the seven deadly sins, iv.

Matthew 23:1-12
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Sermon
Jesus is in Jerusalem.
In Matthew’s chronology it’s early in the week
that would come to be known as holy—
the week that began with Jesus arriving in Jerusalem
on the donkey and the colt,
that had him going to the Temple and raising a ruckus,
the week through which he stayed in Bethany—
presumably with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha—
returning to the city each morning.
He spent a good bit of time at the temple teaching and telling stories—
even after the initial ruckus he raised there.
Staring down the consequences of his life and teaching that week,
he still had things to say, and in our text, he says
to the crowds and to his disciples,
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat;
therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it;
but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.

Respect their position—respect the office,
the tradition, the story, the truths they teach,
but do not respect them, for they do not deserve your respect.
Their lives do not sync with what they teach—
with what you would expect from those in such office,
and you are not to respect anyone simply for the office they hold.”
The words of Jesus for the people of God.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,
and lay them on the shoulders of others;
but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
They make others live with consequences they reject for themselves,
make others live in circumstances and with conditions
of which they know little, seek to know even less, and care least of all.

They do all their deeds to be seen by others;
for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.
They love to have the place of honor at banquets
and the best seats in the synagogues,
and to be greeted with respect in the market-places,
and to have people call them rabbi.
They love being considered special—leaders—powerbrokers—
winners of the biggest game there is to play.

Amidst the great truths of which they are a part—
the great tradition in which they wrap themselves,
their lies are calculatedly costumed and choreographed—
carefully scripted
but their rhetoric as leaders is undermined
by the flexibility of their priorities
and the artificiality of their concerns.
Easy enough to understand simply as hypocrisy,
but I wonder if these are not so much the lies of hypocrisy we’re talking about,
as those of knowledge without character—
which I’m going to suggest connotes envy.
Let me tell you why.

Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr. is the great grandson of Nelson W. Aldrich … not junior,
who was himself grandfather to the famous Rockefellers
and a leader of the Senate in his day,
“a Rhode Island grocer [who] entered the Senate in 1881 worth $50,000
and left 30 years later worth $12 million ….”
(https://people.com/archive/born-to-the-manor-but-not-to-the-money-nelson-aldrich-jr-reflects-on-matters-of-class-vol-30-no-13/).
His salary as a senator for that time (I looked this up)
was $5,000 a year—
though, to be fair, for his last five years it was $7,500 a year
(https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/senate_salaries.htm).
Bribery is apparently something we as US citizens
have always tolerated in our politicians.

Nelson Aldrich, Jr.’s book Old Money: The Mythology of Wealth in America,
that The Atlantic Monthly called “the best nonfiction book
about the American upper class written by one of its members
since Henry Adams’ Education” (op. cit. people.com),
includes this insight: “envy is so integral and painful a part
of what animates human behavior in market societies
that many people have forgotten the full meaning of the word,
simplifying it into one of its symptoms of desire.
It is that (a symptom of desire) which is why if flourishes in market societies ….
But envy is more or less than desire.
It begins with an almost frantic sense of emptiness inside oneself,
as if the pump of one’s heart were sucking on air…”
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Envy).

I have taken on the mission of reclaiming and celebrating nuance.
So, a little nuance for you this morning:
Admiration is viewing positively what another has or does.
Jealousy is missing what another has or does—
feeling its lack in your own living.
Coveting is wanting what another has.
Subtle difference there—missing focused on my lack,
coveting focused on what they have.
Envy is not just wanting what someone has or does or is,
but wanting them not to have it—do it—be it.
wanting them to be wanting.
That’s why envy is the deadly sin.

Steve Shoemaker, a former pastor of mine,
in a book he wrote about the seven deadly sins and the seven lively virtues,
put it this way: “Envy turns Paul’s instruction, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice
and weep with those who weep’ (Rom 12:15) upside down.
We rejoice when others weep and weep when they rejoice”
(H. Stephen Shoemaker, The Jekyll & Hyde Syndrome:
A New Encounter with the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Lively Virtues)
That makes of envy a mean-spirited emptiness—an insatiable vacuousness—
an idolatrous investment not so much in upward mobility—
a more elevated status—stature
(though that may be the language used)
as in a desperate pushing others down
that makes you feel taller even though you have not grown a bit.
An it-doesn’t-really-matter-how-low-I-am-
if-I-can-push-others-even-farther-down mentality.
Envy is the misguided attempt to feel better about yourself
not just amidst the misery of others, but due to the misery of others.

There’s a German word that’s been adopted into English:
Schadenfreude, a compound word from two words
that literally mean damages and joy—
taking joy in the damages another suffers.
And Schadenfreude is most often a symptom of envy.

While it may not always be immediately apparent,
it is always eventually apparent—
and it is never lost on the envious themselves,
that they are missing something—
something they didn’t get as part of their growing up
that they needed that they don’t see in their living.
Etymologically, our word envy comes from the Latin verb “to see”
and a prefix meaning “at,” “against,” or “not” or “opposite of.”
The envious see something vital in others they do not see in themselves
that leaves them constantly hungering—
longing—yearning—grasping—
desperately denying others in their envy.
And if they “succeed” (however that’s understood)—
the more they “succeed”—
the more they gain monetarily or politically—
the more people they mock or dismiss,
the more people they denigrate and blame,
because the more they know they are simply perpetuating
what made them feel empty to begin with—
ever acquiring but inadequate substitutes for what matters.
This is, by the way, one of the definitions of hell.

But you are not to be called rabbi,
for you have one teacher, and you are all students.
And call no one your father on earth,
for you have one Father—the one in heaven.
Nor are you to be called instructors,
for you have one instructor, the Messiah.

Titles and honorifics are not for you—
especially not ones that raise you above others.
It’s about humility again, isn’t it?
Knowing your place—not belittling your place,
but recognizing it.
The greatest among you will be your servant.
All who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
And see there it is again—the truth of our God
and (supposedly) our faith
that envy turns inside out and upside down.
Envy thinks it can be exalted by humbling others—
mocking others—putting others down.

Our text is explicit though: all who exalt themselves will be humbled,
and all who humble themselves will be exalted,
just as in our story unfolding as it did long ago in Jerusalem,
Jesus was exalted—Jesus was raised up—to die—
raised up on the cross,
and then Jesus was entombed—laid low—
in order to rise.

That is more than just the story of Jesus, by the way.
That is God’s truth—
reality envisioned and created by God—
really always being created by God—
and the way we are called to participate
in the ongoing shaping of reality—
which is not political.

There is no political Messiah.
There is no political Savior—
just politicians wanting to wear such expectations—
coveting the attributes of all powerful, all knowing, infallible—
wrapping their emptiness in religious language and imagery
in the envy that seeks to push even God down.

Which brings us to our Woodbrook twist on Gandhi—
Gandhi’s knowledge without character
twisted to character without knowledge.
Dad questioned this. He thinks I’m pushing here.
He thinks if you have character, you do not reject knowledge.
I don’t disagree,
but I’m reminded these days of A.J. Jacobs’ book The Year of Living Biblically.
I showed his TED talk to my class and speaking of creationists
he said, “[T]hey were not stupid people at all.
I would wager that their IQ is exactly the same as the average evolutionist.
It’s just that their faith is so strong in this literal interpretation of the Bible
that they distort all the data to fit their model.
And they go through these amazing mental gymnastics to accomplish this.”
(https://www.ted.com/talks/aj_jacobs_my_year_of_living_biblically/transcript?language=en)
In like manner, I do not question at all that there are good people
who think very differently than I do—scripturally, theologically, politically, morally.
Some of them seem to distort the data to fit their model—
doing all kinds of moral gymnastics to justify themselves.
And I must remain vigilant, because I’m sure they say the same of me.
But I will not impugn the character of someone
who rejects knowledge … necessarily … maybe.
Though maybe that’s in theory.
Maybe Dad’s right.
Because it’s hard to affirm character
in someone who turns their back on the evidence.

Which in good timing brings us to how we’ve also been mentioning
what might serve as antidotes to some of these deadly sins.
One antidote to—or balance for envy is gratitude.
Have y’all seen these gratitude journals?—
formats for tracking gratitude in bullet journals?
Noticing that for which we are grateful—naming gratitude—
is a profoundly helpful discipline
when it comes to combatting envy—
that emptiness—
because gratitude has to do with fullness.

We do it every Thanksgiving, by the way.
Set aside some time to name specifics for which we are grateful.
Actually, real quick: think specifically of what are you grateful for.
Turn and tell a neighbor.

