The Sunday Sermon: First Sunday of Lent – March 10, 2019
Scripture: Philippians 2:1-11
Pride: Emptying Ourselves
Desert Father and monastic theologian Evagrius of Pontus is credited with first drawing up a list of eight “offenses and wicked human passions.” They were, in order of increasing seriousness: gluttony, lust, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory, and pride. In the late 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great reduced the list to seven items, folding vainglory into pride, acedia into sadness, and adding envy! His ranking of the Sins’ seriousness was based on the degree from which they “offended against love.” Pride is the greatest offense against love, then greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and finally sloth.
We are going to take a look all those seven deadly sins on the six Sundays of Lent. Quick math would alert you to the fact that we will get a two-fer on one of those Sundays. That will be March twenty-fourth for us. So you definitely don’t want to miss that Sunday!
Now, a quick note: A list of “heavenly virtues” was also compiled in these early centuries, though not originally intended to parallel the sins. After Pope Gregory released the list of sins we just identified in the late sixth century, around 590 AD, the list of “heavenly virtues” that was originally compiled in the early fifth century, came to be humility, generosity, chastity, love, temperance, patience, and charity. I thought we’d keep those virtues separate through Lent and lift them up more purposefully after Easter, during our journey to Pentecost. But I found it practically impossible to “engage” pride without speaking of humility this past week. And I imagine it will be the same for the next five weeks with the “sins and virtues.” So, we won’t spend too much time on the virtues on this side of Easter, but I don’t think we can separate them fully.
As I just mentioned, I discovered in my readings this week that the seven virtues weren’t originally intended to be paired with the seven deadly sins. The church in later centuries began that practice most likely for facilitating their teaching on both, but even throughout the Middle Ages, as the Church hierarchy emphasized teaching all lay people the Deadly Sins to keep them on the faithful path, they also endeavored to teach their congregations the Heavenly Virtues. Just most likely not together. So, we’ll follow ancient practices as best as we can this Lent, trying to keep them apart. Still, I believe we’ll provide some hope from the virtues against these “offenses and wicked passions” explored on Sunday mornings.
This morning, the offense that, according to Pope Gregory at least, “offends most against love”: Pride. Let’s pray first …
And now, let’s listen for the Word of God in Paul’s written words to the church in ancient Philippi. Read Philippians 2:1-4. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Canadian theologian John Douglas Hall has written that when we read the New Testament epistles, or letters, two things are clear about the church. Firstly, the church is most certainly one of God’s chosen instruments for accomplishing the mission of God on earth. We’ve been stressing our role in the Kingdom come all year so far. But the second thing Hall notes is apparent in the New Testament writings, is that something seems to have gone terribly wrong with the church. As beautiful and meaningful as this passage (and the “hymn of praise” that concludes it which we’ll read throughout the rest of this message) is, such is the case in Philippi. Something is wrong.
The first four verses we read are a verbless invocation that invites the readers and hearers, body and soul, toward encouragement in Christ, consolation from love, sharing in the Spirit, compassion and sympathy within the community. They invite us to the glory of living that is Christ. But as beautiful as this call for unity is written, it suggests that it doesn’t exist now, that a division has taken root. We don’t exactly know what that division is, what or who has caused it, but there are some hints.
Up in the second verse of chapter four, two specific people who apparently had a falling out are called by name. Perhaps it’s them. Churches do have “falling outs” among their members and their leaders. Now, I would never in a million years dream of calling out the names of any members here who may be bickering with each other or with me, or any other part of the Body. Certainly not in writing, but … to note this “division” in one of the first communities and to imagine it as possible even today (!) is worth our time.
Bottom line, as I said, we don’t know what exactly is going on. Perhaps “Judaizers,” those early Christians who taught that it was necessary to adopt Jewish customs and practices in order to be saved, were a problem here, as they were in Galatia. Paul did not teach or preach this requirement in order to be “in Christ.” Perhaps Paul’s authority was in question in this community. We don’t know. Perhaps one or both of the individuals names in chapter four are stirring up dissent. But whatever the reason for it, the opening verses of chapter two suggests a division, a deep division in need of an eloquent call for unity.
But as I read verse three – Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves – I imagine that whatever the issue is, pride is at the root of the problem. Ambition and conceit suggest a prideful stance. Humility is the answer, the “virtue” needed, to counteract pride.
Pride is first on Pope Gregory’s re-ordered list of “those things that offend against love.” It has been called the sin from which all others arise. We best understand pride as an excessive belief in our own abilities that interferes with our respect and reverence for others and our recognition of the grace of God in our lives. It’s not simple confidence or competence, those attributes are crucial for us all. It’s those things “on steroids”. It’s arrogance, vanity, or egotism.
