Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Taking the Gospel Cure: A Sermon for Proper 21B 2015

Proper 21B

[Listen to the sermon here.]

The great writer G. K. Chesterton was once asked by a British newspaper to write an essay in response to the question: “What is Wrong with the World?” Chesterton wrote back with just two sentences: “What is wrong with the world? Me.”

It’s always easier to point fingers at the failings of others or to blame circumstances beyond our control. But using humor, Chesterton made the important point that we need to look at ourselves - into the depths of our own hearts and souls - to discover the root cause for what’s wrong with the world. And the root cause is summed up in our Christian vocabulary by the word “sin.”

Sin is the problem for which the Gospel is the solution. Or, to put it another way, sin is the sickness for which the Gospel is the cure. And viewed through the lens of Holy Scripture, we discover that we are all infected by this sickness of sin and we are all in need of Gospel medicine.

Over the past several weeks, our Epistle readings from James have directly addressed ways that sin surfaces in our lives and the deadly consequences it can have.

For example, James has warned us that showing partiality to the wealthy at the expense of the poor is a sin that drives a stake into the very heart of our unity in Christ (cf. James 2:1-9).

James reminds us of the dangers of intemperate speech, noting that with the same mouth we both bless God and curse those made in God’s image (cf. James 3:1-12).

James has also cautioned us against nursing bitter envy and selfish ambition in our hearts (cf. James 3:13-18).

Such things create disorder and wickedness of every kind. And if left to fester in our hearts, they serve as the root causes for hatred, bigotry, and even murder. That’s some pretty serious stuff!

We could go beyond the letter of James to look at the letters of Paul and John. We could peruse the four Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. We could go back and read through the entirety of the Old Testament. And all along the way we would find numerous examples of how sin wrecks lives and compromises the life and witness of God’s people.

So the theme of sin as a serious and pervasive problem permeates the pages of the Bible. If we seek to be faithful disciples of the crucified and risen Lord, we cannot minimize or ignore this topic.

So, what exactly is sin? The Catechism in our Prayer Book provides a very succinct and helpful definition. It says: “Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 848).

That’s important enough to repeat.

“Sin is the seeking of our own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation.”

In keeping with Holy Scripture, our Prayer Book confronts us with the difficult truth that we are sinners. Our wills are out of whack. We have a predisposition to serve ourselves at the expense of other people and in defiance of right relationship with God. We have a tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, excusing our own moral lapses while sometimes judging others harshly for theirs. And even when we know what’s right, we are often inclined to give in to the temptation to do what’s wrong.

This predisposition manifests itself in so many ways: addictions, obsession with money or power, harsh judgment of others, uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, jealousy, resentment, divisiveness, racism, arrogance, insubordination, negligence in prayer and worship, the rejection of revealed truth in favor of personal opinion – the list could go on and on.

Living in a fallen world, many of these behaviors can feel natural and right, as though they are just a part of who we are. But in reality, they contradict who God created us to be as persons who bear His image for the sake of loving and caring for the world.

Because we are fallen creatures, sin is not something that can be dealt with by deciding to do things better, as though we can just make up our minds to exercise more willpower and that solves the problem. Sin is not just a matter of doing bad things, in which case the solution is simple: stop doing bad things and start doing good things!

Doing things that contradict God’s will is merely a symptom. Because the deeper problem is that the same will that tries to do better is also the same will that is predisposed to serving self at the expense of God and neighbor.

We’re caught in a Catch-22. And we can’t think or will our way out of it.

St. Paul sums it up in his letter to the Romans:

“For if I know [God’s] law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time” (Romans 7:17-20, The Message).

Paul’s diagnosis is dead on. Over and over again, we fail to do the good we know we should by falling right back into the very patterns of thinking and behaving we know we should reject. And we cannot cure ourselves.

That is the problem for which the Gospel is the solution. That is the disease for which the Gospel is the cure.

In our Gospel reading today, we have a prescription for this disease straight from the lips of our Lord himself. And that prescription can be described as nothing less than radical surgery.

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell …” (Mark 9:43-47).

The shocking language of Jesus’ words reminds us that we’re dealing with a very serious problem that calls for a surgical strike against the root causes of our predisposition to seek self-will rather than God’s will. It’s the spiritual equivalent of open heart surgery.

Biblically understood, the heart is the center of a person’s inner life, character, and intentions. And it is within our hearts that sin has taken root and grows, spreading its deadly tentacles into our thoughts, words, and deeds. For, as our Lord notes earlier in Mark’s Gospel, it is “from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” and “they defile a person” (Mark 7:21, 23).

And so we need surgery. Some things have to be “cut out” of our lives – removed from the depths of our hearts – to make room for God’s healing and restoring grace.

We aren’t qualified to perform that kind of surgery on ourselves. Only Jesus the Divine Physician can do that.

This is why it is so important that we regularly receive God’s healing grace in both Word and Sacrament.

As part of a lifestyle of repentance we need daily immersion in God’s Word. For God’s Word is “sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, cutting through everything, laying us open to listen and obey” (Hebrews 4:12, The Message). Through prayerfully engaging God’s Word in Holy Scripture, we open ourselves to the ministrations of the Holy Spirit who convicts our consciences and guides us to the One who offers mercy, forgiveness, and newness of life.

As part of our ongoing therapy, we also need to attend weekly worship where we not only hear God’s Word read and proclaimed, but in which we also receive what St. Ignatius of Antioch called “the medicine of immortality” – the grace given to us in the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist, the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. By receiving the Eucharist, we stay connected to Jesus the Physician of Souls, letting his healing love and grace permeate the depths of our being, grounding us in that source of life apart from which we cannot bear the fruits of love and obedience.

The Church is not a museum of saints, but a hospital for sinners. And so it is through the Church that we sinners receive the treatment we need for the sickness of our hearts.

Receiving God’s grace in Word and Sacrament opens our hearts to the Divine Physician, allowing Him to gently but firmly cut out the sickness that warps our wills. And then God administers the healing balm of the Real Presence of the Crucified and Risen Christ. Through the Word and Sacraments of the Church, we receive forgiveness of our sins, the healing of our hearts and wills, and the power to amend our lives. We become more fully united with Christ. And the more united we are with Christ, the more we become like Christ, letting His will shape and guide our wills so that we desire what God desires for us.

In Jesus Christ, God reaches out in compassion and mercy to a fallen and sin-sick humanity. For Jesus came, not to condemn, but to save sinners just like you and me. Regardless of what we have done or failed to do, Jesus never stops loving us. For Jesus is God with us and for us. He's always ready to heal us and to free us from bondage to our sins so we may know the joy of abundant life.  And that is, indeed, good news!

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