The Sunday Sermon: Third Sunday of Lent – March 24, 2019
Scripture: Matthew 14:1-12
Lust and Envy: Letting Go and Being Free
We’re dying. And that’s a good thing.
“The old is dying. The new is coming.” Words that began this year’s season of Lent once again. Many of us heard those words on the first day, the first night, of Lent, Ash Wednesday as we had the sign of the cross imposed on our foreheads in ash. But these are the words that begin it all, again, for all of us. The old is dying … in us. We’re dying … so that we may be born anew. Resurrection we call it. It’s not just for Jesus anymore.
I feel like if I keep saying things like that to you, someday it just might true for you.
Hears a mid-Lent confession: On my worst days I feel like that is not happening, that it’s never going to happen. For some strange reason you’d rather be told you’re worms and will never be able to change. You’d rather be yelled at by red-faced preachers, spewing fire and brimstone sermons that celebrate the flames of Hell and the blood of Christ, by which they mean Jesus alone, the Way to salvation, in whose name you, too, may be saved if you only BELIEVE … enough. For some strange reason, that’s probably not so strange at all, you’d rather hear all that .
It’s all we’ve been taught, really, in spite of agitators like me. And … and, it’s easier. Simple “belief” in someone else takes about an hour a week. It includes a prayer of confession and an assurance of pardon, a lecture on how to do better next week and then a blessing, a kind of “good luck” with that and see you next Sunday so we can do all this over again.
The problem is, it’s not going to happen that way – Salvation, with a capital “S.” (I like doing that, capitalizing key words like that – Love, capital “L;” Life, capital “L;” Salvation, capital “S.” It means there’s more to this word, this reality, than we most often take time to allow.) You see, I give my heart and my energy as a Pastor, to a God who saves us, individually, for an “existence” beyond this one no matter how hard we try to separate ourselves. That’s been done. I “believe” in a life after this one where my salvation will be “lived” out, though I haven’t the faintest idea of what that life looks, sounds, or feels like. (Do you remember my answer for us to last summer’s sermon question “What happens after we die?” The answer I offered was “Yes.”). But Salvation, with a capital “S” is also about redemption and resurrection right here and now. It has to do with so much more than “belief” simply in someone else, no matter how beautiful that someone was. It has to do with trust and fidelity in this life. It has to do with “doing” in this life. Jesus himself said “Go, and do.” The way that Jesus Saves us (capital “S!”) is he shows us how to love and instructs us how to do it, not simply believe in it. Do it!
The old is dying … in us. We’re dying … so that we may be born anew. Resurrection we call it. It’s not just for Jesus anymore. I feel like if I keep saying things like that to you, someday it just might true for you.
Pray with me …
So we are dying again this year. We have already died to pride and to greed, if only just a little bit, if only by just being a bit more aware of how and why these deadly sins get control in our lives. This morning, halfway through the Sundays in Lent, we have a “twofer!” We will die this morning to lust and envy. Again … if only just a bit, if only by becoming more aware of what these deadly sins are and how they are a part of our lives.
This morning’s reading is seldom selected as a sermon text, though it has certainly fired the imagination in other artists of all kinds throughout the centuries. There are many scripture verses about lust or envy in our Bible. From Proverbs to the Wisdom writings to our Gospels, I could have chosen and we could have read and heard many other passages. But these twelve verses from the Gospel of Matthew shorten the story of John the Baptist’s death first shared in Mark. This is the only story in either Gospel not directly concerned with Jesus. And it is bursting with lust and envy.
(Seems an odd time to say following those last two words, but …) Listen for the Word of God. Read Matthew 14:1-12. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
At the heart of artist’s interest in this story, from paintings and plays to ballets and operas, is, of course, the “provocative dancer and here ghoulish reward.” The unnamed dancer is almost certainly Salome, daughter of Herodias by her first husband. And although the dance’s actual happening has been questioned on many fronts, it has long captured the attention of readers and hearers for its lusty possibilities. Our scripture only says that Salome “danced before the company.” Artists throughout the ages are responsible for visualizing this dance as lustful or bawdy. The idea that Salome’s dance involves “seven veils” originated with Oscar Wilde’s 1891 play Salomé. Wilde was influenced by earlier French writers who had transformed the image of Salome into an incarnation of female lust.
The licentiousness of this story thickens when we remember the whole reason that John the Baptist was imprisoned – because he publicly rebuked Herod for breaking the incest laws of the Pentateuch. Herod’s wife Herodias was his niece as well as the wife of his living brother. As I said, this passage is busting with at least one of this morning’s vices. But we’d be wrong to equate this deadly sin, lust, “simply” with sexual desire. In fact, contrary to popular belief, lust primarily does not have to do with sexual desire. It can certainly make its way into that space, but this deadly vice is ultimately about control. It’s the desire that wells up inside us to have everything go our way, on our terms, all the time. Lust just as easily gets tangled up in our desires for financial gain, or revenge, or ego enhancement. We hear how our vices are “pairing up,” or joining forces against us – pride and lust for ego, greed and lust for gold. But let’s try to keep them apart for our consideration this morning.
