Sunday, August 28, 2016

15th Sunday after Pentecost

The beginning of man's pride is to depart from the Lord; his heart has forsaken his Maker.

The concluding verse of our first lesson tells us that “Pride was not created for men” (Ecclesiasticus 12). The question of pride is a confusing one, I think, for many, especially those, like me and other Gen-Xers and Millenials, who had pounded into their heads the idea of self-esteem. This is the age of participation awards and the morality of being nice. As a result, it is easy to get confused by the question of pride. Is it a good thing to be proud of who you are and the talents you have? Or is pride just conceit and vaunting? According to Gregory the Great who formulated the so-called seven deadly sins from a verse in the book of Proverbs, pride is the first and greatest of these sins. Is pride a sin or does it express a positive self-image and self-esteem? This morning I'd like to work through this thorny question.

So what is the sin of pride as the theologians define it? In his magnum opus, The City of God, Augustine of Hippo gives an extended meditation on Adam, Eve, and the Fall. Now, some of the earlier church fathers contended that the first sin of Adam and Eve was fornication, leading to the erroneous conclusion that sexual sin is the worst kind of sin. Augustine takes a deeper view of the matter. He notes that before Adam and Eve took of the forbidden fruit or broke any commandment, they had a thought, a will inside of them which said that they knew what was good for them better than God. From this premise that they knew better, they could make the decision to break the explicit commandment of a loving Creator and Father. Augustine says that a bad will preceded the transgression, and that bad will was pride. We might summarize, thus, that pride is a willingness to separate oneself from God, to frame one's destiny apart from the lordship and fatherhood of God. It's been pointed out that in the narrative of Genesis up through the fall, it was invariably the Lord who said it is good: and God saw the light, that it was good. In the fall, we are told that the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes. The root of pride is thus to decide what is good and evil according to your own self-directed morality. It's the impulse to live apart from God and to direct our lives apart from his Word and his leading,. If you think you can live apart from God and be your own light and guide, you obviously have an inflated ego. This is the bad, the sinful type of pride, and it has a further ramification: when we say that we do not need God, we soon say that we do not need our fellow human beings, and this also is pride. This resultant pride is illustrated in the story that succeeds the fall, the slaying of Abel by Cain which, as I talked about in last week's sermon, is a grim illustration of innocent and unredeemed suffering. It paints a true but hopeless picture. We've all thought at one time or another that we could better direct our lives than the Lord. We've all known the impulse to write others off, and say to ourselves we do this better without you. Such bad pride is illustrated in this morning's Gospel where our Lord warns us not to disregard the host—God—or the fellow-guests—our fellow-man. In pride we say, I'll take the best for myself without respect to God or care for others. Now our Lord was not trying to teach social etiquette in his parable; rather, the parable shows how we are relate to God as our Father and fellow-man, our brother. You look to the host to tell you where to be seated; you recognize that others may have an equal or greater claim to distinction than you. There is constant need for those in the ministry of the church to be reminded of the fact that the ministry does not depend on man—if you won't be faithful to what the Lord has called you to do, he'll raise up others.

So if bad pride is wanting to live apart from God and man what is good pride? First of all, it has to be said that the Bible does not use the word pride in a good way; rather, it speaks of the fact that we are, for example, God's children by adoption and grace. To be a Christian, thus, means being able to say not that I am worthless but that God accounted me worthy to send his Son to live and die and rise again for my salvation. Let me back up and cite another lesson from our recent VBS. On the last day, we talked about the Tower of Babel. If you ask why the people wanted to build a tower, the answer you'll get 90% of the time is that they wanted a tower to reach God. But the Bible says something different: And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name for ourselves. Assumably, the building of a tower to reach to heaven is about going up to God, but I think the second phrase is more important: the people wanted to make a name for themselves. They wanted to define their own identity and destiny. Thankfully, as we learned from our VBS, Jesus rescues us from this awful burden, by coming to show us who we truly are. As I told our children, you are a child of God by adoption and grace, you are a son or daughter of the king. True pride then is a well of confidence that springs from the truth that you are loved and treasured by the Lord, not because of anything you've done, but because God freely chooses to love you. Such pride and confidence we need to instill in our children. It's a drum we need to be banging for young adults today who too often are trying to find meaning and identity in careers and shallow materialism, inevitability leading to depression and the sadness that is so endemic among people in their 20s and 30s.

