Lust, Advent, and Foucalt’s Panopticon

Seven Deadly Sins Sermon Series, 7 out of 7 –11/28/2011
Text: John 3:19-21

So what do you do when your seven deadly sin sermon series spills over into Advent? And the only deadly sin that hasn’t been addressed yet is lust because it’s the most awkward one to talk about? Advent is the G-rated time in the Christian calendar. It’s about angels and babies wrapped in swaddling clothes and petting zoos with three year-old shepherds. It’s about Mary’s giddiness upon having her first child that caused her to rush out and tell her pregnant cousin Elizabeth so they could be pregnant-silly together. How can we bring an R-rated sin like lust into the G-rated world of Advent? It is pretty awkward timing, but I think this creates a unique opportunity for us to rethink Advent. Not to sully the warm and fuzzy side of it, but to reexamine the question we often fly past: why do we need a savior to be born to us in Bethlehem this year? Advent every year puts the coming of Christ in the present tense, because Christmas is not just a holiday; it’s a new chance to really make Jesus our king. We need Jesus to be born into our lives this year every bit as badly as his birth was needed 2010 years ago.

Why? Because we’re captives just like the Israelites were, and we need a messiah no less than they did; only we aren’t held captive by foreign emperors; our captivity is to a culture that makes money off our sin, a prime example being the way that it ramps up our otherwise natural instinct to make babies into a socially devastating frenzy of lust because that’s the best way to sell the most products. Lust makes money, lots of it, not only through the use of sex in advertising, but through the expectations engendered by this advertising, which bolster the fashion industry, the diet industry, the workout industry, the plastic surgery industry, and of course, the industry that creates dirty pictures and videos which are the most lucrative form of e-commerce today.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote that modern life is like an 18th century prison in which the prisoners’ cells are organized in a circle around a central guard tower in the middle called the panopticon. The panopticon has a 360 degree window that is back-lit in such a way so that no prisoner can see where the guard is looking, which creates the illusion of always being watched. The guard is always invisible, and the prisoner is always exposed.

This metaphor applies perfectly to the way that lust has shaped our society. On the one side, there are those of us who are imprisoned by the pressure of always feeling watched and having our bodies evaluated, which causes us to spend far too much time and money on our appearance and even develop eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia. On the other side are those of us who sit in the dark and obsessively watch other peoples’ bodies, whether this happens at the gym, on the subway, or on our laptop screens late at night.

Both sides live in an imprisoning nightmare, the watchers no less than the watched. A culture of lust has caused both sides to be completely lonely and isolated from one another even within relationships in which we come together to do the one physical act that is supposed to make us feel loved and accepted. Thus, the gift that God created for us as a perfect means to experience intimacy and belonging has been corrupted by the world to become the very reason that we feel lonely. And that’s why this Christmas we need a Messiah to rescue us!

A traditional scripture used for Advent is taken from Isaiah 9: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Advent is the season that invites us to step into the light of Jesus Christ. This is how we are rescued from captivity to lust and all the other sins that our world uses to its profit. Walking into Jesus’ light is not an easy thing to do, but it is the most liberating thing that we will ever do. What Jesus says in John 3:19-21 captures the predicament we find ourselves in: “This is the verdict, light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done by God.’”*

When we’re living in sin, we prefer darkness to the light, especially if we’re enslaved to an ugly sin like lust. So we keep our struggles in the dark, stuffing them deeper and deeper into our souls while wearing the mask that everything’s just fine everywhere we go, especially when we go to church. The darkness feels safe – like sitting on the inside of the panopticon’s watchtower rather than being tormented by the spotlight of judgment on the outside. But the light of Jesus is not the spotlight of judgment; God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.

We see how Jesus’ light is different in His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. The story is grounded in a basic paradox about light: this woman went to fetch water in the brightest, hottest hour of the day because that was the best time not to be seen by anybody else. While our society might not make a big deal about a woman having five marriages, in Jesus’ day, this would have been scandalous behavior! And so this woman, hoping not to find anybody at the well when she gets there, runs into Jesus, and not only that, he’s a Jew, and Jews hate Samaritans like her. So what a surprise it was for Jesus to break multiple social rules at the same time by asking this serially polygamous Samaritan woman for a drink! And how much more of a surprise it must have been when it turned out that Jesus knew everything about her and still asked her for a drink!

Now let’s consider carefully what Jesus says. He tells the woman the truth about her life, but he doesn’t condemn her for it. He’s not fishing for repentance; he doesn’t try to get her to apologize for how she’s lived. Jesus’ approach is to give the woman a glimpse of a better way to live. The Samaritan woman has spent her life throwing herself at all these different men, chasing after a form of water that will never satisfy her thirst. So Jesus tells her about the eternal living water that He has to offer. It’s not a rebuke; it’s not a judgment; it’s an invitation to an infinitely more nourishing form of life. The world of lust sees beauty as a cheap and tacky thing – a set of measurements – how wide your waist is, how high your heels are, how short your skirt is. When we accept Jesus’ invitation to leave the world of lust behind, we discover a beauty we never could have imagined, because we learn to see things not according to their surface-level appearance but according to how they express the love of the God who created them. This Advent, Jesus invites us to drink the eternal living water that only He can offer and see the world with new eyes that only He can give us.

