Date: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 22, 2021
Texts: Isaiah 29:11-19; Psalm 14; Ephesians 5:22-33; Mark 7:1-13
Context: Whenever this reading from Ephesians 5 comes up I feel compelled to focus and preach on it because it is so misunderstood in our time. The readings as a whole today have a theme of the contrary nature of human ideas and rules with divine, and the Ephesians reading sits nicely in that context. We have our ideas about things. Some of our ideas are better than others. But all must be subjected in humility to the divine will and wisdom. Even as we seek to be faithful to our Lord’s wisdom and will we are apt to wander astray and allow additional ideas to infiltrate, ultimately to our detriment, and therefore a humility is always appropriate with one another in order to remain not only wise, but unified. Personally, this is a challenging set of texts this week as I’m preaching and it’s a congregation I’m just visiting, not the installed pastor of!
Isaiah 29:11-29 – Verse 16 calls out to me as the pivotal point of this passage. God is speaking to his wayward people. A people who have not witnessed the powerful works of the Lord as in generations past. What they know of God is secondhand. This has led them to presume their own understandings of God are the important thing at one level – so that following the rules laid down by tradition or doctrine replace an actual relationship with their Lord (v.13). In part this is God’s doing (vs.10-12). In part it is our human sinfulness both within us and in the world around us combined with the active workings of our enemy Satan to draw us away from a vibrant trust and faith in our Creator God. Today nothing characterizes our American culture so much as an insistence that we are the creators. Or at least that there is no conscious Creator, and therefore might (or ability) makes right, and we are free to recreate ourselves and one another and our world in whatever form we might prefer. Verses 17-19 seem like a modern laundry list of goals science promises to deliver us – avoidance of climate change or climate change in our preferred direction, triumph over our physical bodies and limitations up to and including death and aging, and social justice and equality for all. But we are not the authors and accomplishers of these things – God is. While we are free to faithfully pursue our caretaking of the world we are not free to do so by disregarding or denying the reality and truth God the Creator has woven into the fabric of reality itself.
Psalm 14 – We might object to this caricature of the atheist as someone who is purely evil. And certainly such a straw man would be easy to knock down with examples of good-hearted non-believers. But the deeper truth this psalm directs us towards is that without a God above us who gives us truth and defines right and wrong for us, we will inevitably redefine truth and right and wrong to suit our own preferences and desires. We will exalt evil as good and denigrate good as evil. We will ignore the physical world around and within us and insist on becoming not simply masters but tyrants over both. It is not possible to have truth or moral grounding apart from the God who Created all things and wove those realities and definitions into his creation. Whenever we attempt to define these things without reference to our Creator, we will inevitably, eventually wind up completely opposite to what He designed and intended.
Ephesians 5:22-33 – The readings all point us to the error and danger of substituting our own ideas and rationalizations for God’s revealed order and rule in creation. Most Christians would nod in agreement with this in the abstract, but we suddenly choke and sputter when it strikes at some of our current assertions of what love really means and looks like. Surely equality must be God-pleasing? Surely we can redefine what equality looks like to suit our preferences? Or is equality something God has already provided a definition for in the dawn of creation? An equality based not on function but on his Creation of each one of us as his sons and daughters? Equal but different? Called to honor and love and respect one another within the bonds of marriage that preserve our essential differences and call us to be equal within those differences? That’s a hard pill for many people to swallow these days. We’d rather focus on real and potential abuses of these verses as justification that St. Paul is not serious or is misogynistic. To put these verses off till our Lord’s return so we don’t have to grapple with the challenges of them here and now. But Paul is clear. Marriage is, in fact, our clearest depiction of our Lord’s relationship with we his people, his Church. Imperfect, but striving in our marriages to mirror the divine relationship full of grace and mercy and truth. And a reminder that our own preferences – no matter how deeply held or sacrosanct – could be just as flawed as the Pharisees and the Israelites and even the fools who say in their hearts there is no God.
Mark 7:1-13 – How easy – and dangerous! – it is to presume our own ideas are actually fulfillments of our Creator God’s wishes and commands. How easily good intentions lead away from God’s intentions. How crafty and deceitful are our own hearts, even when we are not conscious of it! How easy it is to fulfill the letter of the law while completely missing the spirit of the law, replacing the intentions of the law (love of God, love of neighbor) with something more expedient. And of course, how easy it is to justify things with the cover of righteousness or the Gospel, defending actions that are patently unloving by invoking the name of God. If we think we are above this or beyond this we are in the greatest danger. If we presume our traditions are beyond reproach and must be guarded against any criticism or – gasp! – change, we are in danger. Good things can be gradually turned to bad ends. Original intentions can be lost so that we go through motions no longer understanding their original intentions or benefitting from the intended outcomes.
Thank God we are forgiven in Christ, but thank God also the Holy Spirit continues to work among us, striving to unify us and lead us towards fulfillment of the law not in hopes of earning God’s favor but in joy and thanksgiving for his grace and mercy!