Sermon for Trinity 13 Sunday 2 September 2012
Mark 7.21 It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come …
Why do I always get the difficult Gospels? For it is difficult to discuss evil thoughts in personal, rather than general terms, facing up to what goes on in our heads and our hearts each day, rather than what happens to be the latest shocker on the News. But I’m going to go for it. Religion is about everyday practical living, or it is about nothing. Jesus uses the word hypocrite. The word hypocrite means actor, and in Jesus’s time the actors wore masks to denote their roles, so hypocrite means mask-wearer, the one who acts a role in life. We learn to spot this, in others and in ourselves. But with Christianity these days, I think many people are wearing a mask, after many years of Anglican church attendance and trying really hard, and the face behind the mask is a sad one. It is a result of centuries of indoctrination that evil comes from human beings, so in the end I must reject myself, I have no value, only God is good; it could have been so different, I could have been more saintly, but I made the wrong choices, and now it’s too late, and if only people knew what I really think.. All we can do then, if we find ourselves in that state of mind, after years and years of faithful Christian worship, is pretend everything’s fine. But it’s not. We cling to a memory, something wonderful we did once know, but have forgotten and want to know again but don’t know how to do it. So a mask is put in place, and the mask is us as we need the world to see us, and everything behind the mask is rejected and suppressed.
The mistake we make, I think, is trying to live up to the standards of other people, and not of God. We compare and contrast. God doesn’t. What comes from within, what comes out of the mouth, are words, far too many of my words, and words start disputes, words judge and discriminate. God’s first language is silence. But we still feel the need to define, to proclaim, to divide, to defend, to destroy. As St James says today, Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. This is the evil of which Jesus speaks, our words, my words, the self-obsession: defiled or immaculate, dirty or pure, one or the other. This is the kingdom that is divided against itself, and we see its tragic expression today in the competition beween or within churches, the competition for truth – I have it, so you don’t. There’s danger too in the emphasis in our society on personal wholeness, private well-being, the individual success story: self-obsession again. Do you know what’s great about this place, one of the glories of the Christian liturgy, as we try to practise it here? The glory is the strict formality of the service, proceeding according to tradition and rule, in every action, every step, every word, because this prevents, or should prevent, the intrusion of the personal, the domination of the individual self. There are plenty of other times to be yourself. At the High Mass we embody, all of us, through our actions and our words, a liberating openness to life itself; we enter a larger force field called the body of Christ, we become the body of Christ. So we can lay aside our weary selves for a bit (the commentator, the wanderer, the prisoner of our own thoughts), and become part of a movement greater than ourselves, and greater than this congregation. This is a little death and resurrection, for each of us and for all of us. It’s so rare these days, any opportunity for transcending the self, and so being open to God’s existence in real time, His life, that we should treasure every chance we have.
Other people’s standards are not divine commandments. Christians trust an inner voice, what St James calls in his letter today, “the word that has been implanted in you and can save your souls”. The Gospels liberate us from our own viewpoint; we look at our lives and the world in a different way. No longer are we to reject our lives, the lives God has given us, as being unworthy of Him. Jesus didn’t choose His disciples because they were virtuous and wise. What they did need was courage, courage to give up what no longer worked. We can make a similar decision, a decision to live as free as possible, and no longer as the victim of our thoughts and fears. We find the courage because God is love and Love bears the unbearable for us, working with our weaknesses – and what that forgiveness means is that everything we are is brought to the light, to the Father of lights, as St James says, the creator of the stars, with whom there is no variation or shadow, in other words, no discrimination, rather total acceptance, acceptance of what is, whatever happens.
Acceptance by God and self-acceptance is not the end; it’s the start of the Christian life. With selfknowledge we can give our selves to God. So there is always work to do on what we’re thinking, inner work, they called it, those who’ve been this way before us. Thoughts matter. It’s no good saying that no one gets hurt, because they do and we do. What the early spiritual teachers, the fourth century monks in the desert, saw clearly was that this long list of troublesome thoughts in Mark, Matthew and elsewhere, deceit, licentiousness, envy, malice, slander, pride, and so on – which we hear in church and think, oh no here we go, ten out of ten again – they knew these were conventional lists of the thoughts which imprison all people, without exception, and that all this was entirely natural. They saw that thoughts come, but thoughts go. They saw that by watching and attending to their thoughts, like watching the tides, they could re-programme their minds, and prevent getting attached to those thoughts and taken over by them. Re-clothe us in our rightful mind, as we shall sing later. We are not our thoughts. We are not those old thoughts conditioned by the past. We are made in the image of God. ‘Looking steadily at the perfect law of freedom and making it their habit’, as St James says, we can discover a closeness to God again, a mind at peace with itself, the undivided heart, the silence that becomes perfect stillness, beyond thoughts, beyond every bias of our culture, beyond words. Then a real person can at last meet a real God. “And with the morn those Angel faces smile, Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile” [John Henry Newman]. God always finds a way back to us, however late in the day. As St Augustine (whose feast was on Tuesday) wrote in his Confessions: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved you! For behold you were within me, and I outside.” Our wayward thoughts, whether evil or good, can not separate us from the God who is always there for us. Christians call this hope of ours the New Jerusalem. It is the quiet and joyful knowledge of God. And this time, there’s no need for a mask, no need for any mask at all.
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning