Friday, 24 February 2012

Lenten fasting and Meat Free Fridays

Sermon on Matthew 6. 1-6, 16-21 and Isaiah 58. 1-12, Harris Manchester College, Oxford, Ash Wednesday, 2012

Today I thought I would talk about fasting. Our readings today are about fasting and Ash Wednesday – which we are celebrating today – is the start of Lent – when traditionally Christians have fasted until Easter. Of course very few of us fast during Lent anymore and the idea of a Lenten fast really only survives in the custom of giving up something for Lent. However when we do ‘give things up’ we often give up some specific type of luxury food – chocolate or alcohol, for example.

Today I want to commend to you the idea of fasting: even the giving up of certain foods for Lent. I want to suggest that fasting is a positively good thing and a custom we need to re-appropriate rather than abandon as something old fashioned and anachronistic.

By fasting I mean voluntarily depriving ourselves of food as opposed to say some other necessity or luxury. There are basically two types of fasting: firstly not eating at all or much less than usual - generally for a given period of time. The Islamic tradition of Ramadan includes fasting of this type. Secondly not eating a particular type of food – this can be for all of the time or again at particular times. Not eating red meat – as prescribed by St Benedict in his Rule would be fasting of this type, as would not eating meat but only fish on Fridays.

We may want to restrict the notion of fasting to food restriction with a religious or at least moral purpose. Some people, for example, do not eat wheat, because they are allergic to it. This doesn’t seem to warrant the description of fasting. Some people recently have joined Paul McCartney in his campaign for Meat Free Mondays. Is giving up meat on Monday – because of green-house gases associated with meat production - fasting? I would say so.

It is clear that the Church has largely abandoned the notion of fasting -as a religious practice. I can only really speak for the Anglican Church in the England but it also seems true of other denominations and in other countries too.

This is despite the fact that the Bible assumes that the practice is a normal thing to do and also that fasting has been part of the observance of Christianity for much of its two thousand year history. A legal prohibition on eating meat on Friday’s in this country was only repealed in the mid nineteenth century. And as late as the 1660s there were prosecutions for infringing fasting rules enshrined in English law. In the Middle Ages fasting was routine: not just in monasteries but on the part of ordinary people. There isn’t really time today to give you a history of Christian fasting which we in the Church seem to have largely forgotten as irrelevant – perhaps to our cost.

The best known Christian fasting practice is perhaps the Lenten fast with a long tradition going back to the early church. This has – over the years – involved both types of fasting I mentioned earlier – eating less than usual and only eating particular foods and not others. Red meat has been the food most generally restricted but so also have dairy products and eggs (leading to a surplus that then need to be eaten at Easter).

Lent has traditionally been viewed as commemorating Jesus’ 40 day fast in the wilderness at the start of his ministry but early Christian writers did not always make the connection. Athanasius, for example, makes no such association referring instead to various Old Testament figures who fasted. And indeed there are many: Daniel, Hezekiah, Ahab, Elijah, Samuel, Hannah, Moses to name but a few.

Our readings today whilst recording Isaiah’s and Jesus’ criticisms of fasting practices at the time assume that fasting per se is something a normal religious person would want to engage in: as normal as praying and giving to the poor. Both Isaiah and Jesus talk about how fasting should best be done. To summarise excessively: Isaiah suggests that fasting should not just be done for the benefit of the individual concerned but as a means of sharing food with the poor. Jesus tells us that when we fast we should not make a big deal of it.

But why did people fast? I guess this is a question like: why do people pray? Or even why do people give to the poor? The possible answers are many and varied.

You can explain fasting – as indeed you can explain prayer and giving to the poor on purely sociological or ecological grounds. Clearly one of the reasons why the Lenten fast got taken up in Northern European countries was because it made a virtue of a necessity. Food supplies in countries such as ours were – before we imported much of our food and developed ways of producing food that didn’t depend on the weather – were at their lowest in late winter, early spring. Meat was in particular short supply. At one level fasting in Lent created a way of providing for a fairer distribution of food when food was scarce. A point that has not escaped various Christian writers including Richard Hooker who echoing the Isaiah passage we heard today suggests that ‘much hurt hath grown to the Church of God through the a false imagination that Fasting standeth men in no stead for any spiritual respect, but only to take down the frankness of nature, and to tame the wildness of flesh’.