Curiously, pride is most likely to grow from too little self-esteem rather than too much. When we doubt our own value, or feel that others aren’t recognizing how “special” we are – as individuals, as a group, as country – we seek to bolster our self esteem and the opinion of others about us by trumpeting our worthiness, by trying to demonstrate our value to others, or more treacherously against others. This is almost always an attempt to demonstrate our value, not to or for them, but to and for ourselves. And the more we do this, convincing ourselves of our worth unto ourselves, the more we base our identity not on the basis of who we are in the sight of God, but on the basis of who we imagine we want to be, or who we imagine others want us to be, the further away from Love, the Love capital “L” of Christ, we move.
Pride, as it relates to other people grows out of this inflated, self-constructed self. As our bulletin’s opening reflection points out, the basic premise of pride – that “I can go it on my own, under my own power and authority. I don’t need others. I am self-made” – may initially seem harmless, even helpful to some. But it eventually involves not only a high valuation of self, but a comparatively low valuation of others. How can there be a Number One, “me,” if there isn’t a Number Two, “you”? How can I be the greatest, if someone else isn’t “the less great”?
When we convince ourselves of our superiority over others we replace God’s will with our own. Inevitably, our pride leads to suffering. We ourselves suffer, burdened with maintaining a false and unrealistic image of ourselves and our place in creation. And we cause others to suffer by treating them as less than fully human. And that latter has disastrous results.
Ashia and I have been talking about this series in the weeks past. She’s preaching at the end of the month. She noted last week in one of our conversations about this Sunday’s topic that “Pride blinds us.” Or even if we retain some sight, she suggested, with “puffed up pride” that sight, our view, is distorted. For the sake of pride we start ignoring things – we don’t “see” things or we distort our view of things – we know we should not be proud of.
I’m proud to be an American, but a nationalistic pride, an excessive belief in the importance of any one country, nation, or citizens of that country over another or others leads to horrors like the Holocaust in Europe, or the Japanese internment camps in our own country during the war fought to end it; or the ethnic cleansings happening even now in Sudan and Myanmar, to name only two locations.
I am blessed to be a man, to be “white,” to be heterosexual, to be “upwardly mobile” in my social class, to be a Christian in the United States. But to believe that those genetic, cultural, economic, or religious accidents make me better than someone with darker skin, or of a different gender, or a different sexual orientation, or better than the poor, or those who experience the same “Holy” I do but express it in a different way, is “prideful,” and that pride leads to disastrous results: Racism, sexism, homophobia, an elitism that devalues the most needy in our world, and religious genocide. All of these “isms” and phobias cause others to suffer by treating them as less than fully human. And there is nothing further from Love, capital “L,” than treating others as less than God created them to be. Instead, Paul exhorts us, take who you are, blessings, challenges, and all and humble yourself:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death –even death on a cross.
In the very act of creating and in relation to all creatures and creation, the ancient Hebrews witnessed to a reality – they didn’t name it, we call it “God” – that empties itself for others, all others, all “other.” There is continuity with this reality, with God, and with the Christian teaching of incarnation. It’s not just that Jesus didn’t grasp after equality with God because he had a choice. Jesus didn’t grasp after equality with God because that is not God’s nature. The “God” we worship empties Godself – in creation, in loving that creation, in seeking to redeem that creation. That’s what makes Jesus Divine for us. He, too, emptied himself. That’s what Paul calls us to, “the same mind” that empties itself for others. It’s pride, our inflated self-constructed ego that grasps, rather than empties. It is pride.
One last point this morning – an important one: This passage, verses five to eleven in particular, and ones like it have been used to more fully disempower the powerless: “Humble yourself and become obedient. Countless women or persecuted minorities of any and every kind have been hurt by an interpretation of this “hymn” that is used to disempower them. That’s the result of Pride, with a capital “P” on the part of anyone and everyone struggling to maintain a valuation of themselves that is not “from God.” I hope any of you who have experienced this passage as a call for you to diminish yourselves for someone else can hear it in a different way, in the way that it was and is intended – not as an instruction to the powerless, but as a caution to the prideful
Paul’s plea, our call, is not to the dissolution of self, but to the proper understanding of self: encouraging, consoling, compassionate and sympathetic to others. Emptied of pride and vainglory and vanity and self-conceit. If, and when, we are able to approach that understanding …
God will highly exalt us, too, and give us the name that is above every name, so that at this name every knee shall bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue shall confess that “Humble Love” is Lord, to the glory of God.
Where is there pride right here at Pewee Valley Presbyterian? A pride in our personal lives, or at our places of work, or in our families, or right here when we are gathered in Christ’s name? How is that pride keeping us from emptying ourselves, from seeing the truth, from connecting to those who need to experience the Love of our God the most? Where is the pride in your life that keeps you from being all you were created by God to be and that keeps others from doing the same?
Questions for Lent … and we’ve only just begun. “If we but trust in God to guide us …” we will make it to Easter again. May it be so.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church, March 10, 2019