Monday, September 19, 2016

Pride Versus The Meek

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The texts were Matthew 5:1-12 and 7:12-23:

“I am an invisible man….” Thus begins Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man.  “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquid, -- and I might even be said to possess a mind,” Ellison says, but, he continues, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” I am invisible because people refuse to see me. I thought that was an appropriate way, or the appropriate sentiment, to begin today’s sermon as we continue in our series on the seven deadly sins and the beatitudes and tackle the deadly sin of pride, the way of the world, against the way of the Kingdom of God, as contained in the beatitudes and the sermon on the mount with those who are poor in spirit and those who are meek, the people we might never see, or refuse to see, and certainly the people society says we shouldn’t pay any attention to not only because they are not worth or time, but even more because they are simply unworthy. They are losers.  Our society values the rich, the educated, the famous, those who are athletically gifted, the powerful, those whose who are physically beautiful. The meek, the poor, they deserve whatever they get, and should be happy to receive anything at all, even our disdain. They should be grateful we don’t truly act as if they are invisible.  If they don’t have enough pride to assert themselves, then there is nothing we should do for them. Losers.

But, Jesus says, while that might be the way the world would like to operate, it’s not the way it’s supposed to be, it’s not the way of God, it’s not the way of the Kingdom of God. God calls for something different, and God rewards something different. So Jesus says, as we heard last week, blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called what? Children of God, and if you missed last week’s message I would encourage you to watch it online.  And blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. That again turns the world on its head, for how it’s not just that the meek and the poor in spirit are blessed, and we’ll come back next week to what it means to be blessed, but theirs is the kingdom of heaven. It’s theirs now in the present tense. Don’t confuse Matthew’s usage of the term heaven here with the afterlife. That is not what Matthew is referring to, and so if you need to hear something different to get away from the afterlife connotation, you can place in the term Kingdom of God here, which is the term that both Mark and Luke use consistently. That’s what the poor in spirit get, and what do they meek get, they shall inherit the earth. The whole earth, not some small part of it, not the part they have marked out hiding behind some pole because they are meek, but the whole earth, as an inheritance. Why do you inherit something? Because you are related, which means that God is claiming the meek as God’s own, as children, as heirs to inherit what God has to give. The meek. As they say in Monty Python's Life of Brian, "That's nice, I'm glad they're getting something, 'cause they have a [heck] of a time."

But as we saw last week in Jesus’ injunction to turn the other cheek not being what we thought it was about at all, that it was not a passive way of letting people walk all over us, but instead a way of being active and engaged and pointing out injustices in the world, so too does the word meek here not mean what we think it means. The common definition we have of meekness is “quiet, gentle, easily imposed upon; submissive.” Webster’s even gives reference to a lamb being led to the slaughter. Does that fit your understanding meek? It does mine. But once again that is not the Biblical understanding. The Greek word here translated as meek refers to the taming of something. So a gentle breeze blowing in sails on a ship was described with this word, as was a wild animal that had been domesticated so that it was now tame.  It was not the destructive wind, or the destructive animal nature, it was under control.

That is the sense of meekness that is being used here; strength under control. It has the ability to be destructive and wild, but they have brought themselves under control, and in this sense it is that they have brought themselves under the control of God.  They have allowed God to tame them, or they have been transformed by the Spirit so that it is not their nature that is in control, but God is in control. The term can sometimes also be translated as humble, and it often has this same meaning in Hebrew as well, so that we are told that Moses is humble, or meek, but it was not always so.  We hear a story in which Moses strikes out and kills an Egyptian for his treatment of the Israelites, anger going to the extreme in wrath, but then he begins to follow God, he disciplines himself to God and what God is calling for him to do, and it is at this point that he is then said to be meek, to be humble.  And this is important to understand as it comes to the deadly sin of pride.

