Sermon for Sunday, 28 August

Readings for the day

The first reading we heard this morning has an interesting, almost tentative place in the Bible. It comes from a book sometimes known as Sirach and other times as Ecclesiasticus. In the Roman tradition it is squarely in the Old Testament and in the Lutheran and Calvinist tradition it’s not there at all. We tend to think it comes from the Hebrew Scriptures. But it is not in the Hebrew Scriptures…  

The comic/horror take on scripture… (no copyright asseerted)

In the Anglican Tradition, since the time of King James, we’ve had a special place called The Apocrypha, which is a fancy word for murky or cryptic. The word Crypt comes from the same root, so we might think of the Apocrypha as “tales from the crypt…”  

Our notion that the bible is very well established and universally agreed on is not such a good assumption. The bible is meant to be a library, a collection of sacred writing. But over centuries it has developed quirks, personalities, variations, not to mention things lost or gained in translation. 

This is more than just a tangential thought. We hear discussions now and then about the Bible that assume that it is the absolute, inerrant, unchanging word of God. But if we begin with the realization that “the Bible” refers to something a little different depending on if we are in a Reformed, or Baptist, or Anglican, or Methodist, or Roman, or Orthodox church… then concepts of “absolute” and “inerrant” have to be tempered with at least a little humility.  

St Humility (public domain)

I’m not suggesting anything about God’s ability to speak absolutely or inerrantly. I am suggesting that our ability to hear, record, comprehend, and transmit is never absolute and inerrant. I’m suggesting that we approach the Bible, and especially our understanding of the Bible, with a measure of humbleness. 

And humility, or more precisely its polarity, arrogance, is exactly where Ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, starts us in today’s reading. His book might have a tentative place in scripture, but his language is not at all tentative… 

Ben Sira tells us that arrogance is hateful to God and to people. Governments crumble because of injustice. The beginning of pride is the forsaking of God. God plucks the roots of the proud and plants the humble in their place.  

Perhaps most astoundingly he declares that pride was not created for human beings. In other words, pride is inhuman, or as Biblical language would have it – an abomination. 

What is pride? Contemporary English is not always helpful because we can use the same word in so many different degrees. So, let’s play with the words a bit. 

As a monk in the Order of the Holy Cross I have the great privilege of living in an extraordinarily beautiful place, St Benedict’s Priory at Volmoed, and I’m proud of that… I’m proud that we are able to share our lives with so many friends. I am proud of the vast accomplishments that we have made in the past few years, COVID 19 notwithstanding, to revitalize our presence here in South Africa. Is this kind of pride an abomination? I really don’t think so. 

ben Sira (public domain)

The kind of pride ben Sira is talking about is clearly linked with arrogance. At its root, arrogance has to do with taking what is not ours to take. Arrogance is the act of arrogation. Say for example that I “arrogate” my neighbor’s car. In plain English we would call that stealing. I might “arrogate” food – and in fact I no doubt do – I have taken food that I do not need. Gluttony is a form of arrogance.  

If I begin to believe that I am entitled to live in this beautiful and splendid place, rather than accepting it as an awesome gift, that is arrogance. I have taken God’s gift and arrogated it for my own. 

Ben Sira has a very powerful message for us – as individuals, in our congregations, as a nation… Humility is what God calls us to. Arrogance is a destructive and ugly path – hateful to God and people.  

Humility tells us that we are servants. Arrogance tells us that we deserve servants. Humility speaks to us of justice. Arrogance brags of wealth and privilege. 

Arrogance and humility lead us right into the Gospel reading from Luke. Of all the evangelists, Luke is particularly concerned with the poor, the humble, the outcast, those who have no social standing – who have nothing to be proud of… nothing to be arrogant about. 

In the passage we just heard, Jesus tells us not to take the seat of honor at a big occasion, but rather to take the lowly seat at the foot of the table. In addition, we are not to focus our hospitality on the rich and fabulous, but rather on the poor, the lame, the blind… those who have no honor, no power… those who have arrogated nothing. 

In other words, Jesus is calling us to be humble and, furthermore, to hang out with those who are humble. 

To my ears this etiquette lesson in Luke seems curiously low stakes. Take the seat that is lowly, because if you take the seat of honor and get bumped down, you’ll be embarrassed… OK… I don’t enjoy embarrassment, but what’s the big deal? In our society embarrassment has become a form of entertainment.  

Do something incredibly embarrassing and then put it on YouTube…Celebrities, politicians, sports figures… You are no one until you’ve done something quite stupid – in public.  

In Jesus’ time, embarrassment was closer to the end of the world. Honor, in that culture, was a limited commodity. Without honor you were nothing, and if you lost honor, it could not be restored. Losing honor was permanent, like losing virginity. There was no YouTube… no quick trip to rehab… If you take the seat of honor and get dishonored, you will be dishonored.,. and you will stay dishonored. 

So, protecting honor is important and the way to protect your honor is to act rightly and hang out with other honorable people. So, it’s a bit twisted for Jesus to tell us to protect our honor by acting like we don’t have much in the first place – sit in the humble seat. But it gets worse. Jesus says spend time with the needy, the poor, the sick, the outcasts. This is just perverse. This is the express way to lose honor. 

In Jesus’ world, if I want to protect my honor, I must act like I don’t have any in the first place and then do things that will make me explicitly dishonorable. Abandon my honor and I will be honored. 

There is something else in the Bible with a similar ring to it. Those who would save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives will obtain eternal life. 

So, Luke’s seemingly low stakes etiquette lesson is really a very high stakes lesson in living the gospel. 

Let’s flip back to ben Sira writing in Ecclesiasticus. Honor belongs to God. If I arrogate honor for myself and then work hard to protect it, I’m taking what is God’s and making it mine and, in the process, I’m separating myself from God. But if I follow Jesus and leave myself, my honor, behind, then I become part of the honorable kingdom of God. 

Of course, that sounds simple enough… but reality has a way of not being simple. And when things get complicated, good becomes much harder to sort out. How are we to figure out all the right answers so that we know what to do?… 

But there is that fascinating word arrogance again… I can’t possibly figure out all the answers and it is arrogant to think I can or that I should. God doesn’t call us to have all the answers. 

Be humble and be with the humble. That’s all the advice we get from Jesus in today’s gospel passage. That’s what God calls us to.  

The Prophet Micah calls us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Another way of saying that would be to Love God with all our hearts and love our neighbors and ourselves.  

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