Sunday, October 27, 2013

Well Intentioned Arrogance

Well Intentioned Arrogance
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 27, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 18: 9-14

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” [1]

I think this is my all time favorite gospel passage. It's so biting. How many times do we think like this Pharisee?  I think if we admit it, it happens so often, the best of us, and especially on our best day, we just seem to scream out, Man I am glad that I'm not like that guy. I may be this, but at least I don't do that. And that's on our best day, the day when we are supposed to have it all figured out. And this is where the pharisee is you can imagine, he's a good person, worked really hard to be, a pillar and example in the community, he deserves his status. And here he is being criticized. . . in Sunday School we were talking the other week about how hard Luke is, and how disjointed it seems to be, but then we found the consistent thread, that Jesus isn't often talking about what people are doing, but why, which is the hardest part. But we live in a world where morals matter and behavior is judged, where we compete with each other in every way, where from a young age we begin the comparisons, where we are driven to success, where we believe that merit matters, and should be rewarded, all of this going on, and Jesus reminds us here to be humble. Oh how hard humility can be, especially when from our perspective we have overcome so much to be the good people we are, well not perfect people for sure, but at least better than. . . there we go again. The old Mac Davis song was, Oh It's hard to be humble, when you're perfect in every way, that may be true, I wouldn't know, but I think it misses the mark, it should be, Oh it's hard to be humble when you're just a little bit better than someone else, anyone else, just one is enough, oh it's hard to be humble when you're human and alive. . . Ok Ok, it's just hard to be humble. Medieval Monks knew this, so many monasteries would put humility last, the highest rung on the ladder of ascension, the step by step process of purity that they would put themselves through, it wouldn't matter how high they rose, self importance and self righteousness would always ring its ugly head and knock them all the way down, so they put it all the way at the top as the last great barrier to moral perfection. There is nothing like a reminder to be humble, a requirement to be humble, to bring you back down and humble you.
I see it all week at school, both in class and on the football field. My favorite example from school has got to be from a bunch of years back, when I had a student, who wasn't the best student, he was ok, but he wasn't amazing, but he usually did his homework, and he would be so proud of doing it, that with a big smile on his face he'd say, "I've got my homework, Mr. Atkinson," which was only half the statement, the other half went unsaid, but would mean, with his eyes, that someone else didn't. I look good, got it done, but you know someone else didn't, boy am I glad I'm not that guy. He'd feel better about himself, simply because he could, from his perspective, put himself above. I see it on the football team often. There is a definite hierarchy of talent and leadership, and it flows from the top to the bottom pretty steadily. It's always amazing to me how some of the players in the middle will assert themselves over those at the bottom, talent and experience wise. I may not be a star, but at least I'm not that guy. And they feel good about themselves, and they feel better when they let those people, who are below them know it, We call it bullying. They are simple examples, and I wish I could say that it all stops when we get out of school and become adults, but you know it just doesn't. There is still that hierarchy, and there is always someone below who we can feel good about being "better than" at least about something.
So why does it matter? You know other than Jesus reminding us in this parable that being humble is important, and other than the fact that Jesus, himself, the son of God, coequal, coeternal with God, humbled himself to become human like us, to die on the cross, and on his way not saying, man I'm glad I'm not like these criminals who are hanging on these crosses next to me, or man I'm glad I'm not like these people who are sending me to my cross, but instead, father forgive them, they know not what they do." Other than all that, why does it matter? 
It all stems from what the I'm glad I'm not like them mentality does to us. It gives us a pass for all that we do that isn't so great. At least in our minds, it allows us to rationalize our own issues and excuse them, giving us a pass for our own bad behavior. It blinds us to our imperfections, or it allows us to rationalize them away as being not as bad as the other guy, but they are bad, they are real, and they do add up. Despite the best of intentions our little more innocent than the other guy peccadilloes often result in really bad things, and what's worse we don't even recognize how we are implicated in the problem. We look at the world and see it spiraling out of control, but we do not see our role in it.
I know I have a habit of being influenced by the other things that I'm reading during the week, especially also what I am teaching. This week we've been looking at the ancient work, Oedipus Rex, yeah the famous king, who by ugly twist of fate, despite or maybe because of his trying to avoid it, kills his father and marries his mother. This king has become famous for the psychoanalytic term Oedipus Complex, dealing with certain subconscious desires we won't dwell on, but the real Oedipus Complex is this well intentioned arrogance. Oedipus is blind to his issues, mostly because he is a king in the middle of a crisis, who needs to save his people. He promises to save them, he believes he is the only one who can save them, and he loses total track of who he is, where his power comes from, where his abilities come from, what his role really is, and how he oversteps those bounds at his own and his peoples' peril. If you look at the prayer of preparation for today I took a quote from Oedipus, this the chorus, reminding the audience exactly what a king should be, above all things pious, knowing his role, but he doesn't. He thinks that he is the only one who can save the city, not God, completely blind to the fact that the scourge he is trying to eliminate is actually himself. Anyone who suggests that possibility is immediately against him. He bases his ability to save the city on the fact that he did it before, he saved the city from the sphinx, so he is sure he can save it from this plague, his success makes him arrogant, and his arrogance makes him blind, and his blindness to his guilt legitimizes in his mind everything that he does, including calling for the death of his best friend and brother in law/uncle, I'm the savior of this city, the people need me, I'm glad I'm not like you unfeeling, uncaring people, who are trying to stop me, at one point, that unfortunate brother in law says, but Oedipus, what if you are wrong, he responds, still I must rule, at another point, what if you bring upon yourself destruction, and he responds, but if it saves the city. Then you are acting like a fool a tyrant, would you have me not save myself? The city and himself become so entwined that he cannot differentiate, himself as savior, in importance, and the object of what he is saving, it becomes about him. Though his intentions are good, meaningful, selfless even, his arrogance makes him a selfish tyrant, yes selfless to selfish, so quickly. . . well intentioned arrogance.
Now you may be asking yourself, what does a fictional ancient king have to do with me? We do the same things all the time. So much of American culture is based on the idea of being "good people." Giving back, paying forward, , saving something or someone, be it the planet, the poor, the children, the victims, wearing pink all month to make people aware of breast cancer, yeah it's about making people aware, but not of breast cancer instead, of how much we care about other people. We often look at performing community service as status symbols, we look at political action movements as having monopolies on compassion. All with the best of intentions surely, I mean we are helping people, more than that we are saving people, right, that makes us good people, but then what do we do afterwards? What do we do with our good person status that we have bought with our compassionate hearts? Whatever the heck we want, right? We're free, and we're good people, so why shouldn't I have the finer things in life, why shouldn't I buy this extra expensive designer handbag, why shouldn't I put in a pool, why shouldn't I take the week off and go lay on the beach for awhile. I give lots of money to charity, why shouldn't I cheat on my taxes? Why shouldn't I cut a few corners? Why shouldn't I take this insider information I know and make a little money? Sure it's illegal, but it's not like I'm really stealing, I'm not like those other guys who rob at gun point, I'm just cutting a few corners. Imagine you are someone who donates all their time, running a non profit organization that is working to save poor people in Africa who are afflicted with AIDS. No one else is helping those poor people, I'm the only one, I'm the only one who cares, I'm glad I'm not like those uncompassionate people who care nothing about people who are suffering, so why shouldn't I live in a bigger house, buy a pool, drive a nice car, I deserve it, I care. I'm entitled to it, I'm compassionate and you are just heartless, so yeah I'm glad I'm not you. Aaron Hernandez, NFL Star, is in the news lately accused of murder, I'm sure last October he was feeling pretty good, dressed in his pink socks, showing how much he cared about women with breast cancer, why not commit murder? Well at least he isn't involved in dog fighting? What about you, have you ever said, well, thank God I'm not as bad a person as Michael Vick?
We're keeping this nation safe, why not use the NSA to spy on our people. We're trying to give people health care, why not use tricky politics to get it passed, or we're trying to save people from a bad health care policy, why not shut down the government to get it done. Our politics are full of it because we are full of it. . . Literally. We say, well I'm glad I'm not a Republican, or I'm glad I'm not a Democrat, or lately, I'm just glad I'm not a politician.. I mean, even collectively it gets us, as a nation, we give aid to countries all around the world, we are the good light of democracy and freedom, the exceptional a city on a hill, why not send drone strikes, at least we're not like Russia, or Iran, or are we? It's arrogance, well intentioned I think, but arrogance, and its individual and collective, micro and macro, so it's not just about following Jesus example or listening to his parable, when he talks about humility, it's not just empty advice because there are real world consequences for well intentioned arrogance and it's been wise to take a look at them.
Looking down there is always examples of people doing things, and being people, who can make you feel pretty good about yourself, pretty solid in your status and self satisfaction, but as Christians we are called to look up, and Christ's example smacks our arrogance in the face again and again. Oh yeah you put on pink socks, I wore a crown of thorns, oh yeah you spent a little money, I paid the ultimate price, you saved someone, I saved the entire world, but Jesus never would point those things out, he just wouldn't because on top of all that he was also humble, giving up his crown to become human, humble beginnings, and therefore was exalted. He didn't take a day off, he was always Christ, always good and always humble. And that's the thing about the Kingdom of God, it isn't a part time kind of place. It's full time. It's all the time. It's not fragmented, its whole, its holy. It isn't the kind of deal where you are a good person to earn your get out of jail free card. It's a place of love, and love just doesn't have a day off. At least not the true love, that is patient and kind, slow to anger, and of the steadfast nature that God abounds in, so loving the world that he sent his only begotten son, not to condemn the world, but to save it, to save the humble, to exalt the humble, allowing the meek to inherit the Earth, full time, now and forever, and if it wasn't so we'd be in serious trouble, which leave us no excuse not to find in our hearts a little bit of humility and a whole lot of love. Amen.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 18:9-14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.