the seven deadly sins, iii.

Isaiah 31:1-3
Alas for those who go down to Egypt for help
and who rely on horses,
who trust in chariots because they are many
and in horsemen because they are very strong,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel
or consult the Lord!
Yet he too is wise and brings disaster;
he does not call back his words,
but will rise against the house of the evildoers,
and against the helpers of those who work iniquity.
The Egyptians are human, and not God;
their horses are flesh, and not spirit.
When the Lord stretches out his hand,
the helper will stumble, and the one helped will fall,
and they will all perish together.

Sermon
We are considering sin this Epiphany season—
the seven deadly sins to be specific,
but sin as a focus through which we can grow.
I mentioned the fourth century monk who came up with a list of eight sins,
the pope who formalized the list.
There is also a tradition
that a list of sins emerged from the thought and meditations
of the desert fathers and mothers—
those ascetics who in the third century
withdrew into the Egyptian and Palestinian and Syrian deserts.

Pride is typically mentioned as the first sin—
the original, foundational, deadliest sin.
The seven deadly sins, as mentioned,
are sometimes called the cardinal vices
because all sins (supposedly) can be traced back to these seven.
Some say all of the seven can be traced back to pride.

But there’s more nuance to this conversation than that.
For at the same time, there is so much
of which we are justly, appropriately, legitimately, justifiably proud—right?

Each and every one of you is uniquely gifted
and I pray you will come to know both the joy and the pride
of fulfilling your potential and finding your calling.
I hope you are all proud of who you are,
of what you have accomplished and of what you have yet to accomplish.
I hope you are all proud of our children and youth—
of who and how they are
of what they are accomplishing
and of what they will accomplish.
I pray not only for all of us to have the drive
to be our absolute best—
to do what no one else can do,
but to also celebrate who we are
in our blessed uniqueness.
That’s pride.

In 2002 and 2003 the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press
asked seven noted writers, scholars, and critics to consider the seven deadly sins.
They asked Michael Eric Dyson to address pride.
Michael Eric Dyson is Professor of Sociology at Georgetown University,
and was ordained a baptist preacher at 19 years of age.
I read his book Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America
a few years ago. An almost unbearably hard book to read, but so important.
Neal Conan interviewed him on Talk of the Nation
about pride and quoted from that book:
“Thinking too highly of yourself is a sin.
Thinking well of God and others,
and therefore, of yourself, is a sacrament.”

I have found that the sins are often listed
in conjunction with a supposed antidote,
and humility is often offered as the antidote to pride.
Okay.
Again, a necessary nuance.
We’ve talked before about the nuance of humility—
that it’s about knowing your place—
your place within community and within the world and before God,
but that it is absolutely not about not being your absolute best.

There is a pride out of knowing your place
that is more related to an appropriately healthy humility,
and a pride out of not being sure of your place
that is more related to the fear that stems from insecurity.
It’s vital to know the difference.
There is a pride that is strong, and a pride that is weak.
There is a pride that is a virtue and a pride that is a sin—
a deadly sin—many say the deadliest sin.

Everyone with me so far?
Because we’re going to switch gears now—
rather abruptly!

When I was thinking about the seven deadly sins
and Gandhi’s seven societal sins,
I associated pride with science without humanity,
and that famous line from the movie Jurassic Park:
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could,
they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
When I was thinking about Scripture to go along with that,
I thought of Isaiah.

We’ve noted before the rather precarious geo-political location of ancient Israel—
a small country plopped right down there between the world superpowers
to their south and north and east and west—
plopped on the main north south trade routes—
the main north south military routes.
We’ve noted before the strategic alliances the two kingdoms make
Israel and Judah, the northern kingdom and the southern,
to protect themselves—
aligning themselves with Egypt and Assyria.
In our brief OT text today, Isaiah cautions Judah (the southern kingdom)
against an alliance with Egypt in face of the Assyrian threat.
Assyria was a legitimate threat—
the imperial power that defeated—
that destroyed the northern kingdom
now to Judah’s immediate north—neighboring north.

But Isaiah is explicit.
Do not place your trust in military alliances.
Do not place your trust in military technology.
Do not place your trust in military strategy.

Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann
commenting specifically on this text speaks,
as he so often does, directly to us today—
which is a neat trick
speaking specifically about this ancient text …
“The prophetic oracle, in context, shrewdly understands the linkage
of military mesmerization and religious self-deception,
and calls for a complete reorientation of policy”
(Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39 in Westminster Bible Companion
[Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998] 251).

No one is denying the geopolitical realities.
Nor the psychological realities,
and the Greek word psyche from which we get psychology
meant breath, spirit, soul.
There is a spiritual reality at play here too.

“Judah must reverse course,” says Brueggemann of Isaiah’s word,
“abandon its reliance on Egypt and its devotion to military might as a mode of security.
The summons to repent is insistent and massive.
It is a call that Judah must completely redefine
its genuine source of security and well-being” (Brueggmann, 251).

We’re switching gears again.
At the beginning of each theology class I’ve taught—
which is not a lot—three,
but at the beginning of each one,
I’ve introduced the idea of an implicit theology.
Perhaps not what you say, but out of which you live your life.
To introduce that I refer to the first year college introduction to literature English class
in which the professor asks each student for the two books most important to them.
Says the one student, “My family’s cookbook and my family’s checkbook.”
And we talk about how our checkbooks and our budgets represent moral documents, and how, regardless of what the president says, budgets matter.