Of course fasting clearly has something to do with having control over our bodies – both individual and corporate – when those bodies seem – in different ways – out of control: ‘taming the wildness of the flesh’ as Hooker puts it. Those of us who give alcohol or chocolate for Lent are surely doing so, at least partly because we feel that alcohol or chocolate somehow exert some undesirable control over us.

And fasting clearly has some connection with one particular aspect of the wildness of the flesh: the sin of gluttony. Fasting seems to have developed – at least in part – as an expression of resistance towards the temptation to over-eat with all that entails. However nowadays when even Governments argue that we need to consume more to get us out of recession the sin of gluttony seems, in many quarters, to have been downgraded to a minor peccadillo or even a positive good.

But to my way of thinking there is an increase in gluttony, or as secular society prefers to frame it – of problems relating to over-consumption. I have in mind here the not just the problem of over consumption of food leading to obesity but also other problems relating to over-consumption of land, water and fossil-fuels – the latter leading in particular to the problem of global warming.

And lest anyone mistake what I am saying – when I say the sin of gluttony is on the increase I do not mean just gluttony as a problem for individuals but as a problem for society as a whole. Obesity is not just - or even mainly - the fault of the individual who is obese but of the food manufacturers and retailers who – with the permission of governments of all parties - sell us foods which make us fat. It is not just our fault that it is easier to use up the oil to get to work rather than work near to where we live.

Fasting as a means of doing something about the modern problems of overconsumption/gluttony does seem to be making a bit of a comeback in our ever more secular society just as the Church abandons it.

Yesterday – in my capacity as a researcher into healthy diets - I went to the launch of the Government’s latest initiative to curb obesity. The Government is challenging us all – both consumers and producers of foods- to make our contribution to cutting calorie intake in the UK by 5 billion a day. This means that we will all on average need to cut calories by about 5% which would be enough to halt the rise in obesity and even to reverse it. And similarly food producers will need to sell us 5% less calories than they currently do. The challenge seems a bit like the national fast called by Queen Victoria in response to the calamity of the Indian Mutiny. OK the crisis is different but the call for restraint in what we eat is similar.

So even the Government commends fasting of a type. Of course I don’t think that they have got it quite right. It is more important, in my view, to cut down on meat and dairy products and even eat more fruit and vegetables rather than cut down on food in general (here I think St Benedict would agree with me). But I do think that they are right to see fasting as not just the responsibility of the individual but of us all collectively. The Church has come to see fasting as basically a matter of individual choice: and this is surely where it has gone wrong.

None of this is to deny the psychological and spiritual benefits of fasting which I seem to have neglected in this sermon. I will try and deal with them on another day. At this precise moment I do not see how eating less calories or less meat and dairy makes us feel closer to God but I am sure it must.

So to conclude. It is time, think, that we within the Church recaptured Biblical notions of fasting. How are we to do that? Well for starters we need to see fasting as cutting down on foods, real physical foods, and not merely as a metaphor for something else – abstinence from something we consider a luxury, for example. Food is not a luxury. And after that I commend to you the old idea of not eating meat on Fridays and giving it up entirely for Lent.

With apologies to Meat Free Mondays and thanks to 'Theology on the Menu' by David Grumett and Rachel Muers (Routledge, 2010)

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Compassionate Life

Luke 15: 1-32, Micah 7: 18-20

Today I want to talk about compassion. This is a sermon in our series ‘The Relevant Jesus’. So I wanted to say something about what Jesus had to say about compassion that was new and different then and is still new and different – yet relevant - today.

I am also keen to talk about compassion because we are reading Karen Armstrong’s relatively new book: ‘Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life’ in a discussion group I attend. And when I say we are reading it I don’t mean just discussing it. Our group – perhaps because it has been going for nearly 30 years now - has got a bit fed up with just discussing things one week and moving onto something else more or less interesting to discuss the next.

Karen Armstrong’s book is not just a book to be read and put down as one would perhaps a novel or a biography of a famous person. It is rather an instruction book: more like a recipe book or a manual for a new piece of electronic equipment. Karen Armstrong is of course being extremely ambitious when she sets out to give us some instructions for a better way of living: a more compassionate life, but I recommend her book to you and this sermon draws from it.

