Genesis 4:1-12; Mark 10:35-37, 41-46; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
A few weeks ago I started this sermon series,
“Character matters: practicing for the good life”
And I gave it a tagline:
“a fresh angle on the seven deadly sins in a chaotic world.”
On that first Sunday, when I stood here and said
one of my motivations for focusing on the deadly sins,
was our current chaotic social climate,
I could see in your face, your slight nods,
that you knew what I meant, no need for further explanation.
It has become both commonplace and common wisdom,
to speak of our times as chaotic.
And that’s being generous.
Our world is not just chaotic,
It is full of violence, hatred, oppression, corruption,
abuse of the poor and vulnerable.
Human relations are already polarized, and becoming more so.
Our social fabric is frayed and morally-bankrupt.
That’s not a statement of despair.
That’s just being honest.
It’s naming a reality.
The times we live in are chaotic and confusing and corrupt.
So that makes it all the more urgent
for us people of faith
who see life as a moral calling,
that we claim our place in this world and live it out.
We are people who believe God is at work in this world.
We believe God made us all, and loves us all,
and has a purpose for us and creation.
We believe that God is still invested in us, despite everything,
that God is working on a great shalom project,
and we are part of God’s strategy to bring it about.
We believe we are called by this same God
to construct a way of life, a society, if you will,
a household of God (an oikos,
to use the Greek word the apostle Paul used)
a household built on a sturdy moral framework . . .
so that . . .
the world might see it,
and catch a glimpse of God’s shalom vision
that available to all.
We are . . . and I say this with all humility and reverence and awe,
not at all in the arrogant or narcissistic way that it sounds . . .
we are . . . God’s gift to the world.
Now, given how messed up the Christian world is these days,
I know you’re tempted to dismiss that statement as nonsense.
Hear me out.
To claim we are on a mission of God to the world,
is a statement about our identity,
and it’s one of complete and utter humility!
To say I’m here at God’s bidding
is to give up my sense of self-importance,
I’m naming myself servant—slave of God.
My purpose in life is not my own.
My agenda is not my own.
My life is not my own.
I have been given a job to do for a higher purpose
than my own self-fulfillment and ambition.
God has a project going on,
and I, we, are invited to sign on to that project,
with all that we have and are,
to the point of laying down our lives, if called upon.
How badly we mess it up the project, isn’t the point.
For some mysterious reason,
God patiently and persistently chooses
to carry out the shalom project
through deeply flawed human communities.
Stories of this abound, through the Old and New Testaments,
and continue until today.
Now why do I say all this at the beginning of my sermon?
I’m laying some groundwork.
I’m helping us claim, with joy and amazement and gratitude,
our divine calling.
We get to live in this beautiful and broken and sin-filled world,
with a real, and meaningful purpose.
We don’t have to wallow in despair
when the world seems to be going off the rails.
This is an opportunity to put God’s life-giving alternative on display.
This is a chance for us—
as people of faith who worship the God of shalom—
to recognize our gift, and offer it in all humility.
We get to be as intentional, and clear,
and public as we can possibly be,
and live our lives before the watching world,
and God helping us, make a believable and irresistible case
that there is a better way,
that there is such a thing as a good life,
and we are all invited into it.
This is how to live in a chaotic and bankrupt world.
But we have to choose it,
and practice our way into it.
Because otherwise, we will default
to one of two other tempting options.
We will either despair about the evil
and just escape it by crawling into a hole.
Or we avoid the moral confusion by normalizing it,
just caving, and blending in with the world around us,
joining the rest in a fear-based way of life . . .
that leads to death.
The alternative, which this series is all about,
is to name and confess sin for what it is,
claim God’s grace,
and joyfully embrace practices that lead us toward shalom,
toward the good life.
Okay, so let’s get into the two deadly sins for today—
envy and vainglory.
I think these two sins lie at the heart
of all the ugliness of our world.
And what’s so terrible about envy and vainglory,
or, as some lists have it—envy and pride.
Sure, envy can be a little off-putting, but deadly?
And pride is actually kind of a virtue, isn’t it?
