March 13, 2015
As we move into the Fourth Week of Lent, it might be a good time to use what is left of these forty days as an opportunity to look deeply into our lives, our behavior, and our attitudes for ways to repent and change. These three nights may provide something to think about and then some concrete ways to recognize sin in our lives and actually do something more about it than just feel guilty. The times in which we live, and the culture in which we find ourselves do not particularly welcome talk and thought about sin. Rather than admit to sin, most people simply think and say that they “have issues.” When you smile at that thought, you know that we are in the midst of a moral crises. The economy and security issues that confront our culture and way of life are the result of a moral crises. The wreckage of our economy and the longest war ever waged in history right now are the result of a moral crises. It starts simply and it starts in every one of us. Cheating and lying are a way of life that we have begun to shrug off and ignore. When someone gets caught cheating these days, what makes them feel badly is that they got caught, not that they did wrong. We lie all the time, we disguise the truth and we dull the glory of human life and human greatness. We exaggerate to look good, and we lie to cover up the truth. Cheating on tests, on our income taxes, stealing, shoplifting, use of drugs, steroids for athletes has simply become something we expect and revelations of the truth no longer shock or disappoint us. The times and culture in which we live laugh at guilt, and we are made to feel silly when guilt feelings disturb us. Guilt is God talking! Guilt is a message: something is wrong. When guilt goes unaddressed, conscience dies. When there is no conscience, there is a moral catastrophe in the making. We have it. This is all about denial, avoiding responsibility, and passing up first the chance to change, and then the joy of knowing and experiencing forgiveness which too many Catholics miss by failing to accept and celebrate the treasure we have in the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Confession.
You know, the word “confession” really means giving testimony or bearing witness. It is not really about some guilt ridden exercise of self-punishment. To “confess” simply means to acknowledge and profess the truth. In this case, the truth is, we are all sinners. Everybody says: “I Confess”….. Everyone who has said that, stand up. Look! There’s the evidence, there is the testimony that we sin. That’s not hard because we’re all standing.
The next step is to name the sin which is not much harder than naming what you had for breakfast or lunch today unless you’ve got amnesia. When it comes to sin, there are really only seven of them. The catch in this thinking is that sin is not always what we do. It is more often what we fail to do. Acknowledging that takes a little more and little deeper thought, study, prayer, and reflection. The reality of life for most of us is that we are so mediocre and so completely without great passion that we don’t do anything really great or really bad. Our lives are so dulled down, so puny, so bland that we can hardly be accused of anything serious. We are so trapped in the humdrum routine of our lives that there isn’t time nor energy to do anything really bad. However, I want to suggest to you that if you are nodding your head with me, you are in trouble. The greatest saints have been the greatest sinners. What’s great about us? Not much ought to be our answer in truth. So we have a long way to go. I am not suggesting that we all need to get out of here and commit some big sin before we go to bed, but I am suggesting that we begin to wonder what it is that will make us great and make us saints.
Listen to this reading from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes also called Sirach.
The first stage of pride is to desert the Lord and to turn one’s heart away from one’s Maker. Since the first stage of pride is sin, whoever clings to it will pour forth filth. This is why the Lord inflicts unexpected punishments on such people, utterly destroying them. The Lord has turned mighty princes off their thrones and seated the humble there instead. The Lord has plucked up the proud by the roots, and planted the lowly in their place. The Lord has overthrown the lands of the nations and destroyed them to the very foundations of the earth. Sometimes he has taken them away and destroyed them and blotted out their memory from the earth. Pride was not created for human being. The rich, the noble, the poor, let them pride themselves on fearing the Lord. Do not try to be smart when you do your work, do not put on airs when you are in difficulties. Better the hardworking who has plenty of everything, than the pretentious at a loss for a meal. My child, be modest in your self-esteem, and value yourself at your proper worth. The Word of the Lord. Sirach 10 12-18, 22, 26
When our church fathers made their list of sins, pride was always at the top of the list because it was idolatry. Remember that first commandment? This is the beginning of all sin. There are all kinds of ways to describe the behavior that manifests pride. The proud are arrogant, haughty, conceited, egocentric, narcissistic, insolent, presumptuous and vain, and way more besides! We know when we are angry or greedy, but pride is more clever and subtle. We are often unaware of pride. It shows itself in secret: in secret contempt and self-righteous judgment; in secret illegal and unethical behavior; in the smug attitude we have toward the weakness and failure of others as well as in a sense of privilege which marks our age so severely. The proud think they earn things which they then possess because of something they have done. You see, it’s all about them. Idolatry.
