Sermon delivered at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church’s annual parish dedication festival, Trinity 13B, Sunday, August 30, 2015.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Song of Solomon 2.8-13; Psalm 45.1-2, 7-10; James 1.17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this day when we celebrate the founding of our parish, now well into its fourth year, and our patron saint, Augustine of Hippo, whose feast day was this past Friday (August 28), the anniversary of his death, how appropriate for us to consider the question, what makes a person righteous? In other words, how can we live our lives in ways that are faithful to God’s good will and purposes for us as his image-bearing creatures who are charged with being stewards over his good creation? The short answer is this: It’s a matter of transformation, and this topic was near and dear to Augustine of Hippo. This is what I want us to look at briefly this morning.
In our gospel lesson, we see Jesus again being confronted by his adversaries, this time over the matter of cleanness and uncleanness. Not being first-century Jews, these terms can seem strange to us, so let’s use the terms we are better acquainted with, righteous (or right) and unrighteous (or wrong). Yes folks. your heard me correctly. Despite what some would have us believe, there still are ways of thinking and acting in this world that constitute right and wrong. At the heart of the matter, Jesus’ adversaries are arguing that external things we do can make us right in God’s eyes. The immediate context in our gospel lesson was ceremonial (not hygienic) washing. Do this, say Jesus’ opponents, and you will distinguish yourself from the hated pagans who surround and control us, and make yourself right in God’s eyes at the same time. Sweet.
Nonsense, replies Jesus. It’s not the ceremonial things you do that make you right in God’s eyes, things like attending worship or praying or reading the Bible regularly or doing acts of charity (you know, stuff we Christians are called to do). You are focusing on the wrong things. What defiles you is what originates within you, within your heart. For it is out of the heart that all kinds of nasty things come. This is what alienates you from God and destroys your relationship with him. In other words, this is what makes you unclean and not right with God. Your corrupt heart is what makes external, ceremonial stuff necessary in the first place. It’s possible to do all those things well and still have a bad heart. For Jesus, the heart was not just the center of our emotions, but the center of our will.
This, of course, runs against our current thinking. Listen to your heart, we are told, and be true to it. Doing so is the key to success or happiness or whatever. But if we take Jesus’ claim here seriously, we can see the folly of that advise. We dare not listen to our heart, at least until it has been healed and transformed by Jesus in and through the power of the Spirit, because our heart is corrupt. Fixing this problem is not a matter of superficial window dressing (external acts), but of tearing down and rebuilding the very structure of the building (internal transformation)!
Jesus’ teaching also refutes an argument we hear a lot these days, that “God made me this way.” God did not create us with corrupt hearts that lead us to follow our own proud and selfish desires. God did not create babies with birth defects, etc. This is the result of human sin in the garden and God’s subsequent curse on it. Anyone with a realistic and biblical perspective understands that while there are many things in this world that are good, right, and beautiful, there is also something terribly wrong with the world, and here Jesus tells us what part of the problem is. We have corrupted hearts that make us act in unwise, unhealthy, and outright sinful ways. Fix the heart and the behavior corrects itself. Jesus wasn’t railing against human tradition. He was railing against human tradition that sets aside God’s teaching about how we are to conduct our lives. He didn’t say stop washing or tithing or doing the things we do here at St. Augustine’s as the Lord’s people. He said stop thinking that doing those things make you right in God’s eyes because they may simply be covering a corrupt heart. Augustine himself saw the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching when he said that, “Our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in you,” i.e., until our corrupt hearts are healed and regenerated by Jesus.
Now at this point, I can hear some of you grumbling to yourselves. “I hear what Jesus is saying, but surely that doesn’t apply to me. I’m not a murderer or a rapist or a terrorist. I don’t preach long sermons like Fr. Maney. I’m basically a good person.” Well, you may be a good person at some level, says Jesus, because I created you good. But you are no longer pure. Every time you say a hurtful word to others out of anger, every time you tell a lie or gossip or speak evilly about someone else or are indifferent to the plight of another, you are bearing the fruit of your corrupted heart because none of these things is from God. None of these things are after my example. And until your corrupt heart gets healed, you have a fundamental problem with God, the source and author of all life, because your corrupt heart inevitably alienates you from God.
