Our baptism anoints us for a life being Christ in the world, where we live lives which fully integrate our hearts, our heads, our hands, and our voices to bring the Good News of God’s grace into the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Time after Pentecost, Sunday 22, year B; texts: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
We’ve had a rash of horrible violence again this summer, where we barely process one shooting spree when another one comes along. What’s strange about the aftermath, beyond the obvious ridiculousness that we apparently still aren’t permitted to have a rational debate on gun control in this country, no matter how many of these incidents occur, is that the media instead spends a great deal of time trying to sort out whether anyone could have predicted that this person would do such a thing. Somehow we seem to want to know that there was something wrong here, that a normal person wouldn’t do this, that the signs were all there if only someone had seen them. In the case of the Marine veteran this past week, apparently he didn’t keep it a secret and even posted online that he was going to do something horrible. But in many cases, including the one in Colorado, it seems we get the standard line, “He was really quiet, a nice person; no one had any idea he could do something like this.” How many times have we heard it in any number of different tragic scenarios: “He was a nice neighbor, he helped the kids”?
Clearly there is something about the human nature which permits us to show one side to other people, while feeling and thinking something very different inside. In literature, Robert Louis Stevenson explored this idea with the case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, who have become iconic emblems of this phenomenon. But even in our own lives, where we’re not turning into nightly monsters or going on shooting sprees, we have a tendency to not have integrity between our inner selves and our outer lives. Whether or not we admit it about ourselves, when someone whom we trust or love, a friend or a family member, or someone to whom we look as a trusted authority, someone whom we have come to admire, shows that they are not as good a person as we thought, we feel betrayed, let down, we consider ourselves foolish to have allowed ourselves to be duped.
The point is, we know this phenomenon exists. So when Jesus and James today begin questioning our integrity, when they speak of hearts being in different places than words or actions, we understand what they’re talking about. We may not agree they’re speaking of us; that we must consider today. But this is not uncharted territory. And given how badly we feel when we encounter this in others we have trusted, perhaps we can understand the intensity with which this point is made in both these readings today.
James and Jesus actually come from opposite sides of the same metaphor to say the same thing, to call us to an integrated life in Christ.
We’re going to spend all of September hearing from the letter of James in our worship, and this theme we hear today will continue in various ways in the next weeks. Today he speaks of being doers of the Word, not just hearers. Next week he’ll talk about our faith only being worth anything if it’s seen in our works, in caring for those who need help. On Sept. 16 we’ll hear his admonitions on our words, our tongue, and how we speak in the world. In the fourth week he turns to the problem of conflict and antagonism between sisters and brothers in the same community. Finally, we’ll hear some comforting words about how we might pray for and support each other in our need and suffering, even illness and death.
But today he sets it all up by describing people who “deceive” their own hearts by thinking they’re religious but not living or acting in that way. Along with admonitions to put aside wickedness and to be quick to listen and slow to speak, setting aside our anger, he comes to the main point: “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.”
James is speaking to disciples who have heard the Word of God but for whom it isn’t evident in their lives. For James, they’re saying that their hearts and minds are with God, but their actions aren’t showing it at all. So they’re deceiving their own hearts.
Jesus, on the other hand, sees the same problem from the other direction: people whose actions are good, but whose hearts are wicked. This is part of a long section where Jesus challenges the leaders of the people on their criticism of his disciples for not following proper rituals, of handwashing, of which foods to eat, and so on.
It’s important to note that Jesus isn’t necessarily criticizing the rituals themselves. Each of the ritual actions and structures the Pharisees helped set up were intended for good, as ways to be sure the people of God kept the law of God. The laws in the Torah are many and complex. So many systems, including a special ritual handwashing before meals, were set in place to keep people from sinning.
Jesus doesn’t seem interested in shutting these down. Rather, he’s bothered by the hearts of the people who are criticizing his disciples’ practice. So he tells them that instead of worrying about all these externals, they might want to look into their hearts, because that’s where all the bad stuff is found. Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
It’s a standard first century list of vices. But Jesus says that the source of such evil is inside. And he challenges his disciples, and the Jewish leaders, to pay attention to where their hearts are. Just doing the rituals God has commanded, or even the ones people have set up to help obey God’s laws, is no substitute for having our hearts cleansed and changed. Because the state of our inward lives is far more indicative of who we really are, Jesus says.
Both Jesus and James help us see the disconnect in our own lives, the gaps between our inner selves and our outer lives, and they call us to honesty about who we really are.
And for both of them, the key question is one of deceit, lying to ourselves. We might be feeling very good about our faith and our lives, and where our heart is, but if we’re not acting on that to care for others, there’s no point to our religious lives at all, James says. Ultimately, he says, we’re deceiving our hearts to think that we need do nothing. He goes so far as to say that if you want real religion, care for orphans and widows and keep your lives clean, and that’s enough.
On the other hand, we might find ourselves doing lots of things that look Christian, like worship, prayer, even Bible study, but our hearts might be in a completely different place, Jesus says. If what we do in this room each week doesn’t change our hearts, make us new people, cause us to be different in the world, there’s no point to it, Jesus would say. Then we’re only honoring Jesus with our lips, but our hearts are far from him.
So the question is, can we be honest with ourselves, about our own lives and about the life of the congregation and the greater Church, to seek God’s healing and restoring of an integrated life?
We will be confessing our sins before each liturgy this month, in part because of James’ pointed concerns and the importance he makes of our integrity, and our need for honest assessment of our broken reality. So when we confess, when you confess, when there is that silent time, what goes through your mind? What do we consider?
Are we merely looking for a divine “Get out of jail free” card, hoping that if we’ve done things wrong we won’t be punished? Do we, as we considered last week, seek forgiveness from God but without wanting God to change or transform us in any way?
James tells us today that every perfect gift, every generous act of giving, is from above, from our heavenly Father. His whole letter is about such generosity, such giving, and he starts by saying its source is God. What if in our confession we not only confessed things we’d done, but we also confessed our lack of integrity, the gap between our thoughts and our actions, our hearts and our words, and asked God to bring these together? If we considered our confession not only as a series of things we did wrong that need to be wiped out, but a whole state of our being – whether individual, or the congregation, or the whole Church – which needs not only forgiveness but transformation?
Were we to confess in that way, we’d better be ready for what happens next. We’d better be ready to be changed, and become new people. Because that’s the gift God has prepared for us.
What we hear today is that we are not what we are meant to be, but the first step is happening, the recognition of the truth about ourselves.
Today we admit that we do not have the integrity of our lives that is meant to be our gift in our baptism. That we have hidden agendas, gaps between our inner selves and our outer lives. And that we are called to integrate our whole selves into the kind of person Jesus was, the kind of person we want to be. Into the kind of institution the Church could be, but rarely is, the kind of congregation which could change the world were it to exist.
It’s a question of lining up our hearts and voices, our hands and minds, that they all reflect the grace of God which gives us life and hope and joy, the grace we come here each week to receive, praise, celebrate, eat, sing, and share. If this experience each week does nothing to our hearts and lives, nothing to bring us to integrity of life as a congregation and as individual people, then Jesus’ criticisms are apt and true.
But in fact, we have already experienced that change, that transformation as we worship and are fed. With the help of James and Jesus, we know there is much more God needs to do, there is integration yet to come. But with hearts cleansed in confession, souls fed with Jesus’ body and blood, and voices filled with the grace of God which surpasses all understanding, we go from here each week joyfully anticipating what God will do next, what the Spirit will continue to do in us, until hearts, hands, voices, and minds are joined in bringing God’s Good News to all the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen