rejected. Cardiff? “Nothing available this year, but please try next year.”
For the first time in my life, I was without options. All the doors I had pushed at were closed. I suffered the deepest sense of rejection I had ever experienced in my life. Then, most unexpectedly, an opening came up to work for the Church in Nottingham for a year, and after that gap year, I was able to come to Cardiff for my PhD. Now, with hindsight, I can see God’s hand at work in all of those closed and opened doors, but at the time it was very painful.
When we experience rejection, we leap to the conclusion that God doesn’t care about us. That’s a mistake! God cares a lot, but in this fallen world God allows situations to take place where we experience temporary rejection. Even God’s own son, Jesus Christ, was rejected by his own people before rising into everlasting glory.
What is God saying to us today? We are the “Church in which everyone is a ‘first-born son’ and a citizen of heaven.” God has no grandchildren – we are all equally, by our baptism, sons and daughters of the living God! The Word goes on to say that we have “been placed with spirits of the saints who have been made perfect”. That doesn’t sound like much of a rejection to me!
God does not reject us – but if we have unrealistic expectations, we will certainly experience rejection. This is why Jesus is so keen to immunize us against rejection with the teaching He gives today.
“Always take the lowest place,” he tells us. First, notice that WE ARE INVITED. Jesus is not saying we shouldn’t come to the banquet. We are invited, and we are expected. It is the right place for us! If we come without expecting or demanding honours or special treatment, we cannot be disappointed. But if our expectations are too high, we will be humbled.
Friends in Christ, I know that you who worship regularly in St John Lloyd are about to enter a challenging period of weeks. For two months, there will be no resident priest here. Then there will be a new priest to get used to. You will be tempted with proud thoughts:
“Why was OUR parish chosen to be without a priest for two months? Why was Pastor Gareth sent here for such a short time if he wasn’t going to be able to stay? We deserve better!” If you allow those thoughts to get the better of you, then you will experience a rejection which is not God’s plan for you. But if you were to say to yourself: “We are a small parish. The Archbishop could have easily merged us or left us without a priest. We know resources are limited, and whatever we are given is a gift,”, then in our hearts we will have taken the lowest place, and will receive a blessing from Christ.
I want to invite you, here and now, this evening, to make a commitment. Because there will be different priests for the next two months, the style of worship will vary from week to week. Then you will need to get used to your new parish priest. You may feel tempted to go to Mass somewhere else. That might be good for you – but it wouldn’t be good for this parish and it wouldn’t be good for your new parish priest. Therefore, I ask you: if you regularly come to this Saturday evening Mass, or if you come one of the Masses at St John Lloyd every weekend, will you make a humble committment tonight to keep coming here for the next four months, however bumpy things feel?
Will you support each other through the time of change? Will you give your new priest a chance?
Finally, a word to those of you whose hearts have been wounded by rejection. The only person who can heal that wound is called Jesus. I must leave you for a new assignment, but Jesus will never leave this parish, and he, the Good Shepherd, will never abandon even one of you, who are his sheep. There are many ways Jesus comes to us. When we receive Holy Communion, he enters us in the form of the Blessed Sacrament. But he can also touch our hearts and minds in prayer.
Therefore I have one final parting gift for you.
I invite you to close your eyes and open your hands in front of you.
In this moment of prayer, I ask Jesus Our Lord to speak to each one of you, in the depths of your heart. You are not a mistake. Your being here is not an accident. You are loved by God and saved by Jesus.
Whatever rejection you may have experienced from other human beings, however it might have seemed like God himself had forgotten you, he was with you. I ask Jesus to come to you now and touch your hearts.
Come, Holy Spirit!