So what kind of Christmas season do we want to have? Will it be just another shopping season in which we let the marketplace tell us what stuff we’re supposed to buy to show our love for other people? The same profit motive that corrupts the meaning of Christmas is what has created the epidemic of lust in our culture and the prison of social expectations that has so many people in chains. And if we come to church as part of our duty to these same social expectations, then we’ll have the same pleasant, shallow conversations here that we do everywhere else while the wounds of our sin languish in the darkness of our souls. Or are we willing to step into the light of Jesus Christ, where His grace removes the need for anyone to hide in darkness?

If we want for this Christmas to really be Christmas, then it’s time for us to live in the light of the kingdom that is established by Christ’s birth. This call to step into the light comes to us not only as individuals imprisoned by sin, but as the community of people called to create a safe sanctuary for anyone who has been trapped by lust and other sins so they can come clean and step into a new life of freedom. As the body of Christ, this is our most important task, and it’s not something we should put on the backburner during Advent. Everything else we do this season – Christmas tree sales, live nativity scenes, or mission projects – is relevant only insofar as it contributes to our basic task of making Christian disciples and supporting each other in our battles with sin. It is sin’s secrecy which binds us in captivity. When we can confess our sins to people who love and support us, then Satan loses his power. So my challenge to you this Advent is to not let it come and go like every other Christmas season but make this the Christmas in which you make Jesus your king as you never have before by stepping into the light to receive your freedom. Amen.

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Greed: Where do you draw the line?

Deadly Sin Sermon Series, 5 out of 7 — 11/13/2010
Text: Mark 10:17-22

We all recognize greed, right? It usually involves a stout old man wearing a top hat and smoking a cigar. Or it’s the Grinch who stole Christmas. Or Mr. Burns. My favorite is this cartoon of a man stuffing his face with money itself. It’s pretty easy to determine who’s greedy: it’s anyone who has more than I do.

If I have a waterski boat, then I judge people with yachts for being greedy. If I have a cabin in the Shenandoah, then I judge people with cabins in Aspen. If I have a townhouse, then people with McMansions are greedy. If I have a McMansion, then people with McMansions who live in gated communities are greedy. And of course, to people in refugee camps, all of us are greedy.

But to confront the sin of greed in our own lives, we need to dig deeper. Having money is not a bad thing; true greed is an attitude of seeing the world as a hostile, brutally competitive place in which my only duty is to take care of myself and my family. This attitude is captured perfectly in the character of Gordon Gecko, the corporate raider who is the chief villain of the 1987 movie Wall Street.

Let’s look at what I would call the gospel of Gordon Gecko: “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all of its forms – greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind and greed… will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”

Gordon Gecko’s gospel is basically a form of “survival of the fittest.” He believes in “the invisible hand of the market” – that the greed of investors like him provides for the common good through innovation that creates jobs and advances the species. The problem is that if the world is a greedy place in which you can’t trust anybody, there’s no reason to engage in trustworthy practices yourself. Gecko makes his millions not by coming up with new ideas that create jobs for people but through insider trading and hostile corporate takeovers where he sucks profits out of companies by selling off their assets and firing their employees.

If this cut-throat, dog-eat-dog culture is just the way the world is supposed to work, then Gecko’s gospel is right – greed is good. If there’s no benevolent God intervening graciously in human life at every step, opening doors for us and creating social harmony between us, then it’s appropriate to assume that nobody else will look out for me so I have to look out for myself and my family.

Thankfully there is an alternative to Gecko’s gospel. Jesus invites us to leave the dog-eat-dog world behind and enter into a kingdom of people who put their trust in Him. Jesus’ invitation is presented the most radically in his encounter with the rich young man in Mark 10:17-27. Read with me:

 “As Jesus he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” ’ 20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

So who’s ready to go to the bank, liquidate your entire account in 10’s and 20’s, then go outside and throw them up in the air so you can make a cardboard sign that says “Following Jesus. Please help” and find a place to sit and beg? Well, I don’t think that’s what Jesus is asking us to do. It would be a lot easier if Jesus came in his tunic and sandals to save us from our cubicle prisons and take us to a hippie commune in the desert. But Jesus’ invitation to the rich man is not about flinging off the complexities and responsibilities of the modern world. Some are called to leave the world for a monastery, and we would all do well to downshift our lives for less money and more time for our families and God. But that’s not the fault line between the gospel of Jesus and the gospel of Gordon Gecko.

What makes us un-greedy is not how frugally we spend our money, how little fun we have, and how bland our food tastes. The opposite of being greedy is to put all of our trust in Jesus Christ and to give Him absolute Lordship over our lives, renouncing forever the pursuit of self-interest around which our society, the world of Gordon Gecko, is defined. The young rich man is willing to do what it takes to get the trophy of salvation. What he doesn’t understand is that salvation is not a trophy; it’s not a reward that God bestows on us for getting through confirmation class, saying all the right things and doing all the right things, or even praying Jesus into our hearts. Salvation is what happens when God rescues us from the race for trophies. And that can only happen when we put ourselves under the Lordship of Jesus, which is the one thing the rich young man was not willing to do.

