The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity
Epistle: Ephesians 4:17-32, Gospel: Matthew 9:1-8
✠In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. ✠
When I was a little kid, my parents owned a couple of houses in Del Mar, overlooking the ocean, as rental properties. Which meant we’d have to go down there during the Summer and fix all the stuff they’d broken, rip out certain ‘medicinal’ plants that the tenants had planted and replace carpeting where ‘substances’ had been spilled on it.
Anyway, one time I was bored out of mind and, as was typical, I would break off bits of some aloe vera plants that were along one side of the house and squeeze out the juice inside. I was fascinated by the stuff. I knew it could be used to heal cuts and scrapes and would prevent scarring,
but what I really wanted to know was what it tasted like.
So, being bored and being a boy, I tried it.
It was bitter and nasty.
It was then, after I’d already done it, that I figured I should probably ask someone if it was a good idea.
I made my way around the hose where our friend, Darren, was working on the plumbing. I asked him, “Darren, you know those aloe vera plants? Does anything bad happen if you know, like, tasted it?”
He stopped what he was doing and gave me a serious look and said, ‘Oh yeah, it’s poisonous.” I imagine my eyes went big but there was no way I was going to admit to doing something wrong.
“Uh, is there an antidote?” I asked, because in every TV show and movie I’d ever seen, poisons always had an antidote.
He thought about it for a second, nodded, and said, “Yeah (beat) Licorice.”
Now it just so happened that there was a tub of Red Vines in the kitchen. So, I quickly thanked him, ran off, entered the house, and did a commando crawl under the window so no one could see me making my way into the kitchen where I proceeded to eat Red Vines.
Cut to 20 years later and I’m in the grocery store- drinks aisle, looking at different waters, vitamin, pomegranate, coconut, and there on the shelf was Aloe Water. I pulled one down and looked at it and thought to myself, ‘Hmm, I wonder how they neutralized the poison…”
And that’s when it hit me.
For twenty years I had been thinking aloe was poisonous. Well, not really thinking. It was never really conscious, but I had spent twenty years being extra cautious when putting on lotion on my face after getting a sunburn and vigorously washing my hands, multiple times, after.
I had just accepted the fact that aloe was poisonous, and never really thought about it again.
I was reminded of this story by today’s epistle. I knew I was made new in my baptism, freed from sin, but I sure didn’t feel very clean, afterwards. In fact, as time progressed I was realizing how filthy I had really been before my baptism and became aware how much sin I was still capable of.
What was this new man I was supposed to have put on? It sure felt like the same old man. It felt like taking a shower and picking off the old clothes from the floor, giving them the sniff test and hoping no one stood down wind of me.
But then it struck me, like in the aisle of the supermarket. I had been operating under an idea that I had never really articulated, but which colored my whole outlook. You see, I had thought that putting on the new man was something you DID and was DONE. Meaning every time I RE-DID meant I had failed.
What I didn’t realize is that it is something you DO. Not just once or twice or even last week or yesterday, No, we are supposed to always be putting off the old man and putting on the new man. When Paul admonishes the Ephesians,
“Be angry, and do not sin”: do not let the sun go down on your wrath, nor give place to the devil. Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give him who has need. Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.
These are not the actions of the new man who has already put off the old. No, these are what putting off the old man and putting on the new man consist of.
These are things that sheds the filthy skin and reveals the fresh, pink skin underneath. There is no need to tell the new man not to sin. Not sinning is how we begin to shed the old man.
The new man is someone we are becoming. Our life in Christ is a constant act of becoming. Becoming ourselves, becoming Christlike, and becoming the embodiment of the Kingdom of Heaven. Until that time, we will still struggle to take off the old man. And it is a struggle, like trying to take off a bunch of wet clothes.
The old man, is a false self of our own making. It is a suit of armor we build to protect our true selves, made of bits of what we think others will like, pieces of what we and others have told us we are ‘supposed to be’. We build it out of the examples from our mentors and idols. We build it out of our failures and our successes, as well.
But as a suit of armor, the old man is incredibly fragile. It takes very little to shatter all our illusions.
