Sermon 3rd Sept 06 year B
(Deu 4:1-9 NRSV)
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act--they will be blessed in their doing. If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Now when the Pharisees and some of
the scribes who had come from
When was the last time you heard a sermon on the evils of fornication. Or for that matter on theft or murder or avarice or wickedness or deceit, or licentiousness, or envy or slander or pride or folly?
We do not go to the sort of church that entertains such
things in sermons. Indeed I must admit never having preached such a sermon
myself. To do so would be to come under
the charge of moralizing and in liberal Anglicanism or the liberal branches of
We would rather focus on the grace of God and not the law of God. We make a differentiation between the Old Testament in which the law of God is to the forefront and the NT where it is displaced by grace and love.
We have a problem talking about the Law of God. It sounds too serious, too threatening for a people brought up on the idea of personal freedom, so readings like ours this morning tend to grate.
One of our strategies that we use in order to avoid thinking about the law of God is to make it relative to the time.
For what are we to make of the peculiar food laws we find, for example in Leviticus:
The LORD spoke to
Moses and Aaron, saying to them: Speak
to the people of
Any animal that has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed and chews the cud--such you may eat. But among those that chew the cud or have divided hoofs, you shall not eat the following: the camel, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you. The rock badger, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you.
The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean for you.
The pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.
Now the last time I asked my butcher for a shoulder of rock badger he gave me a funny look.
The thing about OT law is that much of it is cultic or historically conditioned and has no relevance to us. The problem is that we Protestants then go on to assume that there is no law of God at all and we steadfastly avoid all preaching that has morality as its subject.
But lists like the ten commandments or this list that Jesus gives us of sins are not time conditioned or cultic, they are universal. For who of us has not been touched by one of the sins that Jesus lists? We have all been envious, all greedy, all proud. There have been times in which our rage seems to know no bounds and we wonder about how murder might occur.
This list is a warning to us that such feelings, orientations or acts damage us and the people next to us. I have yet to hear from the most antichristian person that they would be in favour of any of the things in this list.
A further barrier to our thinking about the law of God is that we all want to be good and to do good. We all have the very best intentions. But our wishing will not necessarily make it so. Our view of ourselves as good is often punctured by emotions, habits and behaviors that tell us that all is not right with us, that we are not as thoroughly good as we thought and we must then admit that our good intentions are not enough.
Greed lies close to hand, pride trips us up, envy surprises us.
Christians are supposed to amend their lives, to live in the mind of Christ. When we are baptized and become a member of the church it is expected that old habits and emotions and practices that do not conform to the mind of Christ be given up. There is a transition between the life we had before and the life we have now in Christ.
For as Paul says; So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! That becoming new means that we examine ourselves to see if we have left the old habits of envy, and slander and pride and folly behind us and we pray for forgiveness and newness of life.
There is a moral dimension to belonging to this community. The reason we may not recognise this is because we have accepted an idea from secular society that we recognise no authority, we are self created individuals who exist in absolute freedom and we will choose how we are to be.
This is not how disciples of Christ think. They recognise that they have a Lord and that this Lord gives us law that we may live long in the land. The law of God is not simply imposed from above in order to spoil our fun, its purpose is to preserve our lives and the life of the community. It exists not as arbitrary commandments directed from above, as it were, but it exists in the partnership between God and humanity that the OT refers to as the covenant, in which God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”
It is in this way that the law is good news, it is gospel. It guides us in the ways of life and freedom. But this good news requires that we own up to what we are, that we claim that which belongs to us and not push it onto someone else.
This is the centre of our reading.
For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person."
We are called to own these things that have the potential to destroy our lives. These are our sins. We may not blame anyone else for them. We cannot blame the devil or our upbringing or the society in which we live, they are ours, they come from our hearts.
As such we must take responsibility for them. This is what happens each Sunday during the confession. In the short silence, we remember that we did entertain one or may of this list of sins and we repent of them.
Another barrier to us thinking about the law of god is that we have come to understand the gospel as one of unconditional acceptance. We as a church pride ourselves that we can welcome all comers.
It is true that Jesus associated with all types and indeed sought out the outcast and the sinner. But his expectation was that they mend their ways. To the woman caught in adultery he says “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."
After Jesus came to his house to stay Zacchaeus the dishonest tax collector reformed his ways and promised to pay back anyone he defrauded 4 times as much.
We may say to the general public come as you are but we cannot tell them that they may remain as they are. Membership of this community requires us to think deeply about ourselves and to enter a moral struggle.
This does not mean that we become self righteous. For we all know that there are aspects of our character that seem to be indelible. No matter how often we confess them, no matter how often we decide to give them us, they cling to us. We are, as Luther said, simultaneously saved and a sinner. We know that we will not be perfect this side of death.
Neither does it mean that we become wowserish and stiff and puritanical and very serious about any moral laps. For even though we become aware of our faults we become even more aware of forgiveness. We are in the blessed condition of knowing our wrongs but of living joyfully and free despite them.
Some forget that Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, he liked to eat and drink with friends and indeed his vision of the kingdom was couched in terms of the wedding feast, the most joyous occasion in which all of the riches of life are celebrated.
Jesus was no ascetic.
The gospel is gentle with us. It does not weigh us down with burdens too heavy to bear. Our relationship with God is like that of a father with his children. He knows that we are plagued by greed and envy and stupidity. But we are not condemned for our weakness. Instead we are given the chance to confess what we are like and to set out anew, with new resolve.
The journey of the Christian is a journey that leads us to be formed by the mind of Christ so that we will be like him. We do not do this with furrowed brow and with fear that we continually fall short, but in a light way, indeed in a humorous way. While we know that flaws in our character are a serious matter that could lead us into a far country we may also trust in the victory that has been won for us once and for all on the cross. For we do not pretend to find our own way, that way has been traveled before us by the only true human being.
We are a people who do not believe in themselves, contrary to the self esteem gurus. We know that any attempt on our part to create ourselves would end in shallow narcissism. Rather we are called to be other than we find ourselves to be. We are called out of ourselves into the life of God in which we would not recognise ourselves.
Moralizing preaching can be destructive. It may be used to so grind us down with our sins that we are lead to conversion. The makes the gospel like a gun held to the head, it is manipulation and the inverse of free grace. But to abandon the examination of moral action is to fall into the trap of denying the law of God and to leave us floundering in sentiment and with only sentiment to guide us we will be lost indeed.