Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Sermon for Ash Wednesday

St John’s, Decatur

Well, it’s good to be back. Of course, I was just here on Sunday, and I have a repeating engagement in the parish hall on the next five Wednesday evenings. So let’s cut to the chase. It’s Ash Wednesday, and we’re here to say we’re sorry for our sins, and to begin a journey of repentance that will take us up to Holy Week and Easter. We’re here to acknowledge that we chronically fall short of God’s call to us in what we say and do, and in what we fail to say and do. As a result, we’re stuck. Sin is like signal interference between us and God. Our ability to hear God’s continuing invitation is less than “loud and clear.” We can’t be the people that we are created to be. 

Of course, the events that Lent prepares us to reconnect with—the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ—are the remedy for what ails us. In the meantime, then, perhaps it will be helpful to know our enemy a little better. Behind each individual action that we take or fail to take that we might label as a “sin,” there is an underlying predisposition—an attitude of the heart, a habit. These attitudes and habits make up the reservoir, the well, from which individual acts of sin are drawn. The Christian tradition has classified these attitudes and habits under the ominous label “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Let’s take a look at them.

First, I’ll give you a mnemonic device—pale gas. P-A-L-E-G-A-S. Seven letters, one for each of the seven deadly sins.

The first of the seven is Pride, and Pride, in turn, is the root of the other six. Pride is also sometimes known as Vanity. We might think of it as the “operating system” in which the others are “applications.” Pride is the impulse to dethrone God and put ourselves in his place, to make ourselves the measure of all things, to seriously believe that “it’s all about me.” Maybe you saw the Dear Abby column from a couple of days ago. There was a letter from a young woman who already had a daughter and is now pregnant with a boy, and just couldn’t wrap her mind around having a boy, because she had always imagined herself the mother of “four little princesses.” She was, in fact, being prideful; she was worshiping her own fantasies about herself. Pride is the illusion that we are ourselves the source of our own accomplishments, our own successes. Pride leads to behavior that is egotistical, or arrogant, blind and deaf to the presence or needs of others. Pride provides the oxygen that the other six deadly sins breathe. Without it, they could not exist.

The antidote to pride is humility.

Next is Anger. (Remember, pale gas—this is the ‘a’ in ‘pale.’) So, we’re not talking about the emotion of anger, the feeling of anger. Emotions are things that happen to us; we can’t control them, so they can’t be sinful. Anger as a deadly sin refers to what we do with the emotion that comes our way. If you insult me, and I get angry and punch you in the nose, the sin lies not in my angry feeling, but in what I did with my angry feeling, namely, punch you in the nose. The problem is, sometimes it feels really good to be angry, and we want to hang onto that feeling. Haven’t you ever been really mad at somebody, but they’re all full of smiles and saying nice and endearing things to you, and you just can’t be mad at them anymore? At first, it’s kind of frustrating, because you don’t really want to let go of the anger. That’s where the sin is—when we nurse our anger as if it were a flickering flame, when we carefully feed it and stoke it and keep it going. Holding a grudge, they say, is like taking poison and expecting somebody else to drop dead!

The antidote to anger is the virtue of patience.

Next up is Lust. There are a lot a parallels to anger here. A feeling of sexual attraction is not in itself sinful. (If it were, none of us would be here!) Rather, like with anger, it’s what we do with the feeling that counts. If we nurture an inappropriate attraction, and feed it with fantasies, that’s giving in to the sin of Lust. When we objectify another human being, and see them only as a source of sexual gratification, that’s giving in to the sin of Lust. Of course, when we engage in sexual relations outside the covenant of marriage, that is also Lust. Ironically, prudery is actually a distortion of Lust. There’s a legend undoubtedly with no basis in fact, but instructive nonetheless, about St Anthony and a band of his disciples encountering Lady Godiva riding around town in the altogether. His disciples shielded their eyes and complained about what a scandal it was. St Anthony just calmly said, Did not her beauty delight your eyes?—and moved on. He was able to notice the attraction, to not be a prude about it, and then to move on, and let it go.

