A sermon preached on September 16, 2007 based upon 1Timothy 1:12 – 17 and Luke 15:1 – 10, entitled “Arrogance”.
At the start of the Harry Potter series, Harry is an absolute nobody in this world, an orphan, with nothing about him that would appear to distinguish him; an altogether ordinary kid. His presence is resented by his foster family, the Dursleys: Uncle Vernon, Aunt Petunia, and Dudley, and they go out of their way to reinforce the message that Harry is by no means exceptional.
Harry soon discovers, however, that there is this whole other world of wizards and magic and a profound struggle between the forces of good and evil, and that in this other world he of all people, is an absolute “somebody” — anything but ordinary, with extraordinary gifts, and a profound destiny to play in the battle of good against evil.
All of us in various ways, struggle with feeling like Harry Potter-the-nobody, so very ordinary — indistinguishable in this crowded world. It is this idea of one day discovering that we are, indeed, quite extraordinary after all, that strikes a chord with all of us, and is, I suspect the secret to the books’ phenomenal success.
There is a need within all of us to view ourselves as “special”, particularly when the world, as the Dursleys did to Harry Potter, gives us the message that we are nobodies.
Unfortunately, the means by which we most commonly reach for that sense of being special has destructive consequences.
In one of his books, Robert Folghum describes looking out the window of his house and seeing some kids playing hide and seek. One kid is a little too good at hiding. He hides in a pile of leaves, completely covered up. His playmates can’t find him. They grow weary of searching for him, tired of the game.
Folghum describes wanting to go out his front door and yell at the hiding kid, “Get found, kid! Get found!”
Why does the kid continue to hide in the leaves long after his playmates have ceased to look for him? Well, because it seems more important to the kid to stand out as better at this game than anybody else; to appear more clever than his peers, than it is to be “one” with his friends.
He ends up feeling superior, but at a great cost. He is cut off, alone, left out of the party that God and the angels throw every time the lost is found.
There is a word for this strategy of self-affirmation, and the word is “arrogance.” It is, I would suggest, a strategy we all use at various times in an attempt to establish our life as distinctive, important, worthwhile. We often don’t recognize arrogance in ourselves, because in large part we use the strategy as a survival mechanism to defend ourselves against the arrogance of others. “They think they’re better than me, do they? Well, guess what! They’ve got the wrong criteria by which to judge people. I have the true criteria, and by this criteria, I come off better than them!”
So if the initial criteria is, say good looks and athletic ability, maybe we turn it into brain power. Or if brain power is what counts, and we are lacking in brain cells, then maybe we turn it into sensitivity. The possibilities for criteria are endless.
It’s always easier to recognize arrogance in others than it is in ourselves, in large part, because we assume our criteria is right.
Ultimately, though, arrogance is always destructive — to community, to others, to ourselves. It keeps us from drawing close to God, as in the parable Jesus told in which the Pharisee goes to the temple to pray, but his prayer consists of nothing more than looking down on a tax collector whom he judges inferior. The Pharisee in his arrogance, Jesus tells us, is totally disconnected from God.
And arrogance in ourselves always masks its opposite: a profound, underlying insecurity that maybe the Dursleys are right after all, that we really are absolutely ordinary nobodies.
The Christian life is about finding the grace that overcomes arrogance. Even after two years spent in the company of Jesus, the disciple Peter still relied upon arrogance when the chips were down. “Even if these others may fall way, I won’t. I’m made of the right stuff.” It took the humiliation of that night and the absolutely unanticipated grace of Jesus’ resurrection to make significant inroads in Peter’s habit of arrogance.
In our epistle lesson this morning, Paul is speaking autobiographically regarding his own struggle with arrogance. He speaks about having been “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” We know from other parts of the New Testament that Paul was an ambitious Pharisee, a scholar of the Hebraic Law, who did a better job than anybody else in keeping the Law. In his arrogance he looked down on others, passing judgment on those he considered heretical, particularly those insidious Christians with their crucified messiah.
And then one day, to his utter surprise, he encountered that very same messiah, once crucified, but now glorified, Jesus the Christ, and Paul was laid low something fierce — absolutely humbled.
He discovered he wasn’t nearly as smart as he had thought he was, that in fact the things he was most convinced were true — the criteria he thought mattered most in judging a person — turned out to be dead wrong.
And at just the point where he assumed he should have been obliterated, zapped dead by the Lord, to his great amazement he discovered love, mercy, grace.
It isn’t easy growing up in this world. Adolescence is a time where there are endless assaults to one’s sense of self esteem. How does a person come to a place where you feel comfortable with oneself, feel good about oneself, and free to pursue your own way?
I had a hard time fitting in when I was a kid. I tried athletics, but I wasn’t quite good enough. There was brainpower, but unfortunately there were always kids who could think circles around me.
I settled into “sensitivity” as my criteria by which I could feel good about myself. Introspective by nature, and having come from a home where my parents got divorced, cleverly I designated “sensitivity” the criteria by which human beings were to be judged. I prided myself in my understanding of the depth of pain in this world, and my perceptivity of the feelings of others. I was the king of compassion.
There are many things that lead me into the ministry, including, I trust, the grace of God, but one of these things was arrogance. I was drawn to the image of the minister as the guy who stood, in some sense, above and apart from everybody else, wiser, more sensitive, more compassionate than everybody else – big time special.
One place, however, that I wasn’t so compassionate was in regard to my parents and their failure to make their marriage work. When I got married, with all my sensitivity and compassion, I was confident I would do it right. I wouldn’t put my kids through what my parents put me through.
Arrogance tends to go hand in hand with loneliness, and so it was the case for me. At age 29, I suddenly fell in love with a woman who shared a similar sort of arrogance, and within six months we were married, and the marriage lasted all of 2 and ½ years, long enough to bring my son Andrew into the world.
Like Paul before me, I got humbled something fierce by the experience, and one thing it did was take away a lot of the judgment I had towards my parents. I recognized that there really are things in ourselves and in this world that we don’t have control over.
Funny thing: I had assumed that if I did end up getting divorced, I would have to leave the ministry. How could I be a minister if I couldn’t even make my marriage work?
But when I finally announced to my congregation that I was getting divorced, to my great surprise they loved me, and lo and behold, I began to find another way of being a minister. Ministry, I came to realize isn’t about feeling superior to people you bend down to help, rather, being in ministry is one sinner telling another sinner where they can find grace.
There was a sense of having rejoined the human race. It was better to come out from under the pile of leaves in order to be a part of God’s family.
Now just as an alcoholic is always an alcoholic, even though they manage to enter on the path of recovery, so the temptation of arrogance is always there for us, even though we may have received insight regarding the nature of our arrogance and repented, as best we could, of its death grip on our lives.
There is a subtle distinction between being one of God’s forgiven sinners who is also a saint bearing God’s light, and being self-righteously arrogant, and it is so easy to fall back into the latter.
If you listen to the apostle Paul, I think you can hear arrogance creeping back into his thought processes. He describes himself as having been, after all, the foremost of sinners. Now that’s special.
You are a beloved child, in whom God delights. God made you special. That doesn’t mean superior. It means God delights in you just the way you are. You don’t need to look down on others when you get a hold of that thought. You are simultaneously an ordinary sinner and an exceptional saint.