Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

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Second Deadly Sin

Series: Alternatives to the Seven Deadly Sins

Sermon #2 – “Kindness instead of Envy”

Genesis 16:1-6

16Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, 2and Sarai said to Abram, ‘You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3So, after Abram had lived for ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.4He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!’6But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.’ Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

Did you have a favorite fairy tale when you were a child?  Maybe Snow White, Cinderella, or Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel?  If you are someone younger than my generation, or if you have young children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews, you may hear the words fairy tale and think about the Disney versions of the stories.  Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, The Little Mermaid, Jasmine – the Disney Princesses are what come to mind these days when we think of fairy tales – -not the classic stories written by the Brothers Grimn or Hans Christian Anderson.  But once we look past the pretty dresses and beyond the happy endings, we see today’s deadly sin in many of these childhood stories.

Today we reach the second sin in our series “Alternatives to the Seven Deadly Sins.” Today’s sin is envy, and it is all over the fairy tales of old – -the stepsisters in Cinderella, the evil queen in Snow White, the witch in the Little Mermaid – -all of them were envious of someone else.  Sometimes it was a person – -a prince perhaps.  Sometimes it was beauty, sometimes it was status.  But each time, the character was so envious that not only did they want what was not their own, but they wished harm upon the one who had it.

Reading today’s story of Sarai, Abram, and Hagar, we may be tempted to hear…once upon a time, long ago and far away, in the same kingdom that God had washed away by a flood there was a man named Abram and a woman named Sarai.  The Lord made a covenant with Abram and said to him in a vision, “Do not be afraid Abram, I am your shield,… your reward shall be very great…look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.  So shall your descendants be.”  And Abram believed the Lord.  But his wife, Sarai, did not conceive.  In accordance with the custom in this region for a woman in her situation, Sarai gave her maidservant Hagar to her husband, in order to provide him with someone else to have children with.  Sarai gave her servant to her husband in hopes that it would result in God fulfilling God’s promise to Abram.  Sarai was despondent that she had not conceived and, again, according to the custom of the region, her social status was lowered, and her friends shunned her.  Hagar took her place in the family.  When Hagar’s child, a son named Ishmael, was born, Sarai was very envious of Hagar, and of the child.  She was angry with Abram, angry with God, and angry with herself.  She was envious of Hagar for being able to do what she could not, and for having what she could not have, and was envious of the child for not being hers.  Sarai treated Hagar and Ishmael terribly in many ways.  One day Hagar decided she had had enough.  She fled to the desert with Ishmael to escape the envious wrath of Sarai[1].

It’s not a pretty story, is it?  There are no ball gowns and there is no happily ever after, at least not in these six verses.  God promised Abram descendents.  Sarai assumed they would come through her – -she was his wife after all.  Instead, she realized that was not going to happen  — at least not now.  And so she created her own solution – -one that was practical, and appropriate according to the law and the custom. She gave her own maidservant to her husband and that was that.  A child was born and you would have thought that she would have been ecstatic – God’s promises fulfilled if not through her, than through someone else.  But imagine for a moment if you were Sarai – if you thought that you were supposed to be the one to do this, the one to bear this child, and then, through no fault of your own, you could not.  The pain of having to watch Hagar take your place with your husband, and then watch her pregnancy develop.  Then, when the child comes knowing that her rights as mother will usurp your rights as wife.  In verse 4 Sarai is described as looking at Hagar with “contempt” she is envious, scornful of Hagar, coveting what someone else has, that she has wanted so badly, and wishing her harm because of it.

In his early 1600’s play The Topical History of Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe, the character of envy describes himself this way to the main character of the play, “I am envy…I cannot read and therefore wish all books burned.”[2] That is what envy is – – the desire for what someone else has, and if you can’t have it, then no one can. The dictionary defines envy as, “painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.”[3]

Envy is painful and can eat us up inside.  It is horrible, and will destroy even the most solid relationships.  We might be able to imagine a world were these women might have been friends, had Sarai not been so envious she set out to destroy Hagar.  And yet it probably did not start out that way.  Envy can be sneaky – -it begins as jealousy – we say to ourselves, “I want that.”  Then we go from “I want that,” to, “how can I get it?”, and from, “how can I get it?” to, “I cannot read, therefore I wish all books destroyed.”  What does that do to our relationships with one another?  In his book, Disordered Loves, William Stafford tells of a family that was as happy as any other – loving, giving parents, three well adjusted, happy children.  The children grew up and then, for reasons no one could understand, became alienated from their parents.  They dropped out of school, used and sold drugs, participated in promiscuous sexual behavior.  Two of the three became gang members.  The family was shattered, and no one could explain why.

Some years later, the children’s aunt died.  In the last days before her death, she called her sister, the mother of the three children.  The aunt told her sister that she had always been jealous of her sister’s happiness.  She had envied the seemingly perfect life the sister and her family had, and so she set out to destroy it by corrupting her nieces and nephews.  Over the years she had invited her sister’s children to her city apartment to visit, treated them royally, and used the opportunity to instill in them a resentment of the simpler lifestyle they lived with their parents.  She exposed them to drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous behavior, as well as lied to them about their parents.  The result was the fracturing of the family, and the final triumphant phone call from a woman on her deathbed to her sister as a last act of bitterness.  The family had been destroyed by the envy one sister had for the life of another.

