Morning Worship Column: Pride, Privilege Can Prevent Seeing Others’ Reality

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“It is very difficult to see or understand a story absent the lens of our own circumstances. Our pride and privilege get in the way of making peace in fundamental ways,” said the Rev. Amy K. Butler at the 9:15 a.m. August 18 morning worship service. Her sermon title was “Pride and Privilege,” and the Scripture reading was Genesis 16:1-6, the story of Sarai and Hagar.

Butler reminded the congregation of her Sunday sermon on the return of the prodigal son and the character of the older brother.

“I am the oldest [child in my family] and I am very responsible,” she said. “Ministers are disproportionately first-born children and that might be why there is a championing of the older brother in sermons.”

The older brother’s resentment was justified, she said. He had followed the rules and obeyed his father, but he was chastised when his prodigal brother came home to a lavish welcome.

“Pride stood in his way and his privilege was the lens that made him unable to initiate peace, reconciliation and right relationship,” Butler said. “He ended up not getting what he wanted and fractured the relationships with his father and brother.”

Butler said the same dynamic appears in the story today.

“Sarai was one of the beautiful people, always popular, always successful,” Butler said. “She was groomed for that; her name means ‘my princess.’ She may have suspected she would always be at the front of the pack and she made a high status marriage to Abram, a rising star.”

Butler described Abram and Sarai as the beautiful couple: totally capable and destined to be parents of a great nation promised by God. They headed into the desert directed by God, but as the years went by they began to wonder.

“The reality of life started to hit and they wondered, would God’s promises happen as expected?” Butler said. “Maybe God was trying to preserve Sarai’s beauty as long as possible or maybe God had something for her to achieve that required her to be unencumbered by children.”

But Sarai’s biological clock was ticking and the sound of the ticking was their future, she said.

“Their lives moved further, further and further from the promise: a son, evidence of God’s completion of the promise,” Butler said.

Men married to extend their genetic line through a son. Sarai’s beauty and brains would not matter if she did not produce a male heir.

It was difficult enough to conceive, give birth to and raise children in the desert, and Sarai was in need of help. So she offered Hagar to Abram and her son, Ishmael, was accepted as Abram’s heir.

“Who knew what God had in mind, so this son was as good as any,” Butler said. “But Sarai was angry; pride and privilege is a dangerous combination. Sarai dealt harshly with Hagar and she ran away.”

Butler said war and peace begin in the relationships closest to us.

“Pride keeps us from making peace and we have to check our privilege in order to have peace, reconciliation and right relationship,” Butler said.

Soon after Butler was installed as senior pastor of Riverside Church, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner choked to death in New York City. As pastor of a church with a reputation for speaking out on social justice, she struggled to know what to say in light of all that those events, and others, represented in racial justice in this country. She decided to begin the Lenten season with a service based on the Seven Last Words of Christ, a service that is usually done on Good Friday of Holy Week.

Those seven last words would be the last words of the people who died such as, “Mom, I want to go to college,” “Don’t shoot,” “I can’t breathe” and “Tell Mom I love her.” Butler wanted very much to preach at the service, but when she got to the planning committee meeting, one of her colleagues told her, “You can’t preach at this service. Step aside and let others.”

“I felt self-righteous and indignant,” Butler said. “Here I was a woman fighting for credibility every day. My ethnicity is Native American and I have experienced white privilege, but my colleague told me to use my influence to make room for voices who can speak to what it means to be black.”

There were seven preachers that day and Butler did the call to worship and the benediction for the service.

“As I listened, I knew my colleague was right. The best thing I could do was to sit down, step aside, be quiet and listen,” Butler said. “My pride at wanting to be in the pulpit tripped me up; I couldn’t see my privilege. Pride and privilege are deadly together and they make us blind to the reality of others. Pride and privilege do not equal peace, reconciliation and right relationship.”

Even though we can’t always see how pride and privilege get in the way, we have to try so peace might be planted deep in our hearts and relationships, she said.

“This is not for the faint of heart; it takes courage,” Butler said. “May we summon the courage today.”

The Rev. Carmen Perry presided. Beth Archibald, a year-round Chautauqua resident and musician who has played for the Chautauqua Catholic Community masses for the last five years, read the Scripture. The Motet Consort, pianist Joseph Musser and flutist Barbara Hois performed Divertissement No. 6 in C sharp minor by Friedrich Kuhlau for the prelude. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Motet Choir in Daniel E. Gawthrop’s “Sing Me to Heaven.” The John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion provides support for this week’s services.


The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.