holy cross sermon for proper 17, year b, september 2, 2012

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jesus said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me,’” (Mark 7.6). Once again in today’s Gospel reading Jesus brings us to the centrality of the human heart in the economy of salvation.

The message about hypocrisy in today’s Gospel reading is fairly straightforward and requires little exposition. The “Pharisees… with some of the Scribes” – Jesus’ usual antagonists – come to him with a self-righteous accusation, masquerading as a question: “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?”

And Jesus turns rebukes them with the words of the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”

Over the past several weeks, we have been marinating in the great “Bread of Heaven” discourse from Saint John’s Gospel. There we saw the remedy to the problem Jesus elucidates in today’s reading from Mark. There we saw that the way to heaven is through coming to Jesus in faith, love, and humility, feeding on his flesh and drinking his blood, and so becoming inebriated, as St. Theophylact said, with divinity.

Today’s reading zeros in on the necessity of humility and self-emptying in this process. Remember that we must come to the Lord in faith – believing in him, and TRUSTING him. And remember that, as St. Augustine says, this kind of belief works by LOVE. It is an inner trust that seeks the Lord’s will, and so it seeks to honor him, and to obey him. And remember that this kind of love works by humility and self-surrender, by being willing to let go of everything in order to seek the Lord’s pleasure. This is what St. Paul means when he says: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing,” (1 Cor. 13.3). So faith is set in motion by love; and love is set in motion by humility.

Attaining to the Lord, seeking and finding him, is a process that takes place in the heart, in the center of our being, the location of our memory and our desire. Jesus said to them: “This people honors me with their lips, but their HEART is far from me.”

Deep in our heart is the place where we keep those things that inform our desires. Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” (Matthew 6.21). And today Jesus highlights the necessity of purifying that place, sweeping it clean, and so making it an appropriate place for God to dwell in – a habitation fit for a King.

In order to be saved we must be given entirely to the dynamism that is at work in Christ – the Holy Spirit, who is the love that obtains between the Father and Son. We must allow the Holy Spirit to shed his light on the recesses of our hearts, and by that light to drive out heal and to purge what is broken or unclean: past injuries, wounds, every uncleanness, every evil or selfish motivation. We must invite the Holy Spirit to undertake this healing and purging within us, and to begin to inform the desires within us, enabling us to bear divine fruit in the realm of action, manifesting in our lives: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control,” (Galatians 5.22f).

So what is Jesus saying is the problem with the Pharisees and Scribes in today’s Gospel reading? In what does their hypocrisy consist? It consists in thinking that action by itself can please, or displease, God. You may remember the story of the prophet Samuel being commanded by the Lord to go and anoint a king to replace Saul. Samuel was looking for David, although he didn’t know it at the time. Samuel looked at the sons of Jesse, and his eyes lighted on the most impressive of them, named Eliab; “and [Samuel] thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature… for the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but THE LORD LOOKS ON THE HEART,” (1 Sam. 16.6f). And indeed, Samuel had been told that the “Lord has sought out a man AFTER HIS OWN HEART” to be king over his people (1 Sam. 13.14).

Purity of heart must therefore be our purpose, if we wish to see the Kingdom of God. The Lord never withholds himself from us. He says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him,” (Rev. 3.20). And in another place he says, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him,” (John 14.23).

The Lord is constantly looking for an opportunity – for an INVITATION – to come into our heart. Our job is to prepare a place for him there, by cleansing our hearts of “evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness,” and every evil thing that comes from within, and defiles us (Mark 7.21ff). And once we have cleansed our hearts, through tears, self-denial, confession, penance, acts of selflessness, the giving of alms, and the other means God has given us, then we must seek the Lord in prayer, and especially in the Blessed Sacrament, which is the wellspring and pinnacle of all prayer. To eat the bread of angels means to attain to the open contemplation of the Lord, from which vision the heavenly powers draw all their power and vitality (Denis the Carthusian).

But what does THAT mean? And how does it work? It begins, as St. Paul says, with our having “girded [our] loins with truth,” (6.14). And the preeminent truth with which we gird ourselves is the truth about God: that he made us, that he loves us, and that he sent his Son to live and die for the sake of that love. These are the central facts of our faith. This is the truth with which we must continually confront our minds, by means of prayer and meditation on Scripture. The truth about God thus becomes a springboard to the contemplation of the Lord in every circumstance. St. Moses the Black, one of the great desert fathers of 4th century Egypt, said:

God is… to be known [in this life] from the grandeur and beauty of His creatures, from His providence which governs the world day by day, from his righteousness and from the wonders which He shows to His saints in each generation. When we reflect on the measurelessness of His power and His unsleeping eye which looks upon the hidden things of the heart and which nothing can escape, we are filled with the deepest awe, marveling at Him and adoring Him. When we consider that he numbers the raindrops, the sand of the sea and the stars of heaven, we are amazed at the grandeur of His nature and His wisdom. When we think of His ineffable and inexplicable wisdom, His love for mankind, and His limitless long-suffering at man’s innumerable sins, we glorify Him. When we consider His great love for us, in that though we had done nothing good He, being God, deigned to become man in order to save us from delusion, we are roused to longing for Him. When we reflect that He Himself has vanquished in us our adversary, the devil, and that He has given us eternal life if only we would choose and turn towards His goodness, then we venerate Him. There are many similar ways of seeing and apprehending God, which grow in us according to OUR LABOR and to THE DEGREE OF OUR PURIFICATION. (from Vol. 1 of the Kallistos WarePhilokalia, pp. 96-97)

So let us not be hypocritical Pharisees, who outwardly do and say the right things, but inwardly hold on to our own brokenness and impurity. Still less should we avoid hypocrisy by allowing our outward actions to be conformed to the impurity within [the solution of those who shirk Christianity because of (real or imagined) Christian hypocrisy]. Rather let us put on the whole armor of God, and incline our hearts to the Lord, knowing that as we were once slaves of sin, we may now renew our obedience from the heart to the standard of teaching to which we have been committed, and having been set free from sin, become slaves of righteousness and sanctification (cf. Romans 6.17ff).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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