Perhaps the real truth is that the excessively proud person is really not in love with themselves at all, at least not in a healthy way, but actually suffers from the opposite malady. My experience with the puffed up people is that they are in fact excessively insecure. They are self-obsessed because they are always trying to prove something. They look down on others because they never look up to themselves.
Years ago, I went to summer school in New Orleans at Loyola. The first morning in the dining room at the dorm my order came out with this small, milky-colored, grainy-looking pile of mush on one side of the eggs. “What’s that?” I asked the waitress. “Them’s grits,” she said. “But I didn’t order grits,” I said. “You don’t have to,” she replied. “They just comes.” Now, that’s the way it is with Worthiness. You don’t have to order it, and you can’t do anything to earn it. It just comes. Another word for this is “grace.” I like to call it “worthiness” to get you thinking differently. The Protestant work ethic that has so shaped this nation demands that we earn everything, and that’s a set up for pride. There is no room for grace and the gift of something we did not earn.
Worthiness then is grace. Like true beauty, which is best described as the “effortless manifestation of inner peace,” true worthiness is the effortless manifestation of inner gratitude. We have forgotten that we are born good – at least I think that’s what we heard God say when he looked at all of this! We may make mistakes, but we are not a mistake. Imagine what this world would be like if more people felt not just good about themselves, but worthy.
So, this “worthiness” I’m proposing is really just a new version of an old a trusted virtue: humility. The trouble is, “humility” too has gotten a bad language twist, and too often we think it has something to do with being soft and self-depreciating. That is ridiculous. To be humble is not to put oneself down. In fact thinking too little of oneself is also a manifestation of pride. The foundation of humility is truth. The sadness here is that we fail to take truth seriously: the truth about our worthiness, our goodness, and our inherent value and dignity. The truth is that God loves us always and everywhere. That is grace unearned, undeserved, and the only response is gratitude.
So, you can recognize a virtuous person because they know that the real root of the deadly sin of Prideis insecurity. Proud and Arrogant behavior compensates for deep misgivings about one’s true value. When we believe that we are worthy, that all human life is worthy, there is a deep reservoir of living water on which to draw. There is no need to be the center of attention, because we have been attentive to our own center. No need to be impatient with others because we know we share the same short comings. These people are recognized because they are not out to be recognized. They listen to others because they respect the worthiness of others. They grow old gracefully because looking young is not what makes you feel worthy. This person wakes up every morning knowing exactly what they are: a child of God. This Lent, we must become that person, worthy and full of grace.
Listen to these verses from the Epistle of James.
Anyone who is wise or understanding among you should from a good life give evidence of deeds done in the gentleness of wisdom. But if at heart you have the bitterness of jealousy, or selfish ambition, do not be boastful or hide the truth with lies; this is not the wisdom that comes from above, but earthly, human and devilish. Wherever there are jealousy and ambition, there are also disharmony and wickedness of every kind; whereas the wisdom that comes down from above is essentially something pure; it is also peaceable kindly and considerate; it is full of mercy and shows itself by doing good; nor is there an y trace of partiality or hypocrisy in it. The peace sown by peacemakers brings a harvest of justice. The Word of the Lord.3:14-18
The roots of Envy begin early in life. From childhood we are compared to others. Our value as individuals is measured by how much dumber or smarter, uglier or more beautiful, weaker or stronger, poorer or richer we are than our peers. Competition is killing us. These are deadly sins. We begin to interpret our lack of what another person possess as somehow indicative of our lesser worth in general. One of the destructive forms that Envy takes today is the widespread assumption that everyone should be able to do and experience and enjoy everything that everyone else can do and experience and enjoy. That thinking is the beginning of Envy. The idea that we are all equal has been perverted into the idea that we are identical; and when we discover that we cannot all do and experience and enjoy the things that others do and experience and enjoy, we take our revenge and deny that they were worth doing and experiencing and enjoying in the first place. The result is that we make no place for the unique for what is rare and cannot be imitated since we would then not be able to achieve it. We end up unable to admire, respect, or be grateful for what is more noble, more lovely, or greater than ourselves. We must pull down or put down what is exceptional. So, envy is not just grieving because of another’s good which is an element of pride; but envy grieves because the good in another diminishes one’s own self. It’s no sin to recognize or even feel badly that you lack something someone else has. It is a sin when envy makes us wish the other did not have it at all.