Now that I’ve sufficiently depressed you and made you feel all uncomfortable and stuff, let me tell you that a corrupt heart is not the end of the story. While we must certainly acknowledge our brokenness as humans and the estrangement our hard heart causes between God and humans and between humans, it is a testimony to the love and faithfulness of God that he would move to heal our corrupt hearts by becoming human and dying on a cross to end our alienation from him and each other. No matter who we are or what we have done, there is nothing too great for the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ to overcome or heal. Nothing. God wants us to live rightly so we can finally begin to enjoy real happiness and purpose of living, something that is only possible when he replaces our hard hearts with human ones. So in addition to addressing the basis of our alienation with him by dying for us, God poured out his Spirit in our hearts to heal us and give us hearts of flesh, human hearts, that will help us to live in the manner pleasing to God and us. Contrast this response to our own when we are the victims of someone’s hard heart. Our own hard heart doesn’t tell us to forgive the offender and be reconciled to him. Our unhealed hearts make us want to lash out and seek revenge on the offender, inevitably escalating the conflict and alienation we feel. This is not what we are hardwired for. We are hardwired for relationship and goodness and peace. But our sin changed us and gives us just the opposite. That is why God’s mighty acts of justice and mercy on the cross and his giving us the Holy Spirit are such wonderful, life-changing things, thanks be to God!
Jesus hints at this in our gospel lesson. Don’t replace God’s teaching found in the broader story of God’s redemption contained in Scripture with your own human traditions. Instead, examine your motives and seek a pure heart, a heart that can only be healed and changed by me. I am available to you in the power of the Spirit and in God’s word contained in Scripture. This means that until our consistent desire is for God to cleanse and purify us by healing our hard hearts, we will never know the real transformative power of God. Failing to desire purity and then not doing the things on our end that must accompany a real desire to be healed, e.g., obeying Scripture, praying for purity, etc., is simply another manifestation of our corrupt heart.
This is why James urges us to take our human condition and the resulting sin seriously. Don’t be deceived, he tells us. Sin is deadly and will ruin you if you do not embrace the gift you’ve been given in Jesus. To be sure, your sins are forgiven by the blood of the Lamb shed for you. To be sure, you have been rescued from the dominion of darkness and transferred into God’s kingdom of light because of what God has done for you in Jesus. But if you really believe God has done this for you, you must respond to the gift you’ve been given. For starters, you will begin to see your utter inability to change and heal your corrupted heart and understand that only Jesus can do that for you (humility anyone?). Faith in Jesus will also open your eyes to the utter deadliness and horror of your sin and cause you to seek to pattern your own lives after Jesus so that you can be freed from the sin that will destroy you. And how does James think we do this? Through accepting the word of God in our lives, i.e., by obeying the clear teachings of Scripture found in the broader narrative of God’s rescue plan of his creation and creatures, not just the parts we happen to agree with. When we are cafeteria Christians, picking and choosing what we will obey in Scripture and what we will ignore, we are demonstrating that we prefer to follow our corrupt heart rather than submit to God’s word. This is fundamentally self-defeating because all Scripture points us to Jesus our Lord and Savior, and only Jesus can truly change us for the good for which we were created. This is why we must obey all of Scripture, not just the parts we happen to like.
As our hearts get healed by Jesus so that we become more consistently like him, it will inevitably lead us to work for God’s justice to protect society’s weakest and poorest and those least able to defend themselves, i.e., we will begin to practice our faith. Why? Because our healed hearts lead us to have real compassion for the least and the lost, folks just like us before we were touched by the love of God. But our healed hearts will do more than this. Our heart of flesh will cause us to recognize that we must consistently work to develop new behavior patterns to replace our old corrupt ones. This is what Paul meant by putting on Christ. So, e.g., we must learn to put aside our anger, our evil speaking, our gossip, our pride, our selfishness, and all the other manifestations of our corrupt hearts. We don’t do this on our own, of course. We do it in the power of the Spirit. That’s why our urgent pleas for purity must inevitably lead to our transformation, maddeningly slow and idiosyncratic as that seems to us at times. But this is what James is talking about when he talks about us being the firstfruits of God’s good and generous gift to us made known in and through Jesus and the presence of his Spirit in and through his people. Thanks be to God! Our healed hearts cause us to bear good fruit and give the world a preview of what will be standard operating procedure in the new creation. Right now, healed hearts are an exception to the rule. When the kingdom comes in full, it will be the rule, no exceptions. I can assure you, Augustine would be all about healing and transformation that leads to action!
As I look at the fruit we bear as a parish, it is evident to me that the Spirit is at work in and through us and our hearts are being healed. I see how we care for each other and those who are not part of our family. I sense the spirit of goodwill and charity when we gather together and I rejoice at seeing us work tirelessly for our Lord who loved us and has claimed us. This isn’t an invitation for complacency and self-congratulations. Our healed hearts cause us to know better. But it is a sin not to celebrate our Lord’s good gifts to us as we resolve to continue to work tirelessly and joyfully on his behalf. Doing so is the best way we can witness to the world that God really does heal corrupt hearts and that we really do have Good News to offer others and ourselves, now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.