Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Murderer Has Green Eyes

Mark 15:1-15 / Philippians 2:5-11
Palm Sunday
March 28, 2010
William G. Carter

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate ... he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over.

Here is a story of envy gone bad. We have looked at the Seven Deadly Sins during the weeks of Lent. We have learned again how sinister the sins can be, particularly as they consume all life-giving energy. Pride, anger, greed, lust, gluttony, and sloth are black holes of the soul. They feed upon themselves, suck in all the light, and have the dark power to pull in others with us. Today the sin of envy finds itself on the lips of Jesus’ enemies.

The Gospel of Mark tells us how Holy Week ended for Jesus. He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and quickly found himself in trouble. Authorities questioned him. Enemies hunted for him. Friends abandoned him. Judas sold him out. Now he stands before Pontius Pilate, and condemnation is certain.

Pilate is no psychiatrist, but he can sniff what’s going on. Those religious leaders seemed so pious, so smug, so sure of themselves. They dragged this thin man in front of him, and stood nearby as he began to interrogate him. They screamed, they murmured, they made their accusations – and the thin man just stood there, silent. Didn’t say a thing. They cursed him, spat at him. He never said a mumblin’ word. Pilate scratched the back of his head – what in the world had he ever done to set them off?

Pilate had no stake in this, so he could see it for what it was – they were jealous of him. They wanted something that he had. They condemned him out of envy.

Seems so trivial, I suppose. Envy doesn’t seem like a substantial motive. It begins by looking over the fence. The neighbor has a beautiful house. The neighbor has capable kids. The neighbor climbed the success ladder faster and higher. The neighbor gets more attention than you. The neighbor has more raw talent. The neighbor has more influence. The neighbor makes more money.

Each appraisal might be based in fact: the house may be bigger, the neighbor gets more recognition. We constantly measure our lives to those around us. It seems to be how we are wired. Pretty soon we notice there is inequity built into the system. We are not the same as our neighbors. Some have better breaks, others are worse off. Life would be a lot simpler if we stopped there. But we can’t.

We make comparisons. We question differences. We harbor grudges. We feed our hurts. What begins as a simple observation becomes a petty grievance. The petty grievance ferments into sour grapes. Jealousy takes root like a weed.

It happens every day. Two people work in adjoining cubicles. They arrive each day at the same time, do the same work, receive the same pay, and take the same opportunities. When the promotion is announced, one of them moves ahead. Why? Is she a better worker? Does she get more done? Does the boss play favorites? Does the company want to promote her gender? The answer to any of those questions might be “yes” - - or “no.” Dwell too long over that situation, and envy takes root.

It happens to classmates, to team mates, to house mates – and to that most competitive of populations, high school women. “He sent me a note on Facebook” – Why would he send you a note on Facebook? – “Because I am prettier” - What, does he need an optometrist? You don’t often hear such things among high school men, mostly because if they were anything like me, they were pretty clueless. But eventually the envy comes.

We compare, we contrast, we measure, we judge. By midlife, other people are passing you by. You go to the high school reunion, and people are bragging about their jobs, telling stories about their achievements, showing off their new and improved spouses. “This is Husband 3.0,” one woman announced. Most of the time, this is a parlor game, a playful little sport. And then it grows and begins to take over.

Envy can begin as a little game. For that reason, it’s often called “the Green Eyed Monster.” That term comes from a line in Shakespeare’s play “Othello.” Iago describes envy as if it is a green-eyed cat that plays with its food before devouring it. Iago says:

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on

Comparisons are made. Relationships are cracked. Resentments fall into the cracks and grow like weeds. Pretty soon, they take over – and solid concrete can crumble.

Remember that woman in Texas whose daughter got cut from the cheerleading try-outs? Her daughter was 13 years old, and another 13 year old girl made the squad while her own daughter did not. It started working on her. She tried to hire a hitman to kill the other girl’s mother, because that would upset the girl enough to drop out of the competition. The hitman was so horrified by her proposal that he turned her in to the cops. “People like that ought to be locked up,” he declared. And so she was. The story was later turned into two TV-movies and a true-crime book.

