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). 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nations, testifies to the genesis of pride: “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker.”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”, 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.”
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”, 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)
 Ecclesiasticus is the Latin title; meaning, roughly, “of the church” or “belonging to the church.”
 From Confession of Sin, The Book of Common Prayer, pages 41 and 62.
 Luke 1.46-47, 51b-52
 Attributed to Tertullian (155-220 C.E.), early Christian theologian from Carthage (modern day Tunisia) in the Roman province of Africa.