March 12, 2017 – The Second Sunday in Lent
Sin and Virtue
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
I was raised in the Presbyterian Church. When I was a young teenager I met with a group of my peers and the minister of my church for several weeks of preparation to join the church – the equivalent of being confirmed in the Episcopal Church. Part of our preparation was to memorize a catechism, a booklet of questions and answers about the Christian faith. The elders – the equivalent of our vestry members – would be quizzing us on the catechism before we were allowed to take part in the ceremony of joining the church. More than fifty years later I still remember the first question and answer of the catechism. “What is the most important thing in life? The most important thing in life is to know God and to obey his will.”
Last Sunday we looked at the issue of obedience to God’s will. From Genesis we heard the account of the disobedience of the first woman and man, who ate the fruit of the tree that God had forbidden them to eat. In Matthew’s gospel we found the account of Jesus’ temptation by Satan at the end of forty days of fasting alone in the wilderness. In contrast to Adam and Eve, Jesus obeyed God’s will, countering Satan’s temptations by quoting God’s words from holy scripture. We begin Lent with these lessons from the Bible because this is the season of the church year when we are called to turn away from sin and back to God.
We may look at our relationship to God in terms of obedience to God’s will. But there is another approach, one that we find emphasized in the early church, among the men and women who left the world and lived in the desert of Egypt in the 3rd and 4th centuries, people referred to as the desert fathers and mothers. For them, the answer to the question, “what is the most important thing in life?” was “to love God.” Sin was whatever prevented or impeded a human being’s growth in love for God. Intimately tied to love of God is love of one’s neighbor. An image used to express this idea is that of a wheel with many spokes connected to a central hub. The hub is God. Each human being starts out on the rim of the wheel, and each spoke represents the person’s journey toward God. This image shows that as people grow closer to God, they also grow closer to one another.
One of the most famous of the desert fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, categorized human sin in a list that is essentially the one we know of from medieval times as the “seven deadly sins” – pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. Pride has often been regarded as the chief of the seven deadly sins. We took a look at pride last week. The first woman was tempted to eat the forbidden fruit by the serpent’s promise that when she did, she would “be like God.” The sin of pride is to put oneself on the altar of one’s heart in the place where God belongs and to do one’s own will rather than the will of God. Looked at this way, pride is a clear impediment to love for God and for one’s neighbor.
I don’t need to go through the list of the deadly sins to remind you what they are. I’m sure we all know them well enough – some of them, too well! We are called during Lent to self-examination as a step toward repentance and our return to God. We may find the list of deadly sins helpful for naming and understanding what is preventing us from loving God and our neighbor as we would like to do. A “just say no” approach to our sinfulness is generally inadequate. However, we can at least try not to act out of our sinfulness in any way that harms others, and we can try not to “feed” or encourage our sins in our thoughts or conversation or habits of life.
Think for a moment of your soul as a plot of ground. Sins are weeds that you want to remove. The more you indulge them, the deeper their roots grow, and the more difficult they are to remove. But the point of the process isn’t to end up with a plot of bare earth. The goal is to grow beautiful flowers and nutritious food, to the glory of God.
To do that we have the virtues, which help us to love God and our neighbor. Again, these have been categorized in a variety of ways. One categorization is called the Seven Contrary Virtues which are specific opposites to the Seven Deadly Sins: humility against pride, kindness against envy, abstinence against gluttony, chastity against lust, patience against anger, liberality against greed, and diligence against sloth. This pairing of sin and virtue may be helpful in our process of spiritual, psychological, and behavioral change.
Another system has two parts: the four cardinal virtues and the three theological virtues. The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance, and courage (or fortitude). The term “cardinal” comes from the Latin word “cardo” which means “hinge.” These four are regarded as central to living a virtuous life. They were described in the writings of Plato and later adopted by St. Augustine as the four cardinal virtues of Christianity. Prudence is wisdom and the ability to judge one’s own actions as appropriate or inappropriate. Justice is the ability to act with fairness and without bias toward others. Temperance is the ability to act with moderation and self-control. Courage or fortitude refers to endurance and emotional strength and the ability to confront one’s fears.
The three theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity (or love). These come from the writing of St. Paul regarding spiritual gifts: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Faith in God, hope in God’s promises, and love as defined in the Two Great Commandments from the Hebrew Bible and quoted by Jesus: “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:29-31).
Many people believe that a man or woman could choose to adopt the four cardinal virtues and live a virtuous life without God’s help. But the theological virtues are not merely human accomplishments. They are spiritual gifts. We can pray to the Holy Spirit for them. We can ask God to strengthen our faith, give us hope when we despair, and help us to love God and our neighbor more fully. Where our choice comes in is what we do to either nurture these gifts from God or starve them. If we trust what Jesus teaches us about God and God’s kingdom, we will do all we can to nurture our faith, to support our hope in God, and especially, to grow in love, all with the help of the Holy Spirit and by God’s grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.