By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 10:1-24
Years ago, I attended a funeral service for a father who’d died suddenly, leaving behind two teenage children. A mourner was talking with the son when the son remarked that he knew his dad had been proud of him. But then, after a pause, he added, “I know we’re not supposed to have pride; that pride is a sin.” When I heard those words, they felt like a punch to my gut. Yet I suspect that the sentiment of that young man is not unique. For whatever odd and peculiar reason, many of us have been raised to believe that pride in success has no place in Christianity and certainly no place in the Church. After all, pride or hubris (in Latin superbia) is known historically as one of the seven deadly sins.
This week I’m sharing the penultimate sermon in a six-week series entitled Honest to God, a sermon series considering how prayer is “our conscious awareness of God’s presence; an awareness that is cultivated through honest communication that results in mutual self-revelation.”[i] This series has been based on a book I’ve been reading by Catholic priest William Barry entitled Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer. Barry contends, as does the writer of John’s gospel, that God desires friendship with us; a close, honest and intimate relationship. Prayer is a primary way in which we grow in our relationship, our friendship, with God through authentic communication; through the conversation of prayer.
Over this sermon series – and by the way, all of these can be accessed on the church’s website – we’ve considered how we talk with God about different emotions and experiences like our fears, our sins, our sadness. Now the recommendation that we pray about those topics likely takes none of you by surprise. But today’s topic very well may take you by surprise because today we consider talking to God about our success. Yes, our success; those things that cultivate a sense of pride, and – let me tell you – this is a topic I feel really passionate about.
Now, let me give a brief disclaimer: every organization, including the church, has at least a couple folks who like to brag about everything they know and do so well. That is not pride. In fact, any good therapist will tell you that, people who incessantly brag usually suffer from deep insecurities. Such folks, annoying though they may be, merit our compassion for the root of their excessive self-praise is insecurity, not genuine pride. But the rest of us – the vast majority of us, I’d contend – generally find ourselves embarrassed, awkward, sometimes blushing, and on rare occasions even angry when someone in the church praises or affirms our success, pointing the spotlight on something we have done well… which is a pretty curious response when we examine it in light of this morning’s gospel story.
This morning’s gospel is the story of Jesus appointing the 70 to go out from town to town doing ministry that will lay the groundwork for Jesus’ subsequent ministry in those places. Jesus gives them clear instructions and they go out and do what he has asked of them. Then, several verses later, we are told of their return and it’s a joyous occasion. The disciples are excited about the success of the work they have done. They return to Jesus saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” Now notice: Jesus doesn’t scold them for “bragging,” he doesn’t try to dampen their enthusiasm. He affirms what they say, building on it as he says, “I watched the adversary fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.”[ii] There’s some additional stuff about snakes and scorpions. I didn’t read that. But, the long and short of it is that the work of the 70 evangelists sent in Jesus’ name advances the mission of Jesus which, likewise, defeats the power of evil, the power of the adversary. A win for Jesus; a loss for the powers of evil.
Now you might be thinking to yourself, “yes, but, that was different; the disciples were doing something Jesus told them to do” and you would be right. But I suspect we have a far too narrow definition of God’s call over our lives today; a far too limited understanding of what it means for us to do something Jesus wants us to do. Let me say that again. It is absolutely true that scripture states in at least three different places “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord”[iii] and that there is a distinct difference between that vain self-glory versus the pride we experience when we carry out God’s work. But, again, I suspect we have a far too narrow definition of God’s call over our lives today and what it means to do the work of Jesus.
Many of you know that Britt and I were on vacation last week. I am appreciative to Pastor Linda for preaching and for Britt’s and my opportunity to spend a week with family in Pennsylvania. One of the highlights of that trip for me was watching interactions between my nephews and niece and their children; particularly, the interaction between one nephew and his son who’s 3 1/2. My great nephew is just a remarkably confident and contented little boy owing, I think, in large part to his parents. When my nephew would ask his son to do something and he did it, my nephew would reinforce his behavior with these words, “Thank you. That’s helpful.” I know; it sounds pretty basic. But this little boy is learning that his motivation for behaving in certain ways isn’t simply about doing what he’s told or following rules. Even as a toddler, he’s already learning to be motivated by the desire to act in ways that are helpful to others. I was fascinated by these interactions and I really couldn’t get enough of them and I gotta tell ya, I was super proud of my nephew ‘cause I don’t remember my parents or his parents using that approach. I thought to myself, “I am so proud of the effort he has put into being a good parent because it is causing this little person to care about helping others and, frankly, that’s the litmus test.” As I always say, Christianity is about relationship; about a right relationship with God and with others.
