The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
September 12, 2010
First Congregational Church,
Scripture: Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Today we begin our eight week sermon series on the seven deadly sins. As we learn about these seven sins here in church, our children and youth will be thinking about them in church school and fellowship and so today, I want to give all of you a brief overview of what the seven deadly sins are.
I struggled over this sermon title, what to call this brief overview of the seven deadly sins but they all had the same problem. All my title ideas seemed vaguely, well, instructional, as though I were somehow teaching people how to be better at the sins. Think about it: The Seven Deadly Sins – A Christian Primer, The Seven Deadly Sins – An historical Overview, The Seven Deadly Sins in Brief – that sounds like Cliff Notes©, or perhaps like I’d jumped ahead to lust. So I settled with The Seven Deadly Sins – An Introduction, which implies that I will be teaching you all about something you have only just started to learn about, and are therefore, not yet very good at. The Seven Deadly Sins? At First Congregational, we’re so innocent we need to be introduced to them. We are so totally unfamiliar with them, that’s why we need an introduction. Right?
Even so the sign out front only has room for so much, and with the fall service times and Rally Day, it looks like we are all rallying and splitting up into double services in order to learn how to sin in seven different ways. At least that’s what they teased me about at the clergy lunch last week.
So we are left with a list that has a long tradition in the church, and the list of sins we’ll be working with, and in this order, goes like this: Pride, Envy, Gluttony, Anger, Sloth, Greed and Lust. Now some of those words are easy to understand, but some may be unfamiliar to you, or harder to define. But we’re going to fix all that.
The origin of the seven deadly sins has been studies and argued over, but the simple version goes like this.
The Seven Deadly Sins, were originally known as the Capital Vices or Cardinal Sins. That was a classification of the most objectionable vices that has been used since early Christian times to educate and instruct followers concerning fallen humanity’s tendency to sin. The early church, Catholic Church, divided sin into two principal categories: “venial sins,” which were considered relatively minor and the more severe “capital” or mortal sins. Mortal sins were believed to destroy the life of grace and create the threat of eternal damnation unless either absolved through serious penitence.
Now, is the list Biblical? While there are lists of sins in the Bible, in the book of Proverbs for example, and in Galatians, it’s not the same list as the one we are working with today. So how did this list come about? The modern concept of the Seven Deadly Sins is linked to the works of the 4th Century monk, Evagrius Ponticus, who listed eight evil thoughts:
▪ Gula (gluttony)
▪ Fornicatio (fornication, lust)
▪ Avaritia (avarice/greed)
▪ Tristitia (sorrow/despair)
▪ Ira (wrath)
▪ Acedia (acedia)
▪ Vanagloria (vainglory)
▪ Superbia (hubris, pride)
In AD 590, a little over two centuries after Evagrius wrote his list, Pope Gregory I revised this list to form the more common Seven Deadly Sins, by folding sorrow/despair into acedia, vainglory into pride, and adding extravagance and envy, while removing fornication from the list. In the order used by both Pope Gregory and by Dante Alighieri in his epic poem The Divine Comedy, the seven deadly sins are as follows:
▪ Luxuria (extravagance)
▪ Gula (gluttony)
▪ Avaritia (avarice/greed)
▪ Acedia (acedia/discouragement)
▪ Ira (wrath)
▪ Invidia (envy)
▪ Superbia (pride)
The identification and definition of the seven deadly sins over their history has been a fluid process and the idea of what each of the seven actually encompasses has evolved over time. Additionally, these got translated through the ages,
▪ Lust was substituted for Luxuria in all but name,
▪ Socordia (sloth) was substituted for Acedia.
It is this revised list that Dante used in his writing, in part two of the Divine Comedy, Purgatorio.
The church ended up with a list that read this way in the Roman Catholic catechism: “Pride, Avarice, Envy, Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, and Sloth/Acedia.” At that time, each of the Seven Deadly Sins was given an opposite among corresponding Seven Holy Virtues (sometimes also referred to as the Contrary Virtues). In parallel order to the sins they oppose, the Seven Holy Virtues are Humility, Charity, Kindness, Patience, Chastity, Temperance, and Diligence.
So to put it simply, this sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins might be put most simply: Seven Ways we Screw up our Lives, and Seven Spiritual Solutions.
Now you might be wondering, why isn’t something like “murder” on the list? Or torture? Or robbery? Well, if you think about the list, they are not actions, specific things you do, the seven deadly sins are more ways of being.
Envy is not a one-time action, it’s an attitude that you carry around in life. Same with the others, they are ways of being that might lead to specific actions. So anger or wrath is the sin, and murder or violence might be the outcome of that attitude. So the seven sins are ancient categories of behavior that wise Christians over the years have decided cause us trouble and distance us from God. That’s what a sin is. It’s a behavior that distances us from God.
The truth is we don’t talk a lot about sin around here at First Congregational Church. Some of us have been part of churches that talked about sin too much, and made people feel awful for not being perfect, or punished them like sinners when really they were just different. But for this series, I want you to hold on to the definition that sin is something that distances us from God, just as virtues, the good and loving things we do, bring us closer to God. How does sin affect people? When we are distant from God we are distant from each other. An angry person is capable of violence, a greedy person is capable of stealing. But a loving person is not just close to the ones they love, they are closer to God, who is love. A generous person is closer to others who he helps and shares with, and is, therefore, more connected to the divine force which is the essence of self-giving, Jesus Christ.
