Sermons That Work

There Are Two Senses…, Proper 17 (C) – 2007

September 02, 2007

There are two senses of the word “pride.”

Sometimes “pride” refers to the self-respect and strength needed to sustain a group in the face of hardship. Thus we have the slogan used in one area of a small Midwestern city: “Pride in the South Side.” Pride of this kind can be acceptable, even necessary.

Another meaning of this word refers to inordinate self-esteem, a self-esteem that is out of line, excessive, unreasonable, and thus dangerous. Pride of this second type is attacked vigorously in today’s readings.

Our passage from Sirach declares, “The beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours forth abominations.”

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus counsels us to take the lowest place at social events and calls on us to show hospitality to those unable to repay the gesture.

Hebrews takes this point and runs with it. Show hospitality to strangers. Demonstrate concern for prisoners. Respect marriages. Shun greed. Do not give in to fear, but live by faith. This passage is loaded with calls to remedy our pride by how we live.

Destructive pride stands in contrast to pride based in self-respect. Yet destructive pride also stands in contrast to something else – a different sin, but a related one. This other sin goes by the name of “accidie.” Sometimes I wonder if this sin is the more common of the two.

In his book Disordered Loves: Healing the Seven Deadly Sins, William S. Stafford offers us this case study of someone with a mild case of accidie:

“Deidre had a cold childhood. She was never quite able to please her parents, never got very much love. She worked hard to win her law degree and does fine work with federal litigation. The salary and the success aren’t as exciting any more, and she’s a bit bored and lonely. The meat market of singles bars turns her off; besides, she’s in her late thirties and doubts she could compete. Deeper friendships are hard, as she’s busy. She was married for eight years to a man who would never fully commit himself to her; never unreservedly love her; and she is not ready for that risk again. As for God, she never thinks much about the god of her childhood religion.
“A major job in the Department of Justice is opening, but it would force her beyond her present limits as a lawyer. Perhaps it is safer not to hope much or try too hard. She’ll do paperwork tonight, then maybe drink some wine and watch a video.”

Pride errs when it places self at the center, when it builds a high tower of isolation. In contrast, accidie involves a person shrinking from existence, slipping into a pool of hopeless non-being. What these sins have in common is they refuse our status as creatures dependent on God. They reject the gift of created, contingent life. Some of us violently assert ourselves; we sin boldly. Others of us shrink into nothingness; rather than climb up, we slide down.

Both accidie and pride are based on a truth ripped from its proper context.

The truth behind pride is that we are something, we are creatures sustained and loved by God. What’s the fatal falsehood? Pride refuses to recognize that we are not God.

The truth behind accidie is that we are nothing, creatures utterly dependent on God for existence from each second to the next. What’s the fatal falsehood? Accidie refuses to recognize that we are loved by God.

In some places the preacher’s priority may be to help people overcome their pride. But in many places in our culture, the priority lies in helping people overcome their accidie.

To overcome accidie, it is helpful to recognize its different forms. William Stafford mentions three: sloth, self-abdication, and despair.

Sloth involves laziness, inertia, procrastination, and shirking responsibility. It is more subtle, more serious than the stereotype of a teenager who resists taking out the trash. Sloth appears when, for no good reason, we turn down opportunities for service and growth.

We avoid interaction with our children or grandchildren. We sleep in on Sunday morning. We value spiritual practices like Bible study, but never get around to them. We sidestep anything that may make us think. Any of these may be symptoms of sloth.

According to Stafford, self-abdication means “to empty out one’s self in idol worship rather than growing toward God, seeking significance in some other human being or cause or circumstance.”

We can live for specific other people and call it love, when in fact it is idolatry, worshipping someone else in place of God. We can become workaholics, or fanatics for some cause, even a religious one, that prevents us from having a life, much less a life with God. Our culture often drives women to engage in self-abdication, but this form of accidie can afflict men as well.

Where accidie can lead us finally is to despair. Here we reject that God is always doing a new thing. We slam the door of our heart on even the possibility of grace.

William Stafford summarizes the overall dynamic of accidie. “Spiritual withdrawal and depression,” he tells us, “often start with dishonest prayer, refusing to raise some issue with God, rejecting a summons, getting tired of God’s silence and walking away. It is natural enough to feel hurt or rejected by God, when disaster leaves wounds, or if one’s spiritual aspirations are simply left hanging for years. Yet those might be taken as invitations to the cross, to die to one’s own self in a new way and live in sheer dependence on God even in the dark. Accidie rejects that invitation. It chooses to live and die on the margins of its own nothingness rather than launch out further into the abyss of God.”

Such then is accidie, a disease of soul no less dangerous than pride. For many of us, accidie is not something that happens rarely; it is instead a chronic condition. Where can we find relief? What is its remedy?

We must see our emptiness, not as a horrid absurdity, but as a necessary prelude to that true life, which is not the swelling our ego, but an unexpected gift from God.

We must believe that the way to fullness takes us through emptiness. William Johnston in his book Mystical Theology: The Science of Love reminds us that this is the pattern found in the Bible. For example, “Abraham ready to sacrifice his only son, is filled with joy as he hears the promise that his offspring will be more numerous than the stars of heaven or the sands of the seashore. Mary cries out that God has regarded the emptiness of his handmaid; so all generations will call her blessed. Blessed are the poor – the radically empty – for they shall be glorified. The merciful, the hungry and the mourners will inherit the kingdom.”

The way out of accidie means conforming our lives to the pattern of Jesus, to the paschal mystery we shout in the Eucharistic prayer: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

The way out of accidie is to live the Eucharist: accepting our emptiness because we have faith that this emptiness will be occupied not by self, but by God.

When pride takes over, we are full of ourselves. When accidie takes over, we slip into nothingness. But when Christ takes over, his experience becomes our own. An emptying occurs in order that we may be filled. A dying takes place that we may rise again. We recognize ourselves at last in the light of humility; as it says in 2 Corinthians, “as dying, and see – we are alive.”

And the glory is not ours, but it belongs to God.

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Christopher Sikkema


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