“People Problems” – Sermon for the Commemoration of St. Augustine of Hippo

“It is taught among us that since the fall of Adam,” Lutheran Christians confess, that “all human beings who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin.…Moreover, this same innate disease and original sin is truly sin.” Those words form the core of the second article of the Augsburg Confession, the primary identifying document that sets Lutheran Christians apart from other Christian. Those of us who subscribe, or accept as faithful witness to the totality of Scripture—those of us who subscribe to the Augsburg Confession are called Lutheran Christians. This particular article is important because it comes on the heals of who we confess God is in article one—namely, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We, in effect, in this second article, are saying who we are. We are sinners, and we are sinners from our birth.

This confession is Augustinian in nature—that is to say, it’s marked by the teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo, whose feast day we commemorate today. Augustine of Hippo, already in the fourth century, was the one who articulated the language of original sin in terms that we still use today. His theology shapes the way that we see ourselves in relationship to God, to one another, and the whole world we live in. Martin Luther, a monk of the Order of St. Augustine, was shaped by Augustine’s teachings, and so the Reformation was ignited by Augustinian thought as well. We owe a great debt to Augustine for his writings, but perhaps none so much for as his understanding of our nature and our need for God’s grace. Augustine opened our eyes to see who we truly are, but also who God truly is—and what’s more, how we can enjoy the benefits of God’s nature in our own lives now. Today, as we remember Augustine and his work, and how it continues to shape our world today, let us give thanks to God for all those who help us come to a deeper, fuller understanding of who we are, who God is, and how we can better live in relationship with him.

Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I don’t have to tell you we live in a world fraught with people problems. Every day we turn on the television, listen to the radio in the car, look at the newspaper, log on to social media—and we can see unfolding before us the people problems that are going on in the outside world. People love to chatter about those people problems too. Grex and grumble about them. We love to bemoan our politicians especially, but also the big corporations and others who take advantage of people and situations, especially take advantage of us.

But we have people problems in our own personal lives too. It’s not just in Washington, Moscow, Beijing, or Tehran where problems arise. No—we have people problems in our own lives. There are two kinds of people problems, in the broadest of terms. There are those problems that arise because of something that happens to us and there are problems that arise because of something we did. Both are…problematic.

You know what I mean when I say “people problems?” Maybe not specifically, but I’m sure you’ve got an idea. People problems are the problems we face, both individually and collectively, because we are inherently social, inherently relational. Even our prehistoric ancestors were social, relational creatures. Archeologists can tell that prehominids and early humans lived in groups. Even before we knew how to record the stories of our lives, we were living together. And there’s evidence in the fossil record that even before we knew how to record the stories of our lives, we had “people problems.” Fossils of prehominids and early humans show that we got into fights and even likely killed each other. People, and pre-people problems. Some things never change.

When we step back and try to get to the bottom of people problems, we find out that the real issue is pride. Now—this isn’t just any kind of pride. Pride can be a good thing. Self-esteem, dignity, honor, self-respect—there’s nothing wrong with these things. They’re good things. Without them, we fail to recognize what God sees in us as his beloved children with whom he’s well pleased. Without recognizing our own self-worth, our own inherent goodness, we spit on what God has called sacred. “What God has called good,” the voice from heaven declares to St. Peter, “you must not call evil.” And God calls us good—very good, indeed. And we are beloved by God. So beloved that he himself took on our own nature and entered life with us as one of us, and lived life to the uttermost with us, even dying like us. Humanity is a good thing, and our own humanity is a good thing. We each are God’s beloved children, created in the very image of God himself. And if God loves us, who are we not to love us? We deserve to be loved by us, and we ought to love us. This kind of self-respect is not the kind of pride that produces people problems…

The kind of prided that produces people problems is arrogance, conceit, haughtiness, vanity, hubris, narcissism. It’s a kind of snobbish vainglory that often manifests itself as disdain for other people and things in an active sense, or indifference in the passive sense. Pride is corrupt selfishness, putting our own wants, longings, wishes, and impulses before other people and other things.

