The Seven Deadly Sins continued: Wrath

We’re back to our study of the deadly sins. Today’s sin is illustrated for us in the first lesson from Exodus. Wandering through the desert wilderness, the Israelites have begun to wonder about provisions for themselves and the livestock they brought with them from Egypt. It certainly was impressive how Moses commanded the plagues to help them escape from Pharaoh. Then when the Red Sea rose up like walls of water on either side of them, and then came crashing down on the pursuing army, well, those are certainly stories to tell the grandkids. But the showmanship seems to be over, and what they really need is something very simple. They’re getting thirsty. What are you going to do about that, Moses?

Poor Moses. He’s just trying to do what God is telling him told to do – AND lead thousands of people, practically all by himself. That’s a pretty tall order all by itself. That’s multi-tasking of Biblical proportions. Now those thousands of people are beginning to get agitated. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt,” they asked Moses, “to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” When they become angry enough to prepare to stone poor Moses to death, the deadly sin of wrath takes over. You’ve got to be pretty angry to want to stone someone. You’ve pretty much got to shut off any perception that the person you’re targeting is another human being. These people are just about out of control. Their anger has hijacked their humanity. Their emotional lives and well-being is being killed by their own out-of-control emotions. Their wrath is beginning to overflow their emotional lives and negatively effect the physical life and well-being of another person. Anger and wrath is a powerful sin.

This deadly sin that we call wrath is manifested in the individual with the replacing of love for fury. It is also known as Anger. Human beings are actually hardwired for this feeling. Perhaps this is one sin that is actually unreconcilable. According to the book The Travelers’ Guide to Hell, wrath is a complex sin. Authors Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls write that anger is the Sin most likely to harm other people, particularly when mixed with another Sin. For example, Anger + Envy = armed robbery. You might say Anger + Lust = rape. Facaros and Pauls might be on to something, but I’m not sure what Anger + Sloth might equal. They provide a short story to illustrate how the deadly sin Wrath works.

“One day it became rather important that I get from Washington D.C. to Miami, where a friend was experiencing a certain crisis. Airfares were prohibitively expensive, so I called Amtrak to see if they could help me out.

“They couldn’t. In fact, when I was finally allowed to talk to a human being after a wait of over twenty minutes, I was put on hold a few more times while the customer service agent got some coffee, rearranged her closet, regrouted her aquarium, and took a Calculus class. Understand that I really really wanted to get out of Washington D.C. at this point – that night, even – and that each passing minute might have made the difference between catching the night train, or not. Amtrak treated me with the care you would expect them to extend to any convicted serial killer.

“I was peeved. I hung up. I didn’t go to Florida, which turned out to be perfectly fine. But the damage was done: my sales agent was only guilty of a little rudeness, but I was guilty of the Sin of Anger. And while she will probably eventually get fired, I will baste in the fires of eternal damnation.”

Do you see how this person’s anger toward another person put him in a position to dehumanize the Amtrak agent? The crisis in Miami was not her fault, nor was his crisis her crisis. His anger caused him to see this stranger as an adversary. When all was said and done, the Amtrak agent did her job and moved on to the next customer, but the soul of the writer of this story will always be darkened by how he treated the person who was trying to help him.

Psychologist Doctor Leon Seltzer, whose clinical practice includes over 20 years working with a variety of anger issues observes in an article in Psychology Today, “in my own clinical experience, anger is almost never a primary emotion in that even when anger seems like an instantaneous, knee-jerk reaction to provocation, there’s always some other feeling that gave rise to it.” He asserts that anger is secondary to a heightened sense of fear. He writes, “Cycling from the heightened arousal level of fear to an equally intense anger happens with such breathtaking speed that almost no one can recollect that flash of trepidation preceding the anger.”

I would hazard to guess that whatever the crisis was in Miami, it made the writer of our story feel fear. Perhaps he was afraid of losing something or someone. Perhaps it was the fear of helplessness. The intensity of his anger mirrored the intensity of his fear. He must have been really afraid of something.

In our first reading today from Exodus, what we may actually be observing is fear at work in the Israelites, more than anger. They’re afraid they and their livestock will die from dehydration. Back in Egypt, they had the Nile as a constant and reliable water source. Out here in the wilderness, who knows when they’ll pass the next stream? Their fear is not unreasonable. The area of our planet where they wander is very dry, and there are few water sources. I’d be afraid of dying of thirst too. Theirs is an issue of survival. The deadly sin we’re trying to understand this week might be Anger or Wrath – the result of fear – but fear may in fact be the more deadly sin.

How often do we succumb to fear? How powerful fear is as a motivator and dictator of our actions. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said it was the only thing we had to fear. God often tells us to calm our fear, and everything that springs from it. Psalm 37: “Let go of anger and leave rage behind! Don’t get upset—it will only lead to evil.” Proverbs 14: Short-tempered people make stupid mistakes. Jesus warns us off feeding our wrath in Matthew 5: “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.” Paul seems more understanding of our struggle with anger. In Ephesians 4 he writes, “Be angry without sinning. Don’t let the sun set on your anger.” Anger can overstay its invitation and corrode our souls and our relationships with others.