Of course the Bible is also not just supposed to be merely an interesting read. It is – amongst other things - also an instruction book – like Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. The gospel is not merely consoling but life-changing.

Now the Bible contains lots of stories about compassion such as the three parables in our Gospel reading. But it also contains some clear instructions. I’d like to touch on just four before I move onto the parables. The four instructions I have in mind: are first the principle of an eye for an eye, secondly the so called ‘Golden Rule’: ’Do unto others as you would have them do to you’, thirdly the second of the two great commandments: ‘Thou shat love thy neighbour as thyself and fourthly ‘Love your enemies’.

We need rules to live by if only because otherwise there would be no such thing as society. Margaret Thatcher was wrong when she said there is no such thing as society. Of course there is – and it needs rules to function. One of these rules which can be found in the book of Exodus is ‘an eye for an eye’ or more precisely: ‘an eye for an eye and no more’.

You’ll remember that it was – in Jesus’ time – legitimate for someone who, say, had had his sheep stolen by a neighbour to go and get a sheep from that neighbour’s flock whether or not he got his own sheep back as well.

Just one sheep mind. Otherwise you could see that the situation would get completely out of hand. In a way an eye for an eye is not a bad rule. Basically it prevents anarchy and we still use the principle today when punishing offenders: there is a graded series of penalties depending on the seriousness of the crime. Even if we now don’t say require a person who has killed a neighbour’s child whilst drunk in charge of a vehicle to hand over their own child to be killed: killing a child is treated more seriously than say killing a neighbour’s sheep – or these days –cat.

Now an eye for an eye and no more while sort of sounding fair doesn’t in the end lead to a stable situation for as Gandhi says ‘An-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye-for-an-eye ... ends in making everybody blind.’

Everyone – including atheists - would surely agree with Gandhi. We recognize that an eye for an eye is really no way to deal with crime such as manslaughter through drunken driving, or hacking into the mobile phones of missing teenagers, etc. – crimes punishable by the State. But it doesn’t work even when it comes to us ourselves dealing with less serious offences committed against us If we are burgled and we find out who burgled us we should not go round and burgle our burglar’s house. If a work colleague steals our idea and then gets credit for it with the boss it’s not going to work if we go and steal some of their ideas in retribution.

You’ll remember too that Jesus also criticised the eye for an eye and no more rule by saying – according to Matthew - "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” Would atheists agree with this? Surely on the face of it is unrealistic and also a recipe for disaster. Giving my cloak to someone who has just sued me for my tunic is surely going to encourage others to sue me for car on the basis that I will give them my house

This rather odd instruction on the part of Jesus seems to suggest that Jesus had completely different ideas about justice, fairness and compassion. I’ll come onto those a bit late when I want to explain why I have chosen today’s Gospel reading and it’s relation to our theme of the compassionate life.

The second rule I want to talk about is the so-called Golden Rule, i.e. ’Do unto others as you would have them do to you’. Now this is a rule promulgated by all the major religions. Confucius says in around 500 BC ‘Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you ‘. And Jesus commands his disciples to follow this rule when, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, according to Matthew, he says ‘So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them, for this is the law and the prophets’.

Now ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you’ is at variance with ‘An eye for an eye’ because obviously exacting retribution in this way isn’t what the other would have you do. Even if I steal someone’s treasured possession I do not want them to come and steal my treasured possession.

Most atheists seem to agree with the Golden Rule. They might even agree that it comes to us via Jesus from the Jewish law and the Old Testament prophets rather than say Confucius. This is because of course it seems to require no belief in God. And on the face of it sounds sort of logical – if everyone behaved towards one another in a empathetic, compassionate way the world would surely be a better place?

However when you start to think about it a bit more, the Golden Rule is not as simple as it sounds, because in order to put it into operation you need to know ‘what you would really and truly wish that men would do to or for you’. And in my experience this sounds simple but is not.

I am sorry if some of you have heard this rather simple illustration before: But 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. And as I get older I become less and less certain of what I want, let alone need. Perhaps we cannot really know what we need and our desires are surely a poor guide to our needs. It is I think only God who really knows what we truly need and therefore the Golden Rule – for all its apparent logic – only makes senses if there is a God who knows what it is we need and therefore what people should do for one another.

