Sunday, September 1, 2019

The problem with pride

A Sermon preached on Sept. 1, 2019, Pentecost 12 at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Sirach 10: 12 – 18, Hebrews 13: 1 – 8, 15, 16, Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

Are the seven deadly sins all bad? Let me remind you what they are – because of course none of you have any practical experience – they are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Can any of them be good? Well, there is for example such a thing as righteous anger – as demonstrated by Jesus when he cleared the Temple. And a hunger for justice is also a good thing. In fact, in most cases the sin or vice is something good or at least neutral gone bad or taken to extremes. Desire becomes lust, curiosity and interest become envy, enjoyment becomes gluttony, anger wrath, and resting sloth. The exception is pride. Pride can – according to the dictionary definition – have a positive connotation, when it refers to “a humble and contented sense of attachment toward one's own or another's choices and actions, or toward a whole group of people, and is a product of praise, independent self-reflection, and a fulfilled feeling of belonging.” Pride month for the LGBT community would be a positive example, a parent’s pride in their children’s achievements another. 

And yet for the Bible, and for Jesus, pride is something very negative. Jesus is actually much more likely to condemn pride than any sexual sins. In this morning’s Gospel for example, he says “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:14) We find a similar sentiment in Matthew’s Gospel: “The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:11-12) As well as in Mark: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! … They will receive the greater condemnation.” (Mark 12:38-40). Not surprisingly, the writers of the New Testament epistles echo these harsh warnings against pride: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5) As do early Christian theologians, for example St. Augustine called pride "the love of one's own excellence." 

So, what is wrong with pride? The problem with pride – excessive pride – is that it makes us blind to our needs and to others, it separates and excludes, it is self-focused. If we believe that we are completely autonomous and self-reliant – both as people and more recently again as nations – then we are claiming to need no help and to be dependent on ourselves alone. That is a sin, so it is no wonder that Jesus condemns it.

The last part of our program at this year’s Night of the Churches is called “Better Together,” and we will use this to celebrate the very opposite of this sort of pride, focusing on what connects rather than divides our nations, and introducing several people who have been involved in active acts and/or projects of connection and reconciliation, often as a result of their faith. 

Excessive pride simply leaves no room for God. As we heard in our first reading: “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.” (Sirach 10:12) Why should I turn to God and to God’s Son if I believe that I am perfect?  Anglican Theologian Tom Wright says that “pride is like a great cloud that blots out the sum of God’s generosity. If I reckon I deserve to be favored by God, not only do I declare that I don’t need his grace, mercy and love, but I imply that those who don’t deserve it should not have it.”[1] And C.S. Lewis (in Mere Christianity) wrote: “A proud man is always looking down on things and people; and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” He went on to ask how can “people who are quite obviously eaten up with pride say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious?” His explanation was that they worship an imaginary God, while “they theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, (they) are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people.” 

This is exactly the sort of behavior that Jesus is criticizing in this passage. The pharisee and many of his guests clearly think that God only approves of them and thinks them far better than other people, especially those that Jesus usually consorted with, and also those who did not belong to the chosen people. But I think Jesus also has a warning here for the disciples, and for us as their successors. They too were occasionally prone to the sin of pride, to assuming that as Jesus’s first followers they would have a privileged place in the kingdom, perhaps seated on Jesus right and left hand. But there are no first places in the kingdom. Think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard. They all got paid the same, regardless of when they began working. Salvation is God’s choice, not ours.

That’s the other issue with pride. In its excessive form, often associated with arrogance, it sets us up above other people. Of course, we have people who sing better than others, most of you here sing better than I do. We have people who are better musicians, painters, doctors, engineers, carpenters …. But that does not make them better persons. Every person is made in God’s image, every person is loved by God. And so, Jesus tells us to invite those who would normally be last – or just not even considered – to the banquet and to give them pride of place: “Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”  (Luke 4:14) The author of Hebrews puts it much more simply: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (13:1) 

In rather more drastic language, Sirach warns that God can easily turn established orders upside down: “The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers and enthrones the lowly in their place. The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations, and plants the humble in their place.” (Sirach 10:14-15) if you hear an echo of the Magnificat in there, you are not mistaken: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:51-53) The only preference God knows is for those in need. If God reaches out to all, then those who seek to honor and imitate God through God’s Son should reach out also. Not only must we be willing to acknowledge our weaknesses and our need for help, but also our willingness and ability to help and support and serve others.

