“Seven Respectable Sins” Sermon Series Begins

Date: February 22, 2015

Title: “Stinking Thinking”

Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard

Scripture: Mark 1:9-15

             Welcome to Lent! Now, before you get all bummed out, before you groan or grit your teeth and decide it’s going to be nothing but sackcloth and ashes for the next five weeks, listen to what Marcus Borg once said about the season:

Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, and Christianity itself are about following Jesus on the path that leads through death to resurrection. They are about dying and rising with Christ.

            We are to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, the place of death and resurrection. That is what the journey of Lent is all about. That journey intrinsically involves repentance.

            But repentance is not primarily about feeling guilty about our sins, or about doing penance (think “giving something up” for Lent). The Biblical meanings of repenting are primarily twofold. On the one hand, it means to “return” to God, or “reconnect” with God. On the other hand, repentance means to “go beyond the mind we have.”

             So this season does not have to be somber and morose. Instead, it can be transformative, even revolutionary, if we use it to “go beyond the mind we have.” This Lent can be an opportunity for us to die to an old way of being and an old way of living, as we reconnect with the power and presence of God in our midst. This Lent can give us the determination and the focus to change our minds in some life-changing ways. Beginning with our sermon series which runs now through Palm Sunday, a series we are calling “The Seven Respectable Sins”.

Respectable?! If you are scratching your head and wondering if you heard me right – yes, I did say the Seven Respectable Sins. You see, we 21st century American Christians seem to have found a way to domesticate what used to be called the Seven Deadly Sins. We have found a way to make them more palatable, and certainly so ordinary and commonplace, they hardly seem like sins to us anymore. We have made them “respectable.”

Today, I want to shine the light on the respectable sin of “comparison thinking”, which is really just the deadly sin of envy. Mark Twain once commented that “Comparison is the death of joy.” I think there is something to that. I had a neighbor in Eugene who spent 36 years working as a Clinical Psychologist. She told me one day that in all those years providing therapy to a wide range of clients, and even in her work of training other therapists, she felt like she kept seeing the same things over and over again. Whether the problem was depression, or anxiety, narcissism or neurosis of one kind or another, she felt that much of the suffering could be laid at the feet of three simple thoughts:

“What if”… You know that thought pattern. It is the nagging doubt which circles around in your head, taunting you to try and reconstruct the past. What if I had taken that other job? What if my relationship had not ended? What if I had sold that stock before the crash? What if?… you can fill in the blank for yourself.

“If only”… Another useless obsession, the “if only” refrain goes something like this: If only I had better hair. If only I could get a raise. If only I had a better house, or smarter friends. If only…

And the last one my friend named, that last unhelpful, unhealthy thought pattern, was comparison thinking. This is the sticking thinking which leads us into measuring ourselves against others and judging that we do not measure up.

Theologian and Spiritual Director Henri Nouwen seems to concur with my psychologist friend, and with Mr. Twain, as they point out the danger of comparison thinking. Nouwen writes:

Often we want to be somewhere other than where we are, even to be someone other than who we are. We tend to compare ourselves constantly with others and wonder why we are not as rich, not as intelligent, or simple, not as generous, or saintly as they are. Such comparisons make us feel guilty, ashamed, or jealous.

            It is very important to realize that our vocation (our true life path) is hidden in where we are and who we are. Each of us is a unique human being, each with a call to realize in life what nobody else can, and to realize it in the concrete context of the here and now.

            We will never find our meaning by trying to figure out whether we are better or worse than others. We are good enough to do what we are called to do…which is to be yourself!

             I often think about this problem of comparison thinking when I think about our system of church structure and governance. I remember working with one of our newly consecrated bishops who expressed great angst coming home from the first meeting of the Council of Bishops at Lake Junaluska. As I listened to his stories of meetings and orientations and worship experiences and team building sessions, I kept hearing this small demon of doubt and insecurity as this new bishop made comparisons with others. I remember thinking to myself, “For heaven’s sake – you are a bishop! You’ve made it (there is no Methodist Pope)!” But of course, the problem is that bishops are still human beings.

