A new heart from God 

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Marietta, GA 

by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey, August 29, 2021 

Proper 17, Year B (Song of Solomon 2:8-13; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15; 21-23) 

 

James 1:17-27  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. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. 

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. 

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing. 

If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. 

 

Mark 7:1-23 (the bracketed portions below were not appointed for the day and were not read during the service; they are included here in brackets):  

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’ You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” 

[Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.’ But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)—then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.”]  

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “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.” 

[When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.] 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.” 

 

The news these last two weeks brings us many questions about ourselves and our world. We see more bloodshed in Afghanistan, a place torn by war for decades. The war there is not just with the Russians or Americans and our allies; Afghans have long been fighting with each other. Now the Taliban and ISIS are fighting, and hundreds are dead, including Americans sent to protect them. Where does all this hatred and violence come from? 

 

In this country, we find it harder and harder to talk with each other. So many issues seem to divide us, and differences seem insurmountable. Masks, Vaccines, last year’s protests about racism, all become so polarized and hard for us to understand each other. We can hardly even talk about the weather without feeling conflicted and politicized. Where does this prickly defensiveness come from? 

 

Even among brothers and sisters in Christ, we’ve found it hard to talk and to listen across differences. We either stay silent for fear of offending, or we launch our “unfiltered” response, usually one of animosity that stops the conversation. What happened to our aspirations of speaking the truth in love? What happened to encouraging each other to be our best? Where does this mistrust and disconnection come from? 

 

Today’s lessons speak to these questions, especially the lesson from the letter of James, and Jesus’ words to the pharisees in the Gospel reading. James challenges us that if we say we have faith, but our words and actions don’t show it, then we should revisit our claims of faith. James calls us to have faith not just inwardly, but outwardly as well.  

 

Jesus, on the other hand, challenges the pharisees for their focus on an outward devotion that masks an inward infidelity. In both cases, the human heart is the heart of the matter. Where the heart is leads us in our actions, and by our actions, we can gauge the orientation of our hearts. For James and for Jesus, the challenges in the world around us and in us come from the heart. 

 

Let me explain for a moment Jesus’s confrontation with the Pharisees. Jesus doesn’t have problems with rituals per se; he has problems with the self-serving way the Pharisees are enforcing the rules. Today’s reading skips over several verses in the story. In those verses, Jesus gives an example of how this double standard works with the Pharisees. They call for tithing—giving a tenth of their income to serve God. But then they declare their wealth as belonging to God already, so they exempt themselves from this rule. It’s kind of as if congress passed a law making themselves exempt from taxes, while the rest of us have to pay. Jesus calls them on this hypocrisy. 

 

Since the Pharisees seem concerned about food and ritual purity, Jesus says they should pay more attention to what comes out of a person rather than what goes in. What goes in, Jesus says, passes through and goes out the sewer. But what comes out come from the heart, and that’s where a whole host of sins come from: sexual immorality, theft, murder, greed, dishonesty, lawlessness, slander, pride and foolishness. These come from the heart. And the heart is the heart of the matter.  

 

These days our culture wants to see the human heart as entirely pure. “Follow your heart!” is a common saying. We hear that whatever we desire must be good—some even say that since we are made in the image of God, all our desires must be good. But the image of God is broken in us, clouded and wounded by sin, by our self-interest. The problem of sin is not just around us in the influences of others, the problem of sin is inside of us as well. We are not entirely bad, but there is no part of us that is not touched by the problem of sin. The heart is the heart of the matter, even for Christians. 

 

The human heart, it seems, is in deep need of renovation. And here is where we find good news. I don’t mean that we can dig-in and make ourselves better. As valiant as that effort might be, on our own we will fail at some level. After all, the heart is good at self-deception. The good news is that despite our brokenness and despite our running away from God, God continues to run toward us. God loves us, and God wants to remake our hearts within us. We see this throughout the Bible, with God making covenant with us, sending the prophets to us and most of all in coming to us in Jesus.  

 

In Jesus, God shows us more of himself and forgives our sins and offers us new life in him. In Jesus, God can create in us clean hearts, as the psalmist put it. This is not an instant change. Making that commitment to Jesus is not the whole journey. Rather, that commitment to Jesus is the start of a journey where God forms and shapes us more closely to his image again.  

 

Part of this formation of the heart in Christ starts with the willingness to be held accountable. We balk at this because we would rather be our own judges, accountable to no one. This willingness best comes from humility. Humility is not self-humiliation, but rather Christian humility is recognizing God as God, and ourselves as human, imperfect, never seeing clearly, never understanding fully, always in need of growth and renewal. Humility opens us up to God’s grace and direction. The more of ourselves we open to God, the more of ourselves God will heal and strengthen.  

 

Part of this formation of the heart is a reliance on relationships with each other in Christ. We are not meant to be Christians by ourselves alone. In Christian relationships, we learn about God, we learn about ourselves, we learn about each other. We support each other as we learn and teach each other, seeking together to renew our hearts in Christ. The Holy Spirit is given to the whole church, so we can hear and discern God’s voice speaking in our conversation and in our prayers together. We call this pursuit discipleship, committing ourselves to being open to learning from God through others, and teaching others so that our hearts may together find renewal in Christ. 

 

Part of this formation of the heart are the disciplines of the Christian life: prayer, scriptures, worship and the sacraments. These are not to be empty rituals used for self-service. These disciplines rooted in humility and discipleship help to orient our hearts toward God, and doing so in community helps bind us together in that God-oriented direction. We call this practice devotion, allowing God to form and shape our hearts more closely to his, formed as individuals and as a community. 

 

God is already at work calling us to this renewal of our hearts. Even those hard and difficult conversations—those conflicts that we have with others—even these conflicts are opportunities to learn and grow and share God’s grace. Walking closely with God, we find God re-forming and renovating our hearts. Walking closely with God, we rejoice at God’s work in us. What if we took all that re-formation and renovation—all that joy in what God can do in us through our humility and discipleship and devotion—what if we took all that grace, and offered it to others in conflict? What if we could listen and understand more, speak justice, but with God’s generous love as our motivation? How might others encounter God reaching out to them in the process? 

 

And wouldn’t our conflicted and disconnected world find at least a little more of God’s peace and God’s reconciliation?  

 

My brothers and sisters in Christ, be doers of the word, allowing the implanted word of God to renew your hearts and actions, multiplying blessing and glorifying God in the process.