Saturday, May 4, 2013

What is Wrong With the World?

A Sermon given at 
on 4/25/13

“What is wrong with the world?” This was the query posed by a popular newspaper, around 1908, and sent to a variety of public intellectuals. G.K. Chesterton is famously said to have replied very briefly with,

“Dear Sirs, I am.”

I wonder how you might have responded? As seminarians and committed Christians, I have no doubt that we would immediately identify Sin as the world’s greatest problem. I’ll be honest though; I think the first thing on my mind would more than likely be other people’s sin.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus confronts us with a challenge:

If we truly want to confront the sin and brokenness in the world, we must begin by confronting the sin and brokenness in our own hearts. The example Jesus uses is hyperbolic and quite funny. He asks, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” We are far too often preoccupied with the minor short comings of others, while ignoring our own major flaws.

It is frequently the case that the thing that we judge most harshly in others is the very thing that we have failed to confront in ourselves. The problem with having a log in one’s eye is that wherever one looks one sees a log. We are too afraid or too proud to admit our own flaw, and so we project that flaw unto others creating scapegoats for our own un-confronted darkness.

Jesus is challenging this very tendency in the Pharisees. According to them, the problem with the world is the impure and reprobate law-breakers. If the prostitutes, drunkards, and roman collaborators would get their act together, than the restoration of Israel and the Kingdom of God would finally break forth. In their spiritual blindness, however, they failed to realize their own lack of charity and failure to be a light to the nations.

Jesus challenges us to be more than blind guides. If we wish to show others the way, we must learn from someone who can show us the way. A blind teacher can only lead his followers into a pit. Those who would presume to teach God’s people must first acknowledge their own spiritual blindness and remove those things that make it impossible to love their brothers and sisters as they ought.

There is something here for seminarians, wouldn’t you agree?

We are called to the awesome responsibility of the care of souls, the first soul entrusted to our care, however, is our own. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10).

We must always begin first with ourselves. Only then can we hope to be trusted with others. I am reminded of these words attributed to a Chassidic rabbi on his deathbed.

“When I was young, I set out to change the world. When I grew older, I perceived that this was too ambitious so I set out to change my state. This, too, I realized as I grew older was too ambitious, so I set out to change my town. When I realized I could not even do this, I tried to change my family. Now as an old man, I know that I should have started by changing myself. If I had started with myself, maybe then I would have succeeded in changing my family, the town, or even the state – and who knows, maybe even the world!”

One thing that has become abundantly clear to me during my time here at Trinity—especially this last semester taking Pastoral Leadership and Mentored Ministry—is that preparation for ministry involves so much more than learning how to effectively exegete a biblical text, properly lead the liturgy, or insightfully address theological issues in a three concise points. Those things are all essential, but unless I am able to become like my teacher, Jesus,  and to put into practice the things that he teaches, all of those skills will have been learned in vain.

It is not enough to put on a good show, to outwardly cut the impressive figure of a competent student or clergyperson. I have to be changed from the inside out. Thomas Kempis writes,

“Of what use is it to discourse learnedly on the Trinity, if you lack humility and therefore displease the Trinity? Lofty words do not make a man just or holy; but a good life makes him dear to God. I would far rather feel contrition than be able to define it. If you know the whole Bible by heart, and all the teachings of the philosophers, how would this help you without the grace and love of God?”

 All of these merely external signs of piety are useless without true renovation of the heart.

At Christmas time, my wife April and I decorated our Christmas tree (Our baby daughter Helen supervised). Among the lights, icicles, and ginger-bread men, we also hung beautiful shiny red apples. Even if those apples were real apples and not plastic, it really wouldn’t matter how many we hung from the boughs of that tree, it would never make it an apple tree! Likewise no amount of good works or religious credentials, in themselves, can make me good. The real work has to happen on the inside, it involves who I am at the deepest level.

Jesus calls us to dig deep down to the very foundations. Anyone who hears his words and puts them into practice is like one who builds his house upon the rock. This is one who will remain standing through adversity. In pursuing God’s call on our life, we are bound to be met with great challenges—the winds will blow and the waves will crash against us—it is only the one who has done the difficult work of beginning to root out the sin in their own heart who will ultimately remain standing through the storm.

 The enormity of this task should be sobering to us, but we should not despair. If indeed God has called us to this work, he himself will bring it to pass. Jesus is not just a supped up Pharisee, he is not calling us to buckle down and try harder. He is calling us to lay down our burdens, come to him, and be changed. It is true that the scriptures teach us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12)—and taking up of our cross and following Jesus does indeed involve hard work and discipline—but we are reminded that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

When it comes to Judging sin we need to start with ourselves, but when it comes to living lives of holiness we have to start with Jesus. Our own righteousness is like sand, it is not a firm foundation. The righteousness of Jesus, however, is like a solid rock. He is the only one whose goodness never changes no matter what the circumstances. He is the only one who can see clearly enough to remove the sin from our heart.

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