It turns out that comparison thinking may be respectable, in that it is such a common trap we fall into – but it is certainly not benign! Indeed, comparison thinking is a thinly disguised form of that deadliest of sins, envy. Pamela Haag puts it this way:

In the 21st century, the other Big Seven sins are more easily managed, when not downright recycled as virtues. The “Greed is Good” 1980s and the bubble years actually celebrated Avarice. Gluttony has become more a dispassionate public health problem than a sin. Sloth is arguably a virtue for the generation that seeks to work “smarter, not harder.” Pride has been rehabilitated as the peppy, positive stuff of self esteem. Wrath is the lingua franca of American politics. And big pharmaceuticals have alchemized Lust into a medical imperative and its absence into a pathology that must be treated with Viagra.

            But ENVY still lurks and stalks in the dark alleys and bad neighborhoods of our minds. Nothing festers more virulently than unexpressed and unspeakable envy, which can always be made to look and sound like something else, even to ourselves.

            We might fool ourselves by saying that comparison thinking is simply a way of self improvement. We might pretend we are using it only to quantify and qualify our world. But the problem is, comparison thinking – envy – distorts our perception, drains our gratitude, and robs us of joy.

When Jesus is baptized, amazing things happen. It is like no other baptism any of us have ever witnessed. He comes up out of the river, spluttering the water from his eyes, and sees the heavens open, watching as a dove lands upon him. He hears God’s voice calling him “beloved”, and right away the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. Right away, Jesus is taken into that place we all inhabit, where our fears meet our doubts, our anxiety is compounded by our insecurity, and we are tempted into every conceivable form of comparison thinking.

In the wilderness with Jesus, we are going to have to choose whether we will wander off down that path of envy, or stay on the path God has set before us, which leads us to realize our own calling, to truly be ourselves. Brene Brown suggests:

To be fully human means learning to turn my gratitude for being alive into some concrete common good. It means growing gentler toward human weakness. To be fully human means practicing forgiveness of my and everyone else’s hourly failures to live up to divine standards. It means learning to forget myself on a regular basis in order to attend to the other selves in my vicinity.

            To be fully human means living so that “I’m only human” does not become an excuse for anything. It means receiving the human condition as blessing and not curse, in all its achingly frail and redemptive reality.

            Ours is an achingly frail yet redemptive reality, which is one reason we are choosing to learn a little bit about the lives of some of the saints this Lent. You too can join us in “Lent Madness”, filling out your own single-elimination tournament bracket for 32 saints we will study. Listen to what the originators of Lent Madness have to say about our experience together this year:

Aside from the ridiculous competition of Lent Madness, we hope everyone will notice something about each of the saints. Every single one of the saints was a flawed human being…they were living, breathing, messed up people not so different from us.

You might say, every one of the saints was achingly frail and yet shared with the world the possibility of redemption. Just like us, they were living, breathing, messed up people. And yet, each of them somehow managed to let God’s grace work in them. And each of them ended up channeling Christ’s light into the darkness of this world.

How did they do it? How did they walk into the wilderness and stay on God’s path? They did it the same way you and I can do it today. First, look outside yourself. You cannot really follow Jesus if all you see are your own footsteps, or all you hear are your own anxieties. You cannot stay on God’s path if all you notice is your own woundedness. Look outside yourself.

Secondly, be grateful. When you give up comparison thinking, you are freed up to notice the gifts and the graces, the blessings and the possibilities you already have at your disposal. When we practice gratitude we are empowered to use the goodness we have received, and even to multiply it beyond our wildest imaginations. Be grateful.

And finally, be kind. Remember that everyone you meet is fighting their own particular battle. Kindness extended to others empowers you in your own struggles. A kind word, a gracious gesture, a supportive empathy can all keep you moving in the right direction from Jerusalem all the way to the empty tomb. Be kind.

Ours is an achingly frail yet amazingly redemptive reality, when we choose to go beyond the minds we have and to connect with the mind of God. Not only for Lent, but for a lifetime. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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