Gratitude. There is another antidote to envy worth noting.
Jim Somverville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church,
preachers’ camp member also preaching this seven sins series
in a different order though (which can be incredibly helpful!).
In his sermon on envy, Jim told the story of a former church member, Gordon,
with Cerebral Palsy, and he … got around in a motorized wheelchair
and communicated—slowly and with great difficulty—
through a keyboard attached to the frame.
One day we were having coffee and I asked him,
“Gordon, how do you do it?” by which I meant,
“How do you live your life with out being eaten up with envy
that everyone else has it so easy and you have it so hard?”
And slowly, and with much difficulty, he began to type out the answer.
“I don’t look around at everybody else,” he said.
“I look at my own life.” As we talked further Gordon explained
that, like everybody else, he had good days and bad days.
His benchmark was down here somewhere;
it took him two hours to get dressed in the morning.
My benchmark was up here; it took me fifteen minutes, sometimes less.
But Gordon wasn’t looking at my benchmark; he was looking at his.
And as long as he looked at his, he was fine.
“How was your day, Gordon?” “It was great!
It only took me an hour and forty five minutes to get dressed!”
(Jim Somerville, “The Seven Deadly Sins: Envy,” Richmond’s First Baptist Church, January 19, 2020)

Look to your own life.
Find blessings.
Be grateful for all you have for which to be grateful—
not because of how it compares to what anyone else has.
Social media is no friend of gratitude
and serves jealousy and covetousness
and can lead to envy.

Earlier I referenced the story of Jesus that is more than just the story of Jesus.
So what specifically does Jesus offer us to help us live without envy?
I mean, doesn’t Jesus save us from our sins?
Except I tend not to think Jesus will save us from ourselves.
Tend not to think Jesus has a magic get out from under the influence of sin card.
I tend to think he shows us the way.
It’s his way.
But whether or not it’s ours is not up to Jesus, but up to us.

So we look to the story for its lessons—
its insight into truth—its transformative possibilities?
I am among you as one who serves (Luke 22:27), says Jesus.
The leader among you must become like one who serves,
says Jesus (Luke 22:26).
Lean into the assurance of God’s reality
more than … well, anyone else’s assurances.
Don’t work so hard to be exalted.
All anyone looking up at you sees is your … rear end.
Especially if you’re stepping on them to get up.
Stay with people where they are.
Look them in the eye so they see you in the eye too.

The biblical tradition in which Jesus was raised was one of humility.
One third of the answer to what God requires of us
is knowing our place—
knowing our great calling to participate in the redeeming of all creation,
while knowing at the same time we are not God.

Now that is a little more complicated when it comes to Jesus,
theologically speaking—Jesus who was God (John 1:1),
but that priority of—that commitment to knowing one’s place
holds true even of Jesus who did not count equality with God
as something to be grasped, but humbled himself,
obedient even to the point of death (Philippians 2:8).

My friends, we may have different theories
as to why this is the case,
but I think it’s hard to argue that it’s not the case:
that our culture is focused more on empty than on full,
on scarcity more than abundance—
that our culture is more fearful than brave (despite our national rhetoric)—
more invested in me than in you and in us more than in them—
more emotionally reactive than thoughtfully responsive—
that we are too much too small and too violent, dismissive of others—
more interesting in dominating than relating—in blame than responsibility—
less interested in partnership than in power—
perceiving bipartisanship as weakness—
and desperately trying to name what is truly weakness strength.
Ironic, isn’t it? As arguably the wealthiest, most prosperous culture in the world,
we are also arguably one of the most envious ones too.
We have sought fullness in all the wrong places.
This is our legacy—or it is the legacy being shaped.
But it is not the priority to which we must bow.
It is the culture in which we move and breathe and have our being,
and shape us it inevitably does, but it must not define us.

For we as those on the way of God, are defined by a fullness overflowing.
We look and see an uncontainable, irrepressible abundance.
We are a profoundly grateful people
who think carefully and deeply and feel as deeply as we think.
Ours is the uplifting call to the work of raising others,
affirming and celebrating others,
of confessing our sins less in order to transcend them
as to learn through them how to grow,
blaming not others but responsible ourselves.
And while we may fall short—may regularly fall short,
we get up time and time again and we keep trying,
because really, who wants—who really wants the alternative?

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