Sunday, June 25, 2006

7 Deadly Sins -- 2: Envy -- The saddest sin

Genesis 4:1-12; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

What’s so deadly about envy?
How did envy land the number two spot,
in Pope Gregory’s Top 7 chart, 15-hundred years ago?
Isn’t a little envy pretty pride?
We can be proud of something we accomplish,
or proud of our children, our church, our community,
without committing sin.
Isn’t a little envy okay, too?
Two office colleagues are scheduled to go to January.
One of them is going to Fiji, the other to Minnesota.
I think a little envy would be in order.
Expressing a desire to have something someone else has,
can be just a way to compliment them on their good fortune.
Friends envy friends all the time.
Neighbors envy neighbors all the time.

There’s an ancient Chinese tale about a farmer
who had a horse that was exceptionally beautiful, strong, and fast.
His neighbor told him he envied him, for having such a great horse.
The farmer replied,
“Who knows whether I should be pitied or envied because of this?”
The next day the horse ran away into the hills,
and the neighbor’s envy turned to pity.
The farmer said,
“Who knows whether I should be pitied or envied?”
A few days later the horse returned with a mare
which was even more beautiful, strong, and fast,
and now the neighbor envied his two horses.
But he said, “Who knows whether I should be pitied or envied?”
The farmer’s son tried to ride the new horse,
but the horse reared, and he fell off and broke his leg,
so the neighbor pitied the farmer again.
But he said, “Who knows whether I should be pitied or envied?”
Then the general of the emperor’s army came
to draft the son for a dangerous mission,
but the son was rejected because of his broken leg,
and the neighbor’s son was drafted instead,
so the neighbor envied him again.
But he said, “Who knows whether I should be pitied or envied?”
And the story goes on.
Envy. Pity. They are natural result of living around other people.
And besides,
the things we envy may turn out to be the cause of bad fortune,
as much as good fortune.
So maybe the worst we say about envy,
is that it’s pointless.
It’s a waste of emotional energy.
But is it really deadly?

The more I look at this list of seven,
the more I think Gregory got it right.
These sins are deadly because they are so pervasive.
They are so much of part of our humanity, so commonplace,
that they almost seem harmless and trite.
We laugh them off.
They become the stuff of late-night comics.
But quietly and persistently these sins are at work in us.
And almost imperceptibly,
they lead us toward destructive ways of living.
They are deadly
precisely because they are so easily shrugged off.

So what is it about envy that makes it so destructive?
Sure, it had deadly consequences for Cain and Abel.
But that’s an extreme example.
What about the envy we deal with every day?
No, it probably won’t drive most of us to murder.
But let’s not be too cavalier about it.
Envy can seem harmless at first.
But it nibbles and gnaws.
It starts eating away at us, like a silent cancer,
or like Norman’s example: a spirochete.
It’s far more destructive than we might think.

True envy is not simply a light-hearted wish
that we could sing like Pavarotti,
or write like Maya Angelou,
or vacation at resorts frequented by Bill Gates.
It’s more insidious than that.
Envy resents the good being experienced by another.
We might not express it,
but underneath there’s a kind of ill-will involved.
I looked up envy in the Oxford Dictionary,
(the one that takes up two shelves in the library).
I found there was an obsolete definition to envy.
At one time, the definition included,
“malignant or hostile feeling, ill-will, malice, enmity.”
And it was used in that sense, up through the 17th century.
This list of sins came from the 6th century.
Malice and ill-will were in the domain of meaning for envy
when Gregory the Great set the list.

Envy diminishes our humanity.
It’s actually a form of self-hatred,
according to Henry Fairlie, the late British essayist,
who wrote a book on the Seven Deadly Sins in the 1970's.

Envy may start with a sort of self-love,
because I want something to supposedly better myself.
But when I am envious, I am not loving myself.
I am not grateful for, or happy in, what I am or what I have.
The sin is deadly, because it will not let me live as myself.
And envy not only disparages self, it disparages others,
and it disparages the One who created us both.
Everyone is a loser, with envy.

It’s really the saddest sin, you might say.
Every one of the other seven deadly sins has in it
at least some sort of gratification, even for a moment,
pride, anger, gluttony, lust,
at least there’s some momentary pleasure involved.
But there is no pleasure in envy, no joy, even for a moment.
It’s a sad sin.
It weighs heavily.
It pulls us down.
Chaucer knew this about envy.
In the Canterbury Tales, the “Parson’s Tale” is a long sermon,
all about the Seven Deadly Sins.
I took the time to read it again this week.
I hadn’t looked at it since freshman English.
Chaucer had some keen insight into these sins.
In his story, the parson says this about envy (quote)
“For hardly is there any sin that has not some delight in itself,
save only envy, which ever has of itself but anguish and sorrow.”
Thomas Aquinas agreed.
He said that both charity and envy have the same object:
which is, our neighbor’s good.
Charity rejoices. Envy grieves.