Dejection is a striking symptom of envy. Bitter regret over what we cannot have is envy. That bitterness leads to chipping away at the reputation of another. Pointing out their faults becomes an escape from the dejection. It is a spiteful malignancy. The envious are completely without gratitude. The envious see themselves as “losers.” Again, competition makes winners and losers. There is something about competition that dooms those to failure who judge themselves by looking at others. There are two assumptions: that everyone begins with an equal chance from the starting line, and that the rules of the competition are fair at every stage. These conditions are unrealizable which is the flaw in the idea that there is equality of opportunity.
Someone once said: “Imitation is the best form of flattery.” I think that idea leads to phony and empty pretense. Admiration or Emulation is what is called for, and it is the surest antidote to envy. The attitude: “If I can’t have it, I don’t want anyone else to have it” is the heart of darkness. It is the loser’s emotion. It is an irrational quality when there is a better way, a lively virtue, a more noble human response: Emulation. To be in the presence of excellence, virtue, bravery or enlightenment does not always produce feelings of sinful envy, or even disappointment that we failed to reach such a high mark. Sometimes we just wonder how that excellence was acquired, what part of it might be available to us or how we might be more like the one we admire!
Imitation is a counterfeit form of emulation. Imitators do not take the time and energy required to learn what constitutes the soul of those they admire. They merely rifle through their bag of tricks, confusing technique with essence. Dressing like your hero, even talking like your hero, does not make you heroic.
There is a wonderful parable about folks hired at different times of the day and then all paid the same. It is the perfect example of envy at work. The parable speaks of our inability to calculate the mercies of God. Human nature leads us to think that other people are always getting more than they deserve, while we assume that our rewards are just compensation.
What would happen if, instead of sinful envy, the workers actually sought to emulate the owner? That is, you know what Jesus was always doing. He never told people what to believe. He simply showed people what to do, and then asked them to go and do likewise. So, the eleventh-hour workers could be grateful for their good fortune and model their behavior after that of the owners. Having received beyond merit, they could choose to be generous beyond deserving. At the very least, they would buy the first round of drinks.
Envy is always about power. Emulation is about goodness. In the end, the simple test of determining if the envy we feel toward another might be redeemed is to ask: “Would I like to be more like that person? Or do I wish that person would fall from grace? If envy drives us to hate someone or to wish someone harm, then it’s deadly indeed.
Envy is a secret thing that makes us bitter, lonely, mean and petty. It never allows us nor motivates us to do better nearly as much as it wishes others to do worse. This malice and evil-mindedness easily and quietly takes possession of us and hardens our hearts. Yet, gratitude and admiration, contentedness and joy at another’s goodness will set us free.
You can recognize a great, noble, and holy person because they know that the real root of the deadly sin of Envy is the failure to admire and emulate the beauty of everything and everyone else. There is no cheap imitation in their lives. They do not want anything except the very best for others. This virtuous person is always wide eyed in wonder and delight, never squint eyed in resentment. This Lent we could become that person.
St Francis and Ann Parish Mission Kolin, LA
March 14, 2015
Now listen to a Reading from the Epistle to the Ephesians (Ephesians 4:26-32)
“My brothers and sisters, never let the sun set on your anger or else you will give the devil a foothold. Anyone who was a thief must stop stealing; instead he should exert himself at some honest job with his own hands so that he may have something to share with those in need. No foul word should ever cross your lips; let your words be for the improvement of others, as occasion offers, and do good to your listeners; do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God who has marked you with his seal, ready for the day when we shall be set free. Any bitterness or bad temper or anger, or shouting or abuse must be far removed from you – as must every kind of malice. Be generous to one another, sympathetic, forgiving each other as readily as God forgave you in Christ.”
Remember the old saying: “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can never hurt us”? That old saying deserves to be deleted from our memory. As a child I never believed it, and as an adult, I have come to wonder what kind of person could have ever thought such a thing. What were they thinking? “Careless words can do untold damage; one word may destroy even a sublime love.” This sin, called Anger is not about sudden flashes at things gone wrong – those outbursts here one minute and gone the next make the best of us giggle at how silly we reacted over something of little consequence. This sin is about a disorder, an outburst of emotion connected with a desire for revenge. This is an emotion that becomes an obsession. Perhaps it is better called: “Wrath.” It is a fixation and we live in an age of wrath.
