Where’s God?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 18B, September 30, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5.13-20; Mark 9.38-50.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

How can a book that never mentions God’s name end up in the canon of Scripture? That is the question the confronts us in our OT lesson this morning. The book of Esther never once mentions God by name. What are we to make of that and how does it relate to the baptism we will celebrate in a little while? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

The book of Esther is unique in all the Bible because not once in its ten chapters is God’s name mentioned. Despite this curious fact, God is very much present in the lives of his exiled people. We see it in the circumstances of the story which are loaded with “coincidences,” an oxymoron if there ever was one. We see God’s activity in the lives of God’s people and even God’s enemies to bring about their rescue from certain annihilation. Consider these examples. An uppity queen who paves the way for Esther to become Xerxes’ queen. A king’s attendant who takes a special liking to Esther that is crucial to her becoming queen. Esther’s cousin Mordecai who thwarts a plot to kill the king by being at the right place at the right time, but who is a forgotten man in the king’s eyes. A wicked advisor who plots the destruction of God’s people  because of his hatred toward Mordecai and who rapidly becomes a favorite of the king. A restless night of sleep for the king that leads to his remembering Mordecai and ultimately leads to the reversal of fortune for Mordecai and Haman. The courage of Esther who risked her life for her people to expose the wickedness of Haman and his evil scheme to destroy God’s people. No, God’s name is never mentioned in the story but God is everywhere present in the circumstances and lives of his people to bring about their redemption! That is why throughout history the book of Esther has not been read as an isolated event in Jewish history but as symbolizing the final salvation of God’s people at the end of time (the eschaton).

This should be enormously encouraging to us as Christians who labor under God’s good but cursed and often-confusing world. The story of Esther reminds us that there are forces of Evil in this world that God has mysteriously and enigmatically allowed to usurp his rightful reign—but only to a degree. God is still Sovereign and ultimately in charge of his world. Despite appearances to the contrary, sometimes to an almost overwhelming degree, the story of Esther reminds us that God is in charge and is working to free his people from the power of Evil. 

St. Mark tells us essentially the same thing when he talks about casting out demons. His message? The forces of Evil and their human minions are indeed active in God’s world. We are at war and have been since human rebellion got us expelled from paradise. But the evil powers do not have free reign. God is still Sovereign. The evil powers must submit to Jesus and in doing so, God’s people find protection and respite from the havoc they wreak. Most of us do not perceive this war raging on with our human senses, but the war is real nevertheless as we all can attest because we all have experienced Evil in our lives. The story of Esther reminds us that God cares for his people, in part, through human agency, just like God did when he rescued his people through the actions of Esther and Mordecai, just like he does when we give a follower of Christ a cup of water or when we pray for healing for the sick. We want to push back at this claim because it strains against our sense of how the “real world” works. “How can that be,” we ask? “How can my small actions be of any importance to God?” Nowhere does Scripture answer that “how does it all work” question. It just reassures us that our actions do matter and are an important part in this ongoing war with Evil as God and his people fight against its forces. This claim about the importance of human agency should make sense to us, given that God created us in his image to run God’s world on his behalf. Why wouldn’t God work through human agency to help reestablish his kingdom on earth as in heaven? The forces of Evil certainly use human minions to impose their chaos on God’s good world and people! So why wouldn’t God use humans as agents to spread his goodness, love, mercy, and justice? Make no mistake. We don’t bring in the Kingdom. God does. But God calls us to do our part in the war against Evil. That is why it is so important that we order our lives according to God’s laws and God’s ordering of his creation. Otherwise, we help the enemy; and as Jesus himself warned us in our gospel lesson, that will result in God’s fearsome judgment on us. There will be no Evil and evildoers, human or otherwise, in God’s new world, the new heavens and earth (Rev 21.1-8).

