September 1st, 2019 12th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 17) YR C
“The beginning of pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.”
So who did their sermon prep work? It was in our weekly email, the Tune Up. Who here read the Tune Up? Who has no idea what I am talking about?
The Tune Up isn’t maybe the most riveting thing in your inbox each Thursday, but it is helpful for information about what is going on, and my little column is sometimes pertinent to our life together, or maybe about your life in relation to God, the universe and everything. If you don’t get it, please sign up for it on the sheet in back. And least consider opening it.
The sermon prep work I gave in the Tune Up was to consider a time in your life when you did not have control. I just wanted to prime the pump. Maybe a relationship didn’t or isn’t going how you wanted. Maybe a job wasn’t working out, or wasn’t offered, or was taken away. Or your children weren’t doing what you thought/knew was best. Or sickness, injury, death happened, and there was nothing you or anyone could do about it. Or the fires, or the hurricane or earthquake or changing climate, rising seas, melting ice… maybe all together we could have some affect, but mostly, most of the time, the really big and important stuff, like when and to whom you are born, how your friends, children or spouse behave, genetic make up, race, sexuality, talents and personality, when and how you die, those things are not up to you. You are not in control. None of us are.
That is hard to stomach for a lot of reasons. First of because that kind of stinks. Having no say over most things is the human condition. It is hard, disempowering to learn how disempowered we truly are. We are told we are in control all the time. It is a central tenant of the American Dream, the American psyche: we have control, we have a say in how it all goes, how our life works out (or not), credit and blame are ours alone, it is up to us. “Self-Reliance,” Ragged Dick, Ma and Pa Ingalls who could build a house with an ax and a pocket knife, alone, and moved each time neighbors moved within 10 miles and it started to feel crowdedThe back to the landers with dreams of Five Acres and Independence, the current hipster DIY culture… our American DNA is that whether we thrive or perish, win or lose, succeed or fail: it is up to us.
I certainly like to think I have control. Like me coming here. I was actually not in control of coming to be here with you in Eugene. Yes, I chose to apply. Yes, I chose to accept the position, but initially I wanted to be in Maine. But the church that was open there didn’t offer the job. You did. I accepted gratefully and joyfully, don’t get me wrong. I love being here, I love you (and that other church was not a fit), but the point is I had no control of that outcome, (well besides exerting my overwhelming charm). You see, most of the time, what we take for being control, determining actual outcomes, isn’t control; it is choice. Choices are important, right from the existential choice to do good or evil as told through the Cain and Able story. We have choices, we do, lots of them. Having privilege is mostly about having more choices. Bur choice is not control. How are the choices before you determined? Setting the options before you… that is control. (And that is what we don’t have).
Many of us can’t understand why folks out on the street seem to make such terrible choices sometimes. Here’s a thought experiment from the street: you can fall asleep and be robbed assaulted or raped, or a you can take meth and stay up walking around for three nights and be safe(r). (There are 1700 more people on the street than temporary beds on a given night, so the Mission isn’t an option for most). Both options before you are terrible, but you are not in control of the choices offered, and the less well you get the fewer choices remain. (Like a few weeks of that and you are addicted, you have no choice but to get spun up on meth). So what choice do you make? Having a choice is not control; laying out the choices is, and in most cases, that ain’t up to us.
But things don’t happento me, I am the decider. I got to where I am because I worked hard, I made good choices, I planned! We forget Robert Burns. “The best laid schemes of mice and men/ go often askew,/and leave us nothing but grief and pain/for promised joy!” It is a poem about a mouse whose house was destroyed by a plough. We know the mouse had no say over the ploughman’s course. In substantial, existential ways, neither do we.
Do you know what that is called, theologically, thinking that it is all up to us, that we have the power bend the world to our advantage, that our will has the power to change things? Do you know what that theological term is? Pride. “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord…
Pride is putting belief in our own abilities, belief in our own power over everything else, including the true nature of things, you know, God. Believing that we have control of things we don’t interferes with our ability to recognize grace. It is one of the deadly sins, often called the deadliest, because by pride all other sin enters our soul because pride is all about is denying the power of God. Pride deludes us into thinking that it is up to us, that choice is the same as control, that we steer our own destiny, that God and God’s will is less important than what we want.
Now we can’t use being un-prideful to let ourselves of the hook. Eschewing pride is not an excuse for a laizé faire, go along to get along, the world just happens to me and I go with it so chill out, dude, life. We have a responsibility to try to make things better, to cultivate life and light, to propagate love and righteousness, to sow beauty and hope, to, as the psalmist says, “…be generous in lending and to manage their affairs with justice.” As disciples of Jesus Christ we have a mandate to do all of that and much more. But we have to, as our brothers and sisters in the recovery world say, Let Go, Let God. When we don’t??? “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the preacher, ‘vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’”
Being unprideful also is not a call to bear needless suffering. If someone is hurting you, it is not controlling our pride, or some holy humility to allow that to continue. Leave. Call the police or a shelter. Being scared is not ok. If your labor is being exploited, your people oppressed, your nation occupied, resist. That is not pride, that is respect for the life promised us in Jesus Christ.
