Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice
January 14, 2018
1 Samuel 3:1-10, John 1:43-51
So, what were you all doing yesterday evening? Watching a game, perhaps? Watching the New England Patriots win over the Tennessee Titans? Not me. I was writing this sermon.
Think about New England sport teams, for a moment. Boston has over the last two decades experienced some extraordinary success with its teams. The Red Sox have won three World Series, the Patriots five Super Bowls, and the Celtics and Bruins have one championship each. Pretty exciting, actually, something to generate hometown pride.
But, let’s be honest. What exactly did any of us have to do with that level of success? I know some people get it into their heads that if they do not wear their lucky game day shirts, it will somehow affect the tilt of the Earth’s axis causing the home team to lose. I do not mean to burst any bubbles, but if you are watching from your living room, your efforts will not likely have any impact on the game, or the tilt of the Earth. And it does not matter much if you are in the cheap seats or the skyboxes – it is all pretty much out of your hands.
So why do people get so worked up over it all? Think back not too many years ago when none of the home teams were winning. They were generally losing. Did that make them losers? Technically, yes. Did that make New England a bunch of losers? I would say not really, again because we are not out there wearing pads and getting concussions. These wins and losses have no ultimate bearing on the people who happen to live in New England. They represent the wins and losses of other people, cherished figures perhaps, who also happen to be total strangers to most of those watching. Why do we take pride in something we watch from afar?
And why would we hate another sports team for those same reasons? The Red Sox versus Yankees rivalry has ebbed somewhat over the years, but in its time is was brutal. One New Hampshire woman was convicted of killing a man by running him over with her car. He, a Red Sox fan, had been taunting her, a Yankees fan, outside of a bar. She was sentenced to 20 to 40 years in prison. She lost the appeal.
Does that make any sense? Does it make sense to get so worked up over something completely unrelated to your efforts? How can someone have so much unwarranted pride?
That’s what it is. Pride, home town pride. See, our team won, yours did not. We as a geographic location are momentarily better in the scheme of the sports universe. Time to count up the banners and championship rings.
Pride is one of the classic Seven Deadly sins. And it is the most dangerous of all sins in a sense because pride is the one sin against which there is no certain defense. I can try to resist greed or gluttony. I can work on my feelings of envy or anger. I can fight off the pull of sloth and desire. But pride is immune to such efforts. Because the more accomplished you get even at resisting temptation, the more a sense of pride can blossom out of our success.
Monks in monasteries had to be restricted from fasting too much, working too hard, being too monkish. Why? Because at a certain point even the best efforts, the most noble pursuits, the most selfless of acts can circle around back into becoming pride. I am the most humble man in the world! There is no sure defense against pride, which is why we need each other to be there to deflate any puffed up chests or swelling craniums. Siblings and spouses are particularly handy in this regard.
Unlike with sports teams, there can be a sense of pride due to personal accomplishments. I am the smartest, the strongest, the fastest. I am the finest lawyer, the greatest musician, the most wonderful whatever you might choose. Perhaps that level of skill is demonstrable, like with an athlete at the Olympics. It is still ugly to be a sore winner, however, unsportsmanlike to brag and to boast to say the least.
But again what if your pride arises over something you did not do, something that just happens to be, as with a winning local sports team? What if you are proud of being born, as if that were a unique accomplishment? It is like the New Englander basking in the glow of so many sports championships. You had nothing to do with it and yet you might take great pride in it.
Or you might look down upon someone who happened to be born in New York or Pittsburgh or Los Angeles depending which sports rivalry is hot that season. The sports pages will briefly heat up with some random war of words as someone takes a shot at the Patriots for deflated footballs. T-shirts will sprout up like mushrooms poking fun at some random athlete from Seattle. Such unwarranted pride can become wounded and wounded pride can in turn lash out.
This morning we heard a rather run of the mill story about Jesus. Hey, we found this great guy, Jesus from Nazareth, you should come and see him. Then Nathaneal sneers “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Can anything good come from Nazareth. We might skip over that line quickly because Jesus turns everything around in a few sentences. But what did it mean? What is all this about Nazareth?
Nazareth was Jesus’ hometown, a place mentioned in the Nativity story. So for many, Nazareth has a good association in their minds. That was not the case in the time of Jesus. Nazareth was in the north, also sometimes referred to as Samaria. As in the Samaritans, as in the people who are often reviled in the Bible. Jesus was not a Samaritan, a religious group, but he was generally speaking from Samaria, a geographic location. And so Jesus was not at first glance someone worthy of attention, not someone worthy of anything. He came from a poor family from a poor village in the least valued part of the region.
And so we hear “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Pride can lift our estimation of ourselves for no good reason and pride can cause us to hold others in contempt without any rational basis. Being from Jerusalem was good, being from Nazareth was bad. Jesus had to convince Nathaneal to bother listening. And that was Jesus. Imagine anyone of us.