This is an angry age. Our world is crowded with angry people. Sometimes we are the angry ones. I am coming to realize that much of this anger is fueled by a serious confusion over rights and wants. We have come to a time in human history when any need any desire any longing for anything that one lacks but someone else has, is today conceived to be my right. Whatever is demanded must be provided without challenge. If it is not at once supplied the one making the demand as entitled to be angry. In that kind of climate, you can hardly blame the one making the demand for taking advantage of this foolishness since they are justified in advance on four grounds:
- what they want, it is their right to have;
- when it is asked, it should be granted;
- if it is not granted, it is understandable that they are angry;
- since they are angry, it is clear that their demand in the first place was justified.
I don’t think any civilization in human history has ever gotten itself in this mess before. It is a vicious circle: any and every felt want is translated into a “right” which incites the citizens to Anger then to destructiveness.
The best example in front of us day in and day out is the matter of a woman’s “right” to control her body: “Abortion.” The bottom line here is that there are no boundaries that can logically be set to the concept of individual and human rights. We are so individualized in this culture that every individual need, want, or desire has become a “right.” But any high school student who studies biology knows that we don’t have control over our bodies. They are subject to infection, disease, decay, and death. The truth is, one cannot claim as a right what cannot be guaranteed, and there is no way of guaranteeing to any of us, male or female, the right to have “control over our own bodies.” To present as rights what cannot in the end be secured as rights, as we all too often do today, is a sure prescription for Wrath.
Wrath is inevitably directed, even if not intentionally, at an innocent object. In this case, it is the conceived child. The mother may want to abort, but it isn’t a right. To translate a wish into a right is an example of the absurdly distorted concept of individual and human rights by which our society is now confused. It sets us against each other in an endless combat for the rights we claim. Anger is the consequence. If anyone can claim that any felt want or need or longing is a right, there are clearly no such things as rights left at all, since everyone’s supposed rights are pitted legitimately against everyone else’s supposed rights, and we no longer have any way of deciding what is a right and what is not.
The desire for revenge is both an outcome of Wrath and a cause. “Getting even”, Getting back” – it’s all the same. Road rage is an epidemic in our time, and so is gratuitous violence. Both are directly related to a culture of hyper-individualism which has placed a giant chip on everyone’s precious shoulder. “How dare the world slow me down? How dare we be inconvenienced by a traffic jam, by someone in the grocery store line ahead of us who chats kindly for just moment with a tired checker? How dare that old person slow down in front of me before turning right?”
We are living through the angriest time in the history of our nation. The horrible events of September 11, 2001 created more anger in this country than anyone has seen since Pearl Harbor. The anger raged into wrath and the need to retaliate against the real perpetrators. When dealing with September 11, the distinction between real and perceived injury becomes more than academic. Most Americans defended the war to drive the Taliban from power in Afghanistan and shut down the terrorist training camps.
We were right to be angry about September 11, but by focusing on our own desire for revenge we allowed ourselves to be dragged or manipulated in a war that has dragged on for a decade. We were hurt, and so we lashed out. But the convenient target isn’t necessarily the right target. You know what the difference between a reaction and a response is? It’s a pause. I remember my mom standing still with lips tight counting to ten. She taught me to do that. It makes the difference between an angry reaction (knee jerk) and a reasonable response (wisdom).
Mahatma Gandhi warned us that “an eye for an eye just leaves the whole world blind.”
So what about a virtue to use against this sin? There is a theory about “good anger and bad anger.” Let’s call it Indignation. “Indignation” has to do with dignity, and what I want to suggest is that a little indignation – that is to say, a little good anger about the right things might help us refocus and surface a little good old passion for justice, not revenge. It might be a good idea sometime to get angry because we care, not just because our feelings have been hurt. Lots of people are mad these days, but not about anything that matters.
This matter of anger is really about passion directed in the right way. It is about action, doing something, not just thinking something. The reality of Jesus is that he got angry, but not over some injustice done to him. Rather he was boiling over with indignation over the corruption of religion in his time. I think he is still indignant. The scandal of our church today is not about sex abuse nor that people do not believe the right things as some on the far right would like to suggest. It is that people hardly ever do the right things.
Anger is self-serving passion. When we stir our passions for the sake of others, stop worrying about our rights and act more out of justice, it won’t be so dangerous on our streets. Indignation on the other hand moves deliberately but patiently works for justice, not revenge. The love of justice perverted into the desire for revenge and the injury of someone else will end our civilization. Whenever love is translated into hatred, we know that sin has entered and wrecked its havoc.
Listen now to this reading from the Gospel of Mark (Mark 4:26-29)
“A man scatters seed on the land. Night and day, while he sleeps, when he is awake, the seed is sprouting and growing; how, de does not know. Of its own accord the land produces first the shoots then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the crop is ready, at once he starts to reap because the harvest has come.”