That sounds like an extreme case, but maybe not. If a major politician is charged with taking bribes, do you think he’s going to go down by himself? Chances are pretty good that he will do unto others as they have done unto him. When the dust settles, everybody within reach will be damaged. That’s what unchecked envy can do.

There’s a delicious German word for this: “Schadenfreude.” It does not translate evenly into English, but the general sense is to take pleasure in somebody else’s misfortune. To delight in somebody else’s pain. It’s Homer Simpson, jumping for joy when his next door neighbor’s business fails. It’s the hometown football crowd, cheering when the star quarterback of the opposing team breaks his leg. It’s the salutatorian offering a quiet prayer of thanks when the valedictorian gets a B-. If such envy consumes you, you may think it is ascendancy, but it spells equal destruction for you. As Annie Lamott describes it in one of her books, “It’s like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” (Traveling Mercies)

In a recent essay, Joseph Epstein put it this way:

Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all. Sloth may not seem much fun, nor anger either, but giving way to deep laziness has its pleasures and the expression of anger entails a release that is not without its small delights. In recompense, envy may be the subtlest - perhaps I should say the most insidious - of the seven deadly sins. Surely it is the one that people are least likely to want to own up to, for to do so is to admit that one is probably ungenerous, mean, small-hearted. It may also be the most endemic . . . At one time or another, we have all felt flashes of envy, even if in varying intensities, from its minor pricks to its deep, soul-destroying, lacerating stabs. So widespread is it--a word for envy, I have read, exists in all known languages--that one is ready to believe it is the sin for which the best argument can be made that it is part of human nature. (Envy, Oxford University Press).

When envy crouches behind the door, it is poised to pounce and kill. The only known antidote is encouragement. Just as gratitude cancels greed, encouragement trumps envy every time. It is impossible to be jealous of the neighbor that we are wishing well. But should our best wishes be compromised, should we daydream of another person’s failure, our own feet begin to slip. When that happens, the generous mind of Christ – that self-giving love of Jesus which is promised and so available in his Spirit – is overpowered by good old-fashioned selfishness. Envy will consume us every time, unless we sacrifice our dark wishes to the will of Christ – and work for our neighbors’ benefit.

It is telling that, of all people, Pontius Pilate would look at the enemies of Jesus and detect their collective envy. He himself had been passed over for a number of promotions. Now he found himself in a dusty old city. He looked at those cranky priests with their obscure religion. They despised him as a Roman, yet now they wanted to use him. They refused to step through the doorposts of his chamber, as if he, the Emperor’s ruler, was filthy. Yet it was they who demanded the Galilean’s blood.

Pilate considered the prisoner before him. He was innocent – anybody could see that! His countenance was regal, quietly defiant, and that seemed to push their buttons all the more. The room was abuzz with whispers about him. Wherever Jesus had gone, he had crowds, success, fame, and attention. “They are jealous of him,” Pilate said to himself, his thin lips curling into a smile. Such an all-too-human trait for holy men, he thought.

In the end, Pilate gave them what they wanted. Give them what they want, and let them go back to their irrelevant faith. It was one less situation to settle before the weekend. Pilate was pretty sure he would never see this Jesus again. Pretty sure . . .

He squinted in the morning sun. You could see the color of his eyes. They were green.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Root of All Evil

1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19
John 12:1-8
Lent 5
March 21, 2010
William G. Carter

Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

Greed is the Deadly Sin that we consider today. With just a week away from Holy Week, it’s a natural that we would hear about Judas Iscariot. Whenever the Bible talks about him, it mentions he is the betrayer. Even when he is introduced as one of the hand-picked disciples of Jesus, the Gospel writers remind us, he is the one who turn over Jesus. And he did it for the money.

There have been theories about Judas and his motives. His surname “Iscariot” suggests he was “Ish – Carioth” – a man from the southern town of Carioth. If so, he was a Confederate, and Jesus and the rest of the disciples were Yankees. Some regional conflict or competition may have been a contributing factor.