Being prideful is existential arrogance. (Which is a lot different than being proud of your daughter at her track meet, or proud of yourself that you worked really hard on something and it turned out well). Our needs, our interests and opinions and perspectives become the most important things in pride. We don’t see the big picture, our vision is clouded by our attachments, aversions, and delusion, our sinfulness, our distance from God and the confusion and bad choices that that always leads to. St. Augustine puts it much more poetically. “It was Pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels.” Or how was it in our passage from St. Luke’s gospel? “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Man alive… Jesus. Never the easy path. Because when Jesus is talking about humility, he is talking about humiliation. The complete stripping of any hint of control, of complete surrender to the will of God through (here’s the kicker) complete surrender of the self into the hands of humans. He is talking about the Cross. The Cross is the corrective to pride.
Now the Cross is dramatic. The revolution of God dramatic, change the fabric of the universe dramatic. The lives of the saints are also about humiliation, of putting the will of God ahead of the will of the self, and are just a little bit less dramatic. Gandhi’s Salt March, the clubs beating the marchers bloody rank after rank, with each blow of humiliation the power of the English Empire was diminished. Kind of like the young people in Hong Kong, being like water, swatting tear gas grenades with tennis rackets, each arrest, each truncheon blow born in humiliation morally weakens the oppressor, uses the evil will of the oppressor against itself. It works by submitting, by putting aside pride. It works by bearing the punishment, the harm, the discomfort of it ourselves, of our own free will.
Because what we do have control over, maybe the only real control we have over anything, is how we bear what happens. We have more than choice there, we have real power, real and utter control over how we react or respond to what life hands us. I am not so sure God has a lot to do with the blessings and curses we experience in our lives, but I am certain that God has everything to do with how we handle it, how we live with what comes our way. Bad things happen to good people, that’s not God’s work. How those good people bear the bad, that’s God’s victory happening.
Cancer happens. It’s occurrence is outside of our power to control, but what you do in the wake of the diagnosis, or hers, or his, is within your power. You could choose to try every possible treatment, to suffer with grace (or maybe not always with grace but accepting that that is the cost of life), or you could go gently into that good night, savoring the days you have left, spending them with loved ones, trying to be comfortable. Maybe you will just lose it for a while, lose control of your emotions, your fears. That’s ok, too.
We all have our crosses to bear, and since most of us aren’t bucking for sainthood, our crosses are generally more metaphorically cross-like. But humility, humiliation (the religious meaning being simply the practice of humility), is a practice par excellance. A practice of being Christ-like. Of tamping down our sense of control and pride, and putting us right with God.
As most of you know I stopped drinking a few years ago. No real gory details to share, but a very close friend’s alcohol related death, and another’s testimony of their own loss of control of their drinking at, um, the exact same age I was, got me to thinking, “I’m not an alcoholic… yet.” And I didn’t want that yetto change, so I got out.
But goodness gracious. That was hard to admit. To myself, ok, confessing to myself my limitations, my vulnerability, that I might be or be about to become powerless over something… that was hard. But even harder was that I would have to admit that outside of myself. Say, “No thanks,” when the server brings the drinks menu; “None for me” when the wine is passed a family dinner; “I don’t drink” when asked by someone to join them for a drink (bars and cocktail parties just aren’t that fun for me with a club soda in hand). Admitting that, a vulnerability, a humiliation outside of myself, something I don’t have control over… I was terrified of that, of what people would think about me.
But I did. I stopped and I told people, “I don’t drink.” (I practiced saying “No thanks” at Lent, that really helped). And the funniest thing happen. Admitting my powerlessness gave me power. No longer denying my brokenness (in this matter anyway), was healing. Freeing myself from the burden of worrying about what other people think, I have become more and more free. (Now I have to be careful of not being proud of all of this). It is similar to the feeling of confession, to a priest or less formally to a therapist or a spouse or friend. Admitting fault, admitting weakness and failure and powerlessness opens us up; to love. As one who hears people tell me about all sorts of things they have done, I love them more for their humility. As Windy and I are more honest about ourselves, where we struggle, where we are not in control, the more our love blossoms.
So be humble. That’s the lesson here today. Admit to yourself and at least occasionally to the world, that you recognize that you are not in fact in control. Put pride aside and rest in to the blessed assurance that God gives us the strength to bear the weight that has been laid upon us. And that when that weight is too much, and we fall, that we have a chance to pick it up again, and again, and again, by the grace of that very same God. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” AMEN