This is why we must take seriously the underlying theme of the story of Esther with its proclamation that despite the presence of Evil and evildoers like Haman in God’s world, God works through the circumstances of life, chaotic as those circumstances can be, and through all kinds of people, to bring about salvation for God’s people. Every time we see Evil defeated, every time we see the sick healed, every time we see mercy extended or God’s justice carried out like we see in the story of Esther, we are reminded that these are signs meant to help us believe that God is busy at work rescuing his people from Evil, Sin, and Death. Esther reveals for those with ears to hear that life and death are determined by identification with a people—God’s people Israel in the OT and God’s people Israel reconstituted around Jesus Christ in the NT that includes both Jew and Gentile (Ephesians 2.14-18). We as God’s people in Christ are therefore called to embrace the promise that in Jesus Christ we are rescued from our sin and folly and ultimately from death itself because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us. The eschatological reality of eternal life for God’s people foreshadowed in the celebration of Purim is fully realized in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. We live because Jesus lives and because Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Not even our mortal death can prevent this promise from being fulfilled or separate us from the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord (John 14.19, 11.25-26; Romans 8.31-39)! Amen? Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection our destiny has been reversed from death to life, this against all human expectation, and we as Christians find in Christ God’s ultimate promise to protect us from death. Those of us who are God’s people in Christ will be delivered from death and live forever, just as our Lord Jesus was, thanks be to God! 

This means that even in the darkest circumstances of our life when joy is far from our hearts and everything looks dark, just as it did for Esther and her people before she confronted Haman in front of the king, we are assured of our current good standing with God and our final destiny in God’s new world because of the blood of Christ shed for us on the cross. Our sins are forgiven and we are being transformed into new creations by the power of God’s Spirit who lives in us and who makes the presence of our risen Lord a reality for us. That is why we can face even the darkest times with hope as God’s people. We live now and will live forever because Christ lives now and lives forever. This is the Good News of Jesus Christ that we profess. Without it, life is bleak indeed. With it, we have power to overcome the worst the forces of Evil can throw at us because Jesus is Lord and they are not.

In a moment we will baptize Tori into God’s family and into this breathtaking promise. She will receive the Holy Spirit and be made holy and pure to serve her Lord all the days of her life. Her parents will promise on her behalf to raise her in ways that will open the way for Jesus to be alive and present in her. We see none of this directly and we acknowledge we are dealing with a holy and awesome mystery. But we don’t have to “see” the Holy Spirit because like the story of Esther, we trust in the promise that baptism will accomplish what it promises, even when we cannot perceive its invisible reality—after all, that’s why we call it a sacrament—and our faith in the power and presence of the Spirit causes us to say, “Amen.”  Believe and trust in that promise, my beloved. Embrace your identification as a member of God’s people in Jesus Christ and be refreshed by God’s love, mercy, and grace that allows you to have membership in his holy family now and forever. Let it sustain you in your darkest hour and let it change you so that God can always use you as a force for his good in a world that desperately needs all the good it can get. When you do, you will be participating in the Good News of Jesus Christ, 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. 

So You Wanna be a Wiseguy, Eh?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Trinity 17B, September 23, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 31.10-31; Psalm 1; James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a; Mark 9.30-37.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Since it is Father Bowser’s birthday today, he felt compelled to offer me some advice about my preaching now that he is an official geezer and since I’ve been out of the saddle for awhile. “Preaching,” he told me, “is like drilling for oil. If you haven’t struck it after 10 minutes, stop boring.” 

In our psalm lesson this morning we are given a stark choice. We can live our lives wisely or foolishly. The former will result in us enjoying God’s blessings while the latter will result in our ultimate destruction. Of course life is not as clear-cut as the psalmist might imply. Real life is much messier because human beings are a mess. This doesn’t negate the psalm’s exhortation for us to live wisely, however, because the love, grace, and power of God are far greater than our messiness and this notion of living wisely is what I want us to look at this morning.  

