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August 29, 2004

"Kenosis for Beginners" - August 29, 2004

Kenosis for Beginners
Sarah Dylan Breuer, Director of Christian Formation
St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal Church, Severna Park, MD

Proper 17, Year C; August 29, 2004
Ecclesiasticus 10:7-18; Psalm 112; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Benjamin Franklin describes in his autobiography a program he designed for self-improvement. He created a table of the various virtues he thought he should cultivate, and tells the story of how he worked on each one in turn. But he tells us that he made one fatal mistake in his plan to become perfect in every virtue. He left humility for last, and by the time he got to it, he was already so near perfection in every other area that humility was impossible.

Franklin told this story with his tongue firmly planted in cheek, but he makes a serious point in the process about spiritual pride. Spiritual pride just might be the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins, because it can corrupt even striving to be good and generous and turn it into an occasion for further pride. Fight it successfully for a moment, and you might just find yourself saying inwardly, “Wow ... I’m being really humble. And I’m MUCH more humble than Jean, or for that matter George. Maybe I should teach a class on humility.”

Pride is rife among those of us striving to be good. We don’t have a corner on it, though. Have you ever caught yourself saying, at a time when you felt a deep (and unhealthy!) burden of guilt, “I can’t tell anyone, and I can’t pray – I’m so bad that God can’t forgive me.” That line of thinking sets you and whatever crime you think you’ve committed as being more powerful than God, and “I think I’m more powerful than God” is a statement of supreme hubris – at least as prideful as the person who imagines that her moral superiority places her outside the company of lesser folk.

People at both ends of this pride spectrum, though, have something in common: they’re deeply concerned with boundaries, with what’s right and wrong, with what’s appropriate, with who deserves what, and they have a very hard time seeing anyone – themselves or their neighbors – getting something that’s given outside of those boundaries.

Our gospel for this morning tackles the issue of spiritual pride head-on, and it’s even clearer read in context. Those of you with pew bibles in front of you, feel free to turn to Luke chapter 14 and take a look.

The lectionary has us starting in verse 1 – “On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.” – and then skipping directly to verse 7, with Jesus starting to tell a parable. In doing so, the lectionary leaves out what Luke presents as the occasion for Jesus’ parable: Jesus heals a man with dropsy at the meal, and on the Sabbath. There was no good reason, by respectable people’s reckoning, for Jesus to rush to action. Dropsy is not a condition that’s life-threatening. If Jesus had only been willing to wait twenty-four hours, he could have healed the man without offending anyone. Furthermore, it’s not even clear from the text that the man Jesus healed was an invited guest at the dinner. Luke just says in verse 2 (if I can translate it in a wooden way), “And behold, there was a man with dropsy in front of him.” There’s another good reason to ask the man to come back tomorrow. Why reward his rudeness in disturbing the invited guests during the meal? Furthermore, Leviticus 13 suggests that someone with dropsy was impure, and his presence in the midst of the meal could make the whole meal impure and inedible. So, by rushing to heal the man there and then, Jesus was ‘dissing’ his hosts and the other invited guests, ignoring Leviticus, and violating the holiness of the Sabbath. What could possibly be so urgent that Jesus had to act immediately?

But that’s not how Jesus thinks. When presented with human need, Jesus doesn't ask, “Is there any compelling reason to act now?” In fact, he doesn’t ask any questions at all until after he’s acted, and even then, he doesn’t make much of an effort to soothe the wounded pride of those offended. Instead, he tells a parable that would offend the proud even more. He talks about guests who see themselves as deserving the most recognition being sent in disgrace to the lowest seat, while the lowliest are given the place of honor. He commands his followers to ignore friends and family members who deserve to be invited to the feast so that their invitations can be given to the poor and outcast.

