Extreme Sin

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

“EXTREME! Sin: Gluttony, Greed and Lust” FUUCW

Gluttony, Greed and Lust. Straightforward excesses of desire. Extreme sins.
I grouped these three sins together for this sermon because of their
similarity. They are all sins of excess.The Seven Deadly Sins, so named by
the same sixth century monk who created the Gregorian Chant, are perhaps
better described as human behaviors. These behaviors, sloth, pride,
gluttony, greed, lust, anger and envy are elements of our daily life that most
of us try to keep in control, behaviors we recognize and deal with in
deference to the choices we have made for our lives. I spoke of sloth and
pride two weeks ago and for those who missed that sermon, a word about

Sloth is not mere laziness but a deeper lack of caring. Pride is caring about
oneself based on bad information. Both of these lead us to loneliness
because with sloth we withdraw ourselves from others and with pride we
place ourselves above others, ending with the same result. The interruption
of our relationships with others.

Catholic theologian, Henry Fairlie believes all the seven deadly sins can
make us solitary. He writes: “This solitude to which the sins condemn us is
partly a result of taking something in our lives, which has its appropriate
place and value, and then lifting it out of place and exaggerating its
importance to us. In the end, it is no longer a part of our lives but takes the
place of living. Avarice does this with possessions, Lust with sex, and
Gluttony does it with food. But in the process a distortion takes place.
Avarice is more interested in possessing than in the possession. Lust in
sexual activity than in sexual feeling, and Gluttony is more interested in
eating than in the food. It is the appetites in themselves, and their need for
gratification, that take over one’s life, and the object of each appetite, which
might in itself be pleasing, is submerged in the inordinate desire for it. The
food on the plate of the glutton is not really the source of pleasure to him.”

The significant similarity in these three human behaviors is that all are
necessary to the survival of humanity. We all must eat and we need things,
such as some protective clothing and a place to sleep and cook the food and
if we have an active libido, it’s also nice to have a sexual partner. If there
are no sexual partnerships striking up, we strike out as the human race.

So what happens to turn these normal human behaviors into Deadly Sins.
It’s really quite simple: these needs become objectified. We stop having a
relationship with either food, our belongings, or our beloved/beloveds. We
become obsessed with eating, possessing, and sexual activity.

I have been most interested in the sin of gluttony. I am familiar with this
human behavior in excess, since I have struggled with unhappiness over my
body mass for about 50 years. Up and down. And up again. I am the
often spoken of “Yo-Yo” when it comes to my weight. I have lost hundreds
of pounds in my life and sadly enough have found almost every one of them
again. I would like to say that my reading has led me to a deep
understanding of the sin of gluttony, but that would not be quite true. What
I have learned, however, has been helpful to me and perhaps it will help
someone else.

My colleague Scott Alexander preached on gluttony last year. During his
sermon he passed several baskets of grapes and had each person take one
grape. Then he asked them to examine that grape carefully. Next he said
to eat half of it. Half a grape. I usually pull a handful off the bunch and
stuff them into my mouth. That’s gluttony. I once bought a pound of See’s
chocolate truffles and ate them within the next two hours, or before I drove
from Albuquerque to Los Alamos. That’s gluttony.

My relationship with the food was not one of appreciation and taste. It was
not one of caring for my body or my soul. It was a deeper hunger that I
probably could never fill by any means, most of all not with pounds and
pounds of chocolate.

Solomon Schimmel writes “we should weigh the fleeting, transient nature of
the pleasure experienced in eating against the extended pain it causes. A
few minutes of pleasure produce many days of illness and remorse. Isn’t
this too costly a price to pay for the ephemeral benefits of inordinate
eating?” Well, Solomon, I had the cure for this remorse. More chocolate.
More remorse. A cycle of pleasure and pain.
For gluttony does not savor. It only devours.

In Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale” we read the following mocking of the glutton:
Alas, the filth of it! If we contemn
The name, how much more filthy is the act!
A man who swills down vintages in fact
Makes a mere privy of his throat, a sink
For cursed superfluities of drink!
—O thou belly! Stinking pod
Of dung and foul corruption, that canst send
Thy filthy music forth at either end,
What labor and expense it is to find
Thy sustenance!

Moralists make a point of the wastefulness of superfluous food and drink,
when so many in our world are hungry. If we let our appetites get out of
hand, it is difficult to set limits on them. And that’s the truth. The more we
desire food, the more anxious and driven we make our lives. We sacrifice
the psychological serenity that comes with moderation and simplicity.

Fairlie considers any approach to eating that involves excess to be a sin.
Dieters, health food addicts, cookbook collectors, cooking ware collectors.
All have an inordinate fascination with food and spend their time thinking
about or reading about food. He says “Eating is their one staple of interest
and conversation. By giving to food a false value, they also rob it of its real

Our gluttony extends to drugs, work, alcohol, all of which cause us to
remove ourselves from caring for others. Fairlie’s warning to all of us is that
“there is a general tedium in the profusion of our affluent societies. We may
not all have our faces buried in our swill to escape it, but we all have them
buried in some over-richness of indulgence, some activity that will merely
take our minds off our emptiness.” If our societies are founded on Greed or
avarice, the state to which they reduce us is Gluttony. A grim prophecy

Greed. Avarice. Are our modern societies based on Greed? I have tended
to think so for about 28 years. When I was at home being a full time parent
and a part time musician, I saw many young families with both parents
working full time outside the home. New cars, new houses, boats. At the
time, I, in all my humility, baked my own bread, sewed the boys’ clothes,
had a huge garden, and helped butcher several deer each season. I
enjoyed these activities because I was good at them. I can’t say there was
much I desired. And desire is the word used to indicate greed. Desire
unabated is what becomes greed.