Others say Judas was a strong believer in Jesus. But he grew frustrated that Jesus didn’t move faster or show his divine identity more forcefully. So he set up the arrest in Gethsemane to force Jesus’ hand, and it didn’t work.

Others say, no, he was consumed by evil. The devil got into him somehow. Earlier in the Gospel of John, the narrator says “Judas was a devil from the beginning.” We don’t know if we should take that literally or not. Certainly the church had to struggle with how one of Christ’s own followers could have done him in. Judas did a nasty deed, and some would say the devil made him do it.

A few scholars are kinder to Judas, and declare he was a pawn in God’s larger plan. The reasoning goes like this: if God planned to save the world, if God decided to use the sacrifice of Jesus to do this saving, then God needed to get Jesus arrested, condemned, and crucified. God used Judas to get this done. That theory makes God seem a bit too manipulative, discounts human free will, and dismisses the power of evil.

The plain fact is that Judas did it for the money. In the Gospel text for today, the Gospel of John gives Judas a good kick. He questions Mary’s generous offering of perfume. She and her household are hosting Jesus for dinner. The Lord has just raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. Mary is grateful. In a stunning act of devotion, she anoints Jesus’ feet. Judas protests: “That evaporated perfume was worth one year’s wages. It could have been cashed in, and the funds could feed the hungry.”

With that, the Gospel writer gives him a good kick under the table. “He didn’t care about the poor,” says John. “He was a thief. Judas handled the money for Jesus and the disciples, and his hand was often in the money bag.” Say what we want about his motives – Judas betrayed Jesus for the money.

Greed is one of the nastiest of sins. The early Christians knew this. They watched their neighbors in the Roman Empire scrambling for wealth. Opulence was a sign of importance. You proved yourself a significant person if you had a lot of money. Those who could climb to the top of the heap could own the whole heap. They could influence their little corner of the world. They could buy into significant positions of authority. They could remove themselves from the riff-raff and live in a big house on the hill. They could surround themselves with the finer things of live. That’s how it was in the affluent sections of the Roman Empire. Things haven’t changed a whole lot, have they?

This obsession with financial gain can take over a person’s life. That’s what made the first Christians suspicious. By the end of the first century, the wisest church leaders had already issued warnings about greed and what it can do. The text from First Timothy is one of them. As the apostle writes, “Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

I think of the minister who took me around for a tour of his northern New Jersey community. This was twenty-five years ago, and he was interviewing me for a position on his staff. We toodled down a few unmarked lanes, and he pointed out some of the mansions in his town. He started telling me what the properties were worth, and what the owners were paid. I was a senior in seminary; I had no concept of that kind of money. “People pay for the privacy,” he said, “but I can tell you as a pastor that, behind these tall hedges, every one of these families has serious problems. Their money has done them no favors.”

I didn’t take the job, partly because I grew up in a modest small town, and that Jersey community seemed like it was another planet. But I’ve never forgotten what he said: “Behind these tall hedges, every one of these families has serious problems. Their money has done them no favors.” It makes me wonder: why is there so much heroin abuse in our own affluent community? Is there an automatic underside to affluence and the pursuit of wealth? I don’t know, but this is a point worth raising.

Certainly envy creeps in, but that’s the deadly sin for next Sunday, so we’ll explore that more deeply next week. Many of us compare what we have with our neighbors. Up in the suburbs, the gerbils are always running in an endless wheel, trying to keep up with their neighbors, and hopefully surpass them. It’s a costly game. Should someone lose a big job in a town like this, they might be shunned at the country club or the annual dance. The social circles quickly exclude and close ranks . . . and I’ve noticed there are significant numbers of people who once had it all, lose some of it, and then we never hear from them again.

I detected a touch of envy in that minister who took me on that tour years ago. It blended in pretty well with whatever greed he also felt. He was paid pretty well, although never paid as well as most of his church members. And I’m sure that was working on him – I know how it works on me. It is a strange and weird experience to have people vote on your salary. When you see how they live, where they live, and how they spend their money, it can belittle you. Or it can bedevil you.