The notion that God in creation, when he declares us and all creation very good—the notion that God giving us dominion over the world is our license to use the world’s resources however we see fit without regard for those we affect, today or in generations to come, that’s pride. When bitterness arises inside us because someone else is having a good go of it—that’s pride. Strife and disagreement arise among us, not because we want to collaborate or seek a common good, but because we want to be right, to have the final word. We know best, after all. We want to have the authority, and if we can’t, we’ll be damned if someone else will. That’s pride. Fake it til you make it. We pretend to be something we aren’t because we’re afraid to be seen and known for what we really are. That’s pride. Why do we speak negatively of others? Why do we gossip? Perhaps because we’ve been hurt ourselves, and we want revenge, or we want to curry favor with others, and our conceited hearts tell us the only way for others to like us is if we diminish those we feel people favor, respect, or admire. That’s pride.

Pride cares for one thing and one thing only.

Pride cares only about itself.

Pride is the opposite of love.

Yet as Christians, we who are disciples of Jesus, are called by love and fed by the Word. We are charged to care for all—not just people, but all things. So what are we to do? First and foremost, we remember who we are and indeed, that we are very good. God has loved us so completely to give up everything to be in relationship with us. And what’s more, God has shown us what this love looks like in action. Throughout history God has spoken to us through many and various ways, through legends, through laws, through prophecy—declaring to us what is expected of us as those who have a special relationship with him.

And in these last days, God has spoken to us through his Son, Jesus, true God and true man, who for us and our salvation came down from heaven and lived with us. In Jesus we have a model for a godly life, a life that isn’t devoted to ourselves, but is devotedly in love with everything God has made—from the smallest vole to the most distant galaxy to the babbling brook to the mighty mountains to the poor girl in Cambodia to the stockbroker on Wallstreet, right down and up to you. God’s love moves him outside of himself into relationship. And it’s that same love that fills us with the breath of life, the wind that first ordered creation, that raised Jesus from death, and unites us with him in newness of life. This love guides us, and when we reorient ourselves around this love, pride dissolves. When we reorient ourselves according to the godly life, a life lived not for ourselves, but in intentional relationship with each other and the world God so loves, then pride melts away.

Pride is undone by love, by love lived out. Our people problems become less and less when we orient ourselves away from ourselves and focus our care outward. And it begins in little ways, in our own lives.

How?

Voice true appreciation for others. Appreciation that says something, not a simple platitude or trope. We can always be specific with our problems with other people. Be likewise or even more specific with your appreciation. We need to put aside our own viewpoint and see things from other people’s perspective. Listen carefully to what someone is trying to say. Listen not only with your ears, but with your body. Don’t be waiting to respond. Be present with them. Are they angry, ashamed, or scared? Overjoyed? Excited? Resigned? Make time for someone who reaches out. Consider you may be wrong…Be led. Don’t interrupt. What biases do you have? What assumptions are you making about yourself? About someone else? About what happened? Defend people’s character, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light. When we do these things, pride can’t get in because we’re too busy letting love out…

I don’t have to tell you we live in a world fraught with people problems. The relationships in our world at large and in our own lives are taut with stress, and at the root of these problems is poisonous pride, a pride that looks out for itself before anything else. God has shown us a more excellent way in the life of Jesus—the way of love. But what’s more, God has filled us with the same spirit of love that filled Jesus to live his life in devoted obedience to God’s will such that he gave his life for our sake. And this same spirit of love raised him from death to newness of life, and so this spirit works in us, reorienting us to life like Jesus’—a life lived not for ourselves, but in devoted obedience to God’s will. The Spirit fills us to give up our pride and to take on God’s love, that we might live lives that give glory not to ourselves, to but to God. Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall; love comes ahead goodwill, and a humble disposition before peace.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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