So Jesus affirms the work of the 70 he sent out by reminding them that they should rejoice ultimately because their “names are written in heaven,” the domain of God. In others words, what they’ve done has deepened their relationship with God; it has brought them even closer to God.
Friends, not only this morning’s gospel story, but the writings of the apostle Paul are filled with references to boasting or pride. For Paul, it is always within the context of celebrating how he has brought new converts into relationship with God through Jesus and how they have lived out the effects of that relationship by making the love of God in Jesus known within their church and in their community.[iv]
This past week, former presidents Clinton and George W Bush spoke at a graduation ceremony for the 2017 class of the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program, where a moderator asked “what is the most important quality for a person to possess if they hope to become president of the United States?” Bush quickly responded “humility.” His response was followed by Clinton’s addition: “Realize it’s about the people, not you.”[v] Put those together, friends, and you’ve got gospel.
When we are able to live and act in ways that show the love of God to others, when we are helpful and carry out Jesus’ work, when we use the gifts God has given us to serve others, we ought to be proud of that. Now certainly, we shouldn’t be proud if we act selfishly and do things that simply protect or advance our individual interests. But we need to celebrate – just as the disciples did with Jesus – those times when we do a good job of carrying out God’s work in the world.
A lot of criticism leveled against churches today is that churches are all talk and no action; or that they really don’t offer people practical advice for how to live. But friends, how can we do that if we don’t celebrate success? How can we do that if we don’t talk together and don’t talk with God about the things we do to be helpful and to carry out Jesus’ work in the world? If I try to thank you and affirm you for using a talent God gave you to serve others and you act embarrassed or downplay it or just plan refuse to receive it, how will others learn that serving God – succeeding at God’s work in the world – is something worth celebrating? Father Barry points out in his book on prayer that, “If the disciples had felt inhibited in telling Jesus how happy they were about their successful mission, they might not have had this chance to hear Jesus’ own joy at what they had done in his name.”[vi] Like the disciples, I believe Jesus wants to praise and celebrate our success when we do his work in the world.
Surveys show that the Christian practice of worship is now declining in value in America at an alarming rate and I wonder: could some of us raised in the church be partly to blame. Perhaps there is a connection between our failure to praise and celebrate the good that God is and does and our failure to celebrate and praise one another when we have succeeded at carrying out God’s good work in the world.
It’s time to praise success. It’s time to speak to God and one another of the blessing and joy it is when we can do God’s work well… whether that is about how we raise our children to be loving and helpful; whether that is about careers in helping professions like teaching or medicine; or whether it’s about serving the needy through the Church or other community not-for-profits.
Do you talk to God about your successes? If not, why not? The disciples did and Jesus didn’t scold them. Jesus celebrated with them and reminded them that the good work they’d done defeated the power of evil and brought them closer to God. Do you talk to God and to others about your successes? When you are able to be open and welcome the appreciation of others for using your God-given gifts to help others, you serve as an example to others; you make Christianity something tangible and meaningful and real. When you have served God well, celebrate that success – that joy – with God. Do you talk to God about your successes? Jesus gave thanks to his heavenly Father over the success of the 70 and no doubt he gives thanks when we serve him well also.
[i] Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer. By William A. Barry, SJ. Loyola Press; 2012. pp. 1, 7
[ii] Luke 10:18. NRSV.
[iii] See Jeremiah 9.24; 1 Corinthians 1.31; 2 Corinthians 10.17
[iv] See, in particular, Romans, chapter 5 and 2 Corinthians, chapter 10.
[v] Taken from an NPR News article, July 13, 2017, by Vanessa Romo
[vi] Praying the Truth (see above); p. 37.
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