We treat people differently because of the money they have – or because of the money they don’t have. The inequities affect us. When my older daughter began elementary school, she was mistakenly signed up for the free lunch program. I found this out about three weeks into the school year, and I was mortified. Then I tried to convince the person in charge of the program that it was a mistake. It couldn’t be changed, she said, for that would be a bookkeeping nightmare, and might subject the school to an audit. I might face legal action for an enrollment I did not make.

“But it’s not right,” I said. “There are kids who really need this benefit, and my kid isn’t one of them.” In time, the change was made. And I’ve given this some thought – were my motives altruistic? Or was it that I didn’t want my kid to be treated as if we were poor. Probably a measure of both. I didn’t like what this exposed in my own attitudes about money – and it awakened some deeper sensitivity to how deeply money can disrupt us.

The Bible is full of stories and teachings about money. In itself, money is currency, a means of making purchases or compensating for wages. It has no power, except as we assign power to it. In his teaching, Jesus spoke about wealth, affluence, and possessions more than he spoke about prayer. Nearly every parable he taught has some aspect of economics. And why all this attention? Because of our attachments to what we have, or our hungers for what we want to have. Our desire to consume can consume us.

An older woman is in the process of moving in with her retired daughter. She’s running out of money, and her daughter has the ability and the room to take her in. The biggest issue is that the older woman will not get rid of anything. All the possessions in her little apartment are relocating with her – and there simply isn’t enough room for it all. I said rather innocently, “I thought she didn’t have all that much.” The daughter piped back, “You wouldn’t believe what she had stashed under the bed.” On top of the kitchen cabinets, there are 57 different coffee mugs. The daughter said she could bring eight, and they had an argument.

Somebody tells me about the refrain from a country song: “Ain’t No U-Hauls Behind Hearses.” It’s true. We can’t take any of our possessions into the next life. But we seem to want it all while we’re here. That’s what Paul is warning us about. When the hunger for money and possessions takes over our lives.

In Paul’s day, the Greek and Roman philosophers had a lot of conversations about contentment. How do we become contented? One school of thought was rooted in people called the Cynics. They rejected the virtues of wealth, power, and fame. Their motto: pare down, and live a life free from all physical attachments. Question the value of everything, and assume it’s not as important as you think it is. That’s where the word “cynical” comes from.

Another school of thought was the philosophy of the Stoics. They took a different tack, and advocated a life free from passion. Don’t attach to anything. Throw away your catalogs, develop an indifference to the goods of this world, ignore what your neighbors possess, and make your heart a desert. Don’t get hooked to what you have, or hunger for what you want. Both of these philosophies are still around, and they are venerable ways to stave off greed.

But the apostle Paul suggests something else. He calls it “eusebia,” translated “Godliness.” Four times in this chapter, he speaks this word which is translated as “reverence,” “piety,” “holiness,” and “respect.” It is a profoundly God-centered word. What he’s talking about is a satisfaction with God’s generosity. “Eusebia” neither grasps for more, nor clings too tightly. It is the insight that everything comes as a heavenly gift, and we are called to honor God the Giver more than whatever content there is to the gift.

What he’s getting at is this: nobody can be greedy and grateful at the same time. If we are grateful to God for what we receive, we will take care of it, we will share it, we will not hoard it. This was one of the characteristics of the people who first gathered around Jesus, and then the apostles. In the fourth chapter of Acts, there’s a wonderful description of how the Christian people countered the sin of greed. Do you know what they did? They shared what they had:

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32-35)

A bombastic cable news commentator might refer to that as “socialism.” Biblically speaking, it’s Christianity – Acts, chapter four. It’s a picture of Christian people caring for one another, and living a life “in common,” for the common good. That’s “eusebia.” That’s godliness: it is receiving what God provides for all of us, and ensuring that all have access to it. Working this out is a challenge for every generation to figure out anew. It is never neat and tidy. Those who have a lot and those who have little will both want more. But this kind of sharing for the public good, I believe, is the only way to counter the demeaning sin of greed.

The most damning evidence against Judas Iscariot is that he pulled cash for himself out of the common purse. He plundered for his own pocket what belonged to them all. You might have noticed that still happens. When it does, life becomes pretty cheap. Long-established relationships are twisted beyond recognition. People will sell out their friends to the highest bidder.

