Sermon for the tenth Sunday after Trinity – OT20A – 2017
‘Create in me a pure heart O God and renew a right Spirit within me’
There is perhaps not graver danger to our Life before God than confusing what counts for a respectable life in wider society with that Life that comes from God.
As human beings grow ever greater in their own eyes – as wealth and technological developments lead them ever deeper into the deception that our lives are in our own hands, to be presented before God on the last day, if we indeed believe we will have to stand before God to give and account of ‘our life’ – more and more the words of older liturgies sound close to offensive.
Take for example the collect for Ash Wednesday
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Worthily lamenting our sins . . . ‘I’ve done nothing wrong – I am a fine upstanding member of the community
Acknowledging our wretchedness . . . ‘come now, I’m not wretched!’
Or indeed the words of the 1662 confession . . .
‘We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time most grievously have committed.’
. . . and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; the remembrance of them is grievous unto us, the burden of them is intolerable . . .
Well pardon me, but is anyone losing sleep over the intolerable burden and remembrance of their sins?? When outwardly our lives look so good and fine – when many fine folk will no doubt bear witness at our funerals to ‘what a fine fellow – or fellowess’ we once were . . .
So of course our modern liturgies catch up with the prevailing mood – One of our liturgies says ‘God forgives you, forgive others, forgive yourself’ or as several folk have put it to me – ‘get over it, it isn’t that big a deal’. Of course if we live in and amongst people who are paragons of comfortable middle class morality – then of course we may well feel we can write such an insipid so called ‘absolution’ . . . but here and there, often amongst those whose lives are not so insulated from the reality of the lives of others, that is not the case – here and there a soul cries out to God in the night time – have mercy on me o lord, for you are justifiably angered by my sins . . .
Jesus of course lives as we do amongst such human beings – he associated with the lost sheep – those who Knew their sin and acknowledged their wretchedness. ‘as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ The Scribes and the Pharisees – those whose society looked up to – criticising Jesus for the company he keeps – for he has not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance . . .
For God looks not at ‘the public record’ – the plaques of attainments – he looks at the heart and Jesus is not unaware of ‘what is in a man’s heart’ The pharisees he called ‘white washed tombs’ For on the surface, as far as their friends and neighbours were concerned they were upright religious people – but on the inside they were dead. Outwardly righteous, inwardly dead – not even alive enough to notice their – evil intentions, murder (hatred of others), adultery (lust for others), fornication, theft, false witness (lies), slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’
One writer puts it like this – “The nature of sin can be easily overlooked in a “merely” moral approach to the Christian life. The “dead men’s bones” that lie beneath the moral surface were obvious to Christ. “We do not have a legal problem,” I have written, “We have a death problem.” “Dead men’s bones” are the result of the . . . corruption that is the very heart of sin. And the deepest and most corrupt sinners among us can also appear to be the most moral. If the morality of your life does not reach beneath the surface and into the depths of the corruption that is at work there, then your life is indeed an expression of moral futility.
An equally great tragedy rises from this untended inner corruption. The assurance of moral rectitude is fortified by the unwillingness to rightly acknowledge and bear the inward shame of sin. This dries up the well of compassion that should mark the soul. A gulf grows between the “morally” competent and those who are clearly and visibly broken by sin. True compassion would require the recognition of a kinship of shame.”
The writer here speaks of that separation between those whom society deems acceptable and those whom it calls unacceptable – the equivalent in our culture of the Pharisees on one hand and ‘sinners’ on the other When our sense of our moral rectitude separates us from others, it separates us from where Jesus is, who comes to seek and save the lost – he is with those who Know their inner state is a matter of shame.
I remember years ago a man who had had long experience of sharing the Good news of forgiveness of Sins in Jesus name – and for those who live with the shame of their inner state, it is THE Good News. He said how much easier his work was amongst the poor of London, for assuredly they didn’t need telling that they were sinners – the way they were ostracised reminded them daily of their need, and the news of a God who loved them and came to find them in their lostness and indeed heal their condition was to them glorious Good News
And what is God’s remedy? It is as the prophet Ezekiel says – a New heart – a New Life. Whitewashed tombs are full of death. those who are not alert to their inner desperate state as expressed in the confession and collect we began with are as St Paul puts it ‘dead in sin’. Jesus in dying for us, does not merely enact some legal transaction – he gives his life so that we might have it. He replaces that life of Sin with His life. To use a very timely metaphor for us here in Dunedin, he gives us a clean water supply, from one that brings death, to one that brings life.
A couple of points to close – firstly we began with liturgy, and our liturgy CAN be a reminder of this Gospel – the words of our opening Collect express this so well. Almighty God, before whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden – We come before God acknowledging that He is Looking at our hearts and Sees everything that is in them, and we do that because we seek his healing – so we ask ‘Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts’ week by week it is our prayer, let us not as it were come here, mutter these words and then go out and forget that prayer, ‘Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts’. How? ‘By the inspiration of thy holy spirit . . .’ by taking in the life giving water of the Life of God, the Life of the Spirit of Jesus. and the result ‘That we might perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name.
If we are obsessed with our own lives, with our outer state – there is little gratitude for one who is only concerned with the state of our heart – but if we are open and honest about our hearts and our need for healing – there is only love and worship for the one who comes to us in our distress with healing in his wings.
So we come, week by week, seeking the mercy of the great healer, and receiving his life. Finally we come to the heavenly banquet where we feast on his life. In bread and wine Jesus makes solid the medicine for our condition. As we come to receive communion, let us not do so unworthily, distractedly, let us not do so absent mindedly, but as those who know the state of their hearts, their need for deep healing, their inability to heal themselves – let us come to His table, for the medicine of Christ himself, the one who will save our Souls. The Good One