If Comes Before the Fall…
Sunday, June 12, 2016
Today is Marc Coker’s last day next door at First Presbyterian. Marc has been a wonderful pastor there and our good friend here for 22 years. Last Sunday, our church placed flowers in the Presbyterian Sanctuary for worship in his honor and as a gesture of our friendship and appreciation for his service and ministry in their church and in our community.
On Tuesday, Marc walked across the street to thank us. It really meant a lot to him. While he was here, we had about 15-20 minutes to talk, catch up and for me to hear about what is next for he and Karen. Believe it or not, even though we can hit each other’s offices with a rock, I rarely even see Marc other than to say “hello” or “goodbye”. There is very little time for meaningful conversation. As he departs, I lament not having done a better job to be with him more as colleagues and friends.
While we talked on Tuesday, I asked Marc, “what are you going to preach about on your last Sunday?” We joked about a few possibilities and I threw out Genesis 5:24 that speaks mysteriously of Enoch walking with God and suddenly disappearing. I really thought that would be a nice headline for golaurens.com tomorrow if Marc got to the end of his sermon today and then suddenly vanished into thin air.
After laughing together, Marc got around to sharing what he is preaching about here in a few moments and his thoughts brought me to another occasion of appreciation for him.
Marc said, “I am simply going to preach the text that has been selected for the day as the passage to be used in Presbyterian churches. It is from Galatians. “After all,” he said, “it may be my last day, but this isn’t about me. Worship on Sunday, like every Sunday is about God, the church and who we are called to be. Even though this is my last sermon after 22 years, I am not about to give into the temptation to make the day in worship about me.
Marc’s comments reminded me of one of C.S. Lewis’ most significant statements when Lewis called pride the “greatest of all sins”. As he did, Lewis said, “a proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996, pg. 111)
We talk about pride in various ways here quite a bit. Several times in worship we have focused on the simple reminder that our faith does not have us but rather God at the center. Faith is not a means to our own ends – it is always moving toward the ends of God and the kingdom of God. We also, just a couple of weeks ago over Memorial Day, talked about our tendency to develop a prideful attitude that says that we don’t need anyone else’s help. We can do it all on our own. We want to be able to say, “I did it my way”. Again, this is a form of pride.
Today, however, we add one more facet to what the scripture has to say about pride. It comes from the book of Obadiah, another of those minor prophets which happens also to be the shortest book in the Old Testament. Obadiah adds to our understanding of pride the reminder that when we look down our noses at someone else and treat them as second class citizens, we are risking the future possibility that they will one day treat us in the same manner. It has been said that pride comes before the fall, but, I would also remind us that our prideful glee at the fall of others often serves as a prequel to our own falls in one shape form or fashion. So often, we do reap what we sow. We do have what we dish out to others come back to haunt us.
This is the heart of Obadiah. The near kin of the Israelites were the Edomites. The Israelites lived to the west of the Jordan River in the Promised Land and the Edomites lived to the southeast. According to Genesis, the Israelites were the descendants of Jacob and the Edomites were the descendants of his brother Esau. In turn, the rivalry, animosity and struggles that existed between the two brothers spilled over into the lives of the Israelites and the Edomites. In fact, when the Israelites saw their land decimated by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Edomites not only refused to help, but they also gloated in Israel’s misfortune. They were happy and joyful over the Israelites’ suffering. They also relished their apparent security as the capital of Edom, which is the modern historic town of Petras, was hard to reach as it was a community established on a cliff. Israel had been destroyed and Edom was more than secure so the gloating, pride, arrogance and disdain reached a fevered pitch as Edom expressed its superiority to Israel.
Obadiah, however, comes at a time when judgement seems to be knocking on Edom’s door. In some shape form or fashion, Edom is about to experience its own dark moment and in that moment, in that moment, Israel quickly and clearly remembers those past days of gloating, arrogance and over the top pride.
Edom is about to reap what they had sown. What had gone around was unmistakable about to come back around. Edom was going to live through their own humiliation and Israel was ready to stand on the sideline, cheering on judgement just as had been done to them in the past.
This is the thing about the element of pride that manifests itself as we are tempted to develop our stature and sense of success off of the the misfortunes of others. This completely blurs how similar rather than unlike one another that we are and it dismisses the fact that all of us have the things that we do in life more as a result of the grace of God than we do because of our own accomplishments or abilities.
Let me say it this way – so often we show our care and respect for others more through how we handle our victories and their failures rather than vice versa.
Like last week, there is a much more positive side to “what goes around comes around” as well and that is the fact that if we dare to identify with others and their sufferings rather than to gloat over them, they may be far more likely to do the same for us.
There is a wonderful historical story that illustrates this quite well that you may be unaware of about former President Herbert Hoover. Hoover went to school at Stanford. In 1892, while Hoover was there, he organized a concert featuring a very famous pianist at the time from Poland whose name was Jan Paderewski. The concert was very poorly attended and Hoover, as a student, was left holding the bag for the guaranteed fee to Paderewski. When Paderewski learned that Hoover literally owed thousands of dollars for rental of the concert hall and to cover his fee, the great pianist felt deep sympathy for the young man and agreed to cover all of the costs himself.
Fast forward the story to the period of 1914 until 1922 some 20 to 30 years after the events at Stanford. By that time, the great Paderewski was back home in Poland as Prime Minister. At the same time, Herbert Hoover was director of the ARA or the American Relief Administration. During those days at the end of and after World War I, Poland was decimated with poverty and massive starvation. Remembering the kindness of Paderewski to him during his college days, Hoover led the ARA to feed 2 million Polish citizens a day. The work of Hoover and the ARA were a true life saver to the Polish people.
In his epic failure, Paderewski had not kicked Hoover while he was down, rather he had shown him kindness. Hoover, twenty to thirty years later, remembered the story well and chose to act in the same way when the tables were turned.
For all of Israel’s bluster in the first 20 verses of Obadiah, the final verse of this one chapter Old Testament book ends with a profound word of hope. Despite the way the Edomites had treated the Israelites in their darkest moment while finding their might in Israel’s weakness, the Israelites appear ready to resist the temptation to do the same. The Message translates the final verse this way, “The remnant of the saved in Mount Zion will go into the mountain of Esau (or Edom) and rule justly and fairly a rule that honors God’s kingdom.
Pride had led Edom to kick Israel while they were down. Israel on the other hand seems ready to resist the same temptation.
A couple of weeks ago, we had a group of men who went to the State Men’s Retreat at Camp McCall. We had a great time together and I appreciate Tommy challenging us to go. I hope we will take a much bigger group next year. On Saturday morning, a minister from Greenville offered the devotional. Truth be told, it was more of a testimony as he talked about his own faith journey which included his admitting that he had dealt with a rather embarrassing addiction that almost cost him his work as a minister and his family. What struck me was not only his honesty and vulnerability. But, what really caught my attention is how he talked about his guess that there were others there that morning that were likely dealing with one type of addiction or another too.
As he did, he didn’t speak as a typical minister. He wasn’t condescending, he wasn’t arrogant, he wasn’t high and mighty. Rather, he was a fellow struggler who spoke from experience, with humility and as one broken person to others. It was in no way an attempt for him to exert his moral superiority. It was, instead, a way for him to remind us all that we walk on level ground.
Pride comes in all shapes and sizes and we need to recognize it whenever we encounter it in our lives. Without question, we can’t look up if we are always looking down. But, it is equally hard for us to look into the eyes of each other too if we are always looking down our noses from our lofty perch. Amen.