Friday, September 30, 2011

TheoLOLogy: The 7 Deadly Sins & Virtue

Source: Pleated Jeans on

I'm sure you have heard of the "seven deadly sins." Do you know what they are and where they came from? They are often referred to as "capital vices" or "cardinal sins" because they are viewed as sources of other sins. These sins are not "deadly" or "capital" because they are the very worst sins but because they are the origin of other sins (a person commits additional sins trying to achieve the goal of the deadly sin). There is no list of seven deadly or capital sins in the Bible, even though there are many lists of sins. Pope Gregory I modified an earlier list of sins into a list of seven that is similar to today's list. The identification and description of the seven sins has evolved over time into their common form today.

The seven deadly sins are:
  1. lust 
  2. gluttony 
  3. greed  
  4. sloth 
  5. wrath
  6. envy 
  7. pride 
These sins are often called vices. A vice is a "moral corruption, fault, or failing" (Websters). A vice is a disposition or inclination to do what is wrong. The opposite of a vice is a virtue.

"Virtue" comes from the Greek word arete which means excellence. A virtue is a "particular moral excellence" (Websters). Virtue is a disposition or inclination to do what is right. There are many lists of virtues in Christianity, including the cardinal virtues, theological virtues, and heavenly virtues.

The four cardinal virtues are:
  1. prudence
  2. justice
  3. temperance (or restraint)
  4. fortitude (or courage)

The three theological virtues are:
  1. faith
  2. hope
  3. love (or charity)
There is another list of virtues that was devised in opposition to the seven deadly sins. These are the seven heavenly virtues:

  1. chastity 
  2. temperance 
  3. charity 
  4. diligence 
  5. patience 
  6. kindness
  7. humility
I don't have the room or time to make a complete list of virtues or vices (even supposing such a thing were possible). These traditional lists can be helpful as a starting place for a exploration of virtue and vice, but they shouldn't be seen as the only relevant virtues and vices. Cruelty and fear are not on the list of seven deadly sins, but modern ethicists have much to say about those and other vices.  

Why should we discuss virtue and vice? I believe it is important because it allows us to explore how we are to live in this world. What we do and say matters because it impacts our relationship with God, with other people, and with our own self. An understanding of virtue and vice doesn't give us a black-and-white rule-book for how to live a moral life but equips us with tools to make better decisions.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

That's Not Fair!

A Sermon based on Jonah 3:10-4:11 and Matthew 20:1-16

That’s not fair! Having grown up with a younger brother – I both said and heard that phrase said a lot. Things were often a competition between the two of us. Fairness was, in my mind, the two of us having equal and the same (if he got 2 cookies then I got 2 cookies) – although, I could have more because I was older, (I could have a 3rd cookie) that was somehow also fair in my mind. If my brother had more of something for any reason then that was obviously unfair, unless it was more chores. He could have extra chores and that would be fair in my mind too. We shared a lot, but the difficulty of dividing things up between us depended upon how generous we were feeling at the moment.

In some ways we never really grow out of childhood. Adults still complain about what is fair or not fair all the time – and some of that complaint is warranted but much of it is not. Human beings are so egocentric that we end up measuring fairness with scales that are biased in our own favor and against others.

A sense of basic fairness, of justice is very important. Without it, no one would have challenged Jim Crow laws and apartheid and every other “separate is supposedly equal but in reality definitely is not” policy. The idea of the equality of every person, although implemented imperfectly, has led to a society where a greater number of people have more opportunities than ever before. And yet, human beings have a tendency to cling to a kind of supposed fairness that is anything but fair and just but is instead self-centered.

Jonah was an adult, but he was stuck in that childish place of “that’s not fair”. Can you believe the nerve of Jonah, to be upset about God’s mercy for Nineveh? After experiencing God’s mercy for himself and after going through so much to deliver God’s message to Nineveh, Jonah is upset because the Ninevites repented and God spared them. Jonah is upset that God is merciful.

Jonah said, “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live."

