Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity 2022
Invited to Dance
The Reverend Mark Birch Precentor
Sunday, 28th August 2022 at 11.15 AM
It was heartening to read this week of a Chief of Police defending a group of officers who faced criticism for dancing a Macarena during a Pride march in Lincoln. Dancing did not interfere with their duties, he explained, and indeed he applauded their willingness to engage in what was a characteristically colourful occasion. I like to think the Dean would support me wherever I might be moved to dance, whether in a Pride March, the Notting Hill Carnival, or perhaps with the Prime Minister of Finland, but I won’t push it.
Pride used to be a one-day-in-the-year event. This year, you could join in Pride marches up and down the country from as early as the 30 April, and you’re not too late to book a ferry for Oban Pride on 10 September, or pop up to Euston for a fast train to Birmingham Pride on 24 and 25 September. Pride is widespread.
Unfortunately, perhaps, the bishops of the Anglican Communion arrived just too late for Canterbury Pride, held on 11 June. Whether it would have helped the conversations at the Lambeth Conference is hard to know, but I doubt we would have found many bishops keen to join in the dancing. To give the Archbishop his due, I don’t think he would have condemned any who might have been just a little bit tempted.
While the bishops soberly debated issues of human sexuality, around the country, and in many countries around the world, people were marching, dancing, and singing; defiantly declaring their pride in who they are and who they love. It doesn’t take much imagination to know how this might be portrayed: one group mired in the past, destined for irrelevance, while the other sweeping all before them, demanding freedom, celebrating diversity. Here, surely, an irresolvable clash, another example of the culture wars dividing societies and nations the world over.
Of course, the truth is much subtler. Some bishops, perhaps most, are engaging at some level with the emerging landscape of human diversity—some with enthusiasm, perhaps more with varying degrees of anxiety and caution. It is their job, after all, to guard the apostolic faith, and to lead the flock into the fullness of life that our Good Shepherd has won for us by his death and resurrection. They have a duty to be careful and considered—to rejoice in all that fosters human flourishing, but to be wary, to be ready to insert the crozier wherever the sheep are at risk of running away with themselves, and falling into… well… pride.
To be clear, I’m not about to condemn the Pride movement—far from it—but there are things about human pride, in general, that need to be remembered; that are not so much about human flourishing as about a kind of over-compensation; an over-statement that belies a fragility, a dependence that we are denying. Even what we might consider to be healthy pride—a pride in our children and their achievements, perhaps—puts too much on them; invests them with hopes and expectations that they cannot possibly bear; denies their proper dependence on us. Pride is inflated; balloon-thin; and we all know how vulnerable balloons can be.
The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord—so we heard in the first reading from Ecclesiasticus—and we are then told of the disasters that must ensue. Pride, in the first reading, most definitely comes before a fall (or perhaps, to follow the balloon analogy, a pop).
Jesus tells a parable about those who exalt themselves—who assume the seat of honour; who over-reach; who try to over-state, inflate even, their importance and dignity, putting their host in a difficult position. In the parable, dignity is given, it cannot be claimed—it is the host who says, Friend, move up higher. The one who exalts themselves (the proud) does not wait for the host—doesn’t allow the host to be hospitable, and ends up ashamed.
The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord—it is not allowing God to be God, the good host, who bestows dignity upon us, calling us higher, even to the top table—to the highest place, by, with and in the ascended Christ. Human pride is the sorry story of imagining we have to demand or achieve our own dignity with displays of wealth or power or status, cleverness or cunning; demanding, or thinking we have earned the place, the dignity, that God is already delighted to give us—bestowing his own image upon us, nourishing us at his table with his own life. Pride, forsaking the Lord, is a tragic waste of energy.
The opposite of pride, in the parable we heard today, is humility. Jesus teaches that ‘all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’ But in the secular understanding, the pride that Pride Marches are all about, this pride is the response, the protest against being shamed—being told that you are wrong, unacceptable; that the way you experience yourself, the way you relate to other human beings, in the tenderest part of your soul, is disordered, sinful. Secular pride is the resistance against this shaming.
Being shamed and being humbled are importantly different. Being shamed is a violent act, whether physically or psychologically; whether face to face, or over any kind of media. Shaming seeks to silence the other, to undermine them, to put them under coercive power, to marginalise them. Any resistance to being shamed, whether you call it pride or not, is surely to be applauded, and is of the gospel. Jesus, after all, came to deliver us from sin and shame.
Being humbled on the other hand is an act of supreme divine kindness (even if it doesn’t always feel like that). If pride puffs us up so that we are stretched, distorted and disfigured, divine compassion lets enough air out of the balloon so that our true image, our true beauty comes back into shape—we are humbled back into proportion.
Being humbled reminds us of our dependence; our dependence upon God for the very gift of existence, and our sometimes difficult and constraining dependence on one another. This is the challenge that the Church, for all its faults, is trying to engage with. We cannot and must not forget our dependence on one another within the Body of Christ and in the one Spirit. We are theologically compelled to find ways to disagree profoundly without shaming one another; without coercion or marginalisation. This is the work we have to do not just for ourselves, but for the sake of a world that needs to know how to disagree well, because that is the only way to survive in a world of complete mutual dependence, whether for energy, or for food, or for a survivable climate.
Finally, being humbled is not about self-negation; its not about saying ‘I’m completely wrong, or bad, or mistaken.’ People who are humbled should be no less passionate about the truth as they perceive it; they shouldn’t stop advocating or caring. But people who are humbled are less likely to be wasting energy on displays of wealth or power or status, or cleverness or cunning—they are more likely to know where their dignity comes from, and the dignity of those with whom they disagree. There is more common ground.
In a world where God is forsaken, there is only an unholy rush for places at the table, and a scramble for the best seats; there is only assertion, aggression; pride for the winners and shame for the losers. The gospel shows us a different way—the way of humility; the way that honours our humanity in all its strength and fragility, in all its dignity, diversity and dependence; the way that isn’t about being made to grovel in shame, but being invited to dance.