SERMON –For St. Mary’s Anglican Aug 6, 2023
TEXTS: I Corinthians 10:1-17 and Luke 16:1-10
Opening prayer: Let the words of my mouth…
What is in our hearts before we act?
The city of Jericho looked formidable to Joshua and the people of Israel and yet their hopes were high. After all they had participated in a long and detailed preparation for the entry into the Promised Land. Moses had spoken to them at length and reminded them that God was with them and that this was they were the generation and this was their time to realize the promise of God for a land of their own.
They had then gone through a carefully orchestrated crossing of the Jordan River – which by the way had miraculously stopped flowing just for their crossing -the priests had led the procession carrying the Arc of the Covenant which represented God’s presence and the people had followed. Stones had been set up as a memorial of God’s provision and their commitment to obey His commands. And now they stood facing Jericho and once again Joshua and the people knew what they needed to do: march around the city once each day for 6 days and on the 7th day march around it 7 times and then blow the trumpets and give a great shout.
They did as God had told them and the walls fell down and the city was taken. And when they destroyed the city as God had instructed them to do, they were told that on this occasion they must NOT take any of the precious things from the city. Joshua thought that everything was done as the Lord had commanded: but he was wrong.
Unknown to him among those participating in the destruction of Jericho was a man by the name of Achan who was from the tribe of Judah. Achan knew what he was supposed to do and not do but when he saw some a beautiful mantle… and two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold and nobody around him, he took them and hid them back in his own tent assuming no one would find out.
When the people approached the small city of Ai, Joshua sent out a small contingent thinking that God would give them easily into Israel’s hand. But it was not so and as soon as Joshua heard that his army had been defeated by the small city of Ai, he immediately sensed that someone had disobeyed God’s commands. He questioned and examined each tribe and chose the tribe of Judah. Then he moved on to the clans and finally the families until he came to Achan’s family: he was the guilty one.
What comes next in the story is the part I want us to pay close attention to because it illustrates what we will talk about later and how it is that we, like Achan move from a desire in our hearts to an action with our hands.
When confronted by Joshua, Achan explains his actions like this:
“when I saw among the spoil a beautiful mantle… and two hundred shekels of silver and a bar of gold … then I coveted them and took them…”
“When I saw the spoil… then I coveted them and took them.” What this story so clearly illustrates is this move or transition from admiring something, to wanting it and then finally wanting it so badly that it has to be taken.
Our scripture lessons and our sermons over the past 7 or 8 Sundays havepointed us to the vices or the sins or we might say the wrong behaviours that take us away from following God’s commands. We have been prompted to think about how we go from healthy and moderate eating to over-eating, from have appropriate sex to inappropriate sex, from admiring someone else’s property to selfishly wanting it for ourselves and so on. You might be familiar with the old English words for these “passions” as they are sometimes called: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.
Our scripture lessons and sermons have challenged us during the 8 Sundays after Trinity in regard to these and prompted us to think as to how we might view these and if possible, keep from doing them? So then, how do we keep ourselves from “going all in” as Aachen did and moving from coveting to stealing or from what is honest and true to what is dishonest and false or even worse?
I think it is fair to say that all of us want to live well, we want to do the right thing and we want to be good people. This I think is in our hearts and minds. At the same time, we recognize that there are competing desires and thoughts that also occupy us. This morning then I want us to think about this a little and reflect on what is written in our lessons for today, particularly I Corinthians 10.
To begin with I suggest that is helpful to recognize that there is always an internal sensation or feeling or move in our hearts long before there is a wrongaction. If you recall the 10 commandments, most of them have to do with an external action that is forbidden like theft or lying or adultery. But the very last one, the 10th commandment takes us to the internal, where everything starts: “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house, field, slave, donkey or anything that belongs to that neighbour.” If you think about it you can see that long before a person steals (which is the 8th commandment), they have broken the 10thcommandment because they have coveted in their heart something that was not theirs to have. Just as Aachen did in Joshua’s day.
But recognizing that our challenge usually comes BEFORE we break a commandment doesn’t make things easier because now we need to be aware of the “inner workings of the heart” and deal with those before we act. We need to be able to discern when our desire for food or being noticed or wanting inappropriate sex or being totally boastful are opening us to the possibility of acting on that desire. For if we don’t discern the coveting that is building inside our hearts, we surely will be unable to stop ourselves from giving in to the passions or vices that are before us.
Let me try saying this another way: we need to be aware enough as to what is going on inside us in order figure out what might lead us into wrong actions. Self-knowledge is not a given, it takes reflection and paying attention to our feelings, our longings, our desires because if we don’t recognize them we likely will not be able to stop them from taking us where we ought not to go. We need the Spirit’s help with this, He is the one who “helps us in our infirmities” as the Book of Common Prayer says.
If we are fortunate enough to recognize a bad desire in our thinking or feeling, then the next step calls for us to be brave enough to admit that this desire is there and follow that up by doing something to counteract this desire and the decision to follow that desire. That is not easy as Achan found out.
On reflection and when confronted by Joshua, Achan admitted he coveted what he saw – what if he had noted his heart’s desire earlier and had been able to stand against that desire? It would quite literally have saved his life.
Over the past number of Sundays our Gospel Readings have come from the teachings of Jesus in Luke which are similar to those recorded in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel. As it happens I have been reading through these myself as of late and one of the things that has struck me is how what Jesus calls us to is difficult to understand and even more difficult to actually carry out. Jesus often points to something going on in our hearts and says that even the thoughts are wrong and not just the actions that follow.