Salome, prompted by her mother in this story, uses every means at her disposal to control those who are gathered and watching – the “company” as they’re called in verse six, and to control her step-father. In their lust for this control, Salome and her mother Herodias, reduce all the other characters in this story – Herod, his company, and certainly John, himself – to objects, regarding them only as instruments for accomplishing their personal goals, namely the execution of John.
And there’s more in this story than just lust. This story is presented as a flashback. In the first verses of our reading Herod has already killed John. He, bound, and put John into prison because of Herodias. The dance, request for John’s death, and Herod’s beheading of John has already happened. It’s after all this that Herod hears about Jesus’ public activity and says, essentially, “Jesus is another John.” The flashback happens after Herod makes this this statement.
There’s envy in Herod’s voice as the passage begins, in is comparison of Jesus to John. More than mere jealousy, Herod is, first of all, desirous of the adoration and obedience that Jesus, and John before him, receives from the crowds. And, secondly, he wants the destruction, the death of the one who has what he wants. Such is the way that envy works in our lives.
We just might be able to live with the jealously we feel toward others, the “coveting” of what others possess, or seem to possess. It’s wrong, but as long as we get, or forget, what we’re coveting, what we’re jealous about, we can move on. If I get the car my neighbor has, I’m happy. If I receive the attention my colleague does, I’m satisfied. But envy is so much more. In my envy, it’s not enough that I get what I want. The “other” must not get it, or must lose it, or must be hurt for having it. Herod didn’t simply want the love and adoration of “his people.” He wanted the destruction of those who already did have it. He killed John and as we well know, he will play his part in crucifying Jesus.
Herodias and her daughter are envious, as well. There’s no sense in these verses that they are envious of Jesus, they probably haven’t heard of him yet, but John is in their crosshairs. They’re angry at John, to be sure. He’s publicly humiliated them. They’re jealous of him, perhaps, he has a following and his followers seem to love him. But if that were all it was, they’d be content that he was arrested, bound and thrown into prison. As we well know, that’s not enough. They want John killed and his head literally “on a platter.” They don’t just want what he has, they don’t him to have it. They don’t want him to have life.
What implications about “lust and envy” in our lives today can we find from our scripture story and our exploration of it today?
Compared to most of the rest of the world, we live like Kings (and Queens), like … well, like Herod and Herodias. And compared to how people lived in centuries past, we enjoy riches beyond what most could ever have hoped to attain. And yet … we want more, don’t we? And out of our want we get more. Why? As I’ve already noted, our “vices” are beginning to get tangled up with one another as the list grows – pride / envy, greed / lust, envy / greed, lust / pride. But I’m finding at least one common “theme,” one common element to all these “deadly defects.”
I’m using a worship resource on the Seven Deadly Sins throughout this sermon series written by Eric Elnes for Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’ve not credited his work in the reflections that begin our Lenten bulletins this year, but I use his writing extensively. He notes in his reflections on “envy” that one of its greatest “allies” is a sense of entitlement – the feeling of moving us beyond wanting nice clothes, a new car, a bigger house / respect, adoration, and love – to feeling like we deserve those things. That, it seems to me, may be said about all of our vices thus far, and I’m thinking all those to come. We “deserve” it … all.
That’s certainly the message that our world sends us. Just Do it! For all you do, this Bud’s for you. You deserve a break today. This sense of entitlement, this “we deserve it” mentality undermines our restraint, our self-control, with something that transcends money, or any other limits. It undermines our call for self-emptying with a message that, ultimately says – quite incorrectly – “God wants you to have all these things.” Concern for others and what they have or concern for ourselves and what we truly need slips away in our “entitled” lives. “You deserve it” so easily and effectively appeals to our overwhelming pride and greed in ourselves, and our lust and envy of others.
Finally, of course, through both “lust” and “envy” we not only become obsessed with the objects of our desire – tangible things as well as things like control, adoration and power – and resentful of those who have these, or other, things. We also lose sight of the good that we do have in our lives. This, I think, is the worst thing that lust and envy do. Rather than seeing and celebrating the gifts God has given us, we count only the blessings that our neighbor has. Lust and envy eat at our hearts and makes us heartless in our dealing with others. And they truly become deadly.
Proverbs 27:4 says, “Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who is able to stand before envy?” The answer, though left unspoken by our wisdom writer is no one. Eric Elnes suggest that “given the pervasiveness” of lust and envy, we can’t really talk about overcoming or being free of them. Instead, we need to think in terms of recovering from them throughout our lifetime.” It’s in places like this, surrounded by friends like these, that we find the courage and the instruments to continue our recovery. But it’s out there, in the world, where we “do” what we need to do. In here forgiveness and empowerment happen. Out there we may find restoration and resurrection as we live in the ways God intends.
Where are lust and envy right here at Pewee Valley Presbyterian? Lust and envy in our personal lives, or at our places of work, or in our families, or right here when we are gathered in Christ’s name? How is that lust and envy keeping us from emptying ourselves, from seeing the truth, from connecting to those who need to experience the Love of our God the most? Where is the lust and envy in your life that keeps you from being all you were created by God to be and that keeps others from doing the same?
More questions for Lent. We’re halfway through our Sundays and the questions grow. Pride, Greed, Lust, and Envy. Who is in control here? “Take thou our minds dear Lord, we humbly pray,” and we will make it to Easter again.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church, March 24, 2019