Chaucer died 600 years ago. Thomas Aquinas, almost 750 years ago.
Not much has changed about human nature.

Put simply, envy is tragic.
The tragedy doesn’t get any deeper than it does
in the Genesis 4 story of Cain and Abel.
I don’t think this story indicates that Cain’s envy came up suddenly,
because his offering didn’t meet the technical requirements,
and therefore didn’t please God.
God’s answer to Cain, in Genesis 4:7, is this:
“If you do well, will you not be accepted?
And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door;
its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
It would seem Cain was not doing well, when his sacrifice was given.
Perhaps, the sin of envy had already taken deep root.
It was trying to have him, to own him.
And the tragedy that resulted from that sin of envy,
was more than the death of his brother, as tragic as that was.
It destroyed them both.
It robbed them both of their full humanity.
It’s surely the saddest sin.

And what makes it even sadder,
is what it does to close relationships.
Close communities are especially susceptible to envy.
As committed as I am to promoting
the experience of community within the church,
it’s a fact that community is a breeding ground for envy.

We don’t generally envy those who are much, much greater than us.
I doubt many of us have fallen into sin envying
Pavarotti, Maya Angelou, and Bill Gates.
They are so far above our abilities, our achievements, our possessions,
that their world is practically irrelevant to ours.
It is our neighbors, our close friends, our coworkers, our siblings,
even our spouses...that we are prone to envy.
Aristotle said, “Envy grows naturally in a relationship between equals.”
Kierkegaard called envy is a “small-town sin.”
It breeds on proximity.
See, if we can easily see ourselves in the shoes of someone else,
and they have something we ourselves desire,
be it material possessions, or talent, or prestige, or position,
we are tempted to wonder, “Why not me?”
What’s so special about them?
And we convince ourselves that they got their good fortune,
purely by dumb luck,
or worse, they finagled their way into getting it,
even though they didn’t deserve it.
And soon we begin harboring secret thoughts of their downfall.
We diminish their humanity, and ours.

Envy can show up anywhere.
We might tend to associate it with the business world,
where there’s intense competition,
and a striving to grow capital and increase profits.
And certainly, envy thrives there.

But Will Willimon, in his book on the Seven Deadly Sins,
says that envy is a particular problem in academia.
He writes from first-hand experience,
having taught at Duke University for many years.
In academic departments, where there are close working quarters,
and where people tend to stay for a very long time,
and where there is tough competition for limited grant money,
and where rank and title and recognition are emphasized,
he says envy is rampant,
and you can hear remarks like,
“I could sell as many books as he does,
if I didn’t have such high standards for my scholarship.”
Willimon ended his chapter on envy with a personal note, a confession.
Let me read it.
“As I was finishing these thoughts on envy, my wife called to tell me that an acquaintance of mine has just been given a prestigious, lucrative honor. Not that I have sought this honor for myself, but still, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that I might have received this particular honor, and the cash involved.”
And then, tongue-partly-in-cheek, he adds,
“Although I certainly, through my untiring and unselfish efforts, deserved this honor far more than he, I could never have lowered myself to his sycophantic, groveling, unctuous efforts whereby this honor came to him. The little brown-nose.”

He probably didn’t feel exactly that way,
but he is revealing what envy can do to friends.
Even close friends become competitors, and potentially, enemies.
It is surely a sad sin.

Envy even has a color. We say someone is “green with envy.”
That comes from green being the color of sickness and nausea.
In medieval art, the sin of envy is often depicted as a sickly person,
someone who is wasting away.
The sadness and tragedy of envy
is that it makes us less than our full God-created humanity.
Envy sickens us.
Ovid, the Roman poet,
who lived during the time Jesus was running around in Nazareth,
in a famous poem, depicted Envy as a sickly person wasting away
at the mouth of a cave: green, festering, and sick to the stomach.

Now, after all this sad talk about how insidious envy is,
and how it is lurking at our door,
how it is gnawing away at our humanity,
making us sick to the stomach,
what is the word of hope?
What is the Gospel message for us today?

There is an antidote for envy.
In fact, every one of these deadly sins has a corresponding virtue.