So sins are not something we should use to beat up on each other. The seven sins are not seven ways to judge the obnoxious people around you. Used and studied appropriately, the seven sins are a way to look at ourselves, and our own relationships, with the other people in our lives and most of all with God. And if by thinking about these seven sins, we realize that we are guilty of one or two, remember that the most important message of Jesus was the forgiveness of sins is always available to us no matter what. God is merciful and wants us to do well. So when we don’t, we have this opportunity to check ourselves to be truly sorry, to be forgiven and to have new life. Until we do one of those seven again.
The list came about as something to think about as we live. To catch ourselves and say, “Oops, was I just guilty of that?” Then to remember that the church, the real-life human, the community of the church, has always been a school for sinners and not a club of saints. Because, reading this list of seven, we can all find ourselves there somewhere; but the good news of Christ is that we don’t have to stay there.
Take Envy for example. I’m not going to get to preach on envy, Seth got that one, but envy to me is one of most interesting sins. You see, envy is the one sin out of all seven that is actually not a bit of fun. Think about the whole list, and you don’t have to confess anything here other than to yourself, but there are elements of fun that can be a part of each of these sins. Take greed. It’s fun to acquire a bunch of stuff and neat gadgets and possessions. Take anger. Some people think it’s fun to fight. Take sloth. Sometimes it’s fun to relax and blow off all your work. Take gluttony, which is eating more than you need. It’s fun to eat too much ice cream. Take lust. Well, maybe given that it’s a family Sunday, I will leave what is fun about that one up to your imaginations.
But envy is just a rotten way to feel. And by the way, envy is not the same jealousy. And one way to make that distinction is this. A jealous person wants something that another person has. We all feel that way sometimes. So a jealous person will say, “He has the most beautiful wife. I wish she were mine.” Or a jealous person would say, “He has the best milk-producing cow in the county. I want that cow.” What an envious person says is “He has the best milk-producing cow in the county. I want that cow… dead.” See the distinction?
Do you notice how you almost can’t talk about one sin without invoking another? We thought we were talking about envy just then, but it takes lust to want someone else’s wife, it takes anger to kill a cow, it takes greed to want it, it takes sloth to want the results of someone else’s work and gluttony to drink all that milk. And if you don’t think you’re guilty of any of those ever, you now get labeled with sin number seven, the sin of pride. They all just kind of spill into each other, don’t they?
Speaking of pride, that’s the one we are going to lead off with next week, for some people believe that pride is the most complex, the worst sin of the bunch. Because pride cooperates with all the others by making us think we are better than we are, and prevents us from then trying to really do better.
Additionally, our reality supports pride. Be proud of yourself, have good self esteem, be proud to be an American, have gay pride. Pride isn’t even considered a bad word any more in our culture. But religion warns against pride, and really takes it on. In fact, it’s one thing that all the world religions agree on – that pride is dangerous and something to be avoided, and that being close to God means shedding such pride. So one of the great ironies is that sometimes it is religious people who are the most guilty of the sin of pride.
Take for example the bizarre case of the pastor from the Dove World Outreach Center, a previously obscure little congregation in Gainesville, Florida, that found its fifteen minutes of fame when its pastor began urging Christians to “celebrate” the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11 by burning copies of the Koran, which is, of course, sacred text of the Muslim faith. The pistol-packing pastor, whose own church is tiny, would not be so troubling were it not for the huge response he got from Facebook© friends around the country who agreed with him, and supported his incendiary International Burn the Koran Day.
There is so much wrong with this, from a Christian standpoint, I hardly know where to begin but let’s hit it from one of the seven, the sin of pride. When questioned by the New York Times about his knowledge of the Koran, Mr. Jones said, “I have no experience with it whatsoever. I only know what the Bible says.” That is a grossly prideful statement right there. In today’s world, people of faith have no business attacking other cultures we have not even attempted to understand – particularly Christian people of faith. Even when Jesus wanted to take someone on, and he often took people on, he met them in their own culture, and never from a position of superiority, but ultimately gave himself in total humility on the cross.
In his life, Jesus was never prideful, or superior to others who were different from him in any way. That was why Jesus kept getting criticized for eating with sinners. We don’t know that they were sinners, anymore than we all are, but they were the people other people thought were sinners. And it was the pride of the judgmental people that Jesus attacked. Religious extremism, that conviction that there is only one way, and you have it all to yourself, is a form of pride that is equally disgusting whether it comes from the mouth of a Muslim or a Christian.
Human beings were not given the gift of faith so that we could beat one another over the head with it. So perhaps pride itself, when it crosses religious boundaries, is yet another reminder that we are not so different after all. A poignant reminder on this painful anniversary, that virtue and sin are spread equally among us, whatever our path. And where Muslim extremism is prideful, it must be corrected, as surely as Christian extremism must be corrected. But here’s the beauty, the correction comes from within our faith itself, from the reminder – hey, pride is a sin, so don’t call that bad behavior religious in my name.
In the end, as people of faith, we have to keep working on ourselves, and never assume we have it all right. We need reminders that there are pitfalls of behavior, and things we really should try to avoid. So in the Christian tradition, we have the Seven Deadly Sins, and a storehouse of wisdom about how to work against their pull. Stay tuned for the next seven weeks.