Our country’s 2020 defense budget is almost $740 billion—
which represents an increase of $20 billion from last year.
That is not counting 25 billion dollars in the Department of Energy
for nuclear weapons.
That is not counting almost 174 billion dollars in what’s called
the Overseas Contingency Operations Account.
That’s not counting 215 billion dollars in Veteran’s Affairs,
almost 70 billion dollars in Homeland Security
and 80 billion dollars for intelligence—
all of which adds up to one and a quarter trillion dollars.

Now I am not one to dismiss the need for a military budget in our kind of world.
But, you’ve heard this before, I’m sure:
our defense budget is more than China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia,
the United Kingdom, and Germany’s combined.
I do question that.
Morally.
Theologically.
Scripturally.
Fiscally.
The Pentagon has failed its audit two years in a row—
can’t or won’t account for 21 trillion dollars
that cannot be traced, documented, or explained
from the years between 1998 and 2015.

And I cannot tell you how sick and tired I am
of hearing so very little relevant, meaningful, public discourse
from politicians and religious leaders
about whether or not we can or should afford to go to war—
whether we can or should afford that drone strike against the so-called high value target—by this administration or the last one—
conversations that never come up when it comes to war,
but is all we hear about when it comes to social programs
designed to help specifically those people
for whom God tells us we are particularly responsible.
Then that’s all we talk about.
Sin.

“Judah must completely redefine
its genuine source of security and well-being”
says Brueggemann says Isaiah.
That’s the Bible. That’s our sacred text.
And preachers can do interpretive gymnastics all they want.
That’s pretty clear.
Who do we become if most of our discretionary income as a country
goes to military ends?
How does that shape who we are?
What does that say about who we are?

We’ve been twisting Gandhi into an inversion of itself
to name some of our systemic sins.
Today’s inversion would ask us to consider not just the sin
of science without humanity,
but the sin of humanity without science—
the sin of not using our brains—
of rejecting what research and analysis can teach us—
how it can guide us in decision making—
policy making—priority setting.
To ignore scientific evidence is as much of a sin against humanity
as is using technology without giving careful thought
to what is humane.

It really is the two kinds of pride, isn’t it?
The pride that is really fear and thinks all it needs is might—
the pride that is afraid of what is other and new and different.
And the pride that is the drive to grow and learn and improve.
The sin of pride and the virtue of pride.

Our prophetic text seems to state
that God will act against those who trust in military technology.
That is a way of talking about God
designed to protect a sense of God’s power—
of God in control,
which seems counter-intuitive to me.
You know this. I’ve said it before.
God is not in control.
I mean we claim God is in conversation and relationship with us,
and if God is control, that cheapens every affirmation I just made
about conversation and relationship.
Who among you would dare speak of control in their most significant relationships?
If God is in conversation and relationship with us, God is not in control.
But at the same time, I have no doubt that the decision
to fundamentally trust in military strategy
versus fundamentally trusting in God
will fundamentally shape those who do the trusting.
I do not believe God will destroy someone
who places their trust in—who gives their allegiance to power,
but who someone becomes in making that allegiance
destroys what is godly.

In the ancient sacred songs of the people of faith,
as recorded in the book of Psalms, we read
“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses
(the military technology of the day, right?),
but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God
(Psalm 20:7).

There you have it—pride and technology—
pride and power,
and pride and God—
pride in humility—in the right order to creation—
set before you this and every day.
Choose life and life more abundant.

We’re switching gears one last time!
I found some statistics. I tried to double check them—
because that’s what you need to do these days!
Back in 2000, Google processed 14 billion searches a year
or 32.8 million searches a day.
By 2010, that number had risen to over a billion searches a day.
1.2 trillion searches in 2012—3.2 billion a day.
Last year Internet Live Stats estimated Google processed over
63,000 searches a second, around 5.5 billion searches a day—
around two trillion last year.

Starting in 2010 Google started putting out a year end search video
early in the new year for the previous year
offering a summary of what was most searched in that particular year
based on Google search, Google news and YouTube.
So for last year:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRCdORJiUgU

So if I may be so bold as to summarize that summary:

We have an innate sense of who our heroes are—
of what is heroic,
and we are so very proud
of those who drive themselves to be their best—
who accomplish things so many of us can only dream about—
who are so impressive—
physically, mentally—emotionally.
But what makes me a little teary, watching this video,
are the heroes who have a sense of how we’re in this together—
a sense of the value of relationship—
not just with loved ones but with anyone—everyone—
who have a sense of what is good and what is right.
And when they act on this,
it’s powerful and beautiful,
and they often seem a bit stunned by the attention.
We just did what we had to do.
We just did what was right—
not to be proud—not to get to boast—not to take credit for—
not for extrinsic reasons but for something deeply intrinsic.
We know.
Deep down we know.

We know building people up is heroic.
We know caring about the vulnerable is heroic.
We know that meeting needs is heroic.

So go do what’s right.
It matters what’s right,
and deep down we know—
we know what’s right; we know what’s needed,
and living life for something bigger than ourselves is the hero’s journey.
It is not mean.
It is not fake.
It is not manipulative.
It is not exploitive.
It is not petty.
It is not in control.
It is in love.
That is the measure of a good day—of a good life—
of which to be so very appropriately proud.
For the love of God, my friends, do not settle for anything less.

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