This brings me to the third rule: the second of the great commandments: ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’. This is called a great commandment because Jesus gives, or rather reiterates this commandment, in answer to a lawyer who asks him – according to Matthew – ‘Which is the greatest of the commandments?’ I have of course deliberately detached it from the first of the great commandments: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind’. And I will argue in a minute that the second doesn’t make any real sense without the first but to concentrate sole on the second for the moment.

It is I think, worth pointing out again and again what we tend to forget about this commandment, that here Jesus commands us not only to love others but to love ourselves as well. We can quite easily miss the end of the sentence. Actually I think loving ourselves is just – if not more difficult - as loving others. It is also worth remembering that Jesus connects the two things: loving others with loving ourselves, suggesting that one without the other is impossible.

Just a word about loving ourselves. This is not just about loving what we like about or find good in ourselves but what we also find shameful. Just as God loves us for all that we are – not just what he finds good but also what he finds bad - so we must love ourselves in a similar fashion. But I have talked about this before, so I won’t go on about it here.

I am not sure what atheists think about this second commandment but note how it is different from the Golden Rule.

Firstly this commandment talks about love rather than doing or not doing to others or what we ourselves desire or don’t desire. Of course love is as much about doing as feeling but it is surely more than just recognising the desires of others through empathy. For a start, as I pointed out earlier, compassion is surely as much about needs as desires. But love is surely also much than acting upon others needs and desires: I’ll come onto that in a minute when I talk about our Gospel reading.

Secondly, the second great commandment is different from the Golden Rule because Jesus connects it with the first great commandment: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind’. In Luke’s account Jesus roles them together as just one commandment: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind and with all thy strength and thy neighbour as thyself’: so indicating that all three: love of God, thy neighbour and thyself are all connected and perhaps that each is impossible without the other two. This is of course where atheists would part company with followers of Jesus.

And finally that fourth instruction: ‘Love thy enemies’. Jesus, according to Luke, gives this commandment in his Sermon on the Plain. When discussing an eye for an eye, the Golden Rule, and the great commandments Jesus makes it clear that he is just reiterating what had been said before ‘in the law and by the prophets’ but this commandment ‘love thy enemies’ is new and surely just as incomprehensible today as it was then. I am not going to attempt to say anything more about it.

Instead I want to turn, finally, to today’s Gospel reading. I chose this whole chapter from Luke’s gospel because all three parables – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son are clearly meant to be read together and they all relate to today’s theme: the compassionate life. The third of the parables might seem to be more important because it has more of a plot. It superficially seems more interesting but, as I said earlier, the Bible is not just supposed to be interesting but life-changing. Furthermore whereas Jesus did say what he thought were the most important commandments he never said, ‘Listen to this parable this is more important than those I have just been telling you’.

Reading them all together takes a bit of time but brings out the similarities between them. All three have something that is lost – a sheep, a coin, a son. The central character in all three is also someone who is ‘lost’: the shepherd – because his is a despised occupation, the woman because hers is a despised gender, the father because he is humiliated by the behaviour of his son who in effect insults him grossly by claiming his inheritance before he has died.

But there are two other similarities which bear upon today’s theme. In all three parables the main character either expends a lot of energy and/or takes a considerable risk in looking for what is lost. And in all three there is a party at the end of the story when what has been lost has been found. All three stories are basically – when you look at them closely – frankly implausible. It is as if Jesus is saying: ‘This is the nature of love: it doesn’t make logical sense.’

So in the first parable the shepherd – out of love for the lost sheep - goes to look for it abandoning the other sheep. What shepherd would actually do that? And what shepherd would actually throw a party when he found a single sheep that had been lost.

In the second parable what woman would actually spend a day looking for a single lost coin – unless of course it meant a lot to her – and even then would she really invite all her friends around to celebrate what was merely a rectification of a mistake on her part?