This true pride also teaches us how to relate to one another. I am a child of God and son of the King, I can also recognize that others are too. The gifts and talents that my God and Father has given me are not tools to stroke my personal vanity. Rather, they are to be used to build up others, just as the gifts of others build me up. You see, the truth is we need one another. We can't do very much apart from one another, and we can do nothing apart from the Lord. But if we'll surrender our lives to the Lord, and give ourselves in loving service to one another, we can do beautiful things for the Lord in this world. The world doesn't need another Babel, but it needs people of faith and good-will to work together for good. There is much negative about in our world today, but we're not called to be cynical and negative. We're called to accept our true identity as children of God, and to go out into the world making it a better place by things like love and joy and forgiveness and beauty.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

14th Sunday after Pentecost

In the Epistle this morning, we have the climax of the argument that the author of the epistle has been making throughout his letter. That argument is that the new covenant of Christ is greater than the old covenant of Moses. Throughout the epistle he illustrates this argument. He says that Jesus is superior to Moses, because Moses was just a servant of God while Jesus is a Son—the heir always has greater care for his father's house. The priesthood of Jesus is greater than the priesthood of Aaron, because unlike those Old Testament priests, he doesn't have to make a sacrifice for himself nor offer repeated sacrifices annually. Rather, he has made one complete sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. In chapter twelve from which we heard this morning our author compares Mount Sinai to Mount Zion. Mount Sinai was the location of the giving of the law and the Ten Commandments to Moses. The people were told that they could not touch the mountain nor their cattle or else they would die. At first the people heard directly the voice of God which they found terrifying. Afterward they requested that God speak just to Moses and then Moses could deliver the message. As Christians, the author argues, we have not come to Mount Sinai where we hear the law, a law that convicts us as lawbreakers. Rather, we belong to the heavenly City and have come to its mount, Mount Zion, where we don't hear the law that condemns but the good news that forgives, that our Lord Jesus has made one sacrifice for our sins and the sins of the whole world.

In the middle of our passage, there is a curious statement that we have come to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. It's an unusual image because we don't usually think of blood as speaking. As readers though we're invited to compare and contrast the murder of Abel with the execution of Jesus, to figure out why the blood of Jesus is a better word than the blood of Abel. Abel and our Lord are both similar in that they are innocent sufferers; they are both killed by brothers—in Abel's case by his brother of nature, in our Lord's case by his brothers of nation and ethnicity. They are also killed for reasons of religious envy: Cain is jealous of the acceptance of Abel's sacrifice; the Pharisees are jealous of our Lord's authority and his claim to have God as his Father. The fruit of envy is a consuming hatred that is evident in both accounts. 

Now, given these similarities, why is it that our author says that the blood of Jesus speaks a better word than the blood of Abel? A better initial question would be what word does the blood of Abel speak? This past week at VBS we talked about the key stories in Genesis 1-11. This section contains the primaeval narratives that lead up to the story of the patriarchs, Abraham and his descendants. One of the main purposes of these opening chapters is to explain why the world is the way it is. Why are there multiple languages in the world? The story of the tower of Babel provides an answer to that question. Why is man out of communion with God? The story of the Garden of Eden and the Fall answers that question. Another question is why is there is war? Why do brothers and sisters feel malice and hatred for their own kin? Why is a marriage that survives so rare and one which would be described as happy even more rare? Why is friendship so difficult to find and then to maintain? The story of Cain and Abel is an answer to this question, or at least an assertion that the world of Cain and Abel is the same world in which we live, a world where man is at enmity with man. Abel's blood does speak a word, but one that is painful to hear. Despite our desire for poetic justice, the innocent often suffer. Children are the object of abuse and violence. The powerful lord over the powerless, and human beings are treated as expendable for the benefit of political expediency or economic growth. Economies are constructed in such a way to promote oligarchy rather than common wealth. In short, the word of Abel's blood testifies that sin divides and destroys families and communities and nations. Sin has separated us not only from God but from one another. At the heart of all this division between man and man is the assertion I am not my brother's keeper. The word of Abel's blood is a true one—it reflects accurately the disorder and suffering between man and man, brother and brother in the world, but it is a word that offers no hope. It leaves us with the fact of innocent suffering with no remedy for the malice and hatred that engendered this suffering. 

But the blood of Jesus, my friends, speaks a better word. His blood is that of an innocent suffer, but it is a blood that cleanses and makes new. Our Lord does not live in the paradigm of Adam or of Cain. Unlike Adam he consecrates all of his life to God his father, and lives in total obedience and surrender. Unlike Cain, he lives in total love for his brothers and sisters, his fellow man, even when they do not deserve it. All of the injury and violence that has been inflicted in the world calls for justice; this blood cries out from the ground. Our sins are the same way. They call out for justice and satisfaction to God. The blood of Jesus is shed that the unjust might be made righteous and just. He doesn't promise that if you'll be good and just try harder, you'll be considered just before man and God. He doesn't offer an elaborate self-help program. What he offers is forgiveness if we'll turn to him in faith and trust; forgiveness is the only real hope for a world as broken by injustice and sufferings. There will never be marital reconciliation without forgiveness and a surrender of your sense of right and wrong. There will never be reconciliation between family members without forgiveness of past grievances. Society will never be at peace unless forgiveness is extended as a sign of goodwill to all people. You might ask, how can I forgive this person or that group for what they've done? And the answer is in the word of Jesus' blood. The one absolutely innocent person suffered unjustly and yet extends forgiveness: forgive them for they know what they do, he says from the cross. In the cross is found the way that Cain can be reconciled to Abel, and this is why it is the greatest hope for our world. This is a word that we should never tire of hearing and proclaiming, as we live into the call to be ambassadors to the world of this shed blood that indeed speaks a better word.