There’s another old saying like the one I just mentioned: “Sticks and Stones”. It’s a simple one; four words that were drilled into me as child: “Mind Your Own Business.” As an adult and priest, I have begun to question that wisdom. I have begun to suspect that it is at the root of a seriously sinful life style. “Live and Let Live.” is part of that false wisdom. “Don’t’ get involved.” my father once said to me. Bad advice.
“Sloth”. I like the old English word because it is so curious. It sounds like being lazy, like laying too long in the bathwater or sleeping through breakfast. It never sounds deadly, but it is. It is way more than an energy deficiency. It is not about deciding one morning that you’ll roll over and go back to sleep, or taking a nap in the afternoon when you should be doing laundry. It IS about a fundamental loss of faith in one’s ability to do anything about anything. It is about a feeling expressed this way: “So what? I couldn’t care less.”
The first symptom of sloth is Complacency. Individualism breeds it. It is the complacency of the comfortable. As this hyper-individualism continues to grow in our culture, one begins to hear the denials that we are our brothers’ keeper. That’s Sloth in your face. Looking out for Number One has been given even more enforcement by the self-indulgent idea that says: “I’ll leave you alone, and you leave me alone, and if we do that, everything will be fine!” No it won’t!
Sloth grows quietly and steadily in an environment of gratification. If it doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t get done. If the good feeling is delayed, other things will come first. The individualism that is on the rise in our culture shows its self in this question: “What’s in it for me?” with immediate gratification of one’s need coming before all other loyalties. The individualism of our age is an ideology that encourages people to maximize personal advantage while consideration of the common good is increasingly irrelevant. It’s SLOTH.
I find it fascinating to discover that in collectivist societies which are often religious (Islam being a perfect example) a person’s loyalty to his family or group takes precedence over his personal goals. Such societies have among the lowest rates of crime, dysfunctional families, and alcoholism. We don’t care enough. We are too complacent. We don’t care about the right things and are too easily satisfied with puny pleasures that never last. Meanwhile, in the real world, millions of people are moving through life like zombies, staying outwardly busy but not finding anything much worth living for.
“I’m so busy! I hardly know what to do.” Business! It is deadly. I’ve given up on a couple of relationships I had hoped would foster lasting companionship because the other one was just too busy all the time. All they could ever talk about was how busy they were. I began to feel like an interruption, an intruder. Personally I hate it when people walk up to me or call me on the phone and start by saying: Father, I know you’re busy, and I’m sorry to bother you!” WHAT? My life is not about meetings and reports which fill in the gaps yet anyone else can do. So when I hear that, rather than be insulted, I simply quietly realize I am being corrected. I can’t count the marriages I’ve seen blow up because people are so busy or the number of families that fall apart because of busy parents and equally busy children who run from soccer to Tee ball, to ballet or swimming lessons. Their refrigerator doors are covered with schedules and lists, and inside there is nothing to eat because they don’t have time to sit down and look at one another, so they eat on the way to or from some game or some practice or some meeting. This is deadly. It is sloth.
Herein lies the paradox of sloth: its ability to disguise itself in misdirected activity. The consequence is neglect, neglect of higher things, greater things, spiritual things, in the end, neglect of self. This is life in a vacuum. This is an anxious age. Anxiety is essentially a dread of nothing. What to do about it? I would suggest some balance in life that the little story from the Gospel suggests. Sow the seed, and wait. It is the ancient dilemma of when to do and when to wait. The parable defines something called contentedness in terms of the proper order of things: first you do, then you wait. After you have done what only you can do (plant the seed), you wait while the seed does what only it can do. When the time for harvest has come, you gather in the crop that grew itself, but which cannot harvest itself. This is divine wisdom – a revelation! “The order here is very important. First the seed is sown, and then sower knows that he can do nothing more so he waits. Nobody stands over a seed and screams, “Come on now, grow!” A seed carries its own future in its bosom. The sower has done all he can do. Now he waits patiently for God to do what only God can do.
“No one would think to call his waiting slothful. It is wise. He turns his mind to other things. He hopes for rain. He mends fences. He watches and waits because he is not the master of the harvest; he is the steward of the mystery. When that mystery is fully present, his waiting is over, and he puts the sickle to the stalk.
“Mark preserved this parable for an anxious church, one that waited for the return of Christ and wondered why it hadn’t happened. The answer is that we cannot know, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can and then be content. We plant the seed of the word, and then we wait for the mysterious way in which God brings it to fullness.
