As teachers at ESD, one of our primary goals is that we want you, the students, to feel known and loved. As our chaplains remind us frequently, that perfect love comes from pursuing the deep connection we long for with something greater than ourselves.
Two weeks ago, someone was kind enough to send me the hand-written text of the last homily that our founding head of school, Father Swann, delivered here in All Saints Chapel. Among the lasting images he wanted students to take from this place when they graduated was their daily entrance through the doors behind you. He wanted you to remember that each day you enter underneath the quote from the Gospel of Matthew about loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself. You may have noticed, although I will admit it has not been intentional, that over this school year, the theme of my monthly homilies has been how we find God’s love. Perhaps it has been the particular challenges that this year has brought. Maybe there have been other reasons. But certainly, my own search for this connection to God’s love and to each other has been on my mind frequently. I imagine it is a journey we all are on to a certain degree.
In November we talked about stewardship. We wondered together about what it meant to be a Good Ancestor. The message that month was that the hoarding of resources separates us from our neighbors and separates us from God’s will, from God’s love. When we take the abundance that we have all been given - the talents, the skills, the treasures - and we connect ourselves, our decisions, to the well-being of others, particularly those who have no voice, those that will come well after us, it is then that we are living the virtue of stewardship. It is then that we are being a Good Ancestor.
In December we wondered about joyfulness. We considered the overwhelming tears of joy we feel when we are with those in our lives with whom we have the deepest connection. It is in those moments that God’s love is tangible, becomes almost incarnate in the way that Jesus’s birth brought God’s presence to Earth.
Last month our virtue was Unity. Here we wondered about the spirits that surround our lives - the Holy Spirit which works to move us toward our two most important commandments etched above our entrance, and the other spirits that would divide us, make us hard to carry.
This month we wonder about how our virtue of moderation might drive us closer to God’s love and to a loving connection with each other. To illustrate, I would like to use the work of one of the great poets that has ever walked among us. His name was Dante.
Dante lived in Europe - specifically Italy - in the 1300s. He wrote a famous epic poem called The Divine Comedy. Epic poems are called such because, unlike the shorter poetry that some of you have most frequently studied in English class, they are book-length and tell long stories. Some of you will read or have read parts of the Odyssey or The Iliad perhaps. They are epic poems too.
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, he tells the story of one person’s journey during the afterlife - that is after dying here on Earth - through hell, purgatory, and eventually to heaven. In the story, the hero confronts and recognizes those things he has done wrong - his sins - and begins to process them in such a way that he is able to get closer to God. This trip starts with him acknowledging and understanding what he has done wrong, his own sin, and accepting how his behavior can be altered to live God’s will, be in connection with God and achieve salvation. This is the theme of the Divine Comedy. It perhaps describes this holy journey that all of us take, even here on earth, to better understand what God wants for us.
To describe behavior that is displeasing to God, Dante uses what Christianity has called the seven deadly sins.
Pride - believing one is better than others
Envy - wanting something that someone else has
Gluttony - the over-consumption of something to the point of waste
Wrath - uncontrolled feelings of hatred or anger
Greed - excessive pursuit of material possessions
Sloth - physical or spiritual laziness
Lust - uncontrolled desire for pleasure.
What these negative behaviors have in common is that they are all a distortion or misuse of love. If we remember that our definition of love is to “will the good of another”, then all these behaviors are instead willing good only for ourselves. We live to satisfy only ourselves, our feelings, our needs to the point of putting that goal before our love of God and neighbor. We make life only about loving ourselves.
As Dante’s hero begins to confront these deadly sins and understand how he can travel toward paradise, toward this ideal relationship with God, Dante presents to us the counterpoint to the seven deadly sins - the seven lively virtues. These are behaviors that should bring us closer to God.
Humility - a modest view of one’s importance
Gratitude - being thankful for what one has
Temperance - moderation of thoughts, acts, or feelings
Patience - the acceptance of trouble without getting angry
Generosity - giving more than what is expected
Diligence - persistent work of effort
Chastity - the practice of self-restraint
What is important to note here is that often when we are trying to live a better life, make better decisions, we think that we must do the opposite of what is described in the seven deadly sins. For instance, with sloth, which we defined, remember, as spiritual or physical laziness. Notice that our virtues do not call us to work always at the expense of all else. They do not tell us to be a workaholic. Instead they ask of us diligence. They simply call for regular and persistent effort. When we are being prideful - thinking we are better than everyone else - our virtues do not ask us to put ourselves down, they ask us to be modest, maybe let others say nice things about us rather than ourselves.
Each of the seven deadly sins is in some way a distortion of love through excess. By engaging in those behaviors we are making ourselves central to our life’s story rather than making God the focus. However, iIt is also true that taking our behavior to the other extreme can also have the same result.
In speaking of the perfect moderation that we seek the Christian Scientist writer Stephen Carlson said,
“To express a God-inspired kind of moderation isn’t to have a wishy-washy mentality devoid of conviction. Nor does it mean that we’re giving up something of our individuality or our stand for what’s right and wrong in order to please others. Instead, it points to a yielding of merely personal will and a personal sense of ego to a recognition that God, the one all-wise creative power of the universe, is the actual governor of humans, the one divine Ego. The government of divine Mind, of Love, doesn’t include an intransigent attitude of hatred or intolerance; and it doesn’t include selfishness or extremes.”
In today’s reading from Philippians, Paul is explaining to his flock how they can gain “the peace of God which passes all understanding”, what one might argue is the state of perfect love with God. In verse five of the translation we read today, the New International Version, says,
“Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”
You may remember at about this point last year, I talked to you about different translations of the Bible. I hope all of you remember that neither the Old nor New Testament were written in English. The first was written in Hebrew, the second mostly in Ancient Greek. The Bible has been translated into English many times in the last centuries so that it can be easily accessible to English speakers. In fact the website Bible Gateway offers us 61 different English translations.
If one looks at the King James Version, also a widely use translation, of that same verse from Phillipians, rather than saying,
“Let your gentleness be evident to all”
“Let your moderation be known to all.”
In this translation Paul reminds us that by being moderate in all things, we are able to access the peace which comes from connecting to God, living his will, loving him with our whole heart. His wisdom, Stephen Carlson’s wisdom, Dante’s wisdom, is that virtue, paradise, and the connection with God’s love is found not when we love to excess and/or for selfish reasons, nor when we do not love at all. It is found instead when we moderate. We find that sweet spot that puts God first and allows us to experience the love of him and each other that lives his will and brings peace to our lives. As the last line of today's reading says,
“Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me (Paul), and the God of peace will be with you.”
My prayer today for all of us is through this perfectly moderate behavior, we become our best selves, best able to live out those two most important commandments that Father Swann wanted ESD students to maintain as a lasting image of their time here in All Saints Chapel.
Amen. Let us stand for our prayers.