We are calling this worship series,
“Seven Deadly Sins, and Seven Lively Alternatives.”
Ever since the 6th century, when Seven Deadly Sins began to be taught,
the church fathers came up with another list of seven:
the Seven Holy Virtues.
You can see the whole list on the front of our bulletin,
with the Sins on the left, and the corresponding virtue on the right.
So humility opposes pride.
And kindness opposes envy.
Patience opposes anger.
Diligence opposes sloth.
Generosity opposes greed.
Contentment opposes gluttony.
Holiness opposes lust.

Most all of them make perfect sense.
I wondered at first why kindness was chosen as the virtue opposite envy.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to
have satisfaction or contentment be what opposes envy?
But as I got into what envy is all about,
I realized how right that is.
Envy can’t survive in the face of genuine kindness, or love.

If envy diminishes self, and others, and God,
love is the fulfillment of self, others, and God.
The antidote for envy is what the Hebrew scriptures call “hesed.”
When we are oriented toward God and others,
in sacrificial love,
how could we possibly harbor envy.
The good of the other becomes our good.
The joy of the other is our joy.
The success of the other is our success.

And if you include the obsolete definition of envy,
that was current when the list was made,
that is, envy as malice, hostility, and ill-will,
then loving kindness is the obvious choice
as a virtue to overcome envy.

It is not a coincidence that the Apostle Paul,
when he penned his sublime love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13,
wrote these words so prominently,
which we heard a few minutes ago:
Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.

Chaucer’s character in the “Parson’s Tale,”
also expounded on love as the answer to envy.
I’ll read a passage of it.
“Now will I speak of the remedy for this foul sin of envy.
First, is the love of God,
and the love of one’s neighbour as one’s self...
Your neighbour you are bound to love
and to wish all good things;
and thereunto God says, ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself.’
That is to say, to the salvation both of life and soul...
For just as the Devil is discomfited by humility,
so is he wounded to the death by love for our enemy.
Certainly, then, love is the medicine
that purges the heart of man of the poison of envy.”

Of course, as with all sin,
the answer doesn’t come simply in trying harder.
The sin of envy is not rooted from our lives,
simply by making a more valiant human effort to love.

In the other epistle reading for today,
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 2,
he acknowledges that we have been dead through sin (deadly sin?)
that we had been following the way of the world,
and following the ruler of the power of the air,
without hope, without the ability to save ourselves.
Then in verses 4 and 5,
“But God, who is rich in mercy,
out of the great love with which he loved us
even when we were dead through our trespasses,
made us alive together with Christ–
by grace you have been saved.”

Sin is overcome by confession,
when we bow to the right ruler,
and submit to the grace of God in Christ,
the grace that comes to us when we repent,
when we turn away from the sin of envy,
and turn toward the God of love.
That’s repentance. Turning from, and turning toward.

There’s a beautiful, and perfectly fitting song about that
in the new “Sing the Journey” hymnal.

Slowly turning, ever turning from our lovelessness like ice,
from our unforgiving spirit, from the grip of envy’s vice,
Slowly turning, ever turning toward the lavish life of spring,
toward the word of warmth and pardon, toward the mercy welcoming.

Slowly turning, ever turning from our ego-centered gaze,
from our self-enclosing circle, from our narrow, petty ways,
Slowly turning, ever turning toward the foreigner as friend,
toward the city without ghetto, toward the greatness without end.

Slowly turning, ever turning from our fear of death and loss,
from our terror of the darkness, from our scorning of the cross,
Slowly turning, ever turning toward the true and faithful one,
toward the light of daybreak dawning, toward the phoenix-risen sun!

—Phil Kniss, June 25, 2006

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B Nussbaum said...

I don't know how much positive or negative feedback you get from week to week, but I must say that I heard several people comment that this was one of the best sermons they had heard in years....from anyone. Thanks Phil.

Chrissie Lynne said...

When I clicked on this link, I didn't expect something so remarkable. I am so moved by your writing that I am printing this out as a daily reminder- thank you for taking the time to create something truly life changing. I have subscribed to your e-mail list as well and look forward to hearing more from you.

In your sermon, you spoke of not envying those out of our day to day life. However, I do not find this to be true. I seem to have been blessed with the ability to keep a rational perspective and a hold on envy with those close to me- I struggle with the lifestyles of celebrities. We do not have television, I do not read magazines, and I'm on NO social networking sites- However, it doesn't matter! No matter how much I separate myself from the "Hollywood" world, I am bombarded by the thoughts of "what if you had taken a different path"- "look at how much money and praise they receive for being in a move". Written out, it sounds simple- It sounds like an easy fix- however the emotion is consuming.

Thank you for your sermon.