This kind of contentment means that we know there are limits to what we can do, but these do not produce feelings of failure. Failure comes from doing nothing. This kind of contentment makes us more attentive to those moments when we can do something and more patient when we know it is time to wait. Being busy does not make us happy. “Idol hands are the devil’s workshop.” is a lie. More than anything, Sloth is a sin of omission, a sin of neglect. Technology and gadgets have freed us from drudgery leaving us the challenge of what to do with the time now available. Minding our own business, not getting involved means we will not hurt nor get hurt. But of course, the hurt is deep both ways because it leaves us separated from humanity and that’s a deep inner tear that ultimately separates us from God, which by ancient definition is sin.
St Francis and Ann Parish Mission Kolin, LA
March 15, 2015
Just down the street from the last parish I served, a large construction site is very busy these days. It will be the largest climate controlled storage unit facility in the country. Avarice! I am not here talking about theories this weekend. I am talking about evidence that we are in the grip of sin. These are not “issues”. This is not an idea, it is actual behavior. Evidence of these deadly sins is everywhere you care to look, not in others but within us all. This Avarice is not an old fashioned sin even though it is an old fashioned word. It is alive and well. The evidence is crowding the cars out of our garages and sagging our ceilings. We set our security systems when we are away, rarely when we are inside because they are not there to protect human life from danger, but to get a lower rate on our home owners or apartment renters insurance premium.
Our language betrays our sin. We say and we hear others say; “I must have that.” Of course, it’s about having it, hardly ever about needing it. We have more clothes than we need and way more accessories. The very word “accessory” tells you what it’s all about. “For the man who has everything…” the saying goes! Then why give him more? Avarice! It might all seem trivial and harmless until we begin to measure what it is doing to us.
A wise Greek writer reminds us that wealth consists not in having great possessions but in having few wants.
We live in a culture where Greed is not just considered good. It is considered Gospel. It is the way to do thing, the way to get ahead, the way to achieve success. If you’re homeless and rob a 7-11 you’ll get ten years to life in jail. But in corporate America, you can steal all you want and fly away untouched in a first-class cabin seat. The very fact that I can say that, that you know it’s true, and that we all just sit here confirms the problem: we have given the “OK” to greed.
It’s not as though there is anything wrong with desire. Desire is a form of energy. It motivates us about many good things, the desire for peace, the desire for love, the desire for justice; but the sad truth is that we are taught to want without limit. Enough is never enough. If you thought you were going to get out of here without another bumper sticker, you’re wrong. “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.”
Chesterton said that morality like art consists of drawing a line. No one is drawing any lines. There is no longer a line that says and means, “That’s enough.”
What virtue we need then is a clear understanding of when desire is good, elevating life or when it is bad and an obsessive vice. Wanting Wisely is the virtue. Some things are valued because they are instruments for getting more, and other things are valued in and of themselves. We have to know the difference, because if we don’t the confusion transfers to people. Friends ought to have value in and of themselves not because they help us get something. We have all been used by someone, used by other people, and we know how it feels. Greed brings us to sacrifice what’s really important for the sake of what is not.
To want something wisely is to want it for reasons other than status. The desire parents have to give their children the best possible education and make sacrifice for it is wanting something wisely. On the other hand, enrolling a child in the most elite and expensive private school to put them on the fast track to fame and fortune is Avarice.
Those who succeed in this world and become wealthy are not all immoral, but they all have a moral responsibility to give something back to a world from which their riches came. The rich are always the most indignant about paying taxes yet the civilization created by those taxes is what made the rich in the first place. So now that they have it made, they want to shut off the system that gave them opportunities. Avarice. No redistribution of wealth is a world without roads, school, and hospitals. There is a sign here in Oklahoma demanding that we pay no taxes. It is placed for maximum effect along a federally funded interstate highway.
For Christians, the answer to this matter is simple. It is Stewardship: a way of life, a witness to faith, the response of a grateful heart. The embrace of that life style will be the end of Greed.
The sixth of the deadly sins is called lust, and it is always connected to Greed. Lust is not a sin of the flesh. It is a sin against it. It is in our flesh that we are present to the rest of creation, and particularly present to each other, revealing, and exposing, sensitive to others and even vulnerable to them, open to hurt. This then is the problem, the paradox of lust, because Lust is not interested in partners, but only in one’s solitary pleasure. If there is a hint of concern for the other, it is simply an ego concern that one did well, performed well, and of course is then adequate and desirable. Lust then accepts any partner for a moment, and then they’re gone.
