Working on a Building

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All
of these passages remind us that human hearts that can love… and that can
produce patience, forgiveness, mercy, kindness, generosity, gratitude, faith
and joy… these are the work and gift of God.  Our hearts are not whole and are unable to function as they
are meant to without God’s Spirit at work in us.  This
is the wonderful flip side to the troubling words of Jesus in today’s Gospel.


14th
Sunday after Pentecost

September
2, 2012                                                                                   

James
1:17-27, Mark
7:1-8, 14-23

Peder Stenslie

In
today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says some things that are hard to hear.

He
takes aim at people who understand the task and purpose of religion to be
following rules and fulfilling certain religious obligations… scoring points
with right behavior.  Jesus rejects
that approach… and says that religion… faith… is a matter of the heart.

And
he doesn’t say that in a sweet way. 
He says, “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.”

Jesus
is saying we are undone by our own heart… that part of our being that produces
our actions… that part of our being that drives us to act in ways that are
destructive, hurtful to ourselves and others.  Jesus says that it is not our actions but our heart that
defiles us.  What a devastating
thing to hear!  But when we look
honestly at ourselves, we know that it is true.  It is our heart that “defiles” us by negating the purposes
God has set for our lives.

Greed,
selfishness, shame, jealousy, guilt, anger… it is these deep-seated feelings
that lay claim to our will, twist our behavior and compel us to think, speak
and act in ways that limit and destroy our shared life together.

How
incredibly depressing!  If that is
true, then what hope do we have?

Let
me tell you about my alarm clock. 
I bought a new alarm clock about half a year ago.  I went into the store and thought, “I
don’t need anything fancy;” so I got the cheapest clock I could find.  It worked fine for a short while, but
pretty soon, one thing after another, went wrong. 

In
the end, this is what I ended up with. 
The alarm on my clock could no longer be changed.  It was stuck permanently at 6:00
am.  What’s more, it would always
ring at 6:00 am.  It didn’t matter
if the alarm was turned off or on. 
It rang every morning at 6:00 am. 
Whenever it did ring, shutting it off required that I flick the on/off
toggle back and forth several times. 
Arising from my groggy slumber, I would struggle every morning to get my
finger on the switch and flip it back and forth several times to stop the
ringing

My
clock, you see, was defiled from within. 
Its guts, put together with the cheapest parts money could buy, were
unable to perform the functions it was created for.  And so, in time it ended up a pathetic excuse for an alarm
clock. 

This
week, I finally got rid of it.  I
accidentally knocked it off my dresser one morning as I was trying to get my
finger on the switch.  When I
picked it up from the floor, all life was gone from the clock, and nothing
could bring it back.

So
today (or tomorrow), I will buy a new clock.  I will spend more money on this one and hope it can be for
me a true and useful alarm clock.

We
are like that too.  Our hearts
alone are simply not up to the task. 
They are not strong enough, pure enough, or good enough to function as
they need to function if we are to be the kind of people God calls us to be… if
we are to lead the kind of lives God calls us to live.

You
see… in the Bible… being holy (which is the opposite of being defiled) means,
simply, being what we were created to be. Like an alarm clock that can be set
for different times, be turned off or on as needed and can be easily shut off
when it rings in the morning.  

Being
holy doesn’t mean being super righteous. 
It doesn’t mean performing a certain list of religious tasks.  It just means being a human being,
plain and simple, in whom the love and life of God grows.

But
our wounded and insecure hearts prevent that from happening.  They cause us to lose our way… and we
end up just a shadow of what we were meant to be.

So
we need the Spirit of God to be at work inside us… inside our hearts… shaping,
changing, guiding… in every way calling forth life and light where it wasn’t
before.

Many
witnesses in scripture speak of this resurrection of the heart. 

The
prophet Ezekiel speaks of the work and gift of the Spirit of God in this
way:  “A new heart I will give you;
and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the
heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ez. 36:26)

In
Psalm 51, we hear this prayer:  “Create
in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”
(Ps. 51:10)

Paul
writes, in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians:  “You… are a letter from Christ… written
not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but
on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:3)

The
beginning of our reading from James today talks about the same process, but in
a different way.  It acknowledges that
that which is good in us, comes from God. 
Becoming what God created us to be requires that God’s gifts take root
in our lives and grow.

“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.” (James
1:17-18)

All
of these passages remind us that human hearts that can love… and that can
produce patience, forgiveness, mercy, kindness, generosity, gratitude, faith
and joy… these are the work and gift of God.  Our hearts are not whole and are unable to function as they
are meant to without God’s Spirit at work in us.

This
is the wonderful flip side to the troubling words of Jesus in today’s Gospel.

Because,
our heart is weak… and not up to the task God has given us (because we were never meant
to do it without him)… God tends to us himself.  He sends his spirit into our hearts and works the gifts of
love and life in us. 

We
need God’s Spirit to be complete… to be strong and true… to grow into the
people we are created and called to be.

Before
the sermon today, Peter Ostroushko, sang a haunting rendition of that old
Spiritual “I’m Working on a Building.” 

Some
of the words of that song go like this…

If
I was a sinner, I tell you what I'd do:

I'd
quit all my sinning, and work on a building, too.

 

I'm
working on a building, I'm working on a building,

I'm
working on a building for my Lord, for my Lord!

It's
a Holy Ghost building, it's a Holy Ghost building,

It's
a Holy Ghost building, for my Lord, for my Lord!

What on earth is the
“Holy Ghost building?”  It is none other than the singer’s own heart, to be made
ready for the coming of the Holy Spirit. 
The singer knows his task is to “get building…” make himself ready for
the Spirit of God. 

His
task… and ours… is to open our hearts to the Spirit of God.  Invite God’s Spirit in.  Ask God to make us whole, heal our
wounds… to strengthen and lead us in life.  Our task is to learn from God’s Word who we are to be… what
it means to live… that we are forgiven and called to new life.

God
calls us, by his Spirit, to come alive. 
So, like the singer of the old spiritual, let us commit ourselves to get
working on a Holy Ghost building. 
And let’s celebrate our new life together as we sing hymn 34, “Coming
Alive.”