The Triune God is a God who transforms, gives you and me a new birth as God’s gift and blessing for the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lect. 22 B
Texts: Mark 7:1-23; James 1:17-27; Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Being good is really complicated these days.
For most of human history, if you were kind to your family, good to your neighbors, decent to those you lived by, you were a good person. Evil and unkindness, sin and wrongdoing – you knew them when you saw them.
But we know now this whole planet is interconnected. Systems and structures have power beyond any individual action or belief, and actions have consequences far beyond us. Buy an apple and give it to a child. Is that good? Well, were pesticides that harm the environment or the eater used? What’s the carbon footprint of that apple – how much gas was burned to carry it to you? Were those who picked it fairly paid? Is the company distributing it involved in unsavory things? It’s not easy.
You and I recognize that we have embedded racial prejudices, and are trying to change our minds and hearts. But even good decisions we make are intertwined with systems that promote racial discrimination, without our wanting it, and we benefit from them. You and I deeply want all people to earn fair wages and get out of poverty. But systems that help our pensions and IRAs, support our medical benefits, help us in many ways, are often unfairly built and cause harm to people we want to help. So: are we doing evil or not?
When we look at the problems in our society and world, and the problems in our own personal lives, we want to be good people, to live as Christ, make a difference.
It’s just really, really complicated.
And God’s Word doesn’t make it any easier.
Now when we open the Gospels, Jesus’ teachings seem ever more challenging and unsettling. If being good is more than just simple acts we do every day, and all are interconnected, everything Jesus says is harder today than it felt years ago.
Jesus’ evils of the heart in today’s Gospel feel much more about us than they used to. Murder is mentioned. We used to be able to say we didn’t do that. But if we’re part of a society that causes the death of our neighbor, a society we support and benefit from, aren’t we complicit? Jesus mentions theft and avarice and wickedness. If people do such things on our behalf, are we also doing it?
The Hebrew Scriptures are just as challenging. The prophets’ demands for God’s justice and peace, the ending of poverty and oppression, the restoring of God’s reign where all live with full stomachs under sheltering roofs without fear of others harming them, seem to point directly at us now in ways they might not have before.
It makes it hard to hear Scripture in worship. Every week seems to address these complicated, painful things and include you and me among those who need to listen and turn our lives to God.
So you might want to find some empathy for the Pharisees today.
Moses wants the people to flourish and urges them today to keep all of God’s law. So the Pharisees, trying to faithfully obey God, built all sorts of rules and rituals around God’s law in Scripture, so that they and the people could be good. Do the right thing.
Jesus’ criticism is exactly what the prophets said, what James says: if your rituals and rules don’t result in behavior that is good and just, visibly loving your neighbor and witnessing to your love of God, they don’t have much point. Here, the Pharisees’ attempts to honor their pledges to God led them to break the Fourth Commandment of loving and caring for their parents. That makes no sense.
But you can see why they tried. If being good, doing God’s way, is your goal, maybe a system of rules could help. But the problem, Jesus said, wasn’t that they needed an outer system. What they needed was an inner transformation.
And that’s where you find your hope from God in these days.
It’s true that James strongly declares that the only faith worth having is one visible in loving actions. Doing God’s love for those who are poor and oppressed is far more important than having a doctrine of God’s love for those who are poor and oppressed.
But look at the promise James makes today: James says every generous act ever done, every good gift, is actually from God, the Father of lights. Because, James says, God’s Word gives birth in you and me and all people to a new kind of person who does those generous acts and good things.
The Triune God is a transforming God who, through the Word, creates a clean and new heart in you and me and all people. So all those evils that can come from inside us are driven out by the fruit of the Spirit of God that Paul proclaimed, and Jesus proclaimed, and James delights in today. That’s your hope.
Now it’s not a question of how to be good or not. It’s a question of letting God’s Spirit work in you to make you good.
To transform you from the inside out, bearing in you love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, as Paul taught us. To transform your heart into completed love of God and love of neighbor, as Jesus promised you.
This is the new thing Jesus brought in the Incarnation. He taught what God’s prophets had long taught. But he came as God-with-us, filled with the Spirit, and said, “This is the plan of God for all God’s children, to give birth in the Spirit to new beings living God’s gifts in the world.”
That’s how God will heal the world. By healing you, and me, and all God’s children. One at a time, and everything will become new.
For today and tomorrow, then, what if this was your focus and your hope from God?
Not despairing at the complexity of our world and dreading you can do nothing, but praying for and seeking God’s transformation of you, a new birth into what is good and holy and of Christ. Yes, the world is challenging and overwhelming. Yes, your life and mine can be struggles and we can often feel we’re lost. Yes, it’s hard to know what the right thing is at any given time.
But God’s transforming new birth is happening right now in you. Rejoice in that. Seek to see it more clearly. Ask God to clear out those things that come from you that Jesus speaks of and replace them with God’s fruits.
God is good. And is making you good. And that will change the world. There’s nothing complicated about that at all.
In the name of Jesus. Amen