Now the deadly sins are called that not because they will literally kill us, although some of them, like gluttony and wrath can certainly lead to our deaths.  But they are deadly because these sins are seen as the root causes of all other sins, and they lead to the death of our souls in separating us from God, and separating us from each other. Because sin is about brokenness, about broken relationships with God and with others. When we sin we break the wholeness of relationship, which is what God is seeking for us and with us. But sin breaks that relationship. Gregory the Great is to a large degree responsible for helping to formulize and popularize the deadly sins, although what we know him most for is his worship reforms which led to the creation of what we know as Gregorian Chants. But in the first lists, there were originally 8 deadly sins, and Gregory said that it was really 7 plus 1, because the extra one was pride which he said that all other sins came out of because it was pride that was most likely to keep us separated from God, because with pride we don’t think we need God, and so it was the most likely to lead us to commit every other sin.

As an illustration of this, after the list of sins was narrowed down to seven, each was assigned a day of the week for it to be a focus of prayer and concentration, and because of its importance, Sunday was the day chosen to focus on pride. This was so because it was on Sundays that we gather to say that we are not the most important thing, that the world does not rotate around us, but instead that it is God who is the center.  Rather than being prideful about ourselves that we bow down and worship God, remembering that what we have is from God, to ask God for forgiveness, always a check against pride, and to give thanks to God for what we have in our lives.

Now, like the other words we have covered, pride might need to be redefined for its application here, and its danger in our lives, in order to truly understand what it’s about. In his letter to the Romans, Paul says, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but think with sober judgement,” (rom 12:3), but that doesn’t have anything to do with our sense of self-worth. Paul is not saying to have a negative self-image, or that having one is okay. This is not about our confidence. Nor is that we shouldn’t take pride in what we do, or be proud of things. We should take pride in our work, it’s okay to feel proud about your children, or grandchildren, or students. That is not the pride we are talking about, unless it’s taken too far, and so instead of hearing pride we should instead hear hubris or arrogance or, haughty, conceited, egocentric, narcissistic, vain. Does that make the type of sin that is being talked about here clearer? This is not about feeling okay about yourself, this is about thinking more of yourself than is necessary or due, it’s a total lack of humility, the thing that defines those who are working in and for the kingdom of God.

Thomas Aquinas said that there are four types of pride: The first are those who believe they are responsible and are the cause of all their achievements and talents, no one else had anything to do with it. The second are those who while acknowledging God’s role in their life, or the role of others, believe they deserve everything they have gotten. Third are those who boast of qualities they do not even possess.  And the fourth are those who despise others who lack the qualities they possess, or are quick to call them out, in order to call attention to their uniqueness. What all of these have in common is in our trying to elevate ourselves above others, or saying that we are better than others, that we have gotten what we deserve because we are so great, and conversely, those who don’t have things also deserve what they have gotten. There is a total lack of humility in believing this superiority. This pride is best exhibited by people who believe they have all the answers, they are the only ones who can fix a situation, that it’s all about them. This is the hubris that the biblical authors often warn about, as do those who write about pride, because not only does it totally disregard God, and our need for God, but it also says that they are the savior.  When someone tells us they can solve all our problems, and only they can do it, we should run in the other direction, because we have a savior, and it’s not them, and so to think otherwise is hubris, pride run wild.

Jesus tells a parable about a rich man who believes that he is responsible for everything that he has done, and so as his bountiful harvest is being brought in, he doesn’t know what to do with it all, and helping others never even crosses his mind, instead he says “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” The man thinks that he is responsible for everything he has, even for his own life, that he deserves it, and that everyone else should judge him, perhaps even including God, as being worthy and better because he has things. But to quote the author and priest Jeremy Taylor, “If he is to be exalted above his neighbors because he has more gold, how much inferior is he to a gold mine?”