It’s an extreme example.  So is the story of Sarai and Hagar.  So are many of the stories we can all tell of how envy slips into our lives and takes hold.  However, many of our stories of how envy affects our lives are not as extreme, and can be just as destructive.  What is the alternative?  What are we praying for God to put in it’s place?  In our first reading, from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we heard the familiar words.  And yes, I know it is Valentine’s weekend, and no, I’m not about to get all mushy and romantic.  These words that are so often used at weddings were never written for them in the first place.  Yet when we listen carefully to verse 4, we hear the alternative to envy – love and kindness.  “Love is patient.  Love is kind.  Love is not envious.”  From these very familiar words, we can see that the alternative to envy is indeed kindness in love.  There is a great Hebrew word Hessed –that can be translated as “loving kindness” and this is what is set as our alternative as envy.

Loving-kindness as an alternative to envy makes sense.  Rather than wish for the failure or demise of the one who has what we want, when we are grounded in Christ, we are grounded in kindness that does not have room to harbor envy.  The successes of others become our own successes, their good becomes our own good, their joy becomes our own joy.  Our wishes for the demise of someone else no longer have a place.  Kindness is indeed the fitting alternative.

Let me tell you another story… “Once upon a time, there were two men, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Thompson, both seriously ill in the same room of a great hospital. Both had to be kept unusually quiet and still – no reading, no radio, certainly no television and no visitors. Their only entertainment was to talk to each other.

Mr. Thompson had to spend all his time flat on his back. Mr. Wilson, on the other hand, as part of his treatment, was allowed to sit up in bed for an hour each day. His bed was next to the window, and every afternoon, when he was propped up for his hour, he would pass the time by describing to Mr. Thompson what he could see outside. And Mr. Thompson began to live for those hours. Mr. Wilson would look out the window and describe …

– a beautiful park with a lake, where there were ducks and swans and children throwing them bread and sailing model boats;
– softball games and football games and kites flying;
– flowers and trees and stretches of grass and young lovers walking hand-in-hand;
– the skyline of the city off in the distance and the cars and horse-drawn carriages making their way through the park.

One day, there was a parade, and Mr. Wilson described every float, every band and all the participants in the procession. Mr. Thompson listened intently, enjoying every minute. He could visualize everything Mr. Wilson described.

Then one afternoon, Mr. Thompson thought to himself: “Just wait a minute! Why should Wilson have all the fun? Why does he have all the pleasure? Why does he get to be by the window?” In a few days, Mr. Thompson turned sour. He was bitter, angry, resentful. He brooded and seethed. He became obsessed with wanting to be by the window! And each passing hour, he became more and more resentful of Mr. Wilson.

Then one night, quite suddenly, Mr. Wilson died. His body was taken away the next morning. As soon as it seemed decent, Mr. Thompson asked if he could be moved to the bed next to the window. So they moved him, tucked him in, made him quite comfortable and left him alone. The minute they’d gone, Mr. Thompson struggled to prop himself up on one elbow so he could look out the window. Imagine his surprise. It faced a blank brick wall![4]

The kindness Mr. Wilson showed Mr. Thompson in his final days brought joy to both men.  It brought them both hours spent in a park watching games and flowers and trees and boats on a pond.  Mr. Wilson’s kindness was using his imagination to pass the time and allow both men to leave the dreary hospital for the outside world – even if only in their minds – was a blessing to both men.  The envy of Mr. Thompson over his friend’s view – -even thought it was not real, only brought him bitter disappointment and sorrow when he realized that the loss was not the view, but the friendship.  His envy, his resentment robbed him of the last few days they could have shared as friends, instead replacing those memories with ones he will possibly regret when he remembers his behavior towards his friend.  Did he spend the last few days enjoying conversations, enjoying the company of his friend, or resenting what he thought he was missing?  If had opened himself to kindness instead of envy, how might things have been different?
In the case of these two, the bigger blessing was not the stories, not the supposed view of the park, but the friendship, the relationship.  Mother Teresa said, “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.”  God’s kindness is what was shown in describing the imaginary view from a hospital window.  Christ’s kindness is what can replace envy in our hearts.  Indeed, when we attempt to show Christ’s kindness, there is not room for envy.  If  Sarai had shown kindness to Hagar, could there have been a happily ever after for them both?

What might that look like for us, in our lives?  Perhaps it is first acknowledging that there are individuals that we do envy.  Maybe we envy the family whose life looks more like what we wish to have, or the person who works down the hall whose career we want.   The group sitting together in the cafeteria or restaurant eating together, seeming to have a good time, or the people who just seem to have it all put together?  What does it look like to show them God’s kindness?  What does it feel like?  It may not result in a fairy tale ending, a happily ever after, but you may be surprised.  You may be surprised to find that, just as the view from the hospital windows not what it seemed, neither are those folks.  Would you be surprised to find out that perhaps they do not have what you think – that the career you envy them for keeps them from the family they want or the person you envy for having it all pulled together in fact is just barely making it?

Gong back to the idea of envy describing itself as: “I cannot read and therefore wish all books burned” reminds us that it is not just this notion of wanting what is not ours, but wishing harm on those who have what we covet.  This envy can make it impossible to see past our own desires and show kindness.  Yet, what if we were able to do just that?  To show the kindness of Christ, that kindness that is patient and not arrogant or rude.  If we remove the blinders of envy and show kindness, we can develop and maintain relationships that are rich and meaningful.  The true alternative to envy is not simply kindness, but God’s kindness – kindness rooted in the love of Christ.  In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Sarna, Nahum M, ed .  The JPS Torah Commentary, Genesis.  The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1989.  118-120.  Exegesis.


[3] American Heritage Dictionary.

[4] –James Moore, Some Things Are Too Good Not to Be True (Nashville: Dimensions For Living, 1994), 97-99.