To begin with, we ought to be honest. Sex is the most powerful human hunger next to survival itself, yet it has now moved largely out of the realm of sacred mystery and into the realm of commerce. It sells everything, and like greed, there is never enough. Oddly enough, the message of most modern advertising is that sex appeal builds self-esteem, but in our society the opposite may be true. Our children are the most vulnerable to this image building/image destroying consumer abusing stuff. It may sell a pair of jeans, but the innocent who buy those jeans will never look like the model in the add, and it only eats away at their developing and fragile self-respect and self-image all the more. We hunt flesh, but what we really crave is intimacy. Our culture’s addiction to sex is like our addiction to fast food: more of it never really satisfies, and it can be more than just unhealthy. The truth is, our sexual addictions are more rooted in ego than in physical desire. Our insecure, self – absorbed culture has begun to using sex to satisfy emptiness, insecurity, loneliness and self-doubt. The pandemic of internet sex is at the heart of this. Why live in the real world? Escape into fantasy! That body on the screen will never reject us. There is a huge issue of ego in this behavior. Self-absorbed and insecure, people sit wide-eyes in front of a computer screen pretending: pretending because the truth and reality are too hard. All the while, minutes and hours of one’s life are gone forever. Intimacy is what we crave, and it has never been found in a chat room or in pornography. It’s all anonymous – empty, and it leaves the victim even more empty and alone. The only thing that responds to our longing and need for intimacy is love; and it doesn’t take long to figure out that love is not something you “make.” It is something you are. Like all the sins, lust makes us solitary. It is lonely, empty, and fleeting. One of the surest signs of its presence in our midst is pornography. It’s big business. There is money in loneliness, and the clever have discovered it.
Pornography is always something used in secret, alone. A private matter indulged in at late hours by lonely people. Pornography is a substitute for involvement with another person. It is another way of condemning ourselves to solitariness.
There is a deep and widening sadness hanging over contemporary culture that is made all the more unbearable by casual sex. There is the illusion that one can be physically intimate without being emotionally responsible. In the vernacular, we call that being used. Lust will not get involved, and so it is absolutely contrary to love.
Ultimately it is about desire which is not at all evil unless it is selfish. The desire that sets it all in motion is the desire for intimacy, and this is what I propose as the virtue or the antidote to lust. “Holy Intimacy”. It is something that rests on trust which makes possible a kind of holy vulnerability. Yet the widespread disinclination to become involved, the great fear of commitment I spoke of last night lays the trap for Lust. In no other sin does one feel so much of a void, and this void is not only inside, it is also outside in our society. There is a profound failure of our society to make continuing individual relationship seem part of the much wider social bonds that tie us to them.
There was a wonderful old couple in the last parish I served who had been married for more than 70 years. They lived with one of their children, and I was often a guest in that home. I often wondered how they did it; how did they make a marriage last more than 70 years. After a while I figured it out. They never talked! I have known them for years, and I never remember them saying a word to each other; but they sure did know how to look into each other’s eyes. By the time I got to know them, they had probably said all there was to say, but many times I would glance at them and see them gazing at each other. Gazing, not staring. They look at one another and nothing is said. It is a matter of attention. We know it from music, from art, or even a poem. We have to concentrate and give it full attention. So, there they are, gazing. We need to “gaze” not peer or stare, but simply to gaze and let the eyes bring in the other, and let the other eyes draw us out and into a presence that is peaceful, loving, and totally our own. We do that in here before the Blessed Sacrament. It is the gaze of love, the gaze of affection, the gaze of trust, the gaze of faith, and most of all the gaze of holy intimacy.
Love at its best is here before us. Love in the flesh is the gift of marriage. But the adventure of marriage is learning to love the person to whom you re married….love does not create a marriage; marriage teaches us what a costly adventure love truly is. This holy intimacy is for a lifetime. It knows that age can add more in tenderness than it takes away in virility. Sex when we’re young is all about the body, hormones and pleasure. Then suddenly you’re not young anymore, and sex becomes a feast of reciprocity and intimate tenderness because the solitary emptiness is filled with a spiritual presence which is the gift of fidelity and a promise fulfilled.
Finally, the last of the seven deadly sins brings us to the table, this table. When the early church Fathers made the list of sins I spoke of since Friday “Gluttony” is always placed next to “Lust”. They are connected. Too much of a good thing is never a good thing. Eating is a “zero-sum game.” The food supply at any one moment is finite. The more you eat, the less food is available to some else. What that really means is that our tendency to waste food, quite literally steals bread from the poor. Gluttony is not just irrational. It is immoral. And it is pointless.