Just before Paul tells the Romans not to think of themselves too much, he tells them, and us “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” What is the will of God? That we are to love the Lord our God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as yourself. And how do we love our neighbors as ourselves? Jesus says, in what has become known as the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That means that we have to think of others just as much as we think of ourselves, which is a first step against pride and towards a state of meekness. Of straining in our nature, taming it to God and God’s will for our lives. Another great way to tame that is by asking for forgiveness, because one thing that people suffering from the sin of pride have a hard time doing, if they can do it at all, is to name the mistakes they have made, to even say they have made any mistakes, which leads to an inability to seek forgiveness, because when you cannot admit you have done anything wrong, then there is no way you can ask for forgiveness, because you cannot repent. But as I said last week, repentance and the Kingdom of God are inherently linked together. It is the recognition that we live in a broken state, in broken relationships with others and in a broken relationship with God, that leads us to understand that we even need God in our lives. Jesus is not saying become week, he is saying that if you are a follower, if you are living into the Kingdom then you already are meek. You have already tamed and controlled your Spirit and your ego, you have been transformed by the power of the Spirit, and because of that you shall inherit the earth.

But then the next caveat is not to be too proud about that of that fact, because that too can lead to destruction. That is why poverty of spirit is not a deficit but a strength, because being too sure of ourselves leads us down the easy road with the wide gate which leads to destruction. When we believe that our salvation is assured then we get pride of Spirit and believe that there is nothing we can do to go astray, our salvation is assured. We aren’t saved, we are being saved, it’s a continual action, but Jesus tells us the path to life is narrow and hard. That is at the heart of the Beatitudes and of the Sermon on the Mount. These are hard things to understand, and even harder things to do. Especially because our culture rewards and praises the very things we are supposed to work against, like pride, but we are to tame that nature and to repent and be transformed and to walk down a different path, because not everyone who calls Lord, Lord, not even those who do miracles, will be answered by Jesus. But it’s the caveat that Jesus gives before that statement that is the difference.

Jesus says beware of the false prophets, beware of those who are telling you a different way of living than Jesus does. Beware of those who give into the ways of the world and want you to bow down to other saviors, other creeds, who want you to bow down to pride, individual pride and even national pride, because that is the easy path. And how will we distinguish the false prophets from the true prophets? We will know them by their fruits, and what are those fruits?  In true disciples, we will see them producing the characteristics we see lifted up in the Beatitudes and we will know them by the fruits of the Spirit which are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control and gentleness. Gentleness is that Greek word for meekness, which is linked with self-control.

When you walk this journey of faith then there are times in which you are not sure what’s going on, there are times in which you feel distant from God, there are times in which you wonder if you are going the right way, there are times in which you are crying out for answers and none are forthcoming, and maybe we even wonder if God is there, or even cares. That’s not a weakness of faith, that’s a strength of faith, because those who are poor in Spirit are those who have a deepness of faith to even know how much they don’t know or how much more they desire. Pride in our faith is a weakness because it too often means that we are missing God entirely because we are getting in our own way. But there is one more piece of information that is crucial to understanding meekness and the poor in spirit against those who suffer from pride, and that is the nature of this meekness that Jesus is talking about. While we use the same word for individuals who are meek and for a group of people who are meek, the Greek did have a singular and plural version, and when Jesus says blessed are the meek, it is not an individual, but the plural.

Usually, those who are meek, as we typically understand it, are isolated, alone, they are invisible to the world, and maybe even to themselves, but Jesus says to those who are excluded, those who are outsiders, those who are invisible to the things the world promotes, welcome, come together. Because the meek that Jesus is talking about are a family, a new community that is formed in Christ. Not to puff themselves up, not to seek rewards for themselves, not to say how great they are and how they have all the answers, not to promote their own individual agenda but instead to build up, to support, to practice humility and be community for one another.  The meek and the poor in spirit not only demonstrate the fruits of the Kingdom, but they demonstrate humility before God and before one another. Pride, which seeks to make us better than others, is brought down by humility which seeks to make us equal with each other, brothers and sisters, who are all in this thing together, walking the narrow and hard path that leads to life, but not just any life, but lie with God, life abundant. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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