Sunday, August 13, 2006

7 Deadly Sins -- 7: Lust -- Lust and the Restless Heart

1 Peter 1:13-16; Ephesians 4:15-25

Beyond a doubt, this sermon is
the most anticipated sermon in my 23 years of preaching.
Someone stood up during sharing time a few weeks ago,
announcing their family would be traveling for a month,
but assured us they would be back in time for my sermon on lust.
Last Sunday’s preacher pointed out, right during her sermon,
that the sermon on lust would be next week
and that the congregation should be in prayer for me.
A young couple told me they would get back
from a long trip in the wee hours of this morning,
but said they would be sure to be here.
And I see that they are.
And finally, I kid you not, as we speak,
several young adult males, a couple of them from this congregation,
are out sailing on the Chesapeake Bay, out of range of WEMC,
so they had me promise to get the text of my sermon
up on the internet by noon today,
so they could download it, and discuss it on the boat.
There’s a sermon discussion group I would love to be part of.
Maybe they’ll invite me sailing sometime, for a recap.

With these kind of expectations,
I think I’m guaranteed to disappoint some of you.
Why all this intense interest in the subject?
Why have dozens of people
made chuckling references to this upcoming sermon?
We laugh because it helps deal with the tension.
It creates a buffer for what we know is a serious topic,
that’s very personal, and very real in all our lives,
and which we rarely talk about openly.

So let’s open the conversation.
What is lust? What are we actually talking about?
Well, let’s first define something more basic.
What does it mean to be human?
Well, I think we can say the essence of being human,
is being in relationship.
We were created by God for relationship,
relationship with God, and with other human beings.
The very first question in the Westminster Catechism is,
“What is the chief end of man?”
The answer is, “To glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”
The fundamental purpose of being human,
is to give and receive love, with God first of all.
St. Augustine’s famous prayer says,
“You have made us for Yourself,
and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”
God is love.
God is known to us in Covenant Love.
Covenant Love is God’s nature.
And we were created in God’s image,
made to be in loving relationship.

Lust, however, undermines this basic purpose for being human.
Lust denies, or at least ignores, the reality of Covenant love.
To lust is to seek after personal, solitary, momentary physical pleasure
at the expense of truly involving oneself in the life of another,
or the life of God.
Lust diminishes our humanity.
It denies the best of ourselves.

I’m not simply talking about our sexual drive.
Our body, our fleshly self,
along with all its fleshly drives and pleasures,
is a wonderful gift of a loving Creator God,
who desires nothing more than our deepest joy and fulfillment,
deep pleasure,
in our bodies, in our flesh!
God is not a body-hater, and neither should we be.
Our bodies are good, they are from God, and they are to honor God.

Lust undermines that.
Rather than accept our flesh as divine gift,
and receive the gift with gratitude to God,
lust seizes that flesh for its own pleasure, and cheapens it.
Someone said, lust is not a sin of the flesh.
It’s a sin against the flesh.
It humiliates the flesh.
It takes what God gave us in love, to help us enjoy relationships,
and uses it to isolate us from others.
It hones in on our narrow self and our personal pleasures.

Listen, it’s time we rediscover the public context for sexuality.
I know this sounds wrong,
and might make your ears burn to hear it, but stay with me now.
The problem with this culture’s attitude toward sexuality,
is not that it’s been brought out into the public.
The problem is that sex has been made an utterly private matter.
Christians have often raised their voices in protest
about blatant depictions of sexuality in the movies and media.
That’s understandable. And we ought to be concerned.
But the reason we’re concerned is not sufficient, I’m afraid.
We’re concerned simply because it’s being shown,
that it’s out in the open.
As if, we should be happy if nothing would change
about the way people behave behind closed doors,
just as long as the door stays shut,
and we don’t have to see it, or hear about it,
or think about it, or talk about it.

I think we need to be just as concerned
about the cultural assumptions behind it.
Culture tells us, and we mostly believe it,
that whatever consenting adults do behind closed doors,
is nobody’s business but their own.
That our sexuality, and our sexual expressions,
are purely private,
purely for our pleasure,
and have no impact on the larger society.
What we do in private has a profound impact on ourselves,
on who we are,
on what we think and believe.
We’re fooling ourselves if we imagine that who we are,
and how we think and believe,
has no impact on others.
What we do in private inevitably affects our public selves.
And it affects what we expect and tolerate
in the behavior of others.
Methodist Bishop Will Willimon
makes this rather astonishing statement, and I quote,
“For Christians, all good sex
is meant to be public rather than private:
that is, meant to be judged by its contribution
to the good of the larger society.”

We have privatized sex like we’ve privatized money,
and politics, and just about every other moral arena.
If there’s one thing I hope has come out of this series
on Seven Deadly Sins,
is that every one of them has huge social implications.
They manifest themselves in community,
they get addressed in community,
they get forgiven in community,
we find our way through them in community.
Remember how this list was first generated, back in the 4th century.
It was in the monastery,
among disciples of Jesus living in close quarters,
trying to help each other live holy lives.
All seven of these sins
are rooted in the life of any human community,
Christian communities no less.

The deadly sin of lust is made all the worse,
because we’ve bought into the cultural assumptions
that it’s a purely private matter,
we’ve removed it from the one context—
authentic Christian community—
that can deal with it in a way
that can begin to heal us and make us whole.
Will Willimon makes the statement that,
as lonely, weak, and detached disciples,
we are no match for the Devil.
In combating any sin,
God does not expect heroic individualism from us,
but rather membership in a family, a new people.
Remedy for this sin, he says,
is not “tight-fisted moral determination” to be better.
The remedy is baptism.
Because in baptism we are given the right context,
we are placed in a family that enables us to be holy.