Apart from being over-dramatic, Jonah is also very selfish, wanting to keep God’s mercy for himself and for Israelites. What Jonah needed to realize and accept was that God’s mercy is God’s alone to distribute as God pleases.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What You Wear

A Sermon based on Romans 13:8-14 and Matthew 18:15-20
September 04, 2011

Does it matter what you wear? Yes and no. On the one hand it does – because some clothing is more practical than others. I’d rather wear ski gear in the snow than t shirt and shorts, and I’d rather wear tennis shoes (or better yet hiking boots) when hiking up a mountain than high heels. The functionality of clothing is important. Clothes can aid or hinder you in certain activities. What you wear can also affect how others see you. There is an abundance of makeover shows and a huge fashion industry that prove that appearance matters a lot to some people. What you wear can affect how people see you, particularly on an interview or on the job. I can preach the exact same sermon wearing my alb and stole, or a t-shirt and jeans, or wearing a clown suit. You would take me more seriously when wearing the alb and stole, but you might stay more awake it I wore a clown suit. On the other hand, what you wear doesn't matter because we all know that you can’t judge a book by its cover. A person’s worth is far more than mere appearance.

I think a helpful way to think of clothing and appearance is that of the image you want to portray to the world. If you go on a job interview you usually wear different clothes than you would to play sports, or hang out with friends at home. Clothes don’t change the person, but they change the way that the world sees them and more importantly can be more practical in certain circumstances than in others.

Paul’s letter to the Romans talks about “putting on Christ.” The Greek verb for “putting on” the Lord Jesus Christ is describing putting on clothes –  in other words clothed with Christ, wearing Christ. Being clothed with Christ is just as public an action as being clothed with anything else – it changes the way other’s see you and even the way you act. Putting on Christ is a way of bearing witness to our Christian hope.  It is a way of representing Christ to the world. And it encourages us to be like Christ in our love for God and our love for neighbor.

When you look at a still picture of someone you can tell the clothing that they are wearing instantly – it is not so obvious with those who wear Christ. Wearing a cross or a Christian t-shirt or even a priest’s collar are not guarantees of Christ-like behavior. It is by someone’s words and deeds that you can tell that they are in fact wearing Christ.  Putting on Christ, being Christ-like – this is not a private thing but influences every part of your life and so becomes public. I think of the saying, by their fruit you will know them. The fruit of a Christ-like person is love.

Rock of Faith

A Sermon based on Matthew 16:13-20
August 21, 2011

I’ve always been fascinated with rocks. As a kid I was interested in geology and in learning how different rocks formed. Some rocks were formed by volcanic forces, while others from layers of sediment.

As a kid I was also interested in ruins. I was curious how ancient peoples could build temples and houses and roads out of relatively basic materials like rock. And I found it amazing that people could build things thousands of years ago that are still standing to one degree or another today. Someday I’d like to see the Greco-Roman ruins in Europe, but I have seen many different Maya ruins. The Maya built temples out of huge limestone blocks, which they cut and carved to fit together perfectly.

Rock is everywhere. It’s natural, abundant, strong and makes a good building material. It is fitting that such a basic and strong word became Simon Peter’s new name in today’s gospel reading.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"

And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

 It seems that many people were thinking that Jesus was a kind of prophet – either a second John the Baptist or a second coming of a famous prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah. It’s not unusual that people would have thought that about Jesus. Jesus did kind of fit the mold for a prophet – he spoke with authority about people’s relationship with God and each other, the way people should live, and also Jesus had some kind of close connection to God that regular people did not seem to have. Jesus demonstrated power during his miracles, and prophets of old had signs and wonders attributed to them as well. If all that was important about Jesus was his teachings and his miracles then he would have been only a prophet – but Jesus was more than that.

Jesus asked Peter what Peter thought – “who do you say that I am?"

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it."

This is one of the first times that Jesus praises Peter instead of criticizing him as one of little faith. Jesus blesses Peter for his answer and acknowledges that such an answer could not have come from Peter alone but must have been revealed to him by God. Jesus then gives Simon the name Peter, which means rock.

It is this passage that the Roman Catholic Church uses to stress the importance of Peter. They claim that Peter was the rock on which Jesus built his church. Peter was the first bishop of Rome and an important leader in the early church, but there were other bishops and other important leaders as well.

Scholars disagree on whether the rock on which the church is built that Jesus refers to in this passage is a reference to Peter or Peter’s confession of faith. We don’t have a recording of the Aramaic or Hebrew words that Jesus spoke on this occasion. What we have is a Greek account written years after the fact. Greek words have masculine, feminine and neuter forms. The Greek word for Rock changes gender forms in this passage, which suggests to many (mostly Protestant scholars) that it is not Peter but rather Peter’s confession that is the rock on which the church is built.

“And I tell you, you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

I’m sympathetic to that interpretation, that there is a play on words with Peter’s new name but it is Peter’s confession of faith that is the rock on which the church is built. I believe that Peter is one of the first rocks of the church, but not the foundation of our faith. The understanding of Jesus as Messiah and the Son of God is the foundation of the Christian faith.