Just ask Jesus.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Seeing Red

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Matthew 21:12-19
March 14, 2010
William G. Carter

"Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil."

If anger is the Deadly Sin on our plate for today, we had best start with a story about Jesus. It’s a Palm Sunday story, and the Lord has just ridden a donkey into Jerusalem. Making his way to the Temple, he discovers something inside that makes his blood boil. In a rage, he drives out the buyers and the sellers. He knocks over the tables of the moneychangers, and throws around the seats of those selling doves. He quotes the scriptures, of how God’s house is a house of prayer, not a den of thieves. Then he settles down to cure the blind and the lame.

The religious officials see all of this, and hear the children calling him the Messiah. That, in turn, makes them angry, and Jesus leaves the temple to spend the night in a nearby town.

In the morning, he returns to the city. He is hungry and finds a fig tree without any fruit. It is as unproductive as God’s temple. So Jesus curses the tree and it withers at once. We need to talk about anger, because anger is a holy trait, and it is a trait that God has bequeathed to God’s children.

Technically speaking, anger is an emotion. It comes to all of us. Anger is sparked by conflict. Something unwanted happens, and that sets off sparks. A deed is done or a word is spoken, and somebody “sees red.” We get angry because we care about something or someone, or because we want something to go our way. And when it doesn’t, the heart pumps faster, blood pressure rises, and adrenaline spurts into our system. Our faces can contort, the countenance darkens, and words either fly or become very intense and specific.

There is righteous anger, as with Jesus who cares deeply about the things of God, and discovers that the business in God’s house is not as God intends it to be. And there is deadly anger, with the power to consume us and destroy others. The line between “righteous” and “deadly” is a dotted line, and today we will do what we can to spot the difference.

It helps to take note of how frequently anger comes to all of us. One morning this week, I kept a log of all the disturbances that made me angry. It began about a quarter of six, when one of the cats banged on the bedroom door while I was trying to finish a dream. We were out of coffee. I pushed the button on the shaving cream and it sputtered. The shirt that I had just ironed did not fit.

A number of the annoyances were vehicular. I got into the car and saw new clutter that was not mine. As I turned onto another street, an approaching truck sped up. The lady in the car in front of me was crawling like a turtle. I beeped the horn and she slowed down. My favorite radio station was going in and out of range. Then some guy driving behind me came up quickly and honked the horn. He gestured when I moved out of his way. I was going to gesture back, but I’m a minister and I didn’t want anybody to recognize me.

When I got to the office, I discovered the person I went early to meet was running late. That was understandable, but two other people didn’t show up and never bothered to call.

I ran out to do an errand, and overheard a parent nagging her child. I thought, “Cut him a break.” As I stopped at a store counter to ask if they carried a product, the person in the blue smock didn’t know what I was talking about. When he finally understood, he said, “Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”

Then I dropped by to see somebody at 11:30 as scheduled, and he wasn’t there. I waited for a little bit, then decided to get a hamburger. As I rolled away, I discovered the burger was cold and the Coke was a Diet Dr. Pepper.

Now, most of this is small and petty. If I were inclined to hang onto any of that, it would drive me mad. And if it had been a large disruption, it could have ruined my day. A week and a half ago, I learned that one of my classmates, a minister on the West Coast, had killed himself. The news slapped me across the face. I was stunned, sick to my stomach. Then I got angry. I was really angry.

Why did he do that? He was fifty years old. He was strong, he was good, he was in fine physical shape. He had a wife who loved him. He had two teenaged kids. He was an advocate for people with disabilities. Why did he have to take his own life? He pulled away from all of us, and crawled alone into some dark cave. It was tragic. It was wrong. And I’m still upset by it. A lot of people get angry, and stay angry, after someone we love has died. On a day when we mark the lives of those we have loved and lost, it’s a good thing to survey our anger over the loss.