“The greatest among you will be your servant,” Jesus says (Matthew 23:11) and in opposition to pride, he praises and raises up those who are humble: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) God honors those who serve and who are humble. True humility is recognizing our need for God, and for one another. The poor and the powerless should be welcome. For such generous hospitality and true humility, God promises us blessing, not out of any right, but out of the need for God’s blessing that we share with all.

[1] Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, 175-6

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Meaning of Sabbath

A Sermon preached on August 25, 2019, Proper 16 at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Isaiah 58: 9b-14, Luke 13: 10 – 17

What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of the Sabbath? I expect it is the idea of a day of rest. This is not wrong. It is because God rested on the seventh day that God directs God’s people to rest (Exodus 31:17). The word sabbath actually comes from the Hebrew verb for “rest from labor.” We all need rest; we can’t work 24/7 – at least not for long. This doesn’t mean you have to lie in bed all day – coming to church is also a form of rest from labor, doing something different, in this case giving time to God. And I’m glad that Sunday is still a relatively special day in Germany and that many normal things do not happen. It allows us to spend time with friends and family, to read or go for a walk or outing, to recharge our batteries – both the physical and the spiritual ones.

Both of today’s readings – Isaiah and Luke – are about what the Sabbath is for. But their focus is different. According to Isaiah (58:13) we are to honor this day by not going our own ways, not serving our own interests, and not pursuing our own affairs. At the beginning of the passage he makes clear what we should be doing instead: “remove the yoke, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, … offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.” (58:9-10) In other words, seeking to be loving, liberating and life-giving. Rest is good, but if an opportunity or a need to love, liberate or give new life comes along, go for it!

Jesus does. The opportunity or a need is his case was the woman bent double. He heals her even though it is the Sabbath day, supposedly solely a day of rest. That is at least the interpretation of the leader of the synagogue who tries to turn the crowd against Jesus: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day,” he says (Luke 13:14) But Jesus will have none of this. This work he says, the works of compassion are not only permitted, but encouraged. If we can untie an animal to give them something to drink on the Sabbath, then surely, we can liberate a human being from pain, shame, and exclusion on this day and any day. And so, as a result of Jesus’ action, the woman is made straight, God is praised, and all the people rejoice! That is a good Sabbath observance.

But there is another aspect to the concept of sabbath rest that I want to mention today. It’s not directly part of these passages, but it relates to the theme of Creation care that I mentioned in my weekly email. The Season of Creation, celebrated by Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Anglican Churches around the world begins next Sunday Sept. 1 and runs through to the Feast Day of St. Francis on Oct. 4. Caring for Creation means being willing to protect and to renew this planet and all who call it home. Creation and Sabbath are closely connected. God rests on the seventh day to take time to observe and enjoy all that God has created. When the Sabbath commandment is introduced, God makes clear that it applies to animals too. (Deut. 5:14) And with the concept of the sabbath year, once every seven years, the concept of rest is extended to the whole agricultural and economic system that is to have a sabbath, a respite from exploitation … basically from us human beings pursuing only our own interests. 

The world could really do with a vacation, that is true: a rest from the relentless exploitation and pollution with toxins, CO2, and plastic and many other things that first impact the fish and birds and insects and other creatures – but that will eventually kill us too. Sure, it was easier (but by no means easy) for an agricultural, geographically limited society such as ancient Israel to take a sabbath year, than it is for today’s global and technological society. And just stopping all activity for one year in every seven is not possible. But we can and must change our global, human lifestyle if we are to survive. Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate change activist is taking a sabbatical year as Isaiah describes it: not serving her own, but all our interests, and not pursuing her own but all our affairs and I’m sure the Lord will delight in this. Greta is of course privileged; she has parents who are wealthy enough to finance her journeys and her sabbatical year. But this is positive privilege, using it to the benefit of all. Most of us are equally privileged and therefore equally able to turn a personal advantage into a delight for the Lord. 

God also instructs God’s people to keep the sabbath holy as a perpetual sign of the covenant between God and us. It is the Lord’s Day, and God is rightly our focus. But God has given us work to do. To act as stewards of God’s creation, to respect and care for all human beings, all of whom are made in God’s image, simply to look beyond our own immediate interests and affairs both on this, God’s holy day, and every day.