But Jesus doesn’t only provide healing for the man with dropsy; he also points the way to a cure – perhaps the only cure – for spiritual pride. Try to fight pride internally, by trying to feel differently by sheer willpower, and we’ll just end up taking more pride in our efforts to be humble. So what’s the way out? Jesus tells the proud (and who among us couldn’t be counted in that number?) to focus not on ourselves and what we do or don’t deserve in comparison to others, but rather to look actively for opportunities to yield honor and advantage to others, deserving or not. Such opportunities are at least as plentiful as are opportunities to indulge pride, but it takes a lot of psychological and spiritual ‘rewiring’ for most of us to take them, meaning that most of us (including me) need a lot of practice. So here are a few concrete ways we could try to be intentional in that practice of yielding advantage to someone else without consideration for pride of place:

When driving, especially in rush hour or in particularly nasty traffic, take that instinct (finely honed in most experienced commuters!) to look for the fastest-moving lane and cut into it by any means necessary, and use those instincts to look for opportunities to make the drive easier, faster, and less stressful for someone else. The person who just really enraged you by driving by you on the shoulder and then trying to cut back into the lane would be a particularly good person to practice with: the point is not to try to reward another nice driver, but to give up the position of judging who deserves to be let in ahead of you. Pick one day a month or one day a week to try it until you get to a point where you actually prefer driving this way.

Maybe you don't drive. Here's something that we all (including, or maybe even especially young people in school) have opportunities to do: practice looking around you for the person you think has, for whatever reason, the most cause to be ashamed, and then look for opportunities to say or do something that makes this person feel genuinely honored and appreciated.

And here’s a third area in which many of us have an opportunity to yield our advantage to another. Those of us who have the right to vote have a particular responsibility to use our power the way Jesus used his – to others’ advantage, and especially to the advantage of the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. Christians can and do disagree in good conscience about what specific candidates and laws will most benefit the poor. But as Christians, we can’t ignore the poor. And here’s something else we can’t ignore – there are a lot more of them then there used to be. The Census Bureau reported this week that just last year, 1.3 million MORE people slipped below the poverty line in the U.S., and child poverty is now the highest it’s been in ten years. At the same time, the nationwide average of household incomes adjusted for inflation remained fairly constant. That means that the rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer. Ignore that, and we build the kingdom described in this morning’s reading from Ecclesiasticus: “Sovereignty passes from nation to nation / on account of injustice, and insolence, and wealth.” But Ecclesiasticus also says “human beings were not made for pride.” We have a choice, and we have the power – if we vote prayerfully and after much study – to build the kingdom Jesus describes, God’s kingdom, in which those who suffered poverty and disease are given first place at the feast, not whatever leftovers there are from our daily feasting.

Every opportunity we take to focus on how we can seek others’ advantage will undermine something that I think does a great deal to build and exacerbate pride: the twinned convictions that there are only so many good things – only so much honor, love, and justice – to go around, and that it’s very important to see that only the deserving get them. As a dear friend from my college days would have said, “that’s a lie from the pit of hell.” God made a world in which there’s more than enough of every good thing to go around, if we share it freely. And God did not make us for pride, or for the anxiety that accompanies it. We are made in the image of a God who lived in flesh among us as

a baby born out of wedlock,
a homeless wanderer,
a friend to prostitutes,
a convicted criminal.

He died with no honor on earth – and he was raised to all honor heaven could bestow. But his story does not end in heaven. He taught us to pray that his kingdom come and his will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven. That prayer is not a tease or a bait-and-switch – God is faithful to answer prayer. His kingdom is coming – ON EARTH, as it is in heaven. God challenges and invites us to confess and pray that not just with our lips, but with our lives, not just in our churches and our homes, but in and for the whole world. In the sum of thousands of thousands of small actions and inactions, we invite the outcast to their feast or follow the proud to our shame. Either way, God’s invitation to us stands – to follow the outcast into God’s kingdom, where anxiety and sorrow fall away with pride and envy, where love and faithfulness meet, and justice and peace kiss (Psalm 85:10).

Thanks be to God!

August 29, 2004 in Luke, Ordinary Time | Permalink


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