It’s not that Jesus has a big ego and likes bossing other people around. Jesus wants us to make Him Lord over our lives because that’s the only way we will be rescued from the permanent nightmare of our greed. Without an all-loving Lord to serve, we have two choices: fight for the trophies of the world or get trampled by the surrounding mob of people who want them. If we give ourselves to Jesus and renounce the desperate battle of greed, we might get kicked around by the greed of others, but that will not be what defines us. Instead we will be able to name whatever suffering we face as something we have suffered with Christ, who was so the opposite of greedy that He let Himself get crucified so that we could form a body of people whose trust in Him has saved us from the hopeless race of greed.

Now that sounds fine and everything, but what does it mean in practical terms if you’re not a rich stockbroker but just a hard-working middle-class suburbanite in Northern Virginia? If you’ve been around church for a while, then you’re probably familiar with the word “stewardship.” Every church has an annual stewardship campaign in which we delicately remind people to put your money in the offering plate! But stewardship is about so much more than fundraising. Stewardship is the lifestyle of people who see the world not as the ferocious jungle that Gordon Gecko lives in, but as a harmonious kingdom in which all of our opportunities and resources have been given to us by a benevolent Creator for a purpose that can give our lives true meaning.

Stewardship means acknowledging that what we have is really not our property but God’s. If we recognize that God is the one who has worked through the people we’ve met and opportunities we’ve encountered to give us every blessing that we have, then we can do better than giving God one hour a week and putting our 10% in the offering plate. The rich young man was happy to give his tithe and do his weekly thing at the Temple; I’m sure he would have been happy to play “positive and encouraging family friendly Christian radio” as the soundtrack for his self-centered journey; what he was not willing to do was to order his whole life – money and time – according to God’s will. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once preached: “There is no employment of our time, no action or conversation that is purely indifferent. All is good or bad, because all our time, as everything we have, is not our own. All these are… the property… of God, our Creator…. [They] either are or are not employed according to his will.”

That may sound brutal and Puritan, but Jesus’ yoke is much lighter than the yoke of greed. I can be a much more ruthless slave-master for myself than Jesus ever would be if every waking moment of my life is devoted to making sure that I get my piece of the pie and sufficiently hyper-programming my kids to get theirs. Jesus is calling us away from the self-torturing, high-stress lifestyle that greed creates into a restful, peaceful life – a daily rhythm of worship in which we seek to belong more to God rather than focusing our energy on what belongs to us.

Freedom from greed comes through living in faithful stewardship of God’s blessings. When we’re deciding where to go for dinner, how many sports camps to sign up our kids for, or how much to spend for paintings to hang on our walls, the question we should be asking is how each thing that we do fits into God’s plan for our lives. Are we doing what we do to compete with other people and elbow our way to a slice of the American dream? Or is our resting, eating, exercising, playing, studying, worshiping, and praying all done out of faithful stewardship of God’s gifts for the purpose of making us the people who God created us to be? Leave the nightmare world of greed behind; come further in the kingdom of a God who loves you and who never will stop sharing all that He has with you.

Pride: How We Hide Our Nakedness

Deadly Sin Sermon Series, 4 out of 9 — 11/6/2010
Texts: Genesis 3:1-13; Luke 18:9-14

It’s hard to understand what’s wrong with pride. Aren’t we supposed to take pride in our work? To be proud we’re Americans or proud of our children? The world teaches us to be proud of our accomplishments in our applications to colleges and jobs. Proud people work hard; they take care of themselves and don’t ask for help; they know what’s right and they’re not afraid to call out wrong when they see it. These may seem like good values, but they can make us feel like we don’t need God, and they undermine our sympathy for other people.

The early Christian Saint Augustine wrote that “pride is the beginning of all sin because [pride] was what overthrew the devil, from whom arose the origin of sin.” Some of you know the story of how the devil got thrown out of heaven. The devil’s original name was Lucifer, which means “light-bearer.” He was the brightest of all the angels, second only to God, but he couldn’t stand not being God. So he led a revolt against God. When the revolt was defeated, Lucifer was expelled from heaven and sought his revenge against God by corrupting God’s greatest creation – the human race. All of this happened because of Lucifer’s pride.

So along came Adam and Eve. God told them they could eat from any tree in Eden except for the tree of knowledge, which would cause them to die. They obeyed God and remained innocent until the devil came along. Read with me from Genesis 3:1-13. So the devil says that what’s really going on is that God doesn’t want Adam and Eve to have their eyes opened and know good and evil like God. Adam and Eve believed the serpent and they broke their trust with God. Eating a fruit might not seem like a terribly prideful thing to do, but it was the first instance of human beings declaring their independence from their Creator.

Adam and Eve’s declaration of independence was the birth of their self-awareness. Whether they really wanted to be like God or just let curiosity get the better of them, the consequence was that “their eyes were opened and they realized that they were naked.” So they sewed some leaves together to cover themselves. Then, when God confronted them about what they had done, they tried to cover up the nakedness of their sin with a story about how it was all somebody else’s fault.

