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Sermon for 16th Sunday after Pentecost 2021

Proverbs 1:20-33 Psalms 19 James 3:1-12 Mark 8:27-38

I just couldn’t bring myself to begin with a joke today – in light of the 20th anniversary of 911. In reliving the experience and hearing the stories of those who had to deal with such horrific grief truly tugged at my heart. It was reported that the Sunday after the 911 attacks was the highest church attendance ever recorded. During the time of disaster and challenges to understand ourselves and the world we live in, folks turned to faith. The community of faith drew a circle of love around all of us, because we realized we were in this together. How has that changed so much in the twenty years that have passed. We continue to be in this together as we war against the pandemic. But, we have forgotten how “together” feels. We have forgotten that we can count on others to care about us and we can care about others. We need to be reminded how we have acted and reacted in the past and embrace the love that forever represents. We need to call upon the Holy Spirit to guide us toward togetherness.

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.

Many people live their lives under a cloud of guilt, sometimes the result of a rigid and unforgiving upbringing. I can’t tell you the number of times I heard this scenario from adults in our church. It seems most of us have a church story. We may have felt unaccepted and unacceptable, and experienced the drive to attain acceptance as the primary motivating force in our lives. The idea that everything that we do is in the hope of hearing deep within our souls the words, “You’re all right. Be still, and be who you are. Be who God created you to be.”

This prayer – the Collect of the Day – begins with a jolt that seems to confirm that burdensome sense of guilt: without God, we are not able to please God. All our attempts to win God’s favor are futile. We can do many things by virtue of our hard work, intelligence, personality, and piety. But none of these things will please God. We do not have what it takes to please God. The reason has to do with who God is and who we are. God is the Father Almighty, the Holy One, the Creator of the universe; we are marred, scarred, broken, shabby vessels – we are creatures.

It was this realization that led Isaiah to exclaim in the temple, “Woe to me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”(Isaiah 6:5). It was this realization that led Job – known to have been blameless and upright – to confess at the end of his ordeal, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3,5). Only God possesses the purity and holiness to please God.

This prayer is not a hopeless one. After acknowledging our moral helplessness, the prayer continues by asking God to send the Holy Spirit to direct and rule our hearts in all things. We ask God so to fill our hearts that God will see in us God’s own holiness.

The two verbs, direct and rule may give us pause. To direct is to point out the way. A stage director tells actors how to say their lines and where to move on stage. A tour director tells the tour group where to go, what to bring with them, and how to behave in foreign countries. The Holy Spirit directs our hearts, telling us how to act and what to say. In directing us, the Spirit helps us know what is good.

But knowing is not enough. We often know what is good even without the prompting of the Spirit, because we have reasoned it out or been taught it in our childhood. But in knowing what is good, we often become bogged down and do nothing. So, we pray that the Holy Spirit may direct and rule our hearts. We don’t need to be merely directed, but to be given the power to follow the directions.

Rule is a strong word. Queen Elizabeth has been on the throne for over 60 years. A ruler possesses absolute power. The one ruled submits totally to that authority. We usually have some uncomfortable feelings about submitting: we ask to be ruled but at the same time, we resist it. We don’t want to submit.

Finally, we must not overlook the adverb mercifully. Something granted mercifully is a gift, it’s not earned or deserved. When a jury recommends mercy, it asks for leniency to a guilty party who deserves worse. God is under no obligation to send the Holy Spirit to direct and rule our hearts. It is out of boundless love to creatures, like us, who cannot please him that he comes, to accept, to cleanse, to forgive, and to restore.

Far from confirming or reinforcing the cloud of guilt, the blanket of fear under which many people live their lives, this prayer points the way to a brighter place, where life is lived in confidence and gratitude, in fellowship with God who comes not to condemn sinners, but to empower them, all of us, to live with God’s holiness in our hearts.

Psalm 19 is the meditation of a close observer of the world. Perhaps the most famous lines bring us closer to God – Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. With a spirit of wonder, awe, and deep reverence, the psalmist celebrates God’s glory revealed through creation and God’s goodness made manifest in the Torah. Then, with candor and humility, the psalmist addresses God directly, and closes with an expression of profound confidence, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Psalm 19 is a perfect text for introducing basic Christian theology to seekers who may consider themselves spiritual but not committed to the church or any particular faith tradition. Nature’s testimony to God’s glory is something some seekers can affirm. Kind of like finding God on the golf course on Sunday morning. As glorious as this testimony may be, God has provided something even better and more useful to guide and direct human life: the revelation of God’s gracious will in the Scriptures and ultimately in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

I have shared before about an experience many years ago, when I was in my twenties. My husband and I were spending a weekend with friends at St. Simons. We ended up drinking beer and watching the Georgia game. One of our male friends brought a date that we didn’t know. There were some striking things about her, I don’t remember the details. But during the afternoon, my friend Marsha and I went to the bathroom and started making fun of her and laughing hysterically. We were having great fun. When we opened the door, she was standing right there. I blurted out, “How long have you been standing there?” She said, “Long enough!” That feeling of shame and loss of control still haunt me today, over forty years later. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

I’m thinking Peter’s response to Jesus sharing that he is to suffer would be unacceptable. However, no one is really shocked by Peter’s confession the Jesus is the Messiah or Jesus’ description of the true meaning of being the Messiah. For the Jews, the Messiah was to be a light shining in the shadow of darkness. According to the Prophet Isaiah, the Messiah would be a wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. The oral tradition said little about a suffering messiah. Peter had every right to not readily accept what Jesus was saying, but he was a bit rash in his response.

Until this moment, in Mark, it is only the demonic and divine voices who correctly identify Jesus. At long last a disciple starts to see clearly: “You are the Messiah,” says Peter. But what type of Messiah? As Jesus starts to describe everything the Son of Man must undergo, Peter wants to correct the teacher. “Hang on, there,” Peter seems to say, “the Messiah will usher in a kingdom, come in splendor and might. You are the great healer Jesus. You are getting this all wrong.” Perhaps Jesus really did see this alternative vision of Messiah as a temptation from Satan. It gives us pause – would we have expected the Creator to become human and die at the hands of humanity on a cross? It isn’t surprising that Peter just doesn’t get it.

But, after Peter rebuked him, Jesus rebuked Peter back, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Jesus wanted them to know the truth and to live into the truth. Perhaps we all have some truth to face, to embrace, to make peace with. The old saying goes, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” But we know the truth of that – words can hurt, words can cut you to the bone, words can make you feel excluded and forgotten. But if we keep our eyes on Jesus, if we open our hearts to Jesus’ love and if we live our lives in the way of Jesus, the teachings of Jesus then we will be dwelling on the divine in us. If we acknowledge all that God has done for us and pray that God’s grace continues to fall on those we love, and those who don’t love us, then we are dwelling on the divine. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you….Amen.

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