Anger shows up in many forms. It is said that the natives of Alaska see so much snow that they begin to see variations, and they give each variation a name. In the same way, anger is a human passion with many, many names: resentment, ire, annoyance, indignation, fury, vengeance, rage, bitterness, hatred, umbrage, antipathy, acrimony, animosity, antagonism, hostility, rancor, ill will, spite, malice, venom, aversion, enmity, and wrath. One leads to another, in a zig-zag progression. Pretty soon, the anger can consume us.

A woman tells how her husband didn’t come home one night. He was a writer, and had learned a book of his poems would be published. With that, he disappeared: was he celebrating? Was he working through the achievement. She didn’t know. In the middle of the night, she woke with a start, and saw he still wasn’t home. “Anger woke me,” she said. As she lay there, trying to go back to sleep, her mind began to name all the grudges she had against her husband. The list kept getting longer.

Suddenly the anger shifted, and she was vividly remembering her resentment at somebody else, a man who had treated her with contempt. And then she remembered what somebody else had done. She was building an “impressive storehouse of grievances,” and thought sleepily, “This could go on forever.” She sat up, jolted awake, and said, “I can’t let this get the best of me.” (Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, 137)

Unchecked anger will get the best of us every time. It will drag the best thoughts out of our heads and stomp on them. It will choke whatever joy may reside in our hearts. This is how anger moves from an all-too-human response to slight or grievance, and takes on more sinister form.

The classic description of anger’s deadly force, I think, comes from author Frederick Buechner:

Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you. (Wishful Thinking, p. 2)

People do crazy things when anger gets the best of them. They quit jobs that they really need. They pull away from people who love them. They kick house pets and plot murders. They fertilize flower gardens with bitterness, and scream with rage when the perennials won’t come up. Sometimes they will even insulate themselves from God. And why not? Anger is usually a sign that life is out of control, and it’s difficult to give God any credit when life isn’t turning out as we want.

In a deeply insightful book on anger, Garret Keizer writes that anger blends in with envy, lust, greed, and all the rest. It’s often the chemical additive that makes sour thoughts degenerate into deadly sins. Add a shot of anger to a test tube full of pride, and you are mixing a kind of dynamite. If you want to understand anger’s destructive force, says Keizer, call it by the ancient name of “wrath.” Wrath is a word we’ve used to describe God’s anger, and therein is the key. Keizer says,

Wrath is the anger of someone who had begun to play at God. Wrath is the anger of one who has distorted his sense of self and the world – a disproportion that he shares with his proud, envious, lustful, gluttonous, and avaricious counterparts. He feels that his prerogatives, his grievances, his right to redress are all absolute. Holy, holy, holy. A person consumed by wrath has eaten and digested the forbidden fruit she thinks will make her a god. She storms out of the garden of Eden cursing and swearing, which is as much as to say acting as though she created the place and that it is her business and hers alone what happened there. (The Enigma of Anger, p. 51)

That kind of poison can kill you – and it might also kill somebody else. So the writer of Ephesians gives three pieces of direct advice. First, “Be angry but do not sin.” Anger comes naturally, as we live in a world that we do not run. Sin is the behavior that destroys, and it crouches at the door when we let anger determine our motives – for example, when we strike back in revenge, or escalate a situation. When anger comes, let it wash over your soul like every emotion. You can’t pretend that anger doesn’t hit you, but you don’t need to let it have power over you

Second, “Do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Give it a time limit. Don’t keep carrying it. Don’t let it build over time or accumulate. Start each morning new. This is particularly true for those of us who live with other people who wake up beside us. My mom and dad used to tell the four of us kids that they never went to bed angry; I know that wasn’t always true. But if they did, they somehow hit the reset button first thing in the morning. The advice in the rest of the paragraph applies: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” It’s hard work, but regular practice makes better people of us.

Third, “Do not make room for the devil.” That’s good advice generally, and especially for anger. Whatever anger you feel is yours alone. It doesn’t need to be swallowed, but it doesn’t need to be shared either. There’s something increasingly destructive about taking the anger we feel and stirring it up. Our hurts and grudges are real, but we do not need to feed them. And if we talk out of anger with somebody else, in order to gain their sympathy or drag them in, pretty soon we may find ourselves dragged under. This is the warning for all of us.