Adam and Eve’s story captures something essential about humanity that makes us different than every other animal God created. The other animals are content to play their part in God’s natural order. They don’t know that they’re naked and they don’t care. If animals make mistakes, they don’t feel guilty; they just learn by trial and error. The difference with humans is that we are self-aware. Not only do we cover our physical nakedness with clothing, but we also try to hide our mistakes, with outright lies or a list of accomplishments that make up for our shortcomings.

Pride is a name for the wall that we put up to cover our spiritual nakedness. We clothe ourselves in the reassuring story that we are blameless people who don’t make mistakes and have always been successful. And as we tell this story to ourselves over and over, then every service hour, every AP class, every master’s degree, every person we’ve ever helped become like bricks in the wall of pride that we hide behind when confronted by our mistakes. We become slaves to our walls and spend our lives gathering achievements to put on our resumes.

In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. Let’s take a look at how it goes for them. The Pharisee’s prayer is a wall of pride. He says, God, I thank you that I’m not like other people, and he lists all the ways in which he’s better than others. It’s not a prayer so much as the Pharisee’s explanation of why he doesn’t need God’s help. We don’t know what the Pharisee was hiding behind his list of reasons he’s a good person. But by putting himself in the best light, even in a prayer, he missed out on the one thing that prayer is supposed to do – bring you closer to God. Prayer is supposed to be the one place where the walls come down and you’re real with God. How lonely when your prayer itself is a wall of pride?

And that wasn’t the only wall that the Pharisee’s pride built. He saw this tax collector beating his breast and crying out to God. Being a religious leader in his community, the Pharisee could have gone and comforted the tax collector; he could have prayed with him. Instead, the only use the Pharisee had for the tax collector was to make him a prop in his song of self-worship: thank you, God, that I’m not like that tax collector. As long as the wall of pride stays up, other people can never be more than props in the one-act plays of our lives. Regardless of how many conversations we have, regardless of how kind a face we put on, if our pride is what motivates us, we will never have any true friendships. And in some deep place beneath all the masks and beneath all the walls, we will always be lonely. When we hide behind the wall of our pride, we’re no different than Adam and Eve hiding from God because they were naked. And if we never tear that wall down, then it can keep us out of the joy of eternal communion with God.

Now what about the tax collector? He prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” We don’t know his specific sins. What we do know is that his wall of pride came down. He probably had done some good things in life that he could have listed out before God to hide the burden that was in his heart. But he didn’t want to keep playing the game. He didn’t want to keep building the wall. So he decided to come out of hiding and put the nakedness of his sin right out in front of God. And Jesus says that the tax collector was the one who got what he needed from his prayer.

Now I don’t want to suggest that we’re going to have a mind-blowing, mountaintop experience every time we pour our hearts out before God. I’ve shared before that I went through a time when I was severely depressed and God felt really far away. I had started going to my first Methodist church in Toledo, Ohio, and the pastor there had taught me about this thing called centering prayer. So each night I would light a candle in my room and I’d stare at the candle and whisper over and over: “God, please make a space for yourself in my heart.” I didn’t feel much of anything, but I didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t until years later that I realized God had answered my prayer.

So you might not feel anything right away, but I will promise you one thing. When the walls of pride come down, then God’s mercy can flow. And mercy is not just forgiveness, because it doesn’t stop with the person who receives it; it transforms us into merciful people and it keeps on flowing as we show mercy to other people. You don’t even need to do anything terrible to receive God’s mercy. All you’ve got to do is stop waving around whatever you’ve done well and let the wall of pride come down. And when you stop trying to build your achievements into a wall, you discover that your ability to do good at all is itself an act of God’s mercy.

Regardless of whatever myth our culture has taught us, nobody in the history of humanity has ever pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Whether we’ve realized it or not, we have always relied on the mercy of God flowing through the parents who raised us, the teachers who taught us, and the mentors who showed us the way. Our success is a product of all the ways that God has touched our lives through all the people who gave us a chance, so whatever good we do is really God doing good through us. God doesn’t need credit for all the good He does; He just knows that if we try to take credit for it, we’re going to build a wall of pride that will make us lonely and uncompassionate towards other people.

God can handle the glory so let’s give it to him and stop building it into walls for us to hide behind. God works best not through people who think they’re right about everything, but through people who have let their walls of pride come down so that mercy could flow through them – people who are grateful for God’s mercy and grateful for the privilege of sharing that mercy with others.

Gluttony: Consumption vs. Communion

Deadly Sin Sermon Series, 3 out of 7 — 10/30/2010
Text: Luke 16:19-31

How many of y’all have heard of the freshman 15? It’s the 15 pounds that college kids put on in their first year in college from all the carbs they eat in the campus dining hall. Well, for the past few months, I’ve been learning about something I’m calling the first year pastor 20. It comes from all the potlucks and eating out that we do. It’s been a humbling experience to preach on gluttony this week when every morning I get on the scale and the number keeps going up and up.

The biggest irony is that gluttony is exactly what I turn to when I’m doing something that fills me with anxiety, such as writing a sermon on gluttony. I like to make all kinds of dips like humus and pesto to take to all the church potlucks. And when I’m feeling under pressure, I get out the pita chips and start mindlessly gobbling, thinking that it will be easier to face the challenge if my body is just a little more comfortable.