The virtues of chastity and temperance are the antidotes to Lust.

Now we come to Envy. Envy happens when we surrender to feelings of resentment of someone who is more fortunate than we are in some way—financially, physically, socially, intellectually, or even spiritually. When we try to “keep up with the Joneses,” that’s Envy. When we take delight in the misfortune of somebody who seems more blessed than we are, that’s Envy. When we’re obsessed with having the coolest car, or the most updated kitchen, or the most thoroughly-stamped passport among our group of peers, that’s Envy.

The antidote to Envy is the practice of meekness, being habitually self-effacing.

P-A-L-E-G is for Gluttony. Gluttony happens when we don’t respect our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, when we fail to understand our bodies not as property, but as something that has been entrusted to us, and of which we are stewards. Of course, Gluttony typically manifests itself in over-consumption of food or alcohol.  Merely enjoying food and drink is not Gluttony—food and drink are among the joys and blessings of life—but eating or drinking to the point of sickness, or to the point of compounding sickness, is. When we lose control over our appetites, when we become enslaved to them, that’s Gluttony.

The spiritual practices of fasting and abstinence are the best antidotes to Gluttony.

The second ‘a’ is for Avarice, which is not a very familiar word, and which might be better expressed as Greed, but if we did that, we’d lose Pale Gas, and what fun would that be? Now, we sometimes think of Greed and Envy as the same thing, but they’re really not. Envy is when I’m resentful over what somebody else has. Greed is when I’m discontent with what I do have, no matter how much I have. Greed is when we accumulate things just for the sake of possessing them, way beyond any need we might have, or even any sort of rational desire we might have. Most of the time we associate greed with financial or material wealth, but it doesn’t have to be just that. We can be greedy about the number of ‘likes’ we get on a Facebook status, or the equivalent on Twitter or Instagram. We can be greedy about recognition—awards and accolades, books, movies, recordings. We can be greedy about the kinds of trees and shrubs and flowers we have in our yard. Hoarding is a form of Greed. We can be greedy about nearly anything.

The antidote to greed is the practice of generosity, regularly giving away from that which we might otherwise be tempted to accumulate.

Finally, Sloth. Generally, we associate Sloth with garden variety laziness, but there are a great many ways in which we can be slothful without appearing lazy. Yes, an inordinate tendency to indulge in rest and recreation to the detriment of work and other responsibilities is certainly Sloth. But, I would suggest, just as prudery can be a shadow of Lust, so an exaggerated work ethic can be a shadow of Sloth. We can be slothful in our duty to maintain our physical and mental and emotional and spiritual health while hiding behind the demands of a job. We can be slothful in observing the commandment to “honor the Sabbath and keep it holy” when we keep our nose relentlessly to the grindstone. We can be slothful in love, when we take those around us, those who form the support structure of our lives, for granted. And we are all vulnerable—but especially people who do what Fr Swan and Deacon Coventry and I do—we are all vulnerable to Sloth in the performance of our spiritual hygiene and discipline, diligence and attention in saying our prayers.

The antidote to Sloth is the habitual practice of attentiveness.

So there you have them, the Seven Deadly Sins. They’re deadly because, left unchecked, untreated, they draw us away from the love of God, which is, just in itself, the very definition of Hell. But note that, for each of them, there is an antidote. Very often, sin is most effectively resisted not by direct opposition, but by the cultivation of virtue, something positive. So, instead of bracing ourselves this Lent against Pride, Anger, Lust, Envy, Gluttony, Avarice, and Sloth, perhaps we would do well to concentrate our attention on Humility, Patience, Temperance, Meekness, Fasting, Generosity, and Attentiveness. Just a thought!

May you have a blessed and holy Lent, and to that I will now formally invite you.

Amen. 

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