In the epistle reading from 1 Peter this morning,
the apostle was urging this family to work together
toward creating a disciplined community of holiness.
The apostle wrote, “prepare your minds” (plural),
“discipline yourselves” (plural)
set all your hope on the grace of Jesus Christ
Like obedient children,
do not be conformed to the desires
that you formerly had in ignorance.
Instead, be holy yourselves in all your conduct;
for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”
All those imperatives are plural.
Be a disciplined community of holiness.

It’s also interesting to note how much of Paul’s instructions
on sexual holiness in his letters,
is couched in instruction on how to live together as a holy people.
We didn’t read it today, but sometime take a look at Ephesians 4:17-24.
It’s a paragraph full of instructions on turning away from lust,
and licentiousness, and impurity,
and all those former, futile ways of living,
and be renewed in mind and spirit,
clothe yourself in righteousness and holiness.
But he is not talking to detached individuals.
That paragraph is sandwiched between instructions on how to live
as a holy people.
The verse right before it talks about the body being joined and knit,
each part promoting the growth of the whole.
And the verse after it says, let’s all speak the truth to each other,
because we are members of each other.
The church of the apostles knew a life of holiness required
being situated among a people being formed in the holiness of God.

We need each other to combat the powerful messages
we get from culture all the time.
Culture tells us the expression of desire is a right,
in fact, that it’s a duty for each of us,
that the only danger is that we might repress that desire,
and any repression must be a bad thing.
Culture encourages unrestrained pursuit of our desires—
whether for sex, for food, for wealth, for power.
Gluttony and lust are a lot alike in this way,
gratifying physical desires without restraint.
The desires themselves are a gift,
a healthy part of being human.
But when we throw off all restraints,
and forget that both these desires were placed in us,
in order to support and sustain life,
to nurture life in community,
and we find ourselves, privately, secretly,
with a narrow, self-focused obsession,
feeding these desires without restraint,
and without regard to relationships,
we are sinning against God,
against the flesh,
against each other.

The Latin word for lust, in all the old lists of the Seven Deadlies,
is “luxuria.”
The word from which we get luxury.
But the other entries in that word family are interesting.
luxo: to put out of joint
luxum: dislocation
The words for lust, luxury, and getting our shoulder out of joint,
are all related.
Lust puts things out of joint, it dislocates.

Love builds community, lust makes us solitary.
British essayist Henry Fairlie said,
Love is involvement. Lust refuses to get involved.
That’s why some people engage in one-night stands,
“hooking up,” and a more recent term, “friends with privileges.”
These are not all about maximizing sexual pleasure.
They’re about refusing to become involved.
It’s Covenant Love that offers the best chance
for deeply satisfying sexual pleasure.
Within the security of marriage covenant,
where there is fidelity and familiarity,
then there is freedom to be truly open to the other.
There is a reason why the God revealed in scripture,
holds up marriage as the context
for full expression of sexual love.
It is for our joy, delight, and pleasure,
not to repress, subdue, or diminish us.

Lust opts for the short-term sexual liaison.
It avoids the many and substantial demands that love makes of us.
Love requires a willingness to make some personal sacrifices
for the sake of the one we love.
Lust only wants to be serviced.
The sin of lust is not that it excites our sexuality,
it’s that it dries up our capacity to express true sexual love.
It dries up relationships.
It makes parched deserts of people.

The same could be said of pornography.
Pornography is a substitute for true involvement with another.
People engage in pornography by themselves.
The danger of pornographic images—
in movies, print, or internet—
is not that they excite our sexuality,
it’s that they weaken it.
Pornography is not an innocent outlet for sexual energy.
It’s a cheap and degrading and addictive
substitute for sexual love.
It does do substantial damage,
not only to our own capacity to love,
but also to our relationships,
and to the way society begins to view people.
When we get used to the idea of looking at people as objects,
it’s a lot easier to engage in dangerous behavior with these objects.
And this twisted way of looking at people, at its worst,
can even make sexual abuse of another person imaginable,
and that is the ultimate absence of love,
the ultimate offense against the God who Created
human beings in the flesh, and in his own image.

There are lots of ways lust can be expressed,
and for lack of time, a lot has not been said.
I hope conversation continues.
Find a safe place to talk about this sin that is close to all of us,
that we’re all susceptible to, in one form or another.
We can lust in deed or in thought—remember Jesus’ words.
We can lust alone or with another.
We can lust completely within the context of marriage,
or outside it.

Maybe some of you hoped I’d make it easy for you,
give you a list of lustful behaviors—preferably a short list—
that you could check off, and know when you crossed the line.
If it were that easy, we wouldn’t need each other.

But to help us, as we walk alongside each other toward holiness,
let me offer these questions,
that might help evaluate a behavior, attitude, or thought.
Does it honor the flesh, or humiliate it, diminish it?
Does it invite you into honest, open relationship with others,
or does it draw you into privacy or secrecy?
Does it help you give sacrificially of yourself,
or does it result in self-focused behavior?
Does it seek to respect and serve the other,
or does it attempt to meet a craving of your own?
Does it acknowledge and honor covenant,
or does it undermine it?

Our loving and holy God created our flesh, and called it good.
Our flesh is the vehicle through which we enter into relationship,
and live our lives in community,
and express deep love for the other.
May God help us honor the flesh,
and find deep joy in our bodies,
as we find our identity not in our sexuality,
but in the fact that we are children of God,
formed by Covenant Love,
called to lives of holiness.

—Phil Kniss, August 13, 2006

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your sermon. I think about the effect lust will have on our (PVMC's) children and adolescents. The contrast of the solitude and isolation of lust to the love and support of community provides a great building block for discussion. The questioning at the end of the sermon also opens the door for in-depth conversation and communication. I'll print off your sermon and save it for years down the road when David and I have this converation with our own children!