PROPER 17, C
Sirach 10:12-18, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14
Lust. Gluttony. Greed. Sloth. Wrath. Envy. Six of the so-called seven deadly sins. Not an appealing list – easy enough to see why we would generally like to avoid those particular characteristics. In ruminating about our children’s or grandchildren’s futures nobody ever muses, “Oh, but I do hope she’ll be slothful.” or “If only he has plenty of wrath in his life, he’ll do just fine…”
What about that seventh deadly sin? What about pride? Traditionally, it is seen as the deadliest of all the deadly sins. Pride is touted in some sources as the wellspring of all the other sins. Really? Pride is the worst of all badness?
I asked my daughter the other day what she associates with the word “pride”. “A kind of happy feeling,” she said, “like you did a good thing.” Doesn’t sound so very bad, as sins go. We talk about national pride, ethnic pride, personal pride. We’re proud of our accomplishments, proud of our kids. A fairly recent study suggested that telling your children you are proud of them is one of the most positive things the parent of a sports playing child can say. How bad can it be?
“…the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations. Therefore the Lord brings upon them unheard-of calamities, and destroys them completely.” Ok, that does sound bad. The key, however, is found in the preceding verse, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.” It’s all about connection, or rather, loss of connection. According to C.S. Lewis, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.” Pride – the destructive, crippling pride, hubris – is not a healthy sense of self-confidence and self-worth, but rather a sense of needing to prove superiority, over others, over groups, ultimately over God. We cannot be connected with God if we are trying to out-do God, or take God’s job.
Jesus seems to have made a most unlikely connection today. He’s been invited to hang out with his critics the pharisees, at a banquet, no less. A big fancy meal, with strict rules of conduct and decorum. The conventions governing a formal meal in 1st century Palestine span far beyond the “which fork do I use when?” dilemma. Strict protocols govern who reclines at the prestigious central couch, near the host. Luke tells us that the pharisees are watching Jesus closely, with the implication that they are watching for some outrageous or offensive behavior. Jesus does not disappoint. He begins the party by insulting the guests with his blunt observation of social climbing, of pride. In case that doesn’t make things sufficiently awkward, He moves on to insulting the host’s hospitality, making clear that the pharisee has not offered true hospitality, as he has offered only what can be repaid at a later date. Jesus offers instead a vision of a radical hospitality, born in humility.
Dorothy Day was a co-founder of Catholic Worker movement. She dedicated almost all of her adult life to social justice and to serving the poor. She worked among the people she served, living the life that they lived, complete with cockroaches and cold rooms. Author and psychiatrist Robert Coles describes his first meeting with Dorothy Day. At that time she was living and working in the slums of New York City, and Robert Coles was attending Harvard Medical School. He was proud of his profession, proud of his status, proud that he had chosen to work with the famously benevolent Ms. Day. When he arrived for his first meeting, he found Dorothy Day sitting at a table, deep in conversation with a disheveled street person. Ms. Day didn’t notice Coles had come into the room until they had finished their conversation. When she finally noticed him she asked, “Do you want to speak to one of us?” Mr. Coles was stunned by Ms. Day’s unequivocal humility. She had identified so completely with the people she served that she did not recognize a distinction between herself, and the woman whom society would deem a “nobody”. Mr. Cole later claimed that he learned more in those few moments than in all his time at Harvard. (anecdote paraphrased from REV. DR. JOSEPH S. PAGANO, Awaken the Servant Within, Sermons that Work)
Theologian Frederick Buechner describes this genuine humility in this way, “True humility doesn’t consist of thinking ill of yourself but of not thinking of yourself much differently from the way you’d be apt to think of anybody else.” Orthodox bishop Nicholai Velimirovic said more succinctly, “Be humble, for the worst thing in the world is of the same stuff as you; be confident, for the stars are of the same stuff as you.”
From within this call to humility (not humiliation, not shame, not self-deprecation, but humility), Jesus calls his followers to a radical hospitality. “…when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” The author of Hebrews echoes that call, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” When true humility guides our attention to God and God’s creation, outward rather than inward, dividing lines are erased and radical hospitality becomes almost inevitable.
Henri J. M. Nouwen describes hospitality in this way, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”
This past week, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Great March on Washington at which the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Martin Luther King called for radical hospitality – he called for an end to the dividing lines. He dreamed of a time when sons of slaves and sons of slave owners could sit down together in the spirit of brotherhood, of a time when children would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. He called for revolutionary hospitality.
Some dividing lines have diminished. Mixed race couples can legally marry, racial discrimination is nominally illegal, (although certainly not abolished), a black man was elected to the presidency. But the dividing lines persist – separating us by race, but also by gender, by social class, economic class, sexual orientation, health status, mental health status, educational status – the list goes on.
The world can change. Dorothy Day changed the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. changed the world. God calls us to change the world. One unsuspected angel at a time.