Finally the father – in the third parable - does not need to divide his inheritance between his beloved sons at his younger son’s request and in fact risks a lot by doing so. He, in effect, by losing control over his property and income, becomes dependent on his sons – the younger of which promptly up-sticks and leaves home with the money - leaving him dependent on his elder son (who we know from later events) isn’t exactly generous. Then when the younger son having squandered all his money returns home, the father rushes out to greet him in a completely undignified manner, and they celebrate with the standard party. When I say standard I mean the party we have come to expect in such a parable, rather than a standard party per se: in fact this party is completely over the top with the best calf being slaughtered.

Who is who in these unbelievable stories and who are we the listeners supposed to identify with: the loser or the lost? Are we supposed to identify with the loser: the humble shepherd, the despised woman, the foolish and insulted father? Or are we supposed to think of ourselves as the lost helpless sheep, the inanimate coin which can hardly be held responsible for being lost, or the mean and feckless son, who even when he is has lost everything, and is himself disgraced, plots to wheedle his way back into the household by exploiting his Father’s demonstrable weakness.

Incidentally the lost son’s behaviour on finding himself penniless hardly seems to be a model for repentance: he seems more scheming than genuinely remorseful. And note too that the lost sheep and the lost coin do absolutely nothing to get found, to return to the loser.

But if we are supposed to think of ourselves as lost are we then supposed to imagine that the humble shepherd, the despised woman and the foolish and insulted father represent God? Well perhaps. In these parables Jesus shows that true compassion is so much more than what we might have thought it was or have come to expect: whether this is God’s love for us or our love, for him, for others or even ourselves, perhaps it doesn’t matter who is who in these stories.

Compassion is of course about empathy – as the Golden Rule and the second of the great commandments suggest – but these thee parables show us that compassion is so much more than that. Love is risking all for what is loved including dignity. Love is forgiving all on the part of the loved. Love is holding a party when the lost has been found.

Remarkable but still relevant today.

Monday, 6 February 2012

The parable of the wheat and weeds (2): humbleness of mind

Sermon on Matthew 13: 24-30, Colossians 3.12-17, St Matthew's, Oxford, 6th February 2011
The other day I got caught out by a friend. I was saying how much I liked a swingeinglly critical review of a new book – it doesn’t really matter what the book was. The reviewer had laid into the book and skilfully ‘demolished’ it and I was expounding on how much I agreed with the reviewer. ‘But have you read the book?’ my friend asked me. Err no I hadn’t. I had just assumed what the reviewer said about the book was true. I was basing this assumption on what I knew about the reviewer – who I respect – and the writer of the book – who I don’t actually know much about. Basically I was being uncharitable to the writer – making assumptions about his intentions – which I really had no business doing without, at least, reading the book, and even then…

The first verse of our Epistle reading was: ‘Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long suffering; forbearing one another and forgiving one another’. And today I would like to say something about ‘humbleness of mind’– something I was patently not demonstrating in the conversation with my friend. I have been thinking about humbleness of mind because I have reached Karen Armstrong’s seventh step of her ‘Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life’ which I mentioned I was reading in my last sermon here. Karen’ Armstrong’s seventh step is ‘Recognise how little we know’ which seems to me a pre-requisite or perhaps a consequence of humbleness of mind.

I find that I presided at the 8 o’clock Communion on the 5th Sunday of Epiphany last year -although I am not entirely sure whether this is the 5th Sunday of Epiphany or the 3rd Sunday before Lent – and that I therefore preached on these two readings we heard just now a year ago. Last time my main message – based on my reading of the parable of the wheat and weeds – was that we shouldn’t try to distinguish and root out the weeds amongst us: ‘lest’ – as the farmer says to his servants ’in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them’. This is because cannot tell very easily what is wheat and what is weeds: they appear to be very similar.

Note too that there is no indication within the parable itself that the two different types of plant are supposed to represent two different types of people. If you read the parable in the context of the parable immediately before it – the parable of the Sower – and the parable immediately after it – the parable of the Mustard Seed – both parables about seeds - you come away not nearly as certain that the wheat represents good people – the saved - and the weeds bad people – the damned - but more like different types of knowledge or wisdom. Wisdom that is nourishing and productive in the case of the seeds sown by the Sower, the mustard seed or the wheat, knowledge that is the converse – distracting and unproductive in the case of the weeds (in both the parable of the Sower and today’s parable).

But back to humbleness of mind: in the Greek ταπεινοφροσύνην.

