Sunday, February 24, 2013

Living into Virtue

A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 17, 2013.  The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, and Luke 4:1-13.

If asked to name the Seven Deadly Sins, I bet most of us could come up with a good list that was close to, if not exactly, the famous seven.  Just in the past few years there have been essays in magazines, movies, and a beautiful little series of books by Oxford that includes Robert Thurman on anger, Phyllis Tickle on greed, and Wendy Wasserstein on sloth.  So that’s three of them, right there:  anger, greed, and sloth.  Can you think of the others?  I bet you could:  lust, pride, envy, and we can’t possibly forget gluttony. 

Sometimes those preparing to make a formal confession are given the list of the seven deadly sins as a framework for thinking about coming clean and getting honest.  Those in twelve-step recovery programs often think about the seven sins as they make a self-inventory and this can all be helpful information for one wanting to make a change. 

Ash Wednesday began the season of Lent. Repentance was the theme of the day, and in some ways is the theme of the season—repentance, which means “turning.”  Turning away from sin.  Turning towards God.  The Church has succeed at letting society know what to turn from.  But we’re less accomplished at naming the Good to which we invite people.  Even within ourselves, we’re often very good at naming the sin, diagnosing the problem, sometimes getting carried away with just how sinful we may be until our sinfulness becomes a kind of perverse pride.  This kind of pride in being bad sneaks up with the thought that “I’m special in my fallenness.”  There’s no way God would forgive me, no way there’s room for me in God’s mercy, no way God can forget what I’ve done. 

If repentance is about turning away from sin, then it means turning toward something and it seems important we know what that “something” is. 

There are the seven deadly sins, but did you know there are also seven virtues?  These seven can be thought to correspond to the “deadly” seven.  Over time, tradition has developed several versions of the seven virtues.   But typically, there are four cardinal virtues from classical antiquity:  justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude (or courage).  To these are added the three “theological virtues” of St. Paul:  “faith, hope, and charity.” (1 Cor. 13)  Other virtues are sometimes included, such as chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. 

The virtues can be helpful as targets, as goals, as reminders of what we’re turning towards.  If one were turning away from gluttony, one would turn more positively toward temperance.  If one were trying to turn away from pride, one would lean into humility, and so on…

In a way, this is what Jesus does in today’s Gospel when he is confronted by the devil in the desert. 

“Command this stone to become a loaf of bread”….. The devil teases Jesus with food.  If Jesus has been in the desert long, surely he’s getting hungry.  Characterized as one of the seven classic sins, the devil is tempting Jesus with gluttony.  If some is good, then lots must be better.  But Jesus responds calmly, without need.  He responds with the virtue of temperance.

Next, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says, “to you I will give their glory and all this authority…” A more current version of this is in the 1980s movie, “Jesus of Montreal,” in which a promoter/producer type takes the Jesus character to the top of the skyscraper and says, “with your talent, this city could be yours."  This appeals to so many things.  But cast in terms of the seven deadlies, it could be understood as the devil tempting Jesus with greed.  Again, Jesus quotes doesn’t over-react.  He calmly quotes scripture, and puts the devil in his place with the virtue of charity.

Finally, the devil takes Jesus to Jerusalem and dares him to jump off the pinnacle of the temple. The devil is mocking Psalm 91 that we said earlier, “He shall give his angels charge over you… they shall bear you in their hands, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”  But Jesus senses the distortion and smells in it the temptation of pride.  Jesus answers with the virtue of humility.

So even though it was probably surprising to Jesus that the devil shows up in the wilderness, Jesus could counter with something positive, something constructive, supported by scripture. 

We might dismiss this Gospel as a kind of miracle story.  This is the Son of God, after all, of course he would know the right thing to say, the right thing to do, in order to resist temptation and dodge sin.  But we can still learn from his technique.  In order to move away from something negative, Jesus focuses on something positive.
That works for us, as well, in very practical ways.  If I want to drink less caffeine, I could chose to focus on the caffeine intake.  I could obsess about it.  I could read about it, talk about it, pray about it.  Or… I could make it a practice to drink more water.  Over time, by drinking more water, I would probably find I was drinking less caffeine.    If I want to eat less junk food, I can eat more apples.  But it works with trickier aspects of ourselves as well.

If I want to be less critical of people, I can make a practice to think of one good thing about each person I see. 

The virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope and charity are good goals for the spiritual life.  We could add in the heavenly virtues of chastity, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.  It could be a Lenten discipline to memorize the virtues. 

But we don’t have to memorize the virtues to benefit from their power and almost magnetic ability to pull us away from sin.  It’s for us to allow faith to remind us that there’s always an alternative to sin.  There’s always some positive force, some better alternative that can move us closer to God.

In the temptation in the desert, Jesus remembers scripture.  He remembers what would later be characterized as virtues.  But even more, Jesus remembers who he is, he remembers his baptism and that he is a child of God. He remembers whose he is, that God is watching, is waiting and is even now, aware and present and offering his love.

Martin Luther writes that he sometimes fought off the devil by shouting at him, “I am baptized.” “Baptizatus sum!”  (LC IV, 44).  He would write this on his desk, he would shout it at a vision, he would sing it to himself. 

That’s what we do when we make the sign of the cross, and when we dip our finger in holy water and place a little on our foreheads: we are reminding ourselves that we are baptized, that we are loved, and that God is in charge.   The sacraments help us fight temptations. 

In the days ahead, as we practice spiritual disciplines, as we notice the symbols of the season, perhaps giving some things up and taking on other things, may God make us alert and awake to temptation, that we might remember our baptism and move toward virtue. 

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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