*Page numbers and citations come from Sinning Like a Christian by William Willimon unless noted otherwise
Luke 18:9-14 9 Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: 10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
Philippians 2:5-8 5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: 6 Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7 But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
There is a popular movie that came out in 1995 called Seven, starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. The story is about a psychotic serial killer who roams the streets killing multiple victims in a series of gruesome murders. The detectives are trying to figure out the killer’s reasons and routine, when finally they realize that he is hunting down and killing his victims as some sort of sick punishment for their having committed one of the 7 deadly sins. I have not personally seen the movie, and it is definitely not on my watch list, but I do know that the film is very violent and dark. Luckily, the movie is just a movie, and we might consider ourselves lucky because if it were reality, we would all be in trouble. After all, the thing that makes the 7 deadly sins so interesting and intriguing to us is that they are so ordinary and unspectacular. They are very personal and individual, and at first glance, may seem small and trivial. And they are oh so human- the 7 are built into the very fiber of our being.
With the help of Bishop William Willimon and his book, Sinning Like a Christian, we will spend the next few weeks talking about the 7 deadly sins which are: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust. Now I know that for a lot of people, the last thing they want at church is to hear the pastor talk about sin, and usually I would agree with that! In fact, when young people are asked what one of the turn offs is about church, some say that we talk too much about sin. I see their point, but sometimes I would argue the opposite- that we don’t face reality and talk about it enough! One of my favorite authors, Rachel Held Evans, found herself recently in a radio interview where someone asked her why she is still a Christian. After giving a typical response about Jesus’ life, teachings, and resurrection, she said something that surprised herself. She said, “I’m a Christian because Christianity names and addresses sin. It acknowledges the reality that the evil we observe in the world is also present within ourselves. It tells the truth about the human condition- that we are not okay” (Searching for Sunday, 67).
Talking openly and honestly about sin is one of the things that make Christianity unique- that we are not and should not be afraid to name it for ourselves and confront it. And it is Jesus who shows us a window into the heart of God, but also holds a mirror to ourselves to show us the hard truth (xiii). And it is only through the cross do we see the depth and seriousness of our sin. Yet it is the resurrection that shows us the resourcefulness and love of a God who is determined to save sinners (Romans 3:21-25).
So we will venture to spend a few weeks talking about sin, knowing that we can honestly speak of sin only from the starting point of our redemption. We will do this with the knowledge that we believe in and worship a God who loves us even though we are sinners and works in our lives to transform and redeem us if we are ready and willing. We will spend this time talking about sin so that we can name it, claim it, and move on to more significant and well-lived lives. We confront it so that we can fulfill God’s promise: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord God, am holy” (18).
What do we mean when we talk about sin? For the purpose of the next few weeks, we will define sin as the problem we have between us and God, and the problem we have between ourselves as individuals and the other. If we are to take Jesus seriously, then sin is the offence and rebellion against our Creator. Sin erodes the soul and eats away at our very being that was created in the image of God. Sin comes from the human heart. It is the evil that is present within each of us to do what is wrong when we know what is right. It is the human inclination to feel above and beyond what God is calling us to do. Sin is when we listen only to ourselves and what we think is best, rather than seeking out what God would have us to do. Sin has many definitions and is broadly defined. Yet our more obscure Christian tradition has cornered these 7 particular sins and named them deadly. Why? And where did they come from?
The earliest formulation of the 7 came from the desert father Evagrius of Pontus, who was a follower of Origen. If you know your church history, you will remember that Origen was condemned at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 A.D. His follower, Evagrius went on to form a group of monks in the Egyptian desert. While living in community, even apart from the rest of the world, they discovered their own sin, and Evagrius came up with the 7. Bishop Willimon, upon reflecting on the 7 said that “the 7 are the only truthful account that I know of what ‘family values’ really look like” (4). When you live in community or family with other people long enough, these 7 are what surface because they are the root of what it means to be human.
Thomas Aquinas also wrote an extensive dissertation on the 7, which has contributed to further understanding in the Christian tradition. What’s interesting about them is that at first glance, the 7 don’t seem so deadly. It seems that sins such as political tyranny, ethnic hatred, religious persecution, racial violence should top the list. However, the 7 deadly sins are more accurately called the capital or cardinal sins, meaning that they are the source, the head, or the necessary first step to other sin. They seem so simple, yet they hold the capacity to do great damage.
The 7 deadly sins have been portrayed many different ways throughout the centuries through art or cultural references, particularly through people or colors. Here are some more modern betrayals… (interesting note: most of the images found were of women….)
The first of the 7 we will talk about is Pride, which for some, is seen as the root of the other 6. We live in a culture that thrives on pride as a sign of a healthy and strong personality, self-worth and self-belief. Society tells us that pride is what drives us through the world, what keeps us at our best, and for better or worse, determines what others think of us. As our words of reflection stated so truthfully, those who are uninformed or uninterested in the story of Jesus consider pride an essential characteristic of a well-functioning personality. But as Christians, we should be more suspicious because we would not know that pride is a sin if not for the example of Jesus’ life, teachings, and death on a cross. There is sometimes a blurred line between a healthy self-esteem and that of pride and arrogance. For us in today’s world, the real sin has become a low self-image. This has caused Jesus’ plea to “love thy neighbor” to be changed into “love thyself!” Self-respect is one thing. Self-infatuation is another (23).