And the fascinating thing is that this façade comes crumbling down for everyone, eventually. The idols prove powerless, the so-called freedom and pleasure of sin is actually slavery, but rather than discard the old man, we double down on NEW idols and sin in ever more creative ways, convincing ourselves that not sinning is a far more oppressive form of slavery. We mistake the cure for poison and feed on the empty calories of a false cure.
Why, when confronted with its inadequacies and failures is it so hard to put away the old man? There are two factors. The first is that the false self is a mask to fool others, but the biggest fool it tricks is ourselves. The other factor is that what sits under the old man is not the new man.
What lays under our False Selves is our True Selves. The self that is still scared of the light, still ashamed of weaknesses, and still consumed by pride. That is why we cannot simply put off the old man but need to proceed to put on the new. But this new man feels awfully flimsy, shows a little too much skin.
But this is where another realization hit me. The new man I put on isn’t me.
The new man I put on is Christ.
If we attempt to replace the old man with a new man of our own making, all we end of doing is creating another false self.
The real self is in many ways broken and damaged, and so much of the false self, the ‘old man’ is an attempt at protecting those parts and when we attempt to put on the new man, often we pick up those same old pieces and try to cover the brokenness right back up. If, however, we stop and allow Jesus, the new man, the new Adam, to become our strength to work where ours is insufficient, He enters into our brokenness and builds us up, until our real selves take on the shape of the new man, growing into what we were always intended to become.
But the goal is not really to become new men and women in and of themselves. This is not a self-improvement program to make our lives ‘better’ or ‘happier’, although that will occur. The task is one in which our relationship with God, through Christ, in the Spirit is manifested. There can be no relationship between God and the Old Man because that false self is a figment of our own imagination. Our relationship with God is only possible with our true selves and only grows within the New Man we put on.
We are made new in Christ, but we only remain IN Him in as much as we are free from sin.
And when that happens, we seek God’s forgiveness and over time, prayer and confession turn from shame-filled experiences into cherished opportunities, no longer looking back with wounded pride at our mistakes, but thankful for the opportunity to take the old man off again and rejoice as we put on the new one.
✠In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. ✠
Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Trinity, 2019 (July 14th)
The Epistle Romans viii. 18. – The Gospel St. Luke vi. 36.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Sin is always easier to recognize in others than in ourselves. We carry our sins around as if in an invisible backpack, each new one tossed in with the others, the weight of them hunching our backs and ruining our ability to move forward. We look down at ourselves and see nothing amiss yet quickly spot other people struggling with theirs. Our instinct is to see their bent backs, their slow, laborious steps, and define them as that shambling creature. It takes a lot of work to not conflate the sin with the sinner, it takes a lot of work to see them as they really are, without the weight of sin, without the despair, without the suffering, and to imagine them upright and reborn into new life.
Often, the hardest person to see it in is in ourselves.
That means there are times we may need to rely on the judgment of others, and sometimes others may need ours. But how does that work if we’re not supposed to judge? Now the dangers of isolating a fragment of Scripture and treating it as the whole of Jesus’s message would seem obvious, yet, many Christians have taken the admonition to ‘judge not’ in a such a way as to excuse and affirm human wants and desires until what the Church preaches is virtually indistinguishable from the promises of the World.
But why get up early on a Sunday morning, just so you can hear the exact same message that you hear the rest of the week? Why listen to someone preach the same message that anything on Netflix does so much better, and you can pause to go to the bathroom? But if we fear recognizing sin for what it is with the excuse, ‘who am I to judge?’ then we do others a disservice, and belittle the sacrifice of Jesus, for we rob them of the chance at forgiveness.
Here’s the thing, the word, ‘JUDGE’ has multiple connotations. Obviously, the man or woman in a black robe banging a gavel is one kind of judge, just as Samson mowing down Philistines with a donkey’s jawbone is another. But what we’re talking about is the difference between concluding and condemning
judging… as in forming an opinion,
and judging… as in the issuing of a verdict.
When the low fuel indicator, lights up on my dashboard and I judge whether or not I can make it home without stopping for gas is entirely different from judging someone guilty of a crime.
But that doesn’t mean we get to leave here today and go around saying we’re ‘not judging’ in the same way my sister and I used to say ‘I’m not touching you’ while sticking our fingers as close to one another after our mom yelled at us to stop bothering each other.
