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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost - 9/2

In his two parables about where you sit at a banquet and who you invite to lunch or dinner, Jesus was addressing the issue of pride; pride as  the need to see yourself as better than someone else, pride as feeling more highly about yourself than you ought to.  On some lists of the Seven Deadly Sins pride is number one, right at the top.  You know the Seven Deadly Sins.  (Pride, lust, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony)    

This list came out of a time in the early history of the church when it was especially preoccupied with sin and guilt and sins were classified in one of two ways. First there were venial sins, the relatively minor ones, minor enough that they could be forgiven through the sacraments of the church; then there were mortal sins, deadly sins, those which could lead to eternal damnation unless forgiven through confession and absolution by a priest or through assigned acts of penance and contrition.  On the list of deadly, mortal sins, pride always figured prominently.

Pride as sin though, can be something of a source of confusion.  It’s been a few years since I taught school, but when I did, there were those educational theorists who seemed to think it was more important to help kids “feel good about themselves” than it was to actually teach them anything.  So, for example, you couldn’t give anyone a bad grade, even if they deserved it, because it might damage their little psyche.  Feeling good about yourself is just another way of saying be proud of yourself isn’t it?  So is that a bad thing or a good thing? 

Theologically it gets a little tricky because, from a Lutheran standpoint anyway, recognizing yourself as a sinful human being in need of forgiveness is pretty important.  “We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves,” is how we begin the order for confession and forgiveness.  “We poor sinners confess unto thee that we are by nature sinful and unclean,” is another form of this that you perhaps remember, or maybe “I a poor miserable sinner confess unto thee…”  Not much pride or feeling good about yourself there, but if “I a poor miserable sinner” was the last word, that wouldn’t be so hot either.

In confirmation a couple of years ago we got into this too when one of the kids said, “My parents are always telling me I should take pride in my work.  You mean that’s a sin?”  I tried to explain that one away by saying what his parents were really talking about was an issue of stewardship.  We all are given talents and abilities and we are called to make good use of those talents and abilities, to be good stewards, which means doing the best we can.  In terms of the deadly sins what his parents were talking about had more to do with a caution against sloth than it did with pride.  There’s nothing wrong with taking pride in your work when it’s understood as doing the best you can.

Pride becomes sinful when it involves achieving power or status or advantage over someone else.  At first you might say, “Well, I don’t do that,” but then you realize that pretty much our whole system is based on gaining power and status and advantage in some fashion.  That’s the whole idea behind free market capitalism.  In business you’re always looking for an advantage, an edge so that your company can be the winner; but if there are winners, there are also losers.  In the church you wind up with competition for members and influence, the bigger is better syndrome.  In most walks of life, in much of what we do we’re often looking for some advantage, some return that serves our own self-interest.  Pecking orders evolve, intentionally or unintentionally, and we’re encouraged to try and move up.  It’s hard, maybe impossible to avoid this kind of self-serving pride.

It does get tricky because it calls our whole way of life into question.  But it called the way of life in Jesus’ time into question too.  People in that world were also looking for leverage to secure their position in society or to move up the ladder a little bit so they could have a few more people to feel superior to, not terribly different from how our world works.  

All of this though, is so ingrained in us that it’s hard to imagine another way.  We resist really hearing what Jesus is saying because it’s easier to pretend that his teachings put a rubber stamp of approval on our way of life instead of hearing his words as a critique telling us that our ways are not his ways, that there is another way.  As has been the case in a number of our gospel readings this summer, that’s what Jesus is getting at with the two parables today. 

That other way of Jesus is called the kingdom of God and it’s not just about the heavenly hereafter, it’s a way of life that calls us now.  Yet, we persist in our own settled ways, convincing ourselves that they are Christian or maybe we know that they’re not, but then we tell ourselves that while Jesus’ way sounds nice it just doesn’t work in our world.

I got to about this point in working on this sermon this week when I went home and in that day’s Christian Science Monitor was an article titled “The Love of Power vs. the Power of Love,” written by Lawrence W. Reed, the president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan.  Reading it I thought, here’s my sermon.  The article wasn’t overtly religious but it didn’t take much of a stretch to relate it to the teachings of Jesus.  Reed though, quoted William Gladstone who was the Prime Minister of Great Britain in the mid-1800’s. (In case you’re curious, trolling around on the internet I found that Gladstone, MI was named in his honor) 

Anyway, he said, “We look forward to the time when the power of love will replace the love of power.  Then will our world know the blessings of peace.”  Jesus didn’t use exactly those words, but he told stories that pretty much said the same thing.  Jesus promoted an ethic of love in a world that operated based on power and that hasn’t changed.  As Lawrence Reed noted in his article, love and power are two different things, often at odds with each other; love is about affection and respect; power is about control and that’s where pride becomes sinful; pride is sinful when it’s at the expense of someone else and it usually is.

When you’re proud of yourself or your school or your business or your team or your country or your church because you think it makes you better in some fashion or gives you an advantage over someone, that’s sinful because it’s about personal or corporate or national advancement, not about the good of the neighbor and an awful lot of Jesus teaching had to with caring for the neighbor and remember he had a pretty broad view of the neighborhood.

Throughout history there have been those voices, like that of William Gladstone, that have articulated the truth of Jesus’ call to a different way in the face of our continued efforts to delude ourselves into thinking that we’re already doing it.  Jesus does call for radical change in how we live, pointing us to the power of love against the love of power because he is opening up a vision of something different, a kingdom not based on the usual power structures. 

In his kingdom, there’s no need to play the pride and power games.  The tension in his kingdom comes out of the fact that no one is worthy yet everyone is worthy, not because of their status or position or advantage, but because of the power of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians Ch 2)

To be sure we live in the already and not yet of Jesus’ kingdom.  But I think we misinterpret things if we dismiss the kingdom Jesus preached as unworkable in our world.  He calls us to see the tension in how we live vs. the way he calls us to live, but to always be moving toward, seeking and envisioning his kingdom in whatever ways we can.  We don’t have to play games and angle for position and pretend because in Jesus’ kingdom we are who we pretend not to be. 

By the power of Jesus’ love though, that’s OK.  We are who we pretend not to be, but at the same time we are who we perhaps can’t imagine ourselves being; we’re who Jesus has made us in baptism.  We are beloved, forgiven children of God.  In his kingdom there is a place for each of us that we don’t have to angle for or fight for.  In his kingdom there is peace because in him, the power of love has replaced the love of power.        


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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