Take for example what Jesus says about anger; even calling your brother or sister a fool is wrong. He says adultery is not just the physical act of sex but that the desire in our hearts is already adultery. Again I found myself thinking that the ugly stuff, the open sin we commit starts from something deep inside which we need to understand and acknowledge. Jesus seems to suggest that to confess our impure desires is primary.
Our Epistle Lesson from I Corinthians 10 is helpful, I think. In the first verses Paul reminds us who we are as God’s people. Paul tells the Corinthian Christians that they are in some ways like the children of Israel who had all lived under the cloud of God’s glory, had all passed through the Red Sea and had all eaten the same spiritual food. He says that they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them and the rock was Christ. In other words they were not without spiritual input nor were they far from God: His good will was with them and on them.
We too have participated in such activities which have brought us into the presence of God and we have been given experiences of God’s goodness and grace. We have received our baptism, we have been nurtured by prayer and by the reading of God’s word so it is not like we are living in a totally secular and ungodly environment where our inner desires are always and only bombarded with unhealthy options. Nor that we are helpless to stand against them.
This week I noticed a short news item that said that the on-going extremely hot temperatures in the Arizona deserts were causing even the large cactus plants – which are more like tress – to fall over. The plus 40 temperatures, day after day are simply too much. We are NOT like that – we receive nourishment through our spiritual practices and our weekly communion and worship. We have access to the living water of Christ on a weekly and even daily basis. So that is a plus for us.
At the same time, Paul says to the Christians in Corinth, THIS IS NO GUARANTEE. The very people who drank from the rock which was Christ, still chose to be idolaters, to be sexually immoral and chose to test God’s patience and grace. It did not go well for them.
I looked to the Gospel Lesson for an additional insight into the problem of our desires leading to full on disobedience to all that God has commanded us and was a little taken aback that those who designed the parallel readings that serve as our lessons each Sunday, would give us the Parable of the Shrewd Servant as found in Luke 16 to go with the I Corinthians passage. In this story a rich man has a manager who is dishonestly amassing wealth for himself and so calls that dishonest manager to account. Sensing that he is in big trouble, the manager goes to all those under him who owe him money and reduces their debts and thus gains their support. On hearing this, the rich man commends the dishonest manager. And Jesus seems to agree with the rich man’s assessment and the dishonest manager’s actions.
I’m not sure what to make of this story nor am I sure why it is paired with the Epistle Lesson from I Corinthians 10. But perhaps the connection is this: if a dishonest person can figure out a way to change his situation so that he does not lose his job, surely then we can figure out a way to change our situation so that we do not slide into destructive behaviour. Not sure – and Biblical commentators don’t seem to be sure either as to the intended meaning of this parable – but it is clear from the Epistle Lesson and other teachings of Jesus that we can choose to be obedient to God’s commands. It is also clear that we do well to pay attention to the movements in our hearts and to ways in which we might stop the trajectory from a covetous desire to a full blown disobedient action.
You will recall the story about Joseph one of the youngest sons of Jacob and how his brothers, being jealous of the attention their father showed to young Joseph sold him into slavery to Ismaelites travelling to Egypt. Once there, Joseph was purchased by Potiphar, an officer under the Pharoah. Joseph was diligent in his work and after a while became the overseer such that everything that happened in the household came under his command.
In this prominent position he naturally had conversations with Potiphar’s wife who found Joseph very attractive. “Come and lie with me,” she said. Joseph reasoned with her and said “Your husband has complete trust in me, how could I do this great wickedness?” Day after day she repeated the invitation and one day when they were alone in the house, she grabbed his outer garment and tried to pull him toward her. Joseph struggled with her and ran away leaving her with his garment in her hands.
What this story does not tell us is the inner heart of Joseph or how much he was tempted to do as Pharoah’s wife suggests. Clearly his moral standards were tested as never before. But what is also clear is that Joseph identified the temptation, and reasoned to himself and to Potiphar’s wife that it was wrong to follow through on the temptation. And when the temptation continued, he finally ran away.
Paul says, “there is no testing or temptation that comes to you that is unusual to what all human beings face – God is faithful and will provide you with a way of escape.” Joseph’s story illustrates that.
So what will we do in the face of the desires that present themselves to us?From our scripture lessons this morning, this is what I suggest will be helpful when we, like everyone else, encounters difficult situations that pull us toward the “passions” or “vices” that seek to destroy our relationship with God:
1. Like Joseph, recognize the temptation when it comes and recognize it is against what God calls us to.
2. Recognize too that the move toward such ungodly activity begins in our hearts – coveting in our hearts leads to stealing and lying and committing adultery for example.
3. Identify those movements in our hearts, those improper desires, the coveting. Be honest with God as to what is going on in our hearts. We do well to invite the Spirit to help us with this.
4. Know that we have been given much that is good and healthy and nourishing from God through our worship, our prayers, our baptism and the breaking of bread. Draw on these to help you when temptation comes.
At the end of our Epistle Lesson this morning are these poignant, rhetorical questions from Paul: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing of the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not the sharing of the body of Christ?”
The answer of course it YES in both cases: we do share in the blood and body of Christ on a weekly basis. And when we do so, at least two things are made possible: 1. we are able to receive the grace to keep our desires in check and 2. we are able to experience the grace of God’s deep and thorough forgiveness when we fail. Amen