Series: Sinning Like a Christian: Part 1
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On April 8, 1912, a ship set sail for New York from Southampton, England for it’s maiden voyage. The ship is one we know well: the RMS Titanic. The name was appropriate, for this ship was like none other. At 882 feet long, and weighing over 46,000 tons, it was enormous. It’s amenities were also over-the-top, extravagant, like nothing before. The Titanic was also built with 1912, state-of-the-art technology. Reviews, like those appearing in the Belfast Morning News and Shipbuilder said things like, “The Captain may, by simply moving an electric switch, instantly close the doors throughout and make the vessel practically unsinkable.”
Practically unsinkable, they said, and so it’s reputation began as the unsinkable ship. The manufacturer and owner of the Titanic, White Star Line, never made the claim themselves, but they may have “believed their own press,” as most others seemed to buy into.
At the dawn of the 20th century, technology was moving fast and travel was one arena that was benefitting. Orville and Wilbur Wright had successfully achieved the first manned flight in 1903; Henry Ford was mass producing cars, making them more prevalent; and travel by ship was becoming more luxurious and safer. Some began, as Pastor Bob wrote in a recent article for Homiletics, to believe “humanity could conquer any challenge of nature with technology. For example, Titanic’s captain, Edward Smith, had commented a few years earlier that the nature of ‘modern shipbuilding’ in the 20th century rendered sinking a near impossibility. ‘I cannot imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder,’ he said. ‘I cannot conceive of any vital disaster happening to this vessel. Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that’” (Kaylor).
We, of course, know the fate of the Titanic and all of its technology. One-hundred years ago today, April 15, 1912, the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg and the “unsinkable ship” sank in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic, killing more than 1,500 of the 2,224 people on board – not including Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Was it pride that contributed to the wreck of the Titanic? A case can be made that overconfidence in the technology may have at least been a contributing factor. Consider this:
- Titanic had received several transmissions from other ships there were ice floes in the vicinity, yet she continued to speed ahead at full throttle.
- Titanic’s rudder was 30-40% too small for a vessel of its size, which meant, when the iceberg was first sighted, the ship could not steer quickly enough to avoid it.
- Titanic’s bulkheads were designed to top out at only ten feet above the water line instead of reaching all the way to the upper decks. This meant when the ship began to sink, the water flooded adjacent sections that were still intact, sinking her more quickly.
- J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, was on the voyage, and some reports say he persuaded Captain Smith to keep sailing despite the hole in the ship’s hull, sinking her faster than if she had stood still. Had Titanic stopped at the point of impact, the eventual rescue ship, Carpathia, may have arrived in time to transfer passengers and crew without loss of life. Ismay was widely criticized for making it to a lifeboat, while many others perished.
- Harland and Wolff, the parent company of the White Star Line, had suggested using a different kind of davit (the small crane used to launch lifeboats) in the ship’s design, which would have allowed Titanic to carry 48 lifeboats with more than enough room for passengers and crew. But while the White Star Line spared no expense in the ship’s amenities for its wealthy passengers, the company cut costs by mounting only 20 lifeboats on Titanic — only enough for 52% of the people on board. Even when those lifeboats were lowered that night, some were only half full (Kaylor).
Perhaps, while never actually saying it, the manufacturer, owner, and captain of the Titanic began to believe they had conquered the danger and the ship was indeed unsinkable. We can be guilty of much the same thing – believing we can indeed do anything.
Introduction to Sinning Like a Christian
Today we begin a new sermon series called Sinning Like a Christian where we are looking at the seven deadly sins. We borrowed the title of the series from a book by United Methodist Bishop William Willimon. Sinning Like a Christian sounds odd doesn’t it? We tend to think that Christians don’t sin. Don’t kid yourself. Christians sin.
Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian, said, in essence, only Christians are capable of sin because “there is no knowledge of sin except in the light of Christ’s cross” (Willimon 11). We, the followers of Jesus, are aware of just how short we fall from the people we were created to be. We might be able to look around us and compare ourselves to others and feel pretty good about how our sins aren’t “as bad” or “as many” as those around us. But we cannot deny we sin.Â If humans were capable of not sinning, there would be no need for the cross of Jesus.
