Tuesday, September 1, 2015

14th Sunday after Pentecost

There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him. 

In last week's Epistle, we heard St. Paul describe the armor of God. I noted how what Paul describes is mostly defensive gear, though there is a sword, the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. I suggested that the most important battles we fight are internal battles in the heart. In fact, most people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to fix the external circumstances of their lives, and imagining that if they could only change this one external thing, then they would have lasting happiness. They say, if I only had a better job, or lived in a different place or had a better spouse, then I would be truly happy. The problem with spending a lot of time on externals is that they change: material things break or decay; jobs are lost or eliminated; circumstances require a move elsewhere, and finally, the biggest insult of all to our sense of control, people die.

As we talked about at our Vacation Bible School for the fourth day of creation—the day in which sun, moon and stars are created—we live in a world of change, and this is what he heavenly bodies teach us because they are in perpetual motion. I read to the young people that famous passage from Ecclesiastes. You'll indulge me, and let me read it.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (3:1-8)

Now, I remember as a young person being very perplexed by this passage. Was it really saying that I should hate, and make war and lose things, and even kill?? One day it dawned on me: this passage is descriptive not prescriptive. In other words, it is not telling you this is how to live your life—you've done a little loving, now it's time for some hate. Rather, it is telling us that we cannot prevent life from being this way: there will be times of gain, and there will be times of loss. There will be times of war and there will be times of peace. And much of this, even most of it, will be out of our control. If you're sitting around waiting to be happy until your externals of your life are perfectly arranged, you may have a long wait, and if those stars finally align in perfect coordination, it probably won't last.

This is why the Bible tells us that happiness does not lie in external things. Since we live in a world of change, our Christian faith tells us that true happiness is found in that which does not change, in truth, and joy, and love, and most of all in God. In this morning's Epistle, St. James writes of God as the one in whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In other words, if you put your full trust, hope and happiness, in the one who created you—the unique yet human creature that you are—if you let go of your sense of control and trust the one who calls you by name, has a plan for your life, and has redeemed you for his glory—if you can surrender in these ways, you will find lasting happiness in Him who does not change, and who will never disappoint or let you down. This may sound esoteric, but it comes, as the author of Ecclesiastes relates, from sustained reflection on the way the world is. Trust him who does not change, not the things that by nature change.

In the Gospel this morning, our Lord was confronting an institutional religion that had become obsessively concerned with externals. The Pharisees acted as if it were more important to wash your hands than to have a clean and pure heart. Our Lord instructs his disciples that the change needed in our life cannot and will not be effected by simply following more exactly a set of religious rituals. The problem, our Lord tells us, is within, in our hearts. Your biggest problem is not with the government or institutions, or your boss or that family member with whom you can't seem to get along: your main battle is in the heart. The ancient Chinese philosopher and statesman Confucius understood this. Five centuries before the time of our Lord he wrote that if you want to regulate the State, you have to order your family, and if you want to order your family, you have to look to yourself, and to look to yourself, you have to rectify the heart. What Confucius missed is that in our fallen condition, this fight to change the heart is a losing battle. Our basic instinct without God is to be selfish rather than sacrifice, to seek pleasure rather than the virtues of temperance and justice. At about the same time Confucius was writing, the prophet Jeremiah wrote, The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?

So here is one of the great mysteries of our faith: if we cannot blame our problems on outsiders or external circumstances, but have to look to our own hearts, and yet the Bible also says essentially that alone we are powerless to change the heart, how can the heart be changed? The Apostle Paul stated the problem in this way, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

The real answer to this mystery is that we, of our power, are not able to cleanse our hearts, but the Lord can. In answer to the prophet Jeremiah's question, who can know the human heart, the Lord answers, I the LORD search the heart. And the prophets also speak about God taking out of us the heart of stone within, and putting within a heart of flesh. You don't need to try harder to affect this. You don't need to follow a set of rigorous religious disciplines. The one thing needful is to die to self and selfishness, to surrender your life, your heart to God. To say to the Lord, take this hard heart of me, with all its uncleanness and make it new. This morning, as we celebrate the making of a new Christian in Holy Baptism, we begin this journey for Mahkalah. We will pray that she will die to sin and selfishness and be raised to new life by the power of God; that her will not be spent in idle pursuit of control over things that she have no power to change, but it will be spent in finding those heavenly treasures that cannot perish like joy, love, gratitude and peace. You too can join again in offering yourself and your life to God. By this surrender, the darkness of the human heart will be put in the light of God. By this surrender, the uncleanness in the heart which our Lord describes will be washed and carried away by the water of the Spirit.