Let me tell you a story. It is an old family story, one I get to hear again and again when I visit my dad. It is about my great grandfather. That particular branch of the family came from Sicily. This would have been around the turn of the last century. My great grandfather was a carpenter, more of a cabinet maker really, a fine craftsman working in wood. He was hired by a nobleman, a count, to refinish a room in the local villa. My great grandfather by all reports did a beautiful job.
He finished and went to get paid. The count was admiring the woodworking but then turned to say to my great grandfather, you should be honored to have done work for me. Meaning honor was enough, no payment would be forthcoming. What do you imagine happened next? Well, my family ended up in Boston, so that might give you a clue. My great grandfather knocked the count out cold, supposedly with one punch. He then ran out of the villa, said his hasty good byes, and jumped on to the next ship leaving for America. My father really enjoys telling that story.
Sicily in that time period was very poor. It had been ruled by foreign countries for much of its then recent history – ruled badly. After the American Civil War, Italian immigration was encouraged to the U.S. to restore the work force. America needed these workers because so many soldiers had died during the war and, I will surmise, so many slaves had been freed. The desperately poor work cheaply and Italians were desperately poor. There was a major influx of Italian immigrants to the United States from 1890 to 1920. Most were manual laborers, like my own two grandfathers.
But in 1924, the flow of Italian immigrants was greatly curtailed. This was done by limiting that percentage of people who could emigrate from a country based upon the percentage of people already from that country in the United States. This formula heavily favored English, Irish, and German immigrants and was intended to slow if not halt the flow of workers from Southern and Eastern Europe. Asians, Arabs, and Africans were essentially barred from entry.
This restriction was overtly racial. The eugenics movement was in full flower in the United States. Northern and Western Europeans were considered to be of better genetic stock than those from the East and the South, who were also from poor, underdeveloped countries, ones that had not modernized their systems of government, education, or welfare. They were the Nazareths of their era, filled with undesirable types to be excluded from the better parts of the world. Can anything good come out of Nazareth or Sicily?
Think back to the 19th century, to England, the people and the culture from which New England came into being. Well, at that time, the largest share of the English population was living at a subsistence level, scratching out their bleak days in the country side or in the Satanic mills of William Blake. There is no pride of place when hunger is all that fills your belly. And it was in turn worse for the Irish, soon to be devastated by the Great Famine. And it was still even worse for the Indians of the British Raj, the blacks of Southern Africa, and so on down the pecking order of cultural disdain.
Pride of place makes for an irrational belief in the superiority of a group of people for having won some geographic lottery. Pride of heritage makes for an often similarly irrational belief that one group versus another is morally or genetically or culturally or racially superior.
And yet two thousand years ago my Roman forbears would have looked upon the green hills of Blake’s England with utter contempt, seeing a bunch of hut dwelling savages worshipping rocks and trees. The Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians were lawless tribes raping and killing their way across a benighted land.
And the Christians, oh the Christians. They were atheists, you see. Yes, atheists who refused to worship all the gods, instead clinging to one god. And that one God. Can you believe it? One god born as a man who took the form of a rebel, a rabble-rouser, an executed criminal. Because really, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
And then the wheel turns. The Christians stop being weird and suddenly become respectable. They become good Catholics. But what is this – heresy! So the Catholics crush the Arians, the Cathari, the Hussites, and a seemingly endless array of crackpots, malcontents, and freedom seekers. Oh and then the worst of them all – the Protestants, those arch-heretics. The Catholics will utterly destroy…well okay actually that one turns out differently.
Instead, the Northern and Western Protestants become culturally ascendant in Europe. And so the high become low, the low become high. The Imperial Romans become the chaotic Italians, the tree hugging druids become the world conquering Anglicans, the savage Vikings become the ever so civilized Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians. The wheel turns and turns. And with the fickle turning of that wheel of blind fate, the irrational prides of our hearts can easily become the paranoid fears of our days.
Are we what we were, or are we who we are? Am I them or am I me? Do I round everything off to the nearest sterotype? Do I strive to see people for who they are, rather than who I fear them to be?
I will end this morning with few words of hope, words written before I was born. Words which have echoed through the decades since. Words that are worth hearing again and again. And this year is by no means an exception. The words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
I have a dream today.
I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
A dream – is it anything more than a dream?
Can anything good come from Nazareth? Yes, for we can imagine a love beyond all understanding, all measure, and all expectation.
And can anything good come from Atlanta? Yes, for we can find a burning sense of hope, one that knows no race or color, no gender or creed.
And can anything good come from these dark days of doubt, these times of anger and upset, these weeks and months and years of struggle and pain? Yes, oh yes, something good can certainly come of even that: a return to a faith beyond the boundaries of our fears, the shadow of our hatreds, and the limitations of our pride. That is what might come if we dare to dream.
Even as light can grow from darkness, so too can the good, the right, and the true can burst forth once again. We need only look to the content of our own characters. Look to what is inside our hearts and minds and souls. Look there inside ourselves. There to look and then to undertake a solemn duty, a duty to transform what we find into something worthy for the times we face and worthy of the teachers we hold sacred.
May it be so. Amen.