Desire isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Theologians, social scientists and
philosophers disagree on greed. Some consider greed to be a major source
of evil in our capitalist society, and argue that socialist cultures and
economic systems discourage and control greed and envy and produce more
humane and just societies. On the other hand, proponents of capitalism
maintain that greed and envy are engines of social and economic progress.
They encourage people to work hard in order to produce greater wealth for
the society as a while. They also say that in the long run this raises the
standard of living for all and results in the greater good for the greatest
number of people.

Schimmel writes that pursuit of wealth is a dominant value in our society.
The Savings and Loan scandals of the 1980s and the recent Enron
bankruptcy indicate there some truth in this. We are aware that the
cutthroat competitor, the workaholic, the swindler, the miser and the
gambler are all greedy. Sometimes even the spendthrift is guilty of greed.
Greed is the inordinate love of money and of material possessions, and the
dedication of oneself to their pursuit. The paradox of greed is that its
apparent aim is to increase pleasure through the purchase of goods and
services, but often does so at the expense of pleasure and happiness. The
person working 80 hours a week doesn’t get to watch too many movies in
her home theatre.

As I mentioned above, it is not the enjoyment of using the object of greed,
but rather the ability to acquire the object that is important to the avaricious
person. When we think of King Midas, we have the classic example of the
loss of relationship caused by a deadly sin. Dionysius gave him the ability to
turn everything he touched into gold. He turned his wife and children into
gold. But look at the gold he had. No one to share it with. A very sorry
result of greed.

Our culture encourages some greed, in euphemistic terms of such as the
value of financial success, the good life, having it all. When does this
become something you and I need to worry about. Henry Fairlie writes:
“Avarice is, not so much the love of possessions, as the love merely of
possessing. To buy what we do not need, more even than we need for our
pleasure or entertainment, is a love of possessing for its own sake. We may
think we do not know any misers, since we do not come across people
fondling their coins. But we all know people whose homes are so filled with
possessions that there is scarcely room to turn in them. They do not love
their possessions for what they are—no one can love so many objects—they
love the fact that they are the possessor. This is a miser.” The difference
that makes the difference is between possessions and mere possessing.

The difference that makes the difference with lust is between “love” which
dies at the next dawn and “love” that includes the idea of its continuance. I
love Henry Fairlie’s introduction to the subject:

“Lust is not interested in its partners, but only in the gratification of its own
craving, not in the satisfaction of our whole natures, but only in the
appeasement of an appetite that we are unable to subdue. It is therefore a
form of self-subjection, in fact, of self-emptying. The sign it wears is: ‘This
property is vacant.’ Anyone may take possession of it for a while. Lustful
people may think that they can choose a partner at will for sexual
gratification. But they do not really choose. They accept what is available.
Lust accepts any partner for a momentary service; anyone may squat in its
groin. It has nothing to give, and so it has nothing to ask.”

You might respond, well, that’s pretty harsh! And indeed I agree. But
doesn’t it sum up the difference between an irresponsible fling and a
relationship based on mutual trust and attraction, one we hope will continue
to grow and deepen as the days, months and years go by. A relationship
based on getting to know you, on caring deeply for you, on getting past our
conflicts and giving and taking in the process.

Schimmel defines lust as the unrestrained and unethical expression of the
sexual impulse.

Aristotle made the distinction between licentiousness and temperance with
regard to our sexual pleasures. Believing this impulse was powerful, he
thought it could be controlled by reason. The Old Testament stories of
untamed sexual appetites, David and Bathsheba, the rape of Tamar by her
half-brother Amnon, indicate to me that the people of the time had
problems. These writings served the purpose of setting some guidelines for
sexual expression. The message overall in the Old Testament is that sexual
relations when morally appropriate are good – a gift to be appreciated and
enjoyed. But the warning is to consider the ethics of our sexual expression.

Certainly our standards have changed since Biblical times. But Schimmel
writes that “sex is far less important than many in our culture would have us
believe.” We are bombarded with sexual titillation in the media, in
advertising, everywhere we look we see sexual appeal used to encourage us
to participate in greed, buying that motorcycle that we really don’t need.
Have we all become voyeurs?

Perhaps we are still recovering from the Victorian period when sex was
repressed. Finding balance is important. Yet, how much do we need in
order to find balance in our lives. How can we seek legitimate means of
satisfying our sexual needs without doing harm to others. How can we
avoid the widespread misrepresentation and exploitation of sex, the
severing of sex from love, and the encouragement of selfish sexual
indulgence. In our culture, it’s tough.

As with other sins, lust is often the attempt to fill a terrible hollowness at the
center of life, for which we have no spiritual resource to fill. Fairlie writes
that we suffer from sexual commotion, excitement which is unfulfilled. In
our culture, some of us are in a continual state of commotion, partly
because our society is in commotion, and has no spiritual resources on
which to call. Since religion has been displaced, sex can be made the opium
of the masses.

As with all the “deadly” sins, our sexual appetites are normal human
behaviors that have a good and proper and life-giving place in our living and
in our relationships.

The key is to make the best choices we can every day. As with the
appetites of eating and acquisition of our earthly goods, we are well
meaning and creative creatures. We might keep in mind that we are all
subject to the foibles and excesses of human nature.

I close with words from my sermon two weeks ago. We all sin when we fall
short or go too far, when we miss the mark in our relationships with life and
other persons. We need to consider our capacity for error and evil, in order that we take
seriously our capacity for good.