Perhaps as an innate coping mechanism, anger helps us soften the blow of fear. There is a healthy benefit to confronting our fears with anger at breathtaking speed. For those who find themselves in situations that are detrimental to their health, swift anger can be a survival mechanism. If a fearful response would enable your victimization, wrath could save your life. But we’re not talking about crisis situations. We’re talking about the habitual dwelling with the sin of Wrath.

Fortunately, like all the deadly sins, we have a corresponding virtue to help us. The virtue for Wrath is Patience. Patience is forbearance and endurance. Patience helps us resolve conflicts and injustice peacefully, as opposed to resorting to violence. Patience helps us accept the grace to forgive, and show mercy to sinners – even ourselves. There’s a sense of peaceful stability and community in Patience rather than suffering, hostility, and antagonism. Where Wrath is powerful and encompassing, so too is Patience. When we apply Patience to our Anger we open up a portal to discovering a growth opportunity. Dealing directly with what scares us, rather than covering it up with wrath, helps us move beyond debilitating fear to a happier, healthier, more peaceful and serene life. That is a far better dwelling place than living with fury, contempt and violence.

What we learn today is that Wrath and Anger may only be the tip of the ice berg of deadly sin. But we need not have our peace and serenity hijacked by an unbridled emotion – especially one that may be camouflaging itself from something even more important for us to understand.

The good news for us today is that Patience, the corresponding Virtue to the deadly sin of Anger, is an important tool that is just as powerful as its Vice. It helps to ground us in the moment. Patience keeps us from being carried away with our anger such that we might cause harm to someone else or even ourselves. Patience gives us perspective on situations. It helps us to realize that things might not be as bad as we might think, or that given time, things will work out without our having to get worked up.

As we make our way through Lent, let us practice Patience. It takes 40 days to get through this season, no matter what we do. There’s no shortcut to Easter. Patience gives us that much-needed moment to consider what it is we think we’re doing in this season and why.

When you go home today, spend some time remembering the most recent few times when you felt anger or wrath. Being patient with yourself, try to discern what other emotions your anger or wrath was masking. Maybe our anger is telling us we need some help overcoming something we’re afraid of. Maybe this hardwired coping mechanism that we call a Sin is actually and indicator to something more important. Discovering that more important thing requires the careful application of the Vice’s corresponding Virtue. This deadly sin of Anger might actually turn out to be unique opportunity for grace.

Lent 1 sermon

“Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony/Temperance” © Laurel Dahill, 2014
Lent 1 – Year A — March 9, 2014

I want to share a little Lenten study with you this year. If you recall the Invitation to a holy Lent in our Ash Wednesday service, we heard, “I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” We do a lot of meditating on God’s holy Word together each Sunday, but this year I’d like us to try directing our meditations with a common topic.

Lent is a time for examining our sins and shortcomings; the places where we’ve failed one another – even where we’ve failed our own selves, and where we fall short of God’s expectations and intent for us. When we talk about repenting from sin, we really open up a can of worms. What is sin anyways? If you surveyed passersby on the street I bet you’d get a lot of I don’t knows or vague and general concepts. “Sin” is a loaded term, isn’t it? We can all conjure up the image of an overly-righteous Christian wagging a finger as some unsuspecting person and calling them a sinner. That kind of puts a damper on self-examination. So let’s set this person aside for a little while, and try to get to a more helpful understanding of sin.

The concept of sin has been worked over by many people over the centuries. Some have tried to categorize sins, qualify and quantify them, and rate the severity of them – will this sin send a person straight to hell, or just paroled in Purgatory for a little while? Most people have at least heard of the Seven Deadly Sins, the list of the basic elements of transgressions. I’d like to use that as our common topic, as we meditate on God’s holy Word this Lent. As we study the lectionary readings for this season, we will bump into manifestations of these sins. If we can see them at play in the various words on the page from our scriptures, we might learn to see how they might make themselves known to us in our everyday lives.

First, let’s get a definition going for what we mean by deadly sins. Basically the seven sins are defined as a list of rebellious tendencies that afflict fallen humanity. These have been classified by traditional orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity as cardinal sins, and venial sins. Cardinal sins are considered mortal wrongdoings. These are the transgressions that’ll get you life in H-E- double hockey sticks. The venial sins are less costly. A few acts of contrition will take care of those infractions.

The classic seven are based on a few places in the scriptures where the things that grieve God are noted. In Proverbs chapter 6 we read, “There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” Through the years this list has been modified.