You may know the story about the old Cherokee who was talking with his grandson. At least a half dozen of you know it, because you’ve emailed it to me and said, “Maybe you can use this story sometime.”

The story goes, one evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My child, the battle is between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, hostility, arrogance, resentment, inferiority, sorrow, regret, self-pity, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other wolf is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.” (attributed to many sources)

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, March 7, 2010

She Cast Her Eye

Genesis 39:1-21 / Matthew 5:27-30
Lent 3
March 7, 2010
William G. Carter

“After a time, she cast her eyes on Joseph . . .” That’s how it all begins. Joseph had been working around the house for a while, tending to the chores. He was good-looking, and handsome. On a warm day beneath the Egyptian sun, she noticed how the muscles on his back rippled as he skimmed the pomegranate leaves from the swimming pool. Her husband trusted him with everything. They were left alone for entire days as Potiphar went to work. Joseph had some special blessing. He was strong, he was discreet, and everything he touched turned to gold. One day she took notice, and she wanted him to turn her into gold. “She cast her eyes on him…”

Of the seven deadly sins, the sin for the day is lust. It’s the deadly sin that everybody wants to talk about. Some people think it’s the only sin there is.

What we call “lust” has a long and lascivious history in the church. The fourth century St. Evagirus used the old Greek word “porneia” to name it. “Porneia” sounds like “pornography.” It covered – or rather, uncovered – a number of sexual behaviors. The proper people of Rome had a list of fleshly activities that they didn’t want to be caught doing, among them adultery, fornication, incest, and rape. “Porneia” was a general term to describe any sensual exploit that was not limited to the marriage bed.

We can imagine old Evagrius in his desert hut, giving some thought to what he had given up. His biographer said the saint once had a crush on a married woman. In the middle of that temptation, he had a vision of being imprisoned, just like Joseph. It shook him up, and not long after that he hid by himself in the desert.

The church has always loved to talk about sex, often trying not to reveal any enjoyment. Sex is a wonderful gift from God. It offers the promise of people-making through pleasure. But it’s also as volatile as dynamite. Sex can create, and it can destroy. This dual nature of the gift is one reason why church people continue to seem so tormented whenever they talk about sex.

In my impressionable teenage years, when every conscious thought was connected to my glands, I remember a youth group leader who told us repeatedly to save ourselves for our wedding nights. At the same time, a lot of the old church people in their fifties were trying to fix him up with their daughters. One day he just up and quit the job, and moved into a monastic commune in Massachusetts where he took a vow of celibacy. When you’re a Presbyterian, that sounds unusual. When you’re a fifteen year old boy, that sounds unnatural.

To his credit, whatever other demons he was fighting, he was most certainly resisting lust. As the church kept thinking about these matters, the spiritual issue that kept coming up was desire. All of us have a deep longing to know and to be known. We thirst for good friendships and meaningful relationships. If God calls us to become married, we make a lifelong commitment to grow in grace with our marriage partner. But sometimes our longing for companionship becomes so supercharged that it explodes. The very love we want so desperately is the very thing that blows up with destructive force. The ancient word for that explosion is lust.

Potiphar’s wife casts her eyes on Joseph. She sees him, she wants him. We can speculate like Doctor Phil as to the exact causes of that attraction: maybe her husband wasn’t paying her enough attention, or he was working long hours, or he was gone from home a lot, or she was feeling neglected, or maybe her imagination was igniting a fire. We don’t know exactly what was going on – and given the nature of human passion, neither did she. Attractions happen all the time.

What we do know from that old story is that she was having what Walter Wangerin calls “a maybe moment.” He describes it like this:

Even when that friendship is altogether innocent, your friend may send the signal, or you may sense the feeling, of further possibility. It occurs in a glance more meaningful than friends exchange. It arises from a touch, a hug, a brushing of flesh that tingled rather more than you expected – and you remember the sensation. A mutual understanding seems to establish itself between you, unspoken. Perhaps you succeeded together with a difficult project at work, and you celebrated the triumph; but a greater closeness crept into the celebration. Perhaps one or you supported the other in a crisis; but the dependency became more personal, more valuable than the crisis truly warranted. This is the moment of “maybe.”