That is what makes looking at this list of deadly sins so uncomfortable. These are someone else’s sins. They are ours. Look at the list – Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, and Lust. Who among us can say we don’t struggle with them? We may not steal, and feel good, but each of us has felt “green with envy” when we encounter the person who seems to have it all, or at least what we want. We may have never been in a fist fight, but we have all felt our hands clench with white-hot anger. We may workout every day, but we have also stuffed ourselves to a point of gluttony on the third Thursday in November. And while we may not be addicted to pornography, we all have our favorite actor or actress who does something for us.
It would be far more comfortable, and easy, to talk about the “bigger” sins like murder, drug addiction, and the like. But those are someone else’s sins, not mine. This series is about our sins, Christian sins.
While I hope you will continue to come out for this series, I do want to warn you: these sermons will make each of us squirm a little from time to time. But, take heart, no one will squirm more than the preacher of the day. You may want to come out just for that. When asked why so many people came to hear him preach, John Wesley reportedly replied, “I set myself on fire and they come to watch me burn.” Maybe your motivation for the next few weeks will not be to watch us burn, but to see us squirm.
As Bob wrote for last week’s Weekly Beacon, neither he nor I consider ourselves experts in overcoming these sins. Rather we might be regarded as Paul called himself “chief of sinners.” We struggle too, and part of our discomfort will be sharing where we struggle with these seven.
The seemingly normal, innocent nature of these sins is what indeed makes them so deadly. We have all been there. We have all felt them. We have all succumbed at times. Because of this, we have come to accept them, and consider them normal. But they go deeper. These seven serve as the “gateway sins” to things far more serious. Adultery starts with lust. Alcoholism is a form of gluttony. Wars are started over greed. The list could go on and on. These sins are the cause behind our sinful actions. Get these in check and you are well on your way.
Before we go on, let’s quickly define what we mean by sin. In common parlance we think of sin as something harmful to us or someone else. That is true, but sin is also much more. Sin is an offense to God. It separates us from God, and hurts God. So when we address sin, we are not simply talking about practical advice, i.e. how conquering gluttony you will get you the physique you always dreamed of. Rather we will address these seven as signs of our relationship with God being out of whack and how these sins strain our relationship with God.
So let’s get started with the sin of the day. We begin the series addressing the first sin listed, the one the ancients said was the “root” of the all the rest – Pride.
Right away we are confronted with a “deadly sin” that doesn’t seem very deadly. Pride is commonly seen as a virtue. We work to instill pride in our children. I remember when my kids were young and watching Blue’s Clues, Steve would tell them every day, “You can do anything that you want to do.” We want our children to have a healthy self-esteem.
As a society we celebrate the confident, the ones who get the job done. Whether it is the guy dancing in the end zone, the golfer pumping his fist, or the salesperson celebrating the big sale. We strive to be confident, attending seminars where we are told “if you can dream it, you can achieve it.”
We even talk positively of pride in the context of national pride, corporate pride, and may even have a little church pride. All of that sounds good, so why does pride get labeled not only as one of the deadly sins, but as the root of them all?
Preparing for this series, Bob and I discussed how we needed to address our own issues with these sins as we preach them. So, in recent days I have been reflecting on my pride. I found that difficult. I even told someone this is a tough one for me because pride is not a big issue in my life. If anything, I said, I tend to wrestle more with self-esteem issues, never thinking I quite measure up or meet expectations, than pride issues. Sounds like a statement of someone who is pretty proud of their humility. I thought about speaking to that, but it got confusing.
Then I realized where my pride comes in. My instinctual response when someone asks if they can help me is always no. I want to be capable of handling anything. I want to maintain a facade of always having it all together.
I think clergy especially struggle with this. For example, over the years I have noticed how infrequently pastors participate in the church’s prayer requests. Spouses will often submit prayer requests, but the pastors themselves seldom do. Certainly this is not because we do not have the same struggles as everyone else, go through the same hurts, feel the same sorrows, need the same forgiveness. For some reason though, we don’t share them. Maybe it is because we like to keep our private stuff private. Or maybe we like to perpetuate the myth we have this deep relationship with God and thereby don’t need others to pray for us. We can pray for ourselves. In the process we shut out our brothers and sisters in Christ.