Before we look at what wise living looks like, we had better understand how the Bible defines wisdom. Wisdom is not the same as knowledge. Wisdom as Scripture uses it starts with a healthy fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9.10). But what does that mean? Fearing the Lord does not mean we are to be terrified of God. To be sure, there is an element of judgment to fearing the Lord. After all, our Lord Jesus told us to fear God who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 10.28). But fear of the Lord is much more than our dread of God’s judgment on us because we have seen the cross of Jesus Christ and we therefore know the great love and grace that flows from the Father’s heart for us. God’s desire for us is life and health, not death and destruction. What truly loving father would not want good things for his own children? So we have a healthy respect for God’s power combined with a grateful heart for God’s love for us and his gracious and generous heart that causes him to shower upon us his undeserved blessings. We therefore live wisely when we order our lives in ways that are consistent with God’s created order and God’s will for us as his image-bearing creatures. After all, God created us in his image so that we could run God’s world on his behalf. To do that, of course, means we have to reflect God’s generous heart, love, and passion for justice for all his creation and creatures. This is why God gave Israel his law, so that they could learn how to live as God’s image-bearers and reflect God’s goodness and blessings to the world as God had promised Abraham (Genesis 12.3). So at its very core, biblical wisdom is always manifested primarily in what we do. We see the advantages of living wisely that Psalm 1 promises in our OT lesson this morning. Rather than seeing the wife as the gold standard for which we must strive (an impossible task even for the best of us), we see the blessings that result from wise living. As a result of this woman’s noble character, her wise living brings God’s blessings to many others. Her family and community are blessed and while the writer never states this explicitly, we can safely presume she finds blessing and self-satisfaction in serving as a conduit for helping others experience God’s blessings through her noble character and work. This is how biblical wisdom is supposed to work and manifest itself.

This all sounds simple enough and it was before the Fall when our human ancestors lived in paradise and enjoyed perfect communion with God. But unfortunately we live in a post-Fall world where we are expelled from paradise and are thoroughly infected by the twin powers of Sin and Evil that make it impossible for us on our own to follow God’s laws. We all know, for example, that such a wife as we read about in Proverbs (or a husband for that matter) does not exist—well, except for my own wife; just sayin’. Does that mean we are free to ignore the biblical exhortation to live wisely? No at all! Help is available to us as we shall see shortly. Our job is to use our will (or to use the language of Scripture, to follow our heart) to choose to live wisely. This is not easy and we should be prepared for a lengthy battle to attain godly wisdom because of our corrupted nature and because as St. Paul reminds us, our real battle is not against flesh and blood but against the dark powers that hate us and have enslaved us with the sole purpose of destroying us (Ephesians 6.12; cp. Colossians 2.13-15).

In our epistle lesson this morning, St. James addresses this struggle to live wisely because of our thoroughly corrupted hearts, the center of our will. Like the psalmist in our psalm lesson, St. James is encouraging us to choose the path of godly wisdom and not worldly wisdom, in part by warning us of the dire consequences of following the latter path and holding before us the blessings of following the former path. Keep in mind that St. James was not a head-in-the-cloud idealist. He was a tough realist who knew well the human condition with all its corruption. He knew life was messy and sometimes ugly. After all, he was martyred for his faith. But St. James also knew the reality of God’s love, grace, and power in our lives, and we would be wise to take some time and reflect regularly on the wisdom he imparts to us.

He starts with a probing question. St. James asks us if we really want to seek godly wisdom, which by necessity is based on humility, or do we seek God’s wisdom just to feed our pride and ambition? Seeking godly wisdom means we seek to follow God’s order, not our own chaos-producing sin. This means we must humble ourselves before the word of God and submit to it, something none of us is particularly eager to do. We must listen and seek to understand so that we can follow God’s order faithfully. It means we embrace our role as God’s image-bearers and seek to order or lives in ways that reflect the goodness, love, mercy, and justice of God to his corrupt and hurting world and its people. Of course, human nature being what it is, there are some who seek to appear godly so that folks will look up to them when in reality they are pursuing their own selfish ambition. The scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church of late or the other horror stories that involve fallen theology and church leaders in our own Anglican Communion and elsewhere remind us that St. James knew what he was talking about, and anyone who is a leader in a church, myself included, had better take this warning to heart and examine prayerfully and consistently his or her own heart and motives in the light of God’s law. Do our actions reflect our profession of desiring God’s wisdom? There is nothing more catastrophic to our duty to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to an unbelieving world than to act proudly and hypocritically or to pervert God’s word by making it submit to our own warped agendas and corrupted desires rather than having the needed God-given humility to learn God’s ways and laws. Scripture calls this kind of living “foolish.”