In that moment nothing more is communicated than this: our friendship could turn into something else. Neither of you need say, or even think, what that “something else” might be. . . (As for Me and My House, p. 196)

The situation can go on from there, says Wangerin. Perhaps the stirring feelings will dangle for a while, or we dance around them. Maybe we flirt with the feelings as much as we flirt with the other person. But if we don’t kindly say No at that “maybe moment,” there can be further entanglement and potential explosion. As Wangerin says, “Let no one seriously insist ‘I couldn’t help it. I don’t know what came over me.’” We know exactly what came over us, and “only the willfully blind are taken by surprise.” (p. 197)

Like gluttony and greed, lust is a sin of the appetite. Gluttony consumes food because the soul is malnourished, and greed pursues cash because the heart is hungry for security. With lust, our longing to be close to another soul begins to consume us. We, in turn, desire to consume one another. In this most haunting obsession, we ignore one another’s actual life stories to simply desire the flesh.

Joseph is the Pool Boy at Potiphar’s house; Mrs. Potiphar doesn’t know about the coat of many colors, or how his brothers sold him like a slave. She doesn’t know the name of Joseph’s father, where the family lives, or what they do. All she casts her eye upon is a body that she wants to consume.

It seems to me that the best way to counter lust is to splash cold water on the daydream. To avoid the isolation of our imaginations. To stop reducing other people into mere objects. That is what Jesus is saying as he warns how we are already committing adultery when we look on somebody else with lust. It’s that possessiveness, that acquisitiveness, that hunger for somebody we don’t know very well. When the daydream slips over you, snap out of it – and look at that person as a person, rather than a piece of meat.

In February, when the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition arrives in the mailbox, we can start asking some different questions. Whose daughter is this? What did her parents do for a living? Has she had the opportunity to get a good education? How did she vote in the last election? Is she happy with her life? Would she be comfortable in a church like ours? What will she do thirty years from now, when swimsuit modeling won’t reward her as well? Those are pretty good questions to ask – and my wife makes me ask them every February when her son’s magazine arrives.

The antidote to lust is love – real honest love – love that sees another person for who they actually are, and who God created them to be. That’s how God loves us in Jesus Christ. We are seen in all our flairs and flaws. Love is honest enough to see the imperfections, but pressed toward the redeemable possibilities. And love that looks like God’s love will always work for the benefit of the beloved. Unlike lust, love is not demeaning and small, but expansive and empowering. Love will not “insist on its own way,” which is frequently the way of consumption. Rather, the deep love of Christ sets all of us free to appreciate the peculiar particularities of how God created us and what God calls us to be.

No human relationship is equally matched, completely satisfying, or perfect in every way. That’s what makes our relationships so challenging and delightful. But the best relationships are the ones that find contentment in what God provides. We revel in the gifts and graces from God that come in the midst of our commitments. And we pray for God to show us that the grass on the other side of the fence is just that: it’s grass. It’s a bounded acre of what we already know. If we are unhappy and disordered within our own skin, reaching beyond the fence will only deepen the unhappiness and increase the disorder.

So we live by our commitments; and by the true intimacy of loving people as they really are.

Tom Troeger wrote a hymn that we’ve never sung, mostly because the tune in our hymnal is too difficult. But the words set forth the greater challenge of a faithful life. The hymn is called, “God Marked a Line and Told the Sea” (PH 283), and it celebrates how God creates life yet keeps it in creative discipline. The third stanza says:

The line, the limit, and the law / are patterns meant to help us draw
A bound between what life requires / and all the things our heart desires.

The next stanza offers a word of confession of who we are and what we’re prone to do:

But, discontent with finite powers, / we reach to take what is not ours
And then defend our claim by force / and swerve from life’s intended course.

But then there’s the final stanza, and it points to the discipline that liberates us in Christ:

We are not free when we’re confined / to every wish that sweeps the mind.
But free when freely we accept / the sacred bounds that must be kept. (Tom Troeger)

(c) William G. Carter
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