It seems innocent enough – the need to be physically comfortable. All the other animals are instinctually driven by this need. When they’re hungry, they eat; when they’re tired, they sleep; when they need to go potty, they go where they’re at, unless they’ve been house-trained. Part of what makes gluttony such a deadly sin is that it seems so innocent. Eating one more chip doesn’t feel like a big deal until we reach into the bag and it’s empty. Gluttony gets serious when it becomes more than just a stomachache but something we build our lives around. And I’m not just talking about food. Our nation’s lifestyle is shaped by relentless advertising that tells us that our lives are supposed to be as comfortable and convenient as possible.

It’s easy to get trapped in an endless cycle of consumption. Take interior decorating, for example. If I buy a nice couch for my living room, then I need a nicer table to go with it. When I get the nicer table, the lamp starts to look shabby. Then the rocking chair needs to get upgraded, then the bookshelves, and before long the nice couch I bought in the first place isn’t chic enough for all the other new furniture so the cycle starts over.

With technology, we don’t really question whether or not we’re being gluttonous, because it’s always better to be faster and more efficient. Do any of you remember how long we used to sit in front of computers waiting for the floppy drive to boot up? Now, if facebook fails to come up in a few seconds, I get irritated and hit reload on my browser, and if it doesn’t correct itself quickly, I might say something that pastors aren’t supposed to say. Jesus said it’s better to tie a millstone around your neck and throw yourself in the sea than to lead others into sin. So if my laptop makes me a glutton, should I duct-tape it to a rock and chuck it into Burke Lake?

But gluttony is about more than just its tendency to make us into irritable, impatient people who are addicted to our own comfort. There are people and things that we neglect when we are gluttonous. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus shows how easy it is for gluttony to make us oblivious to other peoples’ suffering. The rich man in the parable is described with the stereotypical marks of gluttony at the time – dressing in purple and fine linens and feasting sumptuously every day. The reason he ends up in hell is never stated explicitly, though Abraham’s words suggest it has something to do with his neglect of Lazarus.

In a culture where our highest virtue is individual responsibility, this parable doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There is no indication that the rich man was in any way related to Lazarus the beggar’s demise. He didn’t do anything to hurt Lazarus. He didn’t lay him off from a job or repossess his trailer. Lazarus wasn’t his secret illegitimate half-brother. In fact, the Bible says that someone else put Lazarus down at the rich man’s gate. Why didn’t that person take care of the beggar instead of dumping him on the poor rich man to deal with? And Lazarus didn’t knock on the gate; he didn’t ask for anything; the Bible says he longed to eat the crumbs from the rich man’s table, but he never spoke up. So why should the rich guy be held responsible for this unassertive beggar who was probably homeless because of a drug addiction or some other personal moral failing?

And the Bible refutes our objections with a minor detail that speaks volumes. Even the dogs would come and lick the beggar’s sores. Despite the fact that the beggar never said a word, despite our lack of knowledge about his background and whether or not he deserved his predicament, even the dogs could muster up enough mercy to go and lick his sores. Even the dogs are more compassionate than we are when our focus on our own physical comfort has made us oblivious to the beggars at our gates. This is the poisonous outcome of gluttony: when our appetites rule our actions, when we put all of our focus on the mindless consumption of food, home improvement projects, electronic gadgets that are faster and sleeker, things that aren’t bad until they become all that we do with our lives, then we lose our humanity to the point that dogs are more attuned to the needs of others than we are.

Now I want to be very clear that the solution to gluttony is not to go in the opposite direction and completely neglect our physical needs. It’s true that Christians throughout the ages have fasted as part of their spiritual discipline. I know that would be a lot more grounded spiritually if I fasted from some of the activities that I’m gluttonous about (such as facebook and the internet). But sometimes Christians develop a very unhealthy martyrdom complex in which we give ourselves points according to how overworked we feel and how much we can say that we sacrificed our own needs. 2/3 of our country’s population is overweight not because we take long siestas like the Spanish do, or work 35 hours a week like the French do, but because we’re so stressed out that eating has become a mindless activity. Pastors in particular have very unhealthy lifestyles, which is why most of us get chubby over the years. Running from one meeting to the next, we might not eat lunch until 3:00, but when we do eat, we gorge ourselves.

What if eating were a sacred activity? What if it really were something we did for the glory of God. Now this means more than just saying grace before I pig out. If everything I do is for the glory of God, then all my eating and drinking and interior decorating and gadget-buying should be shaped by the mission of advancing God’s kingdom. Eating and consuming in and of themselves aren’t bad. It’s eating and consuming without a purpose that is gluttony. If we’re going to be soldiers for the kingdom of God, then we have to eat; if we’re going to open our homes to share Christ’s love with our neighbors, then we need enough furnishings for at least a decent ambience. The rich man in the parable we read today is not a glutton for wearing purple and linen and feasting sumptuously; he is a glutton because he did these things as ends unto themselves rather than opening the gate and giving Lazarus a purple robe and some moist towelettes so they could feast together.