In the first verse of our Epistle reading Paul links humbleness of mind with bowels of mercies. He uses the expression bowels of mercies - σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ - because the Greeks thought that the bowels were the site of the emotions rather the brain (and we of course still associate the heart with our emotions – at least with love – a little higher up our body but still rather anatomically incorrect). ταπεινοφροσύνην is a composite word with ταπεινο meaning something like lowly and φροσύνην meaning mind or the faculty of perceiving and judging. By putting together σπλάγχνα οἰκτιρμοῦ with απεινοφροσύνην Paul is reminding the Colossians that compassion is not just a matter of the emotions it is a matter of the mind. Not only of having loving feelings towards one another but about being humble about one’s own opinions and respectful of others. He urges them to be forbearing one to another – and this forebearance surely encompasses one another’s opinions as much as feelings.

This is why Karen Armstrong includes her seventh step in her ‘Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life’. Only by ‘recognising how little we know’ can we be truly forbearing to one another.

Karen Armstrong argues that the point of recognising that we know so little is 1) ‘to recognise and appreciate the unknown and uknowable’ 2) ‘to become sensitive to over-confident assertions of certainty in ourselves and other people ‘and 3) ‘to make ourselves aware of the numinous mystery of each human being we encounter during the day’.

She shows that many of the greatest philosophers and religious thinkers have come to the idea that we know very little but often think we know a lot. Isn’t it true that as we grow older and wiser we become increasingly uncertain of the strongly held opinions that we formerly held and also increasingly clear that there is little that can be said with any certainty? By saying this I do not what to say that we know nothing but rather that we should err on the side of being uncertain in how much and also what we know.

Karen Armstrong notes how disturbing it is to hear someone talk dogmatically about something you think you know about. This happens to me all the time. I consider myself an expert on food but because eating is something we all do, most people have opinions about food – quite strong opinions sometimes – and will often tell me things about food – which in my view are patently wrong, or which I know already, or which I feel I know more about than them. This can make me unreasonably irritated at times. I complain that if I were an expert on say nuclear particles, or the history of the Second World War, or even car maintenance, this wouldn’t happen to me but I am not so sure. It also makes me think I must do the very same to other people at times: when I expostulate on books I haven’t read, for example.

Socrates insisted that the only reason he could be considered wise was that he knew that he knew nothing at all. Wittgenstein famously finishes his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicushis with the words ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ Christians on the other hand have often been held to be quite certain about a lot of things – but yet the unknowability of things is perhaps a bigger theme in the Bible than one might assume.

In particular there is clear idea that God is mysterious. OK the Christian and Jewish tradition is that God has revealed himself and Christians believe that God has, in the particular person of Jesus, provided a clear revelation of himself, but still that revelations is partial and incomplete. The resurrected Christ is not instantly recognisable – even to his closest friends. He cannot be held (or completely grasped) because he has not yet ascended to his father. Paul writes to the Corinthians: ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall understand fully.’

Karen Armstrong suggests that – as a sort of spiritual exercise - we should spend time in trying to define exactly what distinguishes us from everybody else, noting that who we are constantly eludes us. We should also note how often we contradict ourselves and act or speak in ways that we are surprised by. In conversing with my atheist friend Ron recently I have begun to realise that I am very uncertain about who exactly I am. And I note that describing to others who I am has become increasingly difficult – even in a sort of way painful. I wonder whether you experience this difficulty on those occasions when, in a gathering, everyone is asked to share their news in turn or worse still (to my mind) to say something about who they are.

If it is so difficult to describe who we think we are I wonder how we think we can possibly talk so knowingly as we often do about other people. And how then can we presume to know whether other people are good or bad, right or wrong, saved or unsaved? And to pursue this line of thought further: if it is so difficult to sum up other people how much harder it is to sum up God, what he/she is or is not.

This recognition that we and others (including God) are essentially mysterious and that we should be humble of mind about this is an essential part of the compassionate life. In our Epistle reading Paul goes on to say ‘And above all put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony’. Love without self knowledge is, as I explained, in my last sermon, extremely difficult if not impossible. But love without recognising that one knows so little – not only about oneself but per se – is I think also impossible. I, with Paul, commend to you ταπεινοφροσύνην: humbleness of mind.