(Starting off this Sunday I mentioned a method of bible study that is quite popular in some places. It's called the "African Bible Study." It started in Africa, at a meeting of Bishops there. Each was given the same passage of scripture to read and reflect on, and then, share with their small group a verse that "jumped out" at them. If I did it with today's Gospel the verse would be: This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. All the scriptures today have to do with asking the question:
Where is our heart? Are we in love with God like the Song of Songs metaphor of human love points to? Do we carry on an inner dialogue with God? If we do, don't think you're crazy, this is normal for a believer.)
(In the living out of our faith we will probably give offense to some, but this is necessary to bring them to faith.)
I'm writing this sermon after hearing of the shooting and killing of the TV reporter and her cameraman near Roanoke, Virginia. It is definitely influencing my looking at the scriptures for this Sunday.
When such a tragedy happens many ask themselves: How could God allow this to happen. I'm sure the family and fiancees of the murdered woman and man are asking this question, trying to find some sense out of the senselessness of it all. When we can't figure out why something bad happened we tend to bring God into the picture.
Surely the Almighty's Will must play a part!
Surely the Almighty's Will must play a part!
These questions have been around a long time. Jame's, who we begin reading today dealt with this very problem of evil in his letter:
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.
What this means is that in God there is no darkness at all (1John) and no bad things ever come from God who is all Light. Even when we are tempted to think so, there is no "shadowy" side to God's nature.
Yet that is precisely what lurks in that backs of our minds: When tragedy strikes and people die that somehow it is God's will; or, God punishes people with sickness when they have done wrong; or, it is sometimes God's will that we take someone's life or destroy our enemies. (Frank on Death Row) All of this is because in our fears and anger we are tempted to project all our desires unto God, but really unto the false gods of our own making.
In another place in the Letter of James he writes:
No one whould say "I am being tempted by God." For God cannot be tempted by evil and God tempts no one. . . one is tempted by one's own desire, being lured and enticed by it.
Jesus died on the Cross because of our ungraciousness and violence and responded with absolutely no vengeance at all. Jesus, unlike us, refused to fight the violence against him with violence. He could have called upon his Father to send legions of angels to destroy his murderers, but he didn't.
Why? James knew who God is, what God's true nature is. And James also knew who we are. As he put it: We are the "first fruits of God's creatures," fruit in the sense of remaining on the vine of God's life in Jesus who leads and mirrors the truth about God to the whole world. (Priority: to read the Gospel to know Jesus)
Now we can't blame the Pharisees too much. They didn't have the Gospels. But they did have Jesus right in front of them! They took offense at the actions of Jesus and his disciples, ie., not washing their hands before eating. The way Jesus saw it, the Pharisees were substituing their religious human cultural laws for God's care for his creatures. Most of all they did not like what they saw as Jesus' too easy forgiveness of sinners. The Pharisees required that a person repent before receiving forgiveness.
But Jesus forgave before repentance because forgiveness created the possibility of true repentance and change.
This is Jesus' way, so different from the world's ways, or most religious outlook. The world and it's religious expression usually focus is on banning the outer corruptions and temptations people experience, like the use of alcohol, drugs, pornography, guns, etc., or banning from society those who are judged "rotten to the core" on the inside. But as Jesus says in the Gospel today:
Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. 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.
Here Jesus is not talking about certain "evil" people who do bad things, but instead about the "relationships" between people and the rivalrous and covetous desires that they have toward each other. The list of failing above always include others.
The police found the shooter shortly after he murdered the reporter and cameraman and wounded the woman being interviewed. His motive was vengeance on the TV station for being fired from his job at the station- to get even. Again, not an "evil" person in himself, but one whose relationships were completely out of whack- full of the rivalry and covetousness we are talking about.
Instead of being offended by the Jesus we encounter in the Gospel, let us accept his teaching in faith, living each day in thankfulness to God and God's love for all people. In other words, keep our hearts close to God.
Saint Alban Episcopal Mission (English) meets every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. (see welcome letter at sidebar) at Casa Convento Concepcion, 4a Calle Oriente No. 41, Antigua, Guatemala.