We have a model for the type of consumption that we are supposed to be doing. It’s called Holy Communion. It may sound ridiculous to call a chunk of bread dipped into juice a feast, but what we do when we all come down the aisle to eat from the same bread and dip into the same cup is a symbolic reminder of how every feast in our lives should be. Every meal we have together should involve two things: thanking the God who created everything that is in our plate and forming community with God and other people. We can’t do that if we’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off, scarfing down fast food in between meetings and soccer games. The way to build Christian community is by taking the time to gratefully break bread together.

When I feast without communion and without thanksgiving, I am being a glutton. This is true about all my activities, whether it’s eating, buying things, mindlessly surfing the Internet. But when every meal we eat and everything that we do is shaped by our prayerful journey of following Jesus and seeking His will for our lives, then our life is not gluttony, but a foretaste of the gospel feast we will share with God forever and ever.

Sloth: Burying God’s Gifts

Deadly Sins Sermon Series, 2 out of 7 — 10/23/2010
Text: Matthew 25:14-30

Some of you might be aware that the country of France is in the midst of major protests because the government has proposed to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62. This has been an interesting backdrop for contemplating a sermon on sloth, the deadly sin of the week. Part of me wants to start singing Les Miserables. But another part of me wants to say to the French, “Are you serious? You have a 35-hour workweek with eight weeks a year of vacation! What are you retiring from? Where I’m from, we work 80 hours a week and we’re adding more and more hours every year.”

So maybe I need to go over to France to preach about sloth. How do I preach about it here in Northern Virginia? Are there actually any lazy people living in Fairfax County? I haven’t found them yet. This is one of the busiest places in America. The first challenge of preaching a sermon on laziness in northern Virginia is that, if anything, it seems like our problem is the opposite of laziness.

The other difficulty for me in wrestling with “sloth” is that I’ve been through periods of my life in which depression and anxiety caused me to be completely unproductive. I had days in which I would go into the office and literally stare at the screen all day. From the outside, I’m sure that I looked lazy; on the inside, I was acutely aware of what a failure I was. If I had gone to church during that time and heard a preacher say that lazy people need to “suck it up” and take responsibility for their lives, I’m not sure I would know what to do with that advice other than beat myself up even more and become even less productive.

At first glance, the message of Jesus’ parable of the talents seems to be that we do need to suck it up and throw ourselves full-throttle into the hypercompetitive world we live in. It’s like Apprentice. The go-getter servant who takes Donald Trump’s 5 talents and makes 5 more gets put in charge of bigger things – maybe a real estate company, a casino. But the servant who melts down because he’s scared and doesn’t know what to do gets kicked to the curb. If God handed me a million dollars (which is what a talent might amount to in modern day cash), I wouldn’t know the first thing to do with it. So is this parable saying that people who are insecure and doubt themselves better get over it if we want to be competitive applicants for the kingdom of heaven?

In a way, yes, but in a more important way, no. Our insecurity and self-doubt can be a crippling roadblock that keeps us out of communion with God, but the way around this roadblock is not something we can resolve by deciding to do so. One of the basic problems with how the modern world understands sin, and sloth in particular, is that we assume morality is mostly about decisions when it’s really about habits. We assume the way to avoid sin is simply to resolve in our minds not to do it and be strong enough to stick to our word. Since the time of the Enlightenment, when Rene Descartes said his famous maxim, “I think, therefore I am,” humans have put way too much faith in the power of our own minds.

The world is full of seemingly harmless clichés that follow this line of thinking, like “If you set your mind to it, you can do anything.” Sloth happens when we take advice like this seriously only to find out it’s a lie, when we discover the desperate truth of human reality Paul describes in Romans 7: “I want to do what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” The basic problem of our sinfulness is the impossible gap between what we know we ought to do and what we really end up doing. Sloth means giving up the hope that I will ever be who God wants me to be, which is understandable if I assume that I’m in this struggle all by myself.

The bad news is that sloth is not a decision but a habit, and bad habits are about as easy to get out of as quicksand; they require more than just resolving in our minds to change; we must engage in a patient, continual battle that is pretty well impossible to fight on our own. With sloth, I think about the battles of the kitchen sink and the laundry pile; it’s so hard to gain the discipline to wash the dishes right after we eat or put the laundry away right after it’s dry; and these are the least of our bad habits.

But the good news is that we aren’t on our own. Jesus is patiently waiting for us to acknowledge His hand reaching out to us in the quicksand of our bad habits. Twelve step programs are effective in dealing with bad habits because they dispel with the myth that our minds are all powerful. What are the first three steps of every twelve-step program? 1) Acknowledging that we are powerless over our problem. 2) Believing that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. 3) Turning our wills and our lives over to God’s care. The way out of sloth and every other sin for that matter is to get rid of the motto of modern life – I think, therefore I am – which places so much responsibility and faith in the power of my mind, and replace it with a new one: I trust, therefore I am, in which my basis for being is the faith that Jesus can change me in ways I never could change myself.