It may not be politically correct to say it, but while much of the world is starving, Americans are busy eating themselves to death. At last count, 60% of us are overweight, and the numbers just keep rising. Chronic obesity in children is an alarming public health issue. Meanwhile, there is a multibillion-dollar diet industry in place. Yet despite endless new diet schemes, and any conceivable piece of exercise equipment available for three easy payments, we keep getting fatter. But never fear, there will soon be a pill to fix it all.
To call this a sin would be to imply that someone is responsible, but in a culture of blamelessness we have decided that it’s a matter of genes or slow metabolism or a sweet tooth that runs in the family. That all sounds better than the truth which is that most of us eat too much and do too little by way of exercise. What makes matters worse is that chronic obesity may be more psychological and spiritual than physiological, especially in a culture that idolizes food. Other than the Bible, the only other kind of publication that is growing beyond leaps and bounds is cook books. In book stores, it’s a bigger section of the store than history. I travel all over the country, and I can’t count the number of parishes that have tried to raise money by publishing cook books. The trading of recipes is a tradition. No one ever trades exercise routines!
The super market is the temple of excess with music, lighting and an ingenious array of visual seductions all designed to prompt us to buy more than we need, especially things we shouldn’t eat. How many of us go into the super market with a list and come out with just exactly those things and nothing more? Last night I spent $38.40 for a quart of milk! Two bags! Yet we live in a time when pleasures are regarded as an entitlement, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a prude or a closet hedonist. The whole idea of choosing to live a measured life where less is more and austerity is a virtue sounds almost subversive in our consumer culture.
Gluttony strikes us as sad rather than deadly. What’s a little overeating, after all, when compared to lust?
Yet, here’s the paradox. The most constant and frequently used metaphor for the kingdom of God is a banquet, and Jesus was turning water into wine so that there would be more than plenty. He is criticized for eating and drinking and “reclining” at table as he eats which signals more than an ordinary meal. It was a sumptuous and drawn out affair. So here comes the virtue I propose for us to use in the face of Gluttony: COMMUNION.
In a world that continues to hammer away at us to take more and more, this gift from God teaches a different lesson: Less is more. Anyone who looks at the banquet on this altar would have reason to think: “There is not enough.” But there always is. Here the issue the glutton cannot ever address between quality and quantity is finally settled. Eating here is more than a refueling operation. Here, we eat to live, not live to eat. So the opposite of a glutton is not someone on a diet who counts out calories and carbohydrates, nor is it someone who fasts. The opposite of a glutton is someone for whom food is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It is a person who uses food and loves people, instead of loving food and using people.
We live in a fast food world, eating on the run or eating alone with the microwave beeping. Sacramental living requires something else. It requires a table at the center of the family life. TV tables and card tables will not do. Nobody eats in hurry, and no one eats and runs. You don’t go to someone’s home for dinner and then get up and leave before desert. Sometimes when invited to someone’s home, at least for the first time, it is polite to bring a gift. Is there some reason why we cannot connect that polite behavior to this place? There is no running from communion for believers, and there should be no running after communion either. There is too little of it anyway. When it comes to food, too much of a good thing is exactly that, and it brings no health and no life. I often remember that one of the temptations Jesus experienced in the desert concerned food and using food for power. We face that temptation all he time, and we’re not making a lot of progress. World hunger is not a political/economic issue to be resolved by diplomats. It is a moral issue.
The glutton usually eats alone and in silence. Sin always seems to isolate us. Those who share food in communion on the other hand pass what’s on the table before helping themselves. There is an unspoken rule that the portions must be adequate for the number of guests present, lest the food run out before all are served. Se we start with small portions and discuss leftovers later. Even the person who eats alone can be in a sacramental experience because they begin with a blessing and the spirit of God is the unnamed guest. A prayer before the meal even though unheard by others establishes the meaning of the food and the undeserved grace of having it available. Having all this food reminds us that we are among the privileged in the world. The most powerful antidotes to gluttony are community and gratitude. They turn eating into communion and every table into an altar. As a sin, gluttony makes us solitary. Communion brings us together. Gluttony teaches us to devour. Communion teaches us to savor.
A hangover is God talking. The message is simple: you are gulping when you should be sipping. Take, Eat. This is my body, broken for you. This is the bread of heaven; this is the cup of salvation. It isn’t much, but it’s more than enough.