Deadly Sins

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May 05, 2019

Third Sunday of Easter

When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go… Follow me.

So the jury is out… is your dean – whose love of good food is manifestly apparent to anyone who knows him – best known as a glutton? Or does his quite pronounced temper, which, again, those who are acquainted with him will know can be short and sharp, make him more a man of wrath and anger? Or does his translation from the Church of England to the Episcopal Church (in which salaries are notably higher), just indicate that he is manifestly greedy?

You may, if you like, ponder my shortcomings rather than pay attention to the rest of this sermon, and decide for yourselves which of the Seven Capital Vices, as I have now learned to call them, is the one which defines me most. Or – if you are feeling introspective rather than judgmental – feel free to work out your own relationship to that challenging septet of greed, wrath, lust, envy, gluttony, sloth and pride.

And lest you should be wondering what has caused me to undergo such a state of self-examination, let alone to do so in the rather public setting of this pulpit, I should explain that I have just returned from the annual gathering of North American Cathedral Deans, hosted this year by my opposite number in St Petersburg, Florida – and you can draw your own conclusions about the nature of this gathering of senior clergy, when I tell you that the Dean of St Petersburg invited his Canon Theologian (an eminent professor of medieval philosophy) to lecture us on the subject “The Theory and Practice of the Seven Deadly Sins: A Seriously Scholarly -- and Very Wicked -- Examination of a Subject on Which All of Us Are Experts.”

It was a fascinating, elegant, beautiful and profound talk, which combined the brilliance of an experienced and able professor whose communication skills made me wish I had been a student of his in my younger days, along with a grounded, holy, gentle but insightful priest, of a kind I encounter far too frequently. Were he based a little closer to Chicago than Florida, he is just the kind of person I would commend as a spiritual director without a moment’s hesitation. And in amongst some laughter and smiles, I and my fellow deans were reminded of the sinful vices which can run through our lives and dominate them, just as those circles run through the trunk of a tree. 

But if it sounds like we were made to contemplate bad news, we were also reminded of the ‘remedies’ for these sins, and the ways in which theologians over the centuries have helped people find a healthy focus and direction to overcome the instincts and desires which can otherwise manifest in sinful behavior. So, while we were challenged about the patterns of our behavior which steer us towards sin, we were, in effect, also reminded of the depth of God’s love and grace, and I am confident that I speak for every one of my colleague deans when I say that we finished Friday morning both humbled and uplifted. Which brings us, of course, to this morning, and the stories we have just heard of the two pillars of the church of God – Peter and Paul.

For the great thing about the lives of the saints is that they are a demonstration of how sinfulness can be and so very often is redeemed – provided, of course, that this is what we wish. And in the pages of the Bible, and even of the New Testament, we can find many examples of the Seven Deadly Sins and how they can be remedied.

Take the two great apostles that feature so prominently in today’s readings – Paul and Peter. Between them, they demonstrate a very good understanding of the deadly sins. Think of the time when, having seen Jesus walk on the water, Peter cries out from the boat, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water….” That’s a classic case of envy – wanting someone else’s abilities or status.

And Paul could do wrath or anger very easily, as we see all too clearly in his hot-tempered letter to the church in Galatia, when he raged at them, "You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?  I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!"

Peter demonstrates an inappropriate longing to have things his way, and not God’s way, when he tries to rebuke Jesus about his imminent suffering, and says, “God forbid it, Lord – this must never happen to you” – a remark which gets him compared to Satan by Jesus, but which does not deter him, not quite one week later, from wanting to build three dwellings, so as to make tangible the extraordinary experience of the Transfiguration, when Jesus is talking with Moses and Elijah. These are examples of greed and – though it may sound odd to say so – lust – which is really about a longing for an inappropriate desire.

And Paul – Paul can be an outrageous example of the over-arching sin of them all, the sin of pride. Do you remember his claim to the Philippians, when he says, "If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more:  circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless."

And all this – all this – from people we call saints. All this from the two people who are the foundational pillars of God’s church – Peter and Paul. All this from people who were sinners – sinners who discovered the extent to which God loved them and could and would redeem them – which is why, as we journey through Eastertide, we get today’s remarkable pair of readings, in which Saul’s sight is restored, as something like scales fall from his eyes, and Simon, son of John, is recommissioned by Jesus to feed his sheep.

But there is, in a sense, a cost attached to such restoration and forgiveness, as Lisa pointed out to us in her excellent sermon last week, when we hearing again the story of Thomas, and of how the disciples gathered behind locked doors. For crucifixion – the ultimate expression of human sinfulness – crucifixion had shattered the disciples’ dreams and ideals that they had learned from Jesus, and it offered them the opportunity to go back to their old lives, back to a normal routine without the challenging excitement that Jesus had held in front of them. 

But then, locked doors or no locked doors, Jesus appears in their midst – and, as Lisa so wonderfully put it, they knew what this meant:  Jesus wasn’t finished. And more to the point, Jesus wasn’t finished with them. And Jesus was one of those friends who asked a lot of a person: Leave your life as you know it behind. And follow me. 

The disciples are recommissioned; Simon Peter is recommissioned; Saul – that devoted, faithful religious Pharisee, is recommissioned. Recommissioned, not pretending that the deadly sins to which they were prone were erased, but rather that God had shown them how to remedy their energies and passions, and recommit them to God’s service.

For the deadly sins, or the capital vices, they have remedies. We can use our passions and energies well or badly. If you are, for instance, consumed by lust, the classic remedy is to focus your energy into developing proper friendship – a true relationship with another human, rather than simply looking at the attractions of a person’s body, and not also their character.

And that is easily true of six of the sins – it is easily true of gluttony, greed, envy, lust, wrath and even pride. But one of the seven is more of a challenge, and I was not the only one of the cathedral deans gathered in Florida to be struck and humbled by this realization.

And that rather more challenging sin is the sin of sloth. It is easy to think of this sin as simply being laziness – and we’ve all had times when we’d rather roll over and have another hour’s sleep than get out of bed. But the capital vice, the deadly sin that is sloth is deeper and more profound and more endemic than this. It is the ultimate mode of not bothering – of not giving a damn. And it makes the prospect of remedy or redemption so much harder than any other sin, because of the apathy bound up in it.

You might recognize it from the weariness of Macbeth, after the murders of Duncan and then Banquo, when he observes that, "I am in blood Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o'er."

Or to be more theological, as was explained to us in Florida. Sloth is the vice of those who want the security of God’s love without the real sacrifice of ongoing struggle to be made new. As one of my colleagues pointed out – this is the vice of those who want what the martyred theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’ – which he defined as "grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

The point of Easter and Eastertide is that in the power of the resurrection, we see God’s offer to make us and to make all things new. But, as Saul who became Paul, and Simon, son of John, who became Peter both discovered, like so many who came after them, this comes at the wonderful cost of becoming all the more the person God really calls us to be – even if that means that, "when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go."

But the new life of the baptized Christian, the new life of Easter, God’s new and unending life is a better choice, even when we are taken where we do not wish to go, a better choice than the awful, slothful existence of not being and not doing what God created us to be and to do.

Flying down to Florida, I watched the delightful bio-drama Stan & Ollie, a truly beautiful movie that recounts the last public performances given by Laurel and Hardy, on a tour of Britain and Ireland in the early 1950s, when they have grown old. When they are going where they do not really wish to go, to some third rate hotels, to perform in minor theaters, as they teeter on the brink of being has-beens rather than celebrities – and all undertaken in the hope that a major movie mogul will be so impressed by their performances that he will make one last movie starring the two of them.

The movie is a gentle and profound portrayal of a deep and remarkable relationship – deeper, so the movie suggests, than that which either of these comic giants had with their wives. But the pressures of the tour weigh hard on this relationship. It becomes plain to Stan Laurel, who was both the business man of the partnership, and the script-writer, it becomes plain to Laurel that the movie mogul will not be keep his word, and the longed-for final movie is not going to happen. But to keep up the appearance of hope, Laurel still keeps writing scenes, and the two of them keep rehearsing them in every spare moment.

And as the pressure builds, the two of them have a heated, bitter argument, followed by the all too portly Hardy having a heart attack, and suddenly their relationship, and the remainder of the tour hangs in jeopardy.

But the show must go on. And Stan and Ollie reconcile with each other, and admit that, indeed, they love each other. Stan knows that despite the offer of a huge fee, he simply cannot perform with any other comedian, and Ollie knows that he must finish the tour, joking and dancing with his beloved old friend.

And eventually, as they sit on a ferry taking them across the sea to Ireland for what proves to be their very last performances together, Stan finally admits to Ollie that the movie prospect has fallen through and won’t be happening. And Hardy looks at him kindly and tells him that – of course – he knew that – he’d worked it out.

They laugh, and make a characteristic joke of the fact that they both knew one thing while pretending something different. But then Stan stops laughing and a serious looks crosses his face, and he asks Ollie a truly profound question. If we both knew, he said, "If we both knew…why did we keep rehearsing the movie?"

And Hardy looks at him fondly, recognizing how they have lived out a shared vocation for so many years, and simply replies, "What else are we going to do?" What else could he possibly want to do but live out his vocation. Succumbing to sloth is just not an option.

Back at the lakeside, three long years ago, there had been another miraculous catch of fish, causing Simon, son of John, to fall on his knees in fear and trembling, and to beg Jesus to leave him alone because he was – like Saul, and like you and me – he was a sinful person. But Jesus would have none of it. Jesus took him away from the easy and successful ‘norm’ of his existence, where he caught fish – Jesus made him Peter the rock, who would go and catch people. And that was Simon son of John’s true vocation, as he realized anew when Jesus forgave him his failures, and recommissioned him and helped him once again refocus his energy.

Simon, son of John…feed my sheep. "Yes, Lord – what else am I going to do?"

And back in Tarsus, a young man was formed and raised as a God-loving and God-fearing committed, zealous Jew. Influenced and affected by the stoning of the arrogant blasphemer Stephen one morning in Jerusalem, his energy was fully committed to serving God – he just had a problem seeing clearly what God was actually calling him to do. But in the light of the resurrection, and in the light of the risen Jesus, Saul’s true vocation becomes illuminatingly clear, even when his eyes are blinded, and Jesus forgave him his failure, and recommissioned him and helped him once again refocus his energy.

Saul, go and bring my name before Gentiles and kings, go into the synagogues, and proclaim that I am the Son of God. "Yes, Lord – what else am I going to do?"

And one sunny spring morning in downtown Chicago, roughly 2000 years later, a curious and diverse group of sinners, who fought their own battles with lust or gluttony, greed or envy, pride and anger – but who, perhaps, had won the battle with sloth, for they had turned up, like the disciples by the lakeside, to let Jesus feed them a breakfast of bread and wine once again – this strange group of people that make up the family of St James Episcopal Cathedral turned up once again, to be forgiven their failures, recommissioned by God, and helped once again, to focus their energy in God’s service.

Beloved children of God, stretch out your hands, let someone else fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go. Beloved children of God, live and die in ways that glorify God. Beloved sisters and brothers of St James Cathedral, when you have finished this holy breakfast, as you grow old, never stop listening to Jesus saying to you, “Follow me”. And always have the courage to reply: Yes, Lord – what else are we going to do. Amen.