If pride is the root of the 7 deadly sins, then arrogance and conceit are fathered by the sin of pride. It is the prime example of misdirected love- love that should be given only to God is given to the self as if it were God (29). In the biblical narrative, we see pride rear its ugly head over and over again, starting in the very beginning when the serpent appeals to Adam and Eve’s pride, saying that if they eat the fruit of the tree, they will be like God, knowing good from evil. It was the pride of Cain that drove him to kill Abel. Pride built the tower of Babel and separated God’s people (29). When Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert, Satan tries to elicit Jesus’ pride, saying that if he only worships him, then he will be given all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus stares pride in the face and turns it down. Jesus stares pride in the face once again as he hangs on the cross, humbling himself to the point of death.
There is a Jewish saying that states that Jews have 2 main beliefs: 1) There is a God. 2) You are not it (30). How much of the world’s problems could be solved or prevented if we would adhere to this advice? As I heard church and community leaders speak about the Apartheid in South Africa last year, this theme of pride kept coming up. Over and over again, we heard that the people in power with white skin firmly believed that they were somehow supposed to be gods over those with black skin. This entitled them to belittle, separate, and even inflict violence upon those that they deemed less of a person than they were.
As I walked through Auschwitz several years ago, it was clear to me that the pride of the Nazi party was the root of genocide and hatred- the belief that somehow they were entitled to kill of an entire group of humanity based on the belief that they were better- they were right and the Jews were wrong. At the root of all of these atrocities and many more we could name is the sin of pride to the extreme.
Pride even runs rampant in the church. Sometimes we look outside of this place and say to ourselves, “I’m thankful that I’m not like those sinners out there.” Or we even look within and say, “I may not be the best person here, but at least I’m better than those hypocritical Christians.” I see pride run rampant in the clergy world as well. We are afraid to name our brokenness and need for repentance of our pride and arrogance, and admit that we are not God and do not have it all together. I’ve attended so many conferences where we hear success stories about pastors or churches doing wonderful things- growth is happening by the hundreds, programs, ministries, and outreach are taking off, and if we are not doing the same thing and having the same success, then we must be doing something wrong. I’ll admit that I usually leave feeling deflated, defeated, and inadequate.
But apparently I am not the only one who feels this way, since there is now a legit gathering called the Epic Fail Pastor’s Conference- a safe place for clergy to talk about the process and inevitable reality of every pastor’s life- failure. Where it’s ok to admit our weaknesses and brokenness, and get a dose of humility so that God can really begin to use even us for God’s purposes. The first Epic Fail Pastor’s Conference had over 100 people from 17 states sign up. There were moments of laughter, tears, and prayers. One of the retired pastors felt like it was “a kiss from God on our bruises” (Searching for Sunday, 111).
Setting aside our pride and confessing our weakness and sin of pride is a part of living the Christian life and taking Jesus seriously. If we don’t, we risk lying about our real situation as those in need of a redeeming God. When Jesus tells the story about the two men in the temple, he drives home a harsh lesson about pride. The Pharisee, who is deemed holy and righteous by society, gloats about his successes, gives thanks that he is set apart from everyone else, and he does everything right by the book. Then there is the tax collector- a sinner by every definition, who simply asks God to show him mercy. Jesus explains that this tax collector went home as the more righteous person. In the end, he is the one who sets aside his pride and admits his need for God, and the need to work on himself.
Luckily for us, we are given the ultimate example in Jesus of setting aside our sin of pride. As Paul writes in Philippians:
(He) did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7 But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Jesus shows us God and tells us the truth about God, who is anything but full of pride. God, in the form of Jesus, comes to us as “the lowest and the least, the little one, the wretched, the one who hangs in agony on a cross, the one who stoops down and washes our feet, the one who emptied himself in order to get down on our level, the one who rose and thereby shall raise us up as well” (37).
In our most honest moments, we admit that we don’t like to stoop. We don’t want to be like children. We want to be in charge. We want to talk about our accomplishments and show the world that we are someone. Pride is unavoidable and inevitable. But we are shown a better way. We are shown the way of Jesus, who sets aside pride and in turn, gives us abundant life.
We have the opportunity this morning to begin to let go of our pride as we come forward and partake in the sacrament of Holy Communion. We come to the table with outstretched empty hands, as if we are little children in need. If you think about it, this gesture is one of the most countercultural things we do in Christian worship. Everywhere else in our lives, we use our hands to grab, to clinch our fists, to make and create, or even destroy. What this gesture of communion does is remind us that “from the world’s point of view, what’s strange is the open-handed, needy, empty request for grace” (36).
So I remind you that as you come forward to receive communion this morning, to come forward with an open and outstretched hand, ready to receive God’s grace- to be reminded that this is who we are, says Jesus: “not big, self-sufficient adults, but rather little children…needing a gracious God in the worst sort of way. The kingdom doesn’t belong to those who are grown up, big, and important,” (37) but to those who are small, struggling, ready to admit their faults, and confess the sin of pride and be willing to set it aside. Thankfully, we also come with joy at the good news that Jesus comes to seek out and save the lost, and even the pride-filled ungodly like us. Thanks be to God!