September 2, 2018

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year B

In the last few days many of us have witnessed and even participated from afar in the celebration of the lives of two very public figures, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, and John McCain, U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate. We have observed two very different worship services, for two very different individuals - one with rousing Gospel music in the Baptist church her father founded, and the other with formal liturgy in the National Cathedral, The Episcopal church in Washington D.C. that is home to both the collective soul of our church and the nation.

In those same days we celebrated the life of one of our own, Patty Eurich, who was layed to rest Friday and with her husband Larry, has been here every Sunday at 9 am to say her prayers and worship with us at Grace. The same liturgy that soared in the heights of the National Cathedral to celebrate the life of a U.S. Senator was no less ennobled in our own beautiful Grace Church to celebrate Pat’s life.

In the midst of tragedy and death, we cannot help but reflect on our own lives, and to dream of how we might be better. How might our lives be reoriented toward more lofty goals. At least that is what these last few days have sparked in me. Oh, not that I might begin a new career of singing soul music or become a politician, but that in seeing the best of the humanity that was lived, however imperfectly by two people I didn’t know and one whom I had the privilege of knowing in the midst of both life and of death, what might I do to make my life and the life of those around me better? Where does my life need to be tweaked by God’s Spirit to be better oriented toward God’s dream for the world.

Jesus, in our Gospel reading today, is attempting to reorient his disciples from external performance to internal intention. “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” It is not just what we do, but why we do what we do that seems to matter to Jesus. The same act that can look like goodness can be meant for ill, to manipulate or to harm.

In the same way, observing someone from afar who might be consorting with those we deem unwholesome, like Jesus having table fellowship with the sinners of his day that the religious authorities rejected, can actually be true goodness and love. By not being upset that his disciples did not observe the Tradition of the Elders, Jesus infuriated the religious authorities. He saw through their outward attempts to show others their righteousness by their external acts of piety while actually veiling their true intentions of self-promotion.

Part of the Gospel that was left out of our lection reading today illustrates this point:

Then Jesus said to the Pharisees and the Scribes, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ 11 But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— 12 then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, 13 thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.

In other words, the scribes and Pharisees would declare their wealth as dedicated to God and thus absolve themselves from taking care of their parents in their old age, while spending their money on themselves. Later, when Jesus was alone with his disciples, they asked him what he meant and Jesus responds by saying, “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come … and they defile a person.”

So what are we to do with the evil intentions of our hearts, because we all have them. As the great Russian writer and Soviet dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn stated in his commencement address to Harvard graduates in 1978, “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

I believe the antidote to the evil intentions of our hearts is to practice the good intentions of God’s heart. And the way to know the intentions of God’s heart is to look first at the life of Jesus and live our lives in the way he taught his disciples to live.

Our Epistle reading today comes from the letter of James, the brother of Jesus, the leader of the church in Jerusalem before his martyrdom in 62 c.e. What better person to learn about what Jesus taught than from his own brother? James is one of my favorite Epistles in the entire New Testament because it is so practical and real.

James says,

Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

Recognizing the evil intentions of our hearts and turning from those to what we find in Jesus’ life, practicing the compassion, forgiveness, and truth of what we see there in the life of Christ, with the intention of lifting up rather than tearing down – that is the way the word, implanted by God’s Spirit, has the power to save our souls.

A faith that is not practiced is a faith that is not alive, or as James puts it elsewhere, “faith without works is dead.” That is not to say that our works save us, but rather that by being doers of the word and not merely hearers, we come to a new place of lived trust in God that actually becomes a part of our souls, rather than a good idea to which we make a superficial nod. So it is the practice of our faith that is essential to our lives and the life of the world, a practice that must begin with an intention to love God with our whole being and to follow-through with action by loving our neighbor as ourselves.