It’s good to take some pride in who we are and what we do.
It’s called self-esteem.
Well, let’s define them more carefully, and then decide.
Over the centuries, in church history,
there have been several lists of deadly sins,
beginning with one of the early desert monks in the late 300s,
who came up with a list of eight.
But the list that stuck with us came from Pope Gregory I,
and was followed by Thomas Aquinas.
They were listed in order of seriousness.
And the seriousness of the sin
was a matter of how much it offended against love.
Pride was #1 on the list.
Envy was #2.
So let’s start with envy.
How does envy offend against love?
Well, envy is the act of engaging in comparative self-worth.
Whereas love rejoices in another’s good,
envy sorrows over another’s good,
because that good excels our own.
When we envy another,
we are confronting a self that we think lacks inherent worth.
The unhappiness and even misery that results from envy,
can destroy us from the inside out.
Envy can seem harmless at first.
But it nibbles and gnaws.
It starts eating away at us, like a silent cancer.
It causes us to act toward the other in ways that go beyond sorrow,
to actively trying to undermine the good in the other.
Left unchecked, it is a path toward violence.
It has, many times, led a person to murder.
Prime example: the first set of brothers, Cain and Abel,
whose story we heard this morning from Genesis 4.
It is a sin that offends against the unconditional love of God for us.
Envy diminishes our humanity.
When I am envious, I am not loving myself.
I am not grateful for, or happy in, what I am or what I have.
The sin is deadly, because it will not let me live as myself,
as the one God created.
Envy not only disparages self, it disparages others,
and it disparages the One who created us both.
It’s a sad sin, because everyone loses.
The other deadly sins have at least some momentary gratification,
whether it’s food, or sex, or the release of anger, or pride.
But there is no pleasure in envy, even for a moment.
In the late 1300s, Chaucer, in the Canterbury Tales, wrote,
in the “Parson’s Tale,”
“For hardly is there any sin that has not some delight in itself,
save only envy, which ever has of itself
but anguish and sorrow.”
And even more sad and tragic,
is this sin is more prevalent in close community.
It’s not a coincidence that most of the Bible stories about envy,
involve families and close associates.
Cain and Abel,
Jacob and Esau,
Joseph and his brothers,
Sarah and Hagar,
Rachel and Leah,
and the disciples with James and John
in today’s Gospel reading from Mark 10.
They all envy the blessing received by another.
I’m not as prone to sinful envy,
when I realize I can’t sing like Andrea Bocelli,
or write like John Grisham.
They are in a class by themselves,
and their world is far away.
But if my neighbor, my sibling, my fellow church member,
my business partner . . . my spouse . . .
if they surpass me in something I value—
prestige, wealth, charisma—
or it they achieve something I was unable to—
an award, a promotion, public recognition—
then the comparative self-worth starts to eat away at us.
Soon we begin harboring secret thoughts of their downfall.
And we diminish their humanity, and ours.
Envy has a color, you know.
We are green with envy.
Green, being the color of sickness and nausea.
In medieval art, envy was often depicted as a sickly person,
someone wasting away.
Now, what about pride, or vainglory.
As opposed to the way envy diminishes our self-worth,
vainglory elevates it.
Well, in a manner of speaking.
At least, in envy we sorrow because we don’t have something
that someone else has, and pity ourselves for it.
But the sin of vainglory notices we do have something,
and holds it up high where everyone can see it,
as if to cause envy in others . . . or . . .
perhaps, to convince ourselves of our own worth.
Vainglory is disordered glory-seeking.
It is the excessive and disordered desire
for recognition and approval in the eyes of others.
Jesus was blunt about vainglory, in Matthew 6.
“Beware of practicing your piety before others,
in order to be seen by them.”
Then he said, in just about these words,
“If you seek attention for your good deeds, congratulations,
you’ve just gotten your entire reward, attention.”
So . . . you’re giving to the poor on a public sidewalk?
You have your reward already (that’s Matt. 6:2)
Praying out loud, in a crowd, with your head up?
Got your reward. (vs. 5)
Fasting, and hoping others notice?
You got it. (vs. 16)
Now, vainglory is a very different thing than public witness.
