Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday August 30, 2015
Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Psalm 45: 1-2, 6-9
Earlier this summer, Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios released an insightful, clever, and really quite profound film called “Inside Out”. The film tells the story of a young girl named Riley, who moves with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco California; however, the real story focuses on the ways that Riley’s emotions adjust to the challenges of her new life.
As the movie unfolds, the audience is invited to watch as five cartoon characters representing the emotions of Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness have to find a way to work together in order to help Riley to adjust to the new reality, understand the processes of memory and thought, and maintain those parts of her personality that have formed and shaped her. When Riley – who is usually a positive, happy, well-loved child – gets angry or sad or afraid, we as audience members have a chance to watch as the various cartoon emotions “take control” of her behaviours. What is happening on the inside manifests itself in Riley’s external actions and behaviours.
It is a very clever film on many levels. And though it is clearly informed by psychological insights into the ways that emotions function, there are parallels to the essential nature of our spiritual life.
Today’s suggested reading from the Gospel of Mark offers an intriguing parallel to that animated story.
The scene opens during a rather pointed interaction between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees. The religious authorities were beginning to pay attention to Jesus and his followers – but were starting to notice some rather objectionable behavior amongst those who called themselves his disciples. Apparently, Jesus’ followers were not washing their hands in the proper and prescribed manner. “Why do your disciples not live according to the traditions of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” they asked him.
Jesus’ response was equally pointed. “He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honours 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.’”
He pointed out some of the ways that the religious authorities were using rules to help them to get out of their covenantal, legal and moral obligations, but then Jesus began to direct his comments to the people around him, thereby transforming his exchange with the religious authorities to become a “teaching” moment, not only for the crowds around him, but even for us as we read these texts 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.”
It is not what we do on the outside that really makes a difference or reveals who we are – rather, it is what is on the inside, and the ways that our inner nature shapes and influences our external behavior, that is truly important. Our true identity is revealed from the inside out.
Such words cannot help but challenge us, when we are honest enough with ourselves. After all, most of us would prefer, like the scribes and Pharisees, to be able to judge others on the basis of the ways that they are acting. And we ourselves like to pride ourselves on the good things that we do.
But Jesus’ words ask us to look much deeper – not at others, but at ourselves.
Even if we act well on the outside, what are the deeper undercurrents that swirl within us? It has often been said that Jesus “spiritualized” dimensions of the law – such as when he stated, in the Gospels, that it was not enough to simply abstain from adultery or murder or insults – but rather even if we harbor lustful, murderous or demeaning attitudes, it is as if we have committed those very sins.
The same sentiment is reflected in this passage from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus was not suggesting that washing one’s hands or honouring some particular tradition were wrong in and of themselves – but he was looking deeper, and asking his listeners to look deeper. What is the good of having clean hands if one’s inner attitudes towards others were marked by, as the text states, “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”
God judged – and God judges – the heart and not simply the actions.
Which, to be perfectly honest, is not particularly good news for any of us. After all, by this standard, none of us measure up. As humans, we are complex beings – made up of much that is good and noble and true, but also much that is proud, envious, greedy, lustful, negative, destructive and sinful. If anyone was to make a movie of the emotional, psychological, spiritual dimensions of our hearts and minds and souls and spirits, it is not likely that it would be a particularly cute or clever Disney production!
We need to accept this, about ourselves, if Christ is going to be able to do anything with us at all. After all, as he stated in today’s reading, he is not simply interested in forming a community of followers who act in the best and most respectable ways; instead, he is asking us to take a good look, deep within; to realize the brokenness and sinfulness of our inner spirits; to repent of those inner motivations and dynamics; to accept his forgiveness; and then to allow a new spirit to take life within us.
And that is where the bad news becomes good news. The Christian faith is not, ultimately, a spirituality that rests or remains in judgement of ourselves or of others. The judgement that is rightfully meted out upon us is only meant to be prelude to a state of honest repentance; and that state of honest repentance is only meant to be prelude to true and lasting transformation. Christ did not only go to the cross so that atonement and forgiveness could be effected; he also sent his Spirit upon his followers to transform them…from the inside out.
The call of the Christian life, therefore, is to allow this process to take place within us. To realize and accept that there are dimensions, within every one of us, that cause hurt, suffering and pain to ourselves, to others, and to our world. But also to realize that Christ has the power to remove, from us, the consequences of our sins and failures, and to replace the broken parts of our spirits with his holy spirit if we open ourselves to him and to his transforming presence.
It is never a quick or easy process…perfection takes time. In the Christian life, this process of being made holy – what is sometimes known as sanctification -- is the work of the work of the Spirit, and requires a lifetime of faithful discipleship. Through life’s joys and life’s struggles, through our ups and downs, through our achievements and our failures, the spirit of Christ is at work within those who commit their path to him.
It was this vision of what Christ can do in us and in our lives that prompted the author of Ephesians to write words that stand as a wondrous and visionary encouragement to all of us – and I will conclude with these words, hoping that they might bear fruit in us, and become true in us – from the inside out.
Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more that all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever, Amen.