I am fully aware today, in a way I was not earlier this week, that my pride keeps me from allowing my vulnerability to be exposed by asking for the help I need. I want to do it myself.
I do it myself
I remember, when my kids were small, hearing one of the favorite phrases of every toddler: “I do it myself.” You are trying to dress them when suddenly they whip around, turning their back to you as they say, “I do it myself.” Then they take what feels like ten minutes to button the four buttons of their shirt. Or you notice an untied shoe while walking in the mall and you say, “Let me tie it for you.” But no, “I do it myself.” Again what would have taken you five seconds takes five minutes. It is so good we have that instinct built into us when we are toddlers, or else we would still need someone to dress us and tie our shoes.
But at 47, shouting like a 2-year-old, “I do it myself” is not helpful. It can be detrimental to us to be so stubbornly self-sufficient. We can buy our own hype, believe we can do anything, ignore the warnings, and eventually sink the Titanic. Pride can take us down. As the Bible says, “Pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18).
Remember though, sin is not only about what it does to us. It is instead about what it does to, or says about, our relationship with God.
First, my pride cuts me off from my brothers and sisters in Christ. That famous illustration the Apostle Paul uses both in Romans and 1 Corinthians of the church being the “body of Christ.” The point of that illustration is that none of us can go it alone. To be fully functioning followers of Jesus, we need to be connected. My pride keeps me separate from others. It also keeps me separate from God.
Here’s how this attitude plays out in my relationship with God. Sometimes when I come to God in prayer, I am embarrassed by the situation I find myself in. So like Adam and Eve who try to hide from God in a bush, I don’t mention the embarrassing stuff in prayer, as if God will miss it if I don’t bring it up.
I know many of the struggles I have are of my own doing. Financial trouble? I am the one who has mismanaged my money. Not feeling well? I am the one who eats to excess and has this weight problem. Friend issue? I’m the one who said the stupid thing that upset them. Why should I ask God to get me out of messes of my own making?
I was raised under the adage, “You made this mess. You clean it up.” So I feel a responsibility to work on my problems myself. How dare I ask God to help me with a problem I made. I need to fix it myself. So I don’t bring my issues to the very one who can help me with them. Ah, pride.
I fight this instinct every time I close my eyes in prayer. Pride.
In Willimon’s book (41f) he tells of a Jewish friend who is fond of saying, “Jews have two major beliefs:Â (1) there is a God; (2) you are not it.”
Pride can take us to a place where we, in essence, become our own God. Maybe you are functioning that way. I know I can. Talking a lot about God, but not relying on him for many aspects of my life. Trying to prove to him like the toddler, “I can do it myself.”
I think this is what Paul is getting at in our scripture reading from Philippians for today. Philippi was a retirement community for those who had served in the Roman Army. Retired veterans were given a grant of land as a reward for their years of service. So the city to whom this letter is addressed would have been filled with people who were quite confident in the power of Rome, impressed with their service in its military, and feeling like they could conquer anything.
To these people Paul writes, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3), and goes on to say they should empty themselves of all the power, privilege, and prestige they cling to as Jesus emptied himself and took the position of slave and dying the death of a criminal.
If Pride is the sin, humility is the virtue. The Bible tells us several times we need to be humble. God tells the Israelites to remember they were once slaves and aliens, and therefore to treat the foreigners among them with respect and dignity. In Micah (6:8) we read, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31), and when we are invited to a wedding banquet – a symbol he often uses for the Kingdom of God – we are not to take the place of honor at the table, but are to choose the lowest place (Luke 14:7-11).
But you have to be careful there too. You can get proud of your humility. This is sadly the case, is it not? Pride can taint “even our deeds of ‘justice’ and ‘virtue’” (Willimon 40). Let me give you another glimpse into my warped mind.
I know there are many pastors who find the parking spot farthest from the front door of the church and make it “their spot.” On Sunday mornings they park their car out in the wilderness. I know this because in a sermon somewhere along the way, most of them will point it out. The point of the illustration is typically, “You should be humble, like me!” which is not a very humble statement.