Although some Protestant denominations recognize the seven deadlies, most don’t, even though the list was established well before the Protestant Reformation. The teaching has been embedded into Roman Catholicism in a way that it has not been in most Protestant churches. Protestant theology would agree that the seven vices on the list are sins, but it generally doesn’t make a distinction between mortal and venial sins in the same way Roman Catholicism does.

That’s a good bit of background information, but let’s dive right into it for our lessons for today. Today we find the deadly sin gluttony having its way with the storyline from Genesis. Here we have the story of Adam and Eve enjoying the Garden of Eden – paradise if you will – where there’s nothing to do but enjoy all that God has created. Of course we’d call it paradise. Who wouldn’t want to have everything given to them: no time clock to punch, no schedule to keep, no need to prepare for things, no housekeeping chores. Even before we the reader get to envision such a paradise we read that there’s discontent with all of this. What were Adam and Eve thinking? How could they make Eden better than it already was? Well, I guess Joni Mitchell was on to something when she sang about paving paradise to put up a parking lot and never knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. It looks like everything just wasn’t enough for them. I would say that gluttony got the better of Adam and Eve in Genesis.

Gluttony is a fairly straightforward deadly sin. It’s defined as an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires. Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas said: “Gluttony denotes, not any desire, but an inordinate desire… leaving the order of reason.”

Adam & Eve already had everything. They had paradise. What would make them want more? How much more than paradise do we need to be happy? Adam and Eve may have been the first to succumb to gluttony, but they weren’t the last. We read a lot in the story of the exodus, where the Israelites, who were given everything they needed for the journey, still cry out for more. We can read the account where the people were given manna to eat and told not to save any because there would be fresh manna every morning, “But they did not listen [and] some [saved]s part of it till the morning, and it bred worms and became foul.” Later, God gave them quail to eat because they complained of lack of meat. In the Book of Numbers we read that while the meat was yet between their teeth, not yet even consumed, they complained about it to the LORD. God became angry and smote people with a great plague.

Even in the New Testament, Paul addresses the community in Rome, which struggles with the same tensions of having enough, yet unreasonably desiring more than they actually need. Paul write, “Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Even the followers of Jesus still struggle with desire for more getting the better of them.

Here’s the thing: We are created with all the gifts we need to lead full and successful lives. The original sin we get from Adam and Eve is an inordinate desire to get more than what we need. In the course of humanity, living into its fallen state, satisfying our gluttony often comes at the expense of other people. Desire for resources goes beyond the bounds of ordinary reason. At its worst, gluttony becomes typified by John D. Rockefeller’s answer to the question, “How much is enough?” He said, “Just a little bit more.” For him all that he needed was overshadowed by all that he wanted. This response tells us that he was unable to make the distinction. Ironically, he also said “If your only goal is to become rich, you will never achieve it.” There is never an end to the “little bit more.” Somewhere in his soul Rockefeller must have known where this particular deadly sin resided. For the person burdened with the sin of gluttony, enough is never enough.

The Good News for us lies in this long season of discerning where some of these deadly sins may be creeping into our own lives. Lent is a time for re-assessing when we have. As residents of a superpower nation, a first-world country, and living in one of the wealthiest counties in the state, it’s obvious how many resources we get to enjoy. Because of that, we must acknowledge the persistent desire of our culture to consume more that we need. I’m talking about energy, land resources, food and clean water, and those things that we might take for granted that others would consider a basic necessity. At what cost to we enjoy these things? Who bears the most burden so that we can enjoy the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomed? Lent gives a time-out to ponder what we have without having to experience losing everything as Adam and Eve did when they were expelled from paradise. It could be obvious, or it could be subtle, but where do you see gluttony creeping into your everyday life?

The virtue counterpart to gluttony is temperance. Temperance is not a word you hear very often these days. It basically means showing restraint. It refers to a constant mindfulness of others and one’s surroundings, and our relationship to them. It involves practicing self-control, abstention, moderation, and deferred gratification. Temperance judges between actions with regard to appropriate responses for a given situation. Temperance recognizes a proper moderation between self-interest and the rights and needs of others. Perhaps looking for gluttony in your daily activities is not an easy thing to do. Try adding more aspects of temperance to your Lenten disciplines and see what that reveals for you.

The good news for today is that the Seven Deadly Sins are not entirely a catch 22. There is a corresponding virtue to each of them. God never leaves us in the lurch. God always provides a way for grace to redeem us – if we’re willing to turn toward it. For Adam and Eve, it was loincloths, the need for interdependence, and developing a mature relationship with each other and their surroundings. For us, it’s being given the remedy of easily-accessible virtues to ease the burden of our vices.

In the coming weeks we’ll discern some of the other deadly sins in our Lenten discipline studying God’s holy Word together. In the meantime, practice your own self-awareness of those things that get between you and a deeper relationship with the God who provides for your every need. You can begin with gluttony, or seek out temperance. Whatever you choose, you’ll be well on your way to practicing a holy Lent.