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.

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