And how are we to distinguish between earthly wisdom and godly wisdom? Simple, says St. James. Earthly wisdom has its roots in rebellion and Sin and Evil. It is devilish because there are unseen and wicked powers behind wicked and evil human behavior. The result? Warfare and chaos, the defining characteristic of sin—think of God ordering the chaos of nothingness in the creation narratives in Genesis 1-2. We all know how this works because we all have engaged in it. We don’t get what we want so we go on the attack. We slander our enemies to discredit them. We see this happening in the Kavanaugh hearings right now. The enemies of Judge Kavanaugh are trying to paint him as a sexual abuser/predator to discredit him. The enemies of his accuser, Dr. Ford, are pointing out examples that call her motives and character into question to discredit her and her accusations. Both sides will be relentless until their enemy is destroyed and victory (in their eyes) is achieved. This is the evil of PC in our culture because this is how PC works. Jesus’ disciples also provide a sad example of what St. James is talking about in our gospel lesson. They were arguing about who would be the greatest when Jesus came to power as Messiah. Do you think that argument was going to produce peace? And the silence that ensued when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about is quite telling. They knew the evil they had committed in their desire to lord it over others. Shame often results in silence.

And it’s not only politics. It’s money (lying, cheating, stealing, drug dealing, embezzling to get it), fame (we all desperately want our minute of fame), power (we oppress others in various ways to impose our will over them), security (gated communities, stealing and embezzling to secure our future retirement, carrying weapons), sex (body shaming to make us feel better, adultery, any kind of sex outside marriage), you name it. We do what we have to do to satisfy our lesser, base, and sin-corrupted desires, harming or destroying others along the way, and the result is chaos. As this nation continues to lose its Judeo-Christian moorings we can expect this phenomenon to accelerate and intensify. This is the wisdom of the world at work and sadly every one of us is intimately familiar with it because we are all thoroughly sin-infected.

By contrast, St. James tells us that godly wisdom is pure, meaning it comes from God. “It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere.” To produce this kind of fruit of course requires humility, which is not a natural human trait. It has to be given to us by God and then cultivated by our hard work and willingness and desire to be true image-bearers. A moment’s thought will confirm the truth of how this works. If we are determined to have our way at all costs as earthly wisdom dictates (look out for yourself because no one else will), we will not yield to another person because we subordinate that person and his desires to us and our own. This is human pride at work. But when we understand we are all made in God’s image and that we and our needs are not more important to God than other folks and their needs, we are willing to yield on certain things. I am not talking about appeasement. I am talking about a willingness to help others have their needs and desires met, especially when we see that those desires reflect God and God’s laws. We might see someone in need and seek to help them. We shovel an elderly person’s walk or buy some food for a hungry person. We help Fr. Madanu buy a ticket to see his family when he cannot afford to buy one. You get the idea. When that happens, peace almost always breaks out. Think about it this way. You see two people walking toward you. One is cynical, quarrelsome, and always has to be right: a worldly-wise person. The other is gentle, humble, willing to help, ready to forgive: a godly-wise person. Which one will you try to avoid? 

As we consider all this, it is critical for us to remember that St. James was offering wisdom in the context of community, not just to individuals. We can’t very well make peace if another family member is unwilling to do likewise or is unwilling to forgive us or have mercy on us or is proud and haughty. This community dimension is critical for us as Christians because the kind of wisdom we choose to follow will result in the kind of witness we give to a watching world. When we follow our own devilish and evil desires, what are we proclaiming to the world about our faith in Christ? People will see us arguing and forming into factions and seeking our own interests over the needs and interests of others. Why would they think that the gospel of Jesus Christ has any kind of transformative power? Why would they want to be part of a family like that? So St. James is speaking to all of us here in the St. Augustine’s family, not just the leaders. 

But if we are so thoroughly corrupted that we cannot acquire godly wisdom on our own, what are we to do? It is here that the good folks who put together the Lectionary let us down once again because they omit the following verses from our lesson:

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. Do you think the Scriptures have no meaning? They say that God is passionate that the spirit he has placed within us should be faithful to him. And he gives grace generously. As the Scriptures say, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4.4-6).