In just a few verses earlier, Matthew 5,
Jesus calls his disciples a “city on a hill” and “light on a lampstand.”
He urges them to let their good deeds be visible to others,
so they may see your good works and—
here’s the crux of the matter—
“and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
If we are living our lives
according to God’s call,
in God’s service, and
for God’s glory and purpose,
then our deeds may well be seen,
but they will point people to God, not to us.
We live in a narcissistic society.
We have a narcissist in the Oval Office now, which is not surprising.
We are a society of narcissists,
and we usually end up with leaders like us, only more so.
We are a culture with only a handful of heroes,
but a thousand celebrities.
We rarely honor people for the depth of their courage and character.
We celebrate people, for their celebrity itself.
How empty is that?
How vainglorious is that?
The sin of vainglory, or pride, if you will,
is misdirected glory.
It is putting the wrong person in the center of attention.
Okay, this is well and good,
but why is vainglory sinful?
why was it sin #1 on the list of Pope Gregory?
It offends against love, in the worst way.
It fails to love self and others.
Remember the two great commandments, according to Jesus in Matt 22?
Love the Lord your God with all you have and are.
And love your neighbor as yourself.
Both envy and vainglory spring from the same sinful root,
a failure to adequately love God, self, and others.
Those who succumb to envy and vainglory
fail to find joy in the unconditional love of God for us all.
Envy offends against the love
of the God who names us worthy,
who gives us value,
who calls his own.
When we denigrate ourselves with the sadness of envy,
we distance ourselves from God, saying,
“I don’t accept your image in me.”
“I don’t believe you bestow worth on me, that you love me.”
And vainglory also offends against love.
It seeks to win applause and approval
but at the price of distancing ourselves from the love of others.
By trying to prove our superiority,
by trying to “spin” our public image,
we make ourselves less approachable and more isolated.
So what practices might help form us for a better alternative,
for the good life?
What practices begin to move us from
envy and vainglory,
toward a deeper life of love?
Try silence and solitude.
So suggests Rebecca De Young in her book, Glittering Vices,
on display right now in the library.
There’s all kinds of voices clamoring for our attention—
voices within and voices without—
voices telling us falsehoods about our unworthiness,
or about the excessive worth of others.
DeYoung cites Richard Foster,
who encourages us to let our lives and actions speak for themselves,
and to silence our self-made “spin.”
How many of us are guilty—I know I am—
of coming upon a conversation about something,
where I know I have a story, anecdote, or insight
that seems relevant or might impress those in the conversation,
so I find a way to gently elbow my way in,
because I have a hunch by inserting myself,
I can obtain the admiration of others.
But I wonder what I missed out on,
by not choosing stillness, silence, and deeper listening.
Silence give me relief from the clamoring voices of the world,
including my own voice.
Solitude frees me from a panicked need for acclaim
Because solitude, DeYoung reminds us, removes our audience.
I wonder sometimes,
how much richer our common life would be,
our life in the church,
our discourse in the marketplace,
and in the political arena,
if we could also combat envy and vainglory,
through the practice of occasional silence and solitude.
So many of our knock-down drag-out fights
over ideology, or theology,
or over religious or political disagreements,
come down not just to our pure commitment to some idea at stake.
They may also be rooted in, and fed by, our vainglory—
our need for approval and acclaim by others.
We have a need to be proven right,
to be found to have the superior argument,
the greater logic, the most reliable claim,
the most faithful biblical interpretation.
But our contribution to God’s shalom project,
might actually be better served by silence,
by listening better,
by sharpening our attention,
by deepening our understanding,
by being with the other longer,
or being in solitude
and listening for God’s breath in the midst of it all.
Let us all bask in God’s great and unconditional love for us,
and for all people, and all creation,
and admit that it’s not about me,
and silence the spin we give our lives,
to try to improve our standing.
Let us choose a deeper love, informed by God’s love,
as described in Paul’s timeless words from 1 Corinthians 13.
Listen to them again:
Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
Love does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never fails.
Thanks be to God.
—Phil Kniss, February 3, 2019
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