If we say, I trust, therefore I am, that means accepting the gift of freedom that God has given us by turning our wills and our lives over to His care. Sloth properly understood is rejecting this gift and burying it in the ground, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I stay in bed all day. There’s plenty of ways to bury the call and gifts that God has given me. Throwing myself into my career and working hard enough that I’m too busy for God is a form of sloth. Going through the motions of church life without being attentive to my need for spiritual growth is a form of sloth. Trying to prove my worth as a pastor by launching new ministries and giving eighty hours a week to church work so that I no longer really have time to listen to God is no less slothful than lying on a couch in a Sluggie covered in beer and potato chips.

This is because sloth doesn’t have to do with the failure to make our lives busy; sloth is the failure to trust God enough to give our lives to Him and let Him set our agendas. All the worldly life accomplishments we could imagine – being made CEO, a full partner, a full professor; having successful, well-adjusted children; building a company from a shoe-string budget into a giant multinational corporation – all of these accomplishments are worth about as much to God as a couch potato’s loud belch when we are completely uninterested in following God’s will for our lives, when we do what we do to prove that we’re worth something rather than receive our worth from being part of Christ’s body and then give our lives to the advancement of God’s kingdom.

Too often, under the pressures of life, we settle for the mediocre goal of living in such a way so that nobody has any claim on us. This means working hard enough in school to keep my parents off my case, getting a decent job so I’m not mooching off anybody else, staying out of other peoples’ business, and, of course, making sure my lawn is cut on a regular basis (at least in the front). It is this approach to life that is embodied by the servant burying God’s money so that he can give it back to God intact. Thanks but no thanks, God; I prefer mediocrity to the scary prospect of trusting you to develop my gifts and use me in ways that I never would have imagined. I’d rather have a simple, basically good, inoffensive life in which I’m in charge.

What Jesus is warning us about in this parable is that even living cautious and inoffensive lives if we’re uninterested in God’s plans for us and the world can keep us out of the joy of God’s eternal presence. Jesus doesn’t want us to live with the regret of not using the gifts that God has given us. Such a life is an outer darkness of weeping and gnashing of teeth, despite whatever mask of busy-ness or worldly success we wear. As St. Augustine once wrote, “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God.” And that is the final truth about sloth: there is nothing restful about it. What is truly restful is allowing God to order our lives into a rhythm of worship; true Sabbath rest is an embrace of complete trust in God that is the opposite of sloth and in fact the antidote to sloth.

Truly un-slothful people don’t come across as being busy, because they have given their time to God, which gives them a peace that underlies whatever level of activity their lives contain. I’m not there yet, but with God’s grace I’m going to keep on trying. Let’s not be the people whose anxious response to God’s call for our lives is to bury His gift in the mud and busy ourselves with other things. Let us be the people who trust that God will fulfill His purpose in our lives, so that, following His lead, we will have the surprising joy of harvesting fruit that we never thought we could grow: new talents to add to the ones that He first gave us.

Anger: Deadly Drug or Zeal for God

Deadly Sins Sermon Series, 1 out of 7 — 10/16/2010
Text: selections from Jonah

In the late nineties at the University of Virginia, we had a hellfire preacher who would come out every fall to verbally abuse people in the amphitheater. He sent all of us to hell, Christians and non-Christians alike. He would always wear a suit that was very wrinkled and sometimes soaking wet. He usually drew quite a crowd. The frat-boys loved him and did their best to make the event entertaining for everybody else. I would usually go with a pack of horrified Christians to try to argue the Bible with this guy, which we usually gave up after twenty minutes.

When I read the story of Jonah, it brings up the memory of this hellfire preacher. Jonah was a unique prophet; he was the only prophet in the Bible who managed to succeed at God’s mission by rescuing Nineveh from divine judgment only to fail in his personal relationship with God by hating God for His mercy. Jonah’s predicament is a very good example of how anger can turn into a deadly sin.

For the next seven weeks, Pastor Larry and I are going to be talking about the seven deadly sins. There are all kinds of sins, but Christians over the last 2000 years have found it useful to group the more serious forms of sin into seven categories. The reason they’re called deadly is because they are the ones that corrupt our souls enough that, without God’s gracious intervention, we cannot stand the experience of God’s eternal presence. I’m going to talk today about how anger can become an obstacle between us and God that requires God’s grace to overcome even when we’re angry about something that isn’t our fault.

Anger is complicated, of course. It isn’t always evil. In fact, evil itself should make us angry. You can’t say that you love somebody if you do not hate whatever causes harm to that person. So we must be particular in how we talk about anger. This is why it’s helpful to contrast the story of Jesus’ anger in the temple with Jonah’s anger. Doing so can reveal to us the point at which anger becomes a sin.

Anger by its nature generally has something to do with justice. We get angry when people treat us unfairly, when we are unfairly accused of being unfair, when our unfairness gets called out while other peoples’ unfairness gets overlooked, and when those who have behaved unfairly seem to get forgiven unfairly. Jonah was angry because the Ninevites had done great evil, and then got off scot-free just because they showed remorse. Jesus’ anger was directed at the injustice of the temple merchants ripping people off and exploiting the sacred practice of sacrifice.

The other thing anger often relates to is honor that has been offended. We seem to have a duty to our own dignity to ensure that any disrespect we receive from others isn’t allowed to stand. It seems dishonorable to let yourself get pushed around. Jesus and Jonah both responded to what they perceived as insults to God’s honor. When Jesus cleared out the temple, he said, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” The actions of the temple vendors dishonored God’s name.