Well, it appears that the folks who choose the readings don’t have a taste for, um, “hard passages.” Adulterers? Life or death choices? Stern warnings? How very preachy and judgmental, no?! Well no, actually. There is nothing judgmental in these verses. St. James is following the biblical definition of love, which has very little to do with sentimentality and emotion and almost everything to do with the good of the beloved, which means getting it right about being human as we have seen. Here he warns us that when we follow the wisdom of the world we commit spiritual adultery against God by giving our heart to the ways of the world rather than to the ways of God in the manner God intended for us when God created us as his image-bearers. That will result in God’s awful judgment on us. So to help us stay loyal to him, God willingly and generously gives us his Spirit and the grace to be humble so that we can learn how to practice humility. St. James says the same thing later in our lesson. He asks how we can stop our incessant warfare and chaos? His answer is by self-discipline and prayer. Chaos results from pride and wicked selfishness. We think we have to provide for ourselves. But no! God provides for us if we have the good sense and humility to ask him, and to ask him for the things that bring glory to God’s name rather than to us. Jesus said much the same when he told us to ask for whatever we want in his Name and it will be given to us. As a young man I thought that was strange. Was Jesus giving me license to ask for money or a new car or sex or anything else that was important to me at the time? No, because those things would not bring God glory through the Son (John 14.13). A heart set on Jesus, i.e., God, desires the things Jesus (God) desires and is more concerned about bringing honor and glory to his Name than our own.

This then is the challenge for those of us who seek to follow Christ. It is a call to examine ourselves, especially in terms of how consistently we live out our profession of faith. It is a challenge because living wisely in the light of God’s law is not natural to us. But as with everything else involving the Christian faith, we are not called to attempt the impossible. The God who calls us to live godly lives that will reflect the glory and goodness of his Name also equips us in the power of the Spirit to give us a humble spirit and the freedom to develop it. Our challenge is not whether we can live godly lives, it’s whether we really want to at all. Examine yourselves, therefore, and ask the Father through the Son to help you develop his gift of humility so that you are empowered to live as you are called to live so that you will enjoy the great blessings God wants to give you. The Father has done the hardest work. He has sent the Son to die for you to break the power of Sin and Evil and free you from its wicked enslavement. Trust that God to help you live as he calls you to live. Doing so will make you real wise guys, my beloved. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Fr. Terry Gatwood: The Lord’s Power

Sermon delivered on Trinity 14B, Sunday, September 9, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

To the end, Father Gatwood’s ability to write sermons failed him. We wish him well and godspeed in his new endeavors at St. Nicholas Anglican Church. Click here to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon.

Lectionary texts: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 125; James 2.1-17; Mark 7.24-37.

Fr. Philip Sang: The Old and the New

Sermon delivered on Trinity 14B, Sunday, September 2, 2018, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

To listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, 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.

We all have certain core traditions and beliefs that are important to us. They make us who we are, they define our own behaviours and the way we think other people should behave. That is what lies behind the Gospel passage we read today.

As usual, the Pharisees and Jesus were having a difference of opinion. The Pharisees were upset because Jesus and his disciples did not take part in the Jewish hand-washing ritual before they ate. To the Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples committed a “sin”.

The Pharisees were not the only people who get upset when traditions are not followed. We get upset when people do not follow our “traditions”. We sometimes have to part with our traditions, and that is not always easy for us to accept. I know how hard it can be to depart from tradition or the old way of doing things.

We must not think that the Pharisees are completely bad. They were dedicated to obeying and pleasing God, and that desire led to distinctive practices such as kosher food and circumcision. These practices helped them to keep their identity as God’s chosen people in a pagan world. Their traditions grew out of a need to keep their identity.

Even though the Jewish law was quite detailed, it left room for interpretation in many cases. The Pharisees used their desire to obey God to create rules to clarify the law in these situations. Over time these rules became so hard and fast that they became a surrogate law that the Jewish leaders regarded as being equal to Scripture. They lost sight of the difference between God’s law and their opinion. Jesus said that this was their sin. Jesus did not condemn all tradition. He only condemned those traditions that were elevated to sacred status. The church is responsible for preserving tradition, but it must make a clear distinction between essential scriptural teachings and non-essential traditions.

When he responded to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus went right to the heart of the issue. The Pharisees wanted to hold on to human tradition at all costs when they should have been more concerned with teaching God’s deeper requirements of love, compassion and justice. God is more concerned with a spiritual cleansing and purifying. If our hearts have been purified, our prayer and behaviour will be in line with what God wants. If we act out of good hearts we will know how to behave even if we don’t know the exact rule for a particular situation.

