Eyestrain

The text of the sermon, based on Sirach 10.12-18, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, on the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, 2022.

+

Sirach. The short title of the apocryphal book, The Wisdom of Yeshua Ben Sira (or Jesus, the son of Sirach).[1] Yeshua ben Sira was a Jewish teacher in Jerusalem around 200 B.C.E.

A turbulent time. Syria had seized control of the region of Judea from Egypt. For the Israelites, occupation and oppression would follow occupation and oppression. The dream of freedom, now, was a nightmare of impossibility. Amid gravest despair, Yeshua Ben Sira seeks to encourage his people.

In our text today, he speaks of pride. That human condition in which one, whether person or nation, views oneself as superior to others. That dis-ease of raging hubris no longer in remission that infects the host, the carrier, who, in turn, afflicts, persecutes others.

Yeshua Ben Sira, a witness to the excesses of imperialistic nations, testifies to the genesis of pride: “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.”

“Heart.” More than emotion, but also reason and will. Therefore, the human locus of discernment and decision-making. When one is not grounded in a greater good, whether God or a noble ideal, when one is not called and led by a virtuous vision, when one, to paraphrase the prayer, “follows the devices and desires of one’s own heart”,[2] then pride erupts and corrupts.

Yeshua Ben Sira continues, describing a judgment on human pride: “…unheard-of calamities (which) destroy (the proud) completely…overthrow(ing) rulers and enthron(ing) the lowly in their place…pluck(ing) up the roots of (proud) nations and planting the humble in their place…”

We hear the echo of this teaching two centuries later in Mary’s triumphant exultation in accepting her role as the bearer of the Christ-child: “My soul magnifies the Lord…(who) has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts…(who) has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”[3]

The proud overthrown. The lowly exalted. A lovely vision.

But where do…can we see it? Many (most?) of history’s pages are indelibly stained with innocent blood. And today, the proud prosper. Still. The humble suffer. Still.

So, I strain to see the vision.

As I read history, yes, there are wondrous moments when the dream of justice began to be made real. The end of American institutionalized slavery. The defeat of the Third Reich. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The largely peaceful overthrow of South African apartheid.

But I dare not, I dare never forget the countless numbers who died. An old phrase, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”,[4] suggests that the sacrifice of human life can bring great good. Nevertheless, I grieve for those who never saw that for which they prayed.

So, I strain to see the vision.

Yet I have hope. Anticipation. Expectation. The reality of which often amazes me. The reasons for which, at times, escape me. Nevertheless, in hope, I believe that we can continue to look for signs of the vision. In two, perhaps surprising places.

We can look to us. The church.

Yes, we, despite our inherent human commonality, are different, one from another. Always. In our families of origin and personal histories. Our vocations and life-interests. Our perspectives, social and political. Yet we gather as one body, around one table, partaking of one meal as we seek to be and to do Christian community. In this, in us we behold the vision, the dream of God being made real. 

We also can also look at our individual selves.

I confess that when I look at me, I, at least, at times, find it hard to hold to see the vision. I am a pride-filled man. I am infected and I afflict others. I want my way. I want to follow the devices and desires of my heart. Always! So, at times, when I look at me, I wonder, where do I see pride overthrown and humility lifted up?

One thing I have learned. My prideful excesses are not expressions of my belief that I’m right. Even less, that I’m inherently superior to others…to you! But rather my fear of being hurt. Knowing that, one thing I can do. I can choose to lower my guard. This is risky, scary business! And, truth to tell, a choice I, sometimes, do not wish to make or take. But I have discovered that when I do this, my sight becomes clearer. And I can see the vision coming to light in me. And in you.

© 2022 PRA

Illustration: Jesus Ben Sirach (1860); woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872)


[1] Ecclesiasticus is the Latin title; meaning, roughly, “of the church” or “belonging to the church.”

[2] From Confession of Sin, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 41 and 62.

[3] Luke 1.46-47, 51b-52

[4] Attributed to Tertullian (155-220 C.E.), early Christian theologian from Carthage (modern day Tunisia) in the Roman province of Africa.

2 thoughts on “Eyestrain

  1. Dear Paul,

    I watched the sermon while walking on the beach for the last time as I head home from St Croix this morning!! Thank you for your words on Eye Strain & I Strain!! It is INCREDIBLY hard to see the vision of Love & Justice in todays world, but YES we have to hold on to hope!! I love the concept of the two ways we can see & feel the vision in our church communities around the altar and in ourselves, if we drop our many defenses from being hurt!! (I digress, loved your example of you & Pontheolla arguing and you getting off track!)

    Id also expand one of your places to see the vision from our churches to our wider communities of hope! As you know, this weekend I spoke to the caregivers of the Virgin Islands. We ALL saw the vision and had great hope listening to each other’s stories AND shedding our own defenses to give our love & support to each other! We only had coffee, tea or water instead of wine but we sure did have communion! We made each other better caregivers by having humility and learning from each other! I find this same kind of humility and love everywhere I speak because everyone is willing to listen and learn regardless of our many differences- racial, political etc…and I have to say I feel it more out in the community at times than I do inside the church building.

    I pray you continue to recover from the fatigue of Covid and I say again so you don’t forget, thank you for being a Blessing in my life!

    Much love!

    Like

    1. Thank you, always and in all ways, my dear Loretta, for reading, reflecting, and then responding to my posts…

      Particularly, in this, I appreciate deeply your observation: “I’d also expand one of your places to see the vision from our churches to our wider communities of hope!” Yes, amen! This, for me, at times, subject to despair, is an important reminder for me to keep my eyes open, so to look around for evidences of hope. Again, yes, amen!

      And your most specific example of this in citing the work, aye, the life and labor to you have committed yourself. (Often when I read and reflect on your posts concerning the workshops you have given — in their manifold forms — and your experiences with all with whom you have met, I think that no matter how much you write, how detailed your recounts of your encounters with folk, the richness, the wealth in spirit, personally and communally, of those engagements is beyond the telling, thus, impossible to capture fully.)

      Again, dearest sister, you have my gratitude.

      (And thanks for viewing the sermon video. I had a ball!)

      Love,
      Paul

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close