Jonah told God that reason he didn’t want to preach in Nineveh was because he “knew that [God is] a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love.” In other words, Jonah was angry with God for being a pushover.  We have to remember that Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which had massacred thousands of Israelites and sold them into slavery. Don’t let Veggie Tales’ G-rated version of Nineveh’s evil fool you. This was a city of merciless warlords who had Israelite blood all over their hands and engaged in disgusting religious practices that are too graphic to describe in present company.

What God accomplished through Jonah’s prophecy was an astonishing miracle. Consider how huge this must have been. Some Israelite peasant smelling like he had just been spit up by a huge whale goes into one of the most cosmopolitan and powerful cities in the ancient world, the capital of the people who had crushed his own people in war, and somehow he gets an audience with the king who decrees that everyone must fast and cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes. This would be like the crazy hellfire preacher we all made fun of in the UVA amphitheater going into Washington and convincing all of Congress to sit on the National Mall covered in ashes and go without food until God’s forgiveness had been assured.

But Jonah was unable to experience the joy of God’s miracle. He was all about his mission while he got to be the judge declaring hellfire and damnation on the people of Nineveh. But when God decided to be merciful, Jonah didn’t get to be the judge anymore. This is precisely the point at which the sinfulness of his anger gets revealed. It is not a sin to be angry about sin or even to prophesy angrily against it. Anger becomes a sin when we get addicted to the self-righteous satisfaction of telling other people how wrong they are. It can turn into a drug that makes you feel like the god of a universe in which you are right and everybody else is wrong. When you’re addicted, you’d rather other people stay wrong than be forgiven. This addiction becomes eternal when you’d rather stay mad and refuse to forgive than spend eternity in community with God and the people who did you wrong.

Anger is a deadly sin because without God’s gracious intervention, there are eternally deadly consequences. But this is why God gave us the perfect antidote. Jesus absorbed into his flesh the fury of the world’s anger. He received it in the lashes of the Roman whip, the crown of thorns, the nails that were driven into His flesh, and the agonizing death that he experienced. By being resurrected from the dead, Jesus has proved to us that he can take on whatever wrath we give him.

Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we have a place where we can take our anger. Jesus has said to us, “Stop bickering with each other and trying to prove who’s innocent and who’s guilty when you know that your life circumstances are infinitely complicated and everyone has a piece of the blame. Blame me! I don’t care that I’m innocent. Take all that rage and nail it into my flesh so that when you’ve poured out all your wrath, you can have peace with God and your neighbor.” Jesus died for our sins and the sins of others against us. His cross reminds us that, whenever we let our anger define us, we become part of the crowd that screams, “Crucify him!” But we can take our anger to that cross and ask forgiveness for whatever wrong we may have done as well as liberation from the boiling in our souls that came about because of whatever wrong was done to us.

It is healthy and appropriate to express our anger. Without doing so, we wouldn’t get rid of it. We would just bottle it up until it explodes on some poor soul who does something really minor to us, causing this other person to start their own bottling-up process to explode on someone else and so on until we have one big sea of wrath that tosses us around like infants in the waves. That’s the story of human history. And God is merciful enough to rescue us from the waves of wrath by giving us a cross to nail our anger to and a savior who is willing to receive it.

When we give up our right to be self-righteous by bringing our anger to the cross, the pain will take some time to go away, but we are liberated from the addiction that trapped Jonah. When anger ceases to be about my quarrel with another person, then it can turn into the righteous anger at sin that Jesus expresses in the temple. It becomes a question of God’s justice and God’s honor. Jesus didn’t have a personal quarrel with the merchants selling pigeons. He was consumed by zeal for His Father’s house. And this zeal made it unacceptable for Jesus to see His Father mocked by a sinful practice. When I am liberated from the self-righteous anger in which conflicts are defined as being between me and someone else, then my anger can be made into zeal for God’s justice which compels me to fight evil itself rather than sinners like me whom God loves and wants to liberate.

Now it’s a very perilous path we walk when we’re fighting for God’s justice. It is so easy for righteous zeal to be corrupted into self-righteous anger. It is immensely important to be in constant prayer questioning our motives and asking God to purify them. When you raise challenges to hypocrisy in the religious or political establishment, people are going to respond with anger, which Satan will gleefully use (if we take the bait) to rip apart human community and make a train-wreck of our mission to bring this broken world under the Lordship of God’s kingdom.

We are called to transform the world. That is what this body of redeemed sinners has been created to do. It requires some anger to have the guts to respond to God’s call. But as soon as we start feeling self-righteous, as soon as we feel ourselves getting high off the drug of condemning others, we need to get on our knees and ask the Lord for humility. We need some anger to clean all the idols out of our temples. We need some anger to get us out of the belly of whatever whales have swallowed us and onto the road to Nineveh. But unless we give this anger to God to be purified into zeal for His kingdom, whatever good God accomplishes through us will only leave us bitter like Jonah. Let’s put our anger on the cross so that we can rejoice with the Ninevites every time we see evidence of God’s mercy.