While a sense of tradition is desirable and necessary at times, a problem occurs when tradition is substituted for true worship or true faith. When the actions associated with our traditions become more important than the meaning of the traditions, we can get sidetracked. The Pharisees were more concerned with strict observance of Jewish laws than they were about true faith in God. The Pharisees were concerned about keeping God’s people distinct and keeping them from becoming assimilated with the larger culture. This effort to be distinct included rigid observance of rules, but the observance of rules covered up their lack of inward love and devotion. They were concerned about not letting germs and pollution go into their bodies, but Jesus said that they and we should be more concerned about the filth that comes out of our mouths-lying, cheating, etc. The Pharisees were concerned about the letter of the law including their rules and regulations, but Jesus emphasized the spirit of the law. We must beware of those who appear to be very religious by their actions, but who are really glorifying themselves instead of glorifying God. We should never honour anyone above God. Only he is truly worthy of our praise.

Each and every one of us has a heart problem, and not just a physical one. The heart is a fountain out of which much that affects our lives flows. If the heart is affected by sin, it becomes deceitful and wicked. Therefore, the heart is a source of most of the evil that defiles man. The world is enticing, but for its pull to work, we have to want what it is offering. We do the stupid stuff that we do because it is our human nature. We have to be aware of our sinful nature. When we give in to temptation, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

What we eat and drink can’t hurt and defile us. Only what comes out of us-ungodly words and actions-can defile us. Jesus wants us and his disciples to see that the core issue always comes down to what is in the heart. Ritual external purity is not necessarily the same as genuine interior piety. We are being hypocrites if we vainly honour God with our lips while our hearts are estranged from him. The source of defilement is more internal than external. It is more about who we are than foods or filth we avoid. Jesus defined true piety as a commitment from the heart totally dedicated to loving service of God and for others. Listening and doing are two different things.

Some people who attend church are like that. They carry their Bibles, they bring their offering, they sing every hymn and they listen to every word the preacher says, but it doesn’t change anything in their hearts. They look good on the outside, but their goodness is only skin deep. Their worship is for appearance only and is not from the heart.

That does mean that we cannot be hurt by what comes into our bodies. The obvious sources are smoke, pollution and poor diet, but we can also be defiled from the outside by the environment that we live in. I’m reminded of a discussion we had with our teacher in my High school days about how the choices we make can affect our lives. He said, “You are who you associate with” and that is true. For example, if you live in an area with a high rate of crime, chances are that you will either be seen as criminal or become a criminal if you are not careful.

When God looks at us, the first thing he sees is the state of our heart. God doesn’t care about what we look like on the outside. He’s more concerned about what’s on the inside. He has more sympathy and compassion for a poor beggar in rags who has true faith than he does for rich rulers who wear fine clothes but have rotten hearts and souls. If we don’t take time to have our hearts purified by God every time, we won’t be able to receive his blessings.

Jesus argued that the observance of outside purity is not as importantly needed as the inside because the kingdom of God is for everyone-Jews, Gentiles, those who would observe the purity laws and those who could not keep them. Everyone is equal before God.

Those who are ‘holier than thou’ often have the belief that they can judge others. When that attitude is observed from afar, it is not pretty. It reeks of a superficial, survivalistic and hateful attitude. These people are often the same people who on the surface observe sacred rituals. They have no inward disposition towards God-hence Jesus’ reference to the filth that comes from the inside.

Jesus sets us free to look at ourselves and see our internal, sinful nature. We are free to accept the grace to choose God’s mercy, but we can’t admit that we need outside help. We need outside help to take in goodness and bear good fruit. If our hearts belong to God, nothing else matters.

When people equate tradition with the Law, problems come up. The Pharisees have made the Law more important than God’s rules, just like many of us have made our traditions more important than true faith in God. The Protestant reformation was fuelled in part by the desire to break free from corrupt Roman Catholic traditions and rules and get back to true worship of God. Jesus argued that not all of the Pharisees’ rules had to be obeyed. All we have to do is love God with our hearts, not our heads.

We have to ask ourselves what are the interests of God, and what does God think about the way we live our lives. Does the way we live our lives reflect a way of life that is in line with God and his plan for our lives? While our Christianity should shape our behaviour, it runs deeper than our behaviour. It has implications for how we live our lives, but it is also mysticism before it is morality, faith before it is action, the seed of a new life before it is the fruit of that new life.

Those who would serve the interests of God can do so by giving expression to joy in their lives. Those who feel God’s love have much to offer the hurting and disconnected in our world. It is my prayer that we may feel the love of God and share it out.

In the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit Amen.