The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. I Corinthians 3:8-9
We can always depend on the Apostle Paul to remind us of our place and our purpose. In our portion of his first letter to the Corinthians, he is admonishing the community about their bad behavior…gossiping and backbiting and apparently striving for power and position based upon their loyalty to particular Church leaders. Paul is quick to declare that none of us is anything special for it is God who determines the outcome of any of our endeavors. Each Christian is only as strong as the community of the faithful and only as effective as God chooses to allow us to be. As Christians, we are to be examples of humble service not seeking our own recognition but glorifying God in all that we do and say. Paul is not addressing particular behavior but rather the attitude and intent driving the behavior.
When I was in seminary in California I did my field education internship at the Church of the Advent of Christ the King. While many of us here at Grace like to think of ourselves as “High Church” compared to the liturgy at the Advent we are merely amateurs. Advent was THE Anglo-Catholic parish in the Diocese of California and had the reputation for nose-bleed high liturgy. It also had the dubious distinction of being the most unfriendly parish in the diocese but that is a story for another time. When I arrived at Advent I was immediately placed under the care and tutelage of the Acolyte Master Anna, who was an obstetrician and a full colonel in the Air Force specializing in field medicine. Anna was a wonderful person and we became friends partly based on our common origins. Anna was also from Kentucky.
Anna was also a liturgical drill sergeant. She had no patience with those who did not take the honor of serving the Altar seriously and she would not put a poorly trained server on the schedule. We all wore soft-soled black shoes and dressed each week in cassock and surplice. The clergy even wore a cassock under their vestments and a biretta at every service. I learned some very important lessons from Anna, but I think the most important was something she called “custody of the eye” and “custody of the body”. When we were serving at the Altar we were instructed to keep our eyes on the liturgy; we were not to watch the congregants or let our gaze just wander aimlessly around the room. We were also to sit very still, back straight, knees together, feet on the floor…no exceptions. Serving the Altar was a sacred duty and we were to do it with humility not drawing attention to ourselves or distracting the congregation from their worship.
All of this self-discipline did make for beautiful liturgy. The service ran like a well-oiled machine and we were part of an impressive liturgical regiment. I am sure there are those who would have considered the whole thing a bit cold, desiring something more spontaneous perhaps. But I found that losing the need to be the focus of attention freed me to worship with a deep internal quietness I have never experienced anywhere else. We were not there to entertain but to help create a peaceful space for worship and for people to be able to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. There was power in the sacred rituals.
This recollection of my time at Advent came to me while I was reading our Gospel lesson for today because Jesus is talking about a different type of “custody”. Rather than custody of the eye or the body our Lord is describing custody of the mind. Our Lord is not so much concerned with one’s behavior as with the attitudes and intentions that lead to that behavior. In his discussion with his followers, Jesus dissects the Law seeking its intent rather than its practice. He states that while the Law commanded “you shall not murder” I say that if you are angry with your brother…if you insult or offend a brother or sister you are liable and in danger of hell. The same is true with adultery. It is not enough that you refrain from committing the act. If you look at another with lust you have already committed adultery in your heart. Jesus does not soften his words at all. When he uses the disturbing example of ripping out one’s eye because it offends or lopping off a hand because it offends he does not mean this literally. Rather he is suggesting that if there are situations that are prone to lead to a temptation to sin then do not put yourself in those situations.
The Law of Moses was primarily concerned with behavior. Sin was a matter of what one did. Jesus redefines holiness in that he is concerned with the thoughts and intentions of the mind and the heart. It is not enough to keep from the physical act of sin one must also control one’s mind and desires. Everyone knew you were not to sleep with your neighbor’s wife but Jesus tells them that leering at her with a lustful eye is just as displeasing to God. The same is true for all manner of sins of the flesh. Sin begins in the mind with an evil thought. The action is that thought coming to its fruition.
Jesus was very concerned that the exterior person be a reflection of the interior. Holiness is a state of being not a set of behaviors. The same is true for sin. Now, he is not suggesting that we will always be able to get this right all of the time. We are all prone to sin….both of the mind and the body. We all have failures in our attempts to live a holy life before God. But when we do sin and fall short we have an advocate in Christ and a heavenly father who loves us and waits to forgive when we repent and turn back.
Just as Anna’s custody of the eye and of the body is rooted in humility so too is custody of the mind. When we do not have to be the center of everything….when we realize that it is neither right nor healthy to be able to feed every appetite….when we put the needs and concerns of those we love before our own petty desires we will find that keeping our minds on the things of God will not be such a burden. There is a peace and contentment to be found in focusing on the good…in seeking the holy.
The writer of Sirach tells us that if we choose, we can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of our own choice. We can decide to do the right thing. Our Gospel lessons remind us that we can also choose to think the right things. God will not leave us at the mercy of our unhealthy or unholy desires. If we feed our minds and our hearts on holy things….reading the Scriptures, wholesome conversations with kind-hearted people, entertainment that edifies we can become people whose righteous exterior reflects and inner holiness.
We live in a time where everyone seems to want to push boundaries. It is entertaining to make people uncomfortable to say and do things that shock and often offend…all for the emotional high of getting a reaction. We see this in our political climate…and in our forms of recreation. We feel a need to either be the center of attention or to say and do things just to upset and distress others. Our humor is sarcastic and bitter chipping away at the self-esteem of others for the sake of a laugh. I am afraid we have become a petty and cruel people. This is not the life our Lord intended for us. As Christians, we are to be kind to one another above all else. While we are to be truthful we are not to be cruel or unfeeling. We must always strive to consider the wellbeing of those around us…and that includes their emotional and spiritual well-being not just their physical. If we are indeed to be the lights of the world that light needs to illuminate not blind…it is to shine the path to a better way of living.
Brothers and sisters, Lent is quickly approaching. As you prepare for our sacred time in the spiritual desert I hope you will reflect on what it means to nurture your interior self in the ways of holiness so that your exterior life may reflect the love of God in Christ Jesus. We have been given a choice…life or death…fire or water…holiness or sinfulness. I pray that each of us will follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit and choose wisely so that our lives may be reflections of the Christ who dwells within us.