Our ability to navigate the distinction and ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’ is suspect…at best.
Our call is neither to condone nor condemn, because neither of which is required to love them. As Brigid Hermen wrote, “As in human love and friendship, it is not moral perfection that is required. The most broken soul may enter that magic realm: who ever loved or was loved on account of mere moral excellence?”
We love them so that we might come to understand them as they are in reality, so that they might become who they are in potential. We can’t unloose someone else from their sins, only Jesus is strong enough to lift the sin off anyone, but He won’t act against our will, the sinner still has to let go of the death grip they have on the straps. But those who have already dropped their burden and begun to walk upright as men and women and no longer drag their knuckles does have a part to play. We can help.
We help by being icons, images of what a life in Christ looks like.
As Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard said, “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”
As Christians, we have taken an evolutionary leap, our very being has been radically transformed (an ontological difference, as someone trying to justify the usefulness of a Masters in Philosophy might put it). We have been reborn into a new life, the very nature of reality has been changed in and through us.
In a few moments, each of us will once again participate in a miracle greater than the parting of the Red Sea or Elijah being taken up into heaven. We will partake of His body and blood and He will be in us and we in Him. Each of us will be filled with His grace, the person to your left and to your right, each of us together, forming a community that transforms and overcomes our individual brokenness and failures, because it is such a community where real relationships are possible. The reality is that relationships only become life giving in Jesus Christ. We no longer need to search for meaning from the things of this world. Instead, we can allow them to be as they are, enjoyed for their own sake and not for our own. Only then will our offer of forgiveness have any meaning, becoming a foretaste of the forgiveness of God, and point to the power of Jesus’s sacrifice.
Sin separates us from God and from others. And as we free ourselves from it, we manifest the Kingdom of God. All that the world can ever offer is a temporary distraction from the inevitable– death. But through us and our relationships we transform the world, not through programs or initiatives, but by the growth of the Body of Christ.
Instead of hypocrites, we become living sacraments, outward signs of the invisible grace that works in and through us. People will only reject sin if they see it, not giving up something but getting something better. As Mother Teresa wrote, “Joy is a net by which we catch souls.”
And in the end, the only thing that brings true joy isn’t one’s possessions, achievements, or legacy, but meaningful relationships founded in love. Beginning with our relationship with God, but then expanding, encompassing our relationships with others.
Love is the one thing that the more you give, the more you have to give. It is then, in love, when we can use our judgment and tell someone our relationship is at an impasse. It is in love when we can identify sin as the obstacle, and righteousness becomes an affirmation rather than a denial. It is in love that we can tell someone that we cannot join them on the path they have chosen but instead, invite them on this better path. A path that is an end of all judgement, all hypocrisy. A path that begins with conquering our own sin but doesn’t end there. As Jesus said;
Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Jonathan Puls is a draftsman, painter, and art historian. His work, representation paintings and drawings are based on the people and places that he knows well, he has been featured in a wide range of exhibitions. Puls serves as Associate Professor of Art at Biola University, and lives in Whittier with his wife and two daughters.
Taking up the theme of Epiphany as an unfolding, developmental process rather than an instantaneous revelation, he offers a meditation on two significant modern artists, Henry Ossawa Tanner and Jay DeFeo, who each arrived at unexpected destinations in life and art. Puls will also offer a reflection on his own life as a persistent viewer of works of art, and the revelations available to each of us through works of art if we have the commitment to search for them.
St. Matthew’s had the pleasure of hosting Jonathan Anderson, MFA in early August 2017. Jonathan Anderson (MFA, California State, Long Beach) is an artist and professor at Biola University, and his recent book “Modern Art and the Life of a Culture” (co-authored by William Dyrness) offers a rereading of the history of modern art which highlights the religious contexts and the theological concerns that shaped its development. This rereading produces revised accounts of several of the most important modern artists—including Vincent van Gogh, Vasily Kandinsky, Hugo Ball, Kazimir Malevich, John Cage, Andy Warhol, and many others—arguing that the history of modernism is much more (theologically) interesting than it has yet been given credit for.
Below you will find his presentation in PDF format, as well as recorded audio of the entire lecture.