I like the way Willimon puts it when he pictures a pastor motivating his congregation toward humility, “OK, gang, let’s get out there and really be humble this week. Let’s see if we can out-humble the Baptists” (Willimon 44f). Darn it! We can’t even be proud of our humility.
So here is what I do. I don’t want to park too close and be thought of as seeing myself as more important than I ought. Nor do I want to take the farthest spot and have to battle that demon of pride in my humility. So, typically I park somewhere in the middle of the lot. Not too close, and not too far away. I know. I probably should see a therapist about this one.
But it can make you crazy. I want to be humble, but not so humble I’m proud of it. Man, these seven deadly sins are tricky! I ran across just how tricky again this week in a blog by Jon Acuff.
Sinners in need of grace
Acuff is a Christian humorist/satirist. He writes a blog called Stuff Christians Like where he talks about things like “The 10 Commandments of Chick-fil-A,” “How to Tell If You’re Dating a Preacher,” and one of his most popular posts “The Jesus Side-Hug.” But on Wednesdays he takes a break from the humor and writes “Serious Wednesday” posts. This Wednesday he wrote about signature sins (http://www.jonacuff.com/stuffchristianslike/2012/04/signature-sins/).
“A signature sin,” he writes, “is something big and bold and neon in your life. The moment you look at it, you know, ‘Oh yeah, that thing? That’s a sin.’ And so you focus on it. You work on it. You get serious about it.” I know exactly what he means, and I’m guessing you do to. You too probably have that sin in your life that you don’t talk about, don’t joke about, don’t even want to look at. It is your “front line” of sin.
When you are struggling with it, you feel really badly. You know you have sinned. You know you are far from God. You know you need to confess. You are aware of your need for grace.
“The flipside is that, when I’m not committing those signature sins,” Acuff continues, “I feel holy. I feel connected to God, as if he is happy with me those days. As if, on those days, I am perfect.”
Have you been there? I have. I can feel as though I have “earned” God’s love and favor. When I’m in that place, I pray differently. I pray proudly. I thank God for my strength, perseverance, or whatever other virtue I decide to assign myself that day.
My prayer is not quite as self-centered as the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable who prays, “‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income,” (Luke 18:11-12) but I’m in the same zipcode. When I am winning the battle against my signature sin I can feel pretty good, pretty righteous.
Acuff sums it up well:
Your self-righteousness is every bit as disgusting and damaging as your signature sin. It might even be worse, because at the heart of self-righteousness is the belief that you don’t need God…
The reality is:
On my worst days, when I’ve broken every signature sin, I am in desperate need of God’s grace.
On my best days, when I’ve avoided every signature sin, I am in desperate need of God’s grace.
I think it all boils down to one question: Who do you think you are?
Do you believe you pulled yourself up by your bootstraps without any help from anyone, even God? Do you believe you are somehow better than your neighbor because you have more money, were born into a country of advantage, have the right skin color, sexual orientation, or pedigree? Do you believe you are somehow closer to God because you are smarter, better looking, or more athletic than most others? Do you think you are, as some say, “all that and a bag of chips?”
Or are you aware of just how empty you really are? Do you know you are a sinner in desperate need of God’s grace?
How every breath is a gift from God himself? How your intellect, money, advantage were given to you by Him, not for your own benefit, but with the calling to use them for the sake of others? Can you look to the one who is struggling and recognize yourself in them? And more importantly see Christ in them?
That’s the irony of this passage. We are told to have the mind of Christ who emptied himself. You and I don’t need to be emptied. Rather we simply need to be mindful of our emptiness. All we have that means anything is a gift from God. Jesus was divine and had everything to be proud of but put it aside for us. We are weak and sinful. We have little, if anything, of which to be eternally proud. Yet we cling to a figment of our imagination with pride.
How do you see yourself? May we come to understand just how empty we are: sinners in need of one another and in desperate need for God’s grace.
Acuff, Jon. Stuff Christians Like. http://www.jonacuff.com/stuffchristianslike/
Kaylor, Bob. “A Titanic Lie” draft for Homiletics.
Willimon, William H. Sinning Like a Christian: A New Look at the Seven Deadly Sins. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005. Kindle edition.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.