Ordinary Sunday 30: 27th October, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill
"All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." (Luke 18:14)
The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is a story of humility. Historically humility has been seen as a character strength of great importance. St Augustine, for example, describes it as the one virtue on which a spiritual life is built (De Verb. Dom., Serm., 10.1): "Are you thinking of raising the great fabric of spirituality? Attend first of all to the foundation of humility." This emphasis is profoundly Biblical. In Matthew 11:29 for example, Jesus says: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
The Book of Common Prayer is littered with references to humility. For example, prior to the confession, "Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort; and make your humble confession to Almighty God, meekly kneeling upon your knees"; at the oblation, "we, thy humble servants, do celebrate and make here before thy Divine Majesty ... the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make"; and during the exhortations, "above all things ye must give most humble and hearty thanks to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, for the redemption of the world by the death and passion of our Saviour Christ, both God and man; who did humble himself, even to the death upon the Cross." One of the best-known prayers of the 1662 liturgy would be the "Prayer of Humble Access":
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
Interestingly, in A Prayer Book for Australia the word "humble" is almost completely absent. In the liturgy for Holy Communion (2nd Order), for example, it only occurs twice; not in the main body of the liturgy but tucked away under "seasonal variations" in the prayers set aside for Marian feasts (p. 160) and in the invitation to confession suggested for services around the theme of reconciliation between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples of Australia (p. 161).
I think it is a major failing in our liturgy. But it is understandable; our society no longer values humility. There is a fascinating study of virtues that psychologists Chris Peterson and Marty Seligman have undertaken. Their on-line "Values in Action" survey has gathered results from over 400,000 people since it was launched in 2001 (see VIA survey at this link). Of the 24 virtues or "character strengths" they identify, there are three that invariable come to the top of the list in Western countries (see Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2006). Character strengths in fifty-four nations and the fifty US states. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1 (3), 118-129, p. 121): fairness, open-mindedness and curiosity. The bottom three, with equal consistency across the results from Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, are: prudence, humility and self-regulation.
Humility is something we should actively foster. It is a virtue that our society, even our churches, are seriously lacking. Without humility we tend towards arrogance, we are less inclusive, less kind, less welcoming. As we seek to grow our church over the coming years, we should probably take St Augustine's advice: "Attend first of all to the foundation of humility." It is the bedrock of spiritual growth. Modern exemplars of humility are quite hard to find, but one such person is Bill Wilson. You may not have heard of him (which says something in itself) but you will all know about him. Peterson and Seligman write this about Bill Wilson (Character Strengths & Virtues, OUP 2004, p. 461):
After an unsuccessful battle with alcoholism, Wilson had a religious conversion that caused him to reorder his priorities and opened the doorway to abstinence. He then used his life lessons to promote a "12-step" approach to the treatment of alcoholism. Humility-related themes played a central role within Wilson's 12-step framework (e.g. admitting personal and moral limitations; making amends; relying on a higher power). Yet throughout his life Bill often wavered between low self-esteem and arrogance, struggling to come to terms with his own personal demons while managing near-celebrity status in what was supposed to be an anonymous self-help organization. Bill Wilson clearly understood the central value of humility. However, he also understood firsthand the difficulty of attaining this virtue, and he wrestled throughout his lifetime in his attempts to cultivate it.
We might not know his name, but everyone knows the organisation he founded: Alcoholics Anonymous.
The take-home question for us today might be: how can I better cultivate humility in my life? It is an important question for us to think about as a Church too: what might humility mean for us as a congregation? The beginning point should probably be quite simply "prayer." Not just saying the words, or going through the motions, but real prayer, deep prayer, life-changing prayer. Through prayer we open the deepest parts of our selves to God and to each other. It shapes us. We are more likely to be welcoming of the stranger, open to the person with a difference of opinion, loving of even our enemies. More humble.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.