Sermon on Romans 12: 1-21, St Matthew's, 14th January 2012 (but changed quite a lot).
Today’s epistle reading – from Paul’s letter to the Romans – is partly about gifts and talents but also partly about how we should behave as Christians. I thought today I would focus on the idea that comes up again and again in Paul’s writings, and is in Jesus’ parables too, that whilst undoubtedly we human beings have weaknesses we also have strengths – gifts in other words - and how we are going to discern what these are.
My focusing on this theme in the epistle reading is partly motivated by reading Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. In this book Karen Armstrong challenges us to be more compassionate and sets out a twelve step programme for how to achieve this. After learning about compassion (Step 1) and looking at the world (Step 2) Step 3 is entitled ‘Compassion for yourself.’ Significantly this comes before ‘Compassion for others’ (Step 4).
Of course compassion for ourselves is important and something we regularly forget to practice. In our service just now I reminded you of Jesus’ summary of the law: Firstly ‘The Lord our God is one Lord and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they mind and with all thy strength’ and Secondly ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’. Now we all tend, to forget the second half of this Second Commandment. We are not only to love others but we are to love ourselves.
Now I think compassion for ourselves requires looking for and finding the good in ourselves rather than just the bad. In fact it would seem somehow perverse to love what we see as bad in ourselves – although I am not sure that it is always easy to tell what is good and what is bad and often the two are inextricably mixed. If we are courageous we may be reckless, if we are honest we are may be rude, etc. etc. But let’s leave that for a moment
Karen Armstrong tells a story about a friend – the Rabbi Albert Friedlander – who had grown up in Nazi Germany and as a child was bewildered and distressed by the vicious anti-Jewish propaganda that he heard from every quarter. One night when he was about eight years old he couldn’t sleep and so made a list of all his good qualities. He told himself firmly that he was not what the Nazis said, that he had talents and special gifts of heart and mind which he enumerated to himself one by one. Finally he vowed that if he survived he would use those qualities to build a better world. Karen Armstrong notes that this was an extraordinary insight for a child of eight in such circumstances, but she says that Albert Friedlander – in later life – was one of the kindest people she had ever met.
The commandment that thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself is related to what is sometimes known as the Golden Rule i.e. ’Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. Jesus commands his disciples to follow this rule when, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, he says ‘So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them, for this is the law and the prophets (Matthew 7:12).
Now the Golden Rule also presumes self-knowledge – you need to know what you wish men would do to you to be able to do the same for them. It requires us to know ourselves. And in particular we need to know what we need. Some of us find this really rather difficult. When my wife asks me whether I would like some breakfast I know whether I am hungry or not. So far so good. But if I am hungry and she asks me what I would like then things start to get difficult.
Should I have just a slice of toast as I am trying to lose weight? Or should I say a bacon sandwich which I know I will enjoy but has lots of calories or should I compromise with some porridge. I just don’t know. But what I do know is that I like my wife offering to make breakfast for me – even if I don’t actually need any breakfast. It is a fairly safe bet that she would like it if I were offer to make breakfast for her. In part I know this because I know myself.
We do know our basic needs - for food for love – and because we know this we can respond to one another’s needs. We can love our neighbours as ourselves. Love seems to me – at heart – about responding to one another’s needs. Paul says as much when he talks in this passage about how members of the Roman church should behave towards one another e.g. verse 10 suggests that they ‘should outdo one another in showing honor’. This is because Paul knows that in Roman society ‘honor’ is a big deal. Romans got stressed if they felt that people were dishonouring them or their family. Their need for honor was great. To respond to this need was to ‘love one another with brotherly affection.’
But beyond our general needs we may not know our specific needs. It is – I admit – conceivable that someone else – someone who really knows and loves me – my wife perhaps – might know – better than I know myself – what I should have for breakfast. We do not know our specific needs because we are not honest with ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses.
Paul tells the Roman Christians ‘I bid everyone one of you not think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him.’ But my problem is not I think – thinking more highly of myself than I ought – though perhaps I am a bit guilty of that – but of thinking of myself with sober judgement and coming to a conclusion about who I am. I do not think I could –very easily - do what Albert Friedlander did as a child: enumerate my talents and gifts – my strengths in other words.
The flip side of recognising one’s strengths is to recognise one’s weaknesses. I certainly cannot easily enumerate my weaknesses. This is even harder than enumerating my strengths. But I do think the attempt is worthwhile. We do this in general terms in most of our acts of worship and we will shortly say a prayer of confession today. But although it is relatively easy I think to acknowledge that, we – in general - commit ‘manifold sins and wickednesses…by thought, word and deed’ it is much harder to admit what these are in detail even to ourselves and certainly to others.
But confessing our sins and weaknesses is not the subject of this sermon: it is identifying our strengths. This is surely the part of ourselves which we present to God at the end of our service, in the prayer of oblation, when we offer ‘ourselves, our sours and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and lively sacrifice’. After all we can hardly offer our manifold sins and wickednesses to be such a sacrifice can we?
Note that Paul starts this section of his letter on gifts and Christian living with the words ‘I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present you bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service’. The words are obviously the origin of the prayer.
So how are we to identify our strengths? I think that what Paul suggests rather helpfully here in Romans is that we can begin to identify our gifts in the context of our relationships with others. Here he talks about this context as the ‘body of Christ’.
He’s just been talking about presenting our individual bodies as a living sacrifice. Here is another sort of body – a corporate rather than an individual body - and it is only within this body – the body of Christ -that presenting our individual body makes sense. He urges his readers ‘Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us let us use them’ –try them out – in the context of - and for the benefit of - that corporate body to which we belong.
So if we are a prophet we must prophecy, if we are good at serving people we must serve, if we are a teacher we must teach, if we are a car mechanic we must mend cars, only then will the body that we are all part of function properly. Note too that Paul talks about gifts –here at least- as mainly things we do rather than things we are but I think we can see gifts as both character traits and skills.
What is this body of Christ of which we are members and hence ‘individually members one of another’? Those who heard Paul’s letter for the first time would have been wrong to assume that it meant just their little church. It meant at least all the Christians in Roman and beyond.
It seems to me significant that Paul – in this passage – moves seamlessly on from his exhortations to use our gifts to further exhortations about how we are to use these gifts i.e. in a loving fashion. It is no good being good at giving aid to others if we don’t do this with zeal and it’s no good if we have a talent for mercy but aren’t cheerful about it.
This discernment – and more importantly - use of our gifts are primarily acts of love: a response to others needs. Do we first need to love ourselves before we can love one another, as the order of Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Live would seem to suggest and indeed the commandment to ‘Love our neighbours as ourselves’ implies? Perhaps not: if discernment of our gifts is in the using of them in the service of others.
So loving ourselves is hard. Even knowing ourselves, what we truly need and who we are, including our good qualities, is difficult. Perhaps self-knowledge is not absolutely essential for if we are to love ourselves. We are commanded to love ourselves but only in the context of loving others and not for its own sake.