This is the first Sunday of Lent. It’s a good time to talk about Good and Evil. Evil seems obvious. We try to avoid big-time sin, and we repent when, inevitably, we do sin. We try to forgive others when they sin, although that’s pretty tough when we’re the target. Good, on the other hand, we often think of good as the absence of evil. If you aren’t sinning, you’re cool. We aren’t perfect, but we at least know what good is.
Good is not that simple. Jesus explained that goodness isn’t just doing good, it requires a change, a transformation, becoming a new person. Jesus described the change in his Sermon on the Mount. This kind of change is not easy for us.
Let me tell you about Mr. Pomposo, a good man. He told me so. Pomposo is not his real name, but he was a real person. He was a pillar of a church I worshiped at in the mid-1960’s. Mr. Pomposo took issue with the minister on reciting the Prayer of Confession. “I don’t feel right saying that prayer. I don’t sin. I don’t do anything wrong. It’s not right that I have to pray for forgiveness.“ Yes, he meant it. Mr. Pomposo did a lot of good. He was a mid-level executive at the Telephone company when it was still Ma Bell; he was a well-dressed, well-groomed, serious but congenial man, who supported many church activities. But you couldn’t help but notice his aggressive drive to take control of every event, every meeting, to pleasantly, but firmly, grab the chair and impose his ideas. Mr. Pomposo did what he thought was good and therefore must be best for all. Oblivious. He’s fine, thanks. Mr. Pomposo did good, but hadn’t yet been transformed into a mature Christian.
Transformation into the Good is not about doing good. It’s a complete change of heart. Jesus asks us to change. Not just do more nice things and fewer evil things. Jesus wants us to change our hearts, to think and feel in a new way, complete transformation. And we do everything possible to avoid it. It’s hard and it goes against our human nature.
One other example of missing the mark: Katie volunteers for a United Nations NGO concerned with advocacy for older persons. This is a serious problem in much of the world where people are lumped into an “over 50” category and assumed to be non-productive burdens on society. A woman we’ll call Maharani serves with Katie in the leadership of this NGO. (Maharani means Royal Princess in Urdu.) Maharani is a generous contributor to this effort and others. Maharani does many good works, no question. But she treats colleagues as servants, and belittles service staff as incompetent. She insists that others immediately carry out her rude and often disruptive orders. Being in a meeting with her is fingernails screeching on a blackboard. Maharani, like Mr. Pomposo, does many good things, but falls short on the humble and loving heart – and doesn’t have a clue.
I’m not picking on Mr. Pomposo and Maharani, they’re on a journey just like the rest of us. But these cartoon-ish examples point out just how big a gap there is between doing good and actually being blessedly meek, or peacemaking, or caring, or pure of heart.
Why is it so hard to get God’s message of humility and love? In our scripture reading from Genesis this morning Adam and Eve were getting along well in the garden. They were neither good nor evil; they just were. They were in the presence of God, and they were happy. God was tutoring them; they were learning slowly, at God’s pace. The Garden of Eden was a kind of Kindergarten for us humans. Adam practiced language by naming the animals, and together they learned agronomy by tending the flora of the garden. They had free rein of Eden except for not eating from one tree in the center of the Garden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. They weren’t ready for this yet. Someday, after spending more time with God they might come to the nourishment offered by this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And, sometime after that, they might even be invited to eat the fruit of eternal life.
Unfortunately they ate fruit from the tree of knowledge too soon. They weren't yet prepared to handle this information. Adam and Eve didn’t yet have the wisdom to acknowledge their disobedience and repent of it. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed it on the serpent. “The snake made me do it!” They were kicked out of the Garden in their immature and sinful state. We’re still out here, still learning the hard way.
Psalm 32 sums up an important lesson; first we learn there is such a thing as sin. Next, we recognize and acknowledge our sin. Then we repent and are forgiven our sin. But corralling our tendency to evil is just Life 101. It’s a prerequisite to the process of learning and practicing more advanced teaching. That’s what leads to our transformation into something new in creation.
This morning’s story about Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden reminds us that learning to be Good is a lifelong process. Our personal tutoring by God was interrupted by temporary expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Security was set up to keep us out with a flashing sword. But then, seeing our desperate state outside the garden, God sent us a “remote-learning” primer written in stone; the Law of Moses.
The Law recognized we were still primitive people, far short of God’s future plan for us. So God began our remote lessons with a few simple and basic behavior rules: Worship the one invisible God, not statues. Take a day off work every week to honor and respect God. Honor and respect your parents. Don’t murder other humans. Don’t tell lies about your neighbors, don’t steal, don’t grab your neighbor’s property or his wife, or even think about it.
Pretty basic. Don’t do evil. The Law acknowledged we were a pretty rough crowd and needed to be taught: don’t do harm, that’s sin, that’s evil. Avoid evil. As it was, hardly anyone could keep even this basic Law. We needed many centuries working on this elementary curriculum.
Then, when the time was right, we got the real thing: Jesus. In Jesus, God stepped up the personal tutoring interrupted by our expulsion from Eden. The Law helped us learn the basics of Sin. Jesus’ arrival marked our readiness to begin the lessons of transformation: humility and Love.
Jesus taught in lab sessions and lectures. Jesus’ lab lessons on transformation were visible, touchable miracles showing the power of faith. Jesus’ lecture series on transformation was both by parable and by spelling it out. Jesus’ most remarkable “spell it out” lecture on human transformation is the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount. This teaching is very different from what we expected. This teaching is still a stretch for most of us today.
Suppressing sin is not enough. Doing good things out of noblesse oblige is not enough. God wants to convert us, to change what we are, transform our inner hearts. Change us into a people of love, a meek, tender-hearted people humbly accepting that God and God’s power works all things.
The Sermon on the Mount is SO different from the old commandments. It’s about a changed heart and mind, not suppressed muscle and fist. The beatitudes tip human nature upside down. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are the sorrowful. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are you when you are persecuted for righteousness, Blessed are the peacemakers. You are the sharp salt of the earth, not the cherry pie. Do not resist an evil person. If slapped on the right cheek, turn the other also. If someone wants your shirt, give them your coat as well. If forced to go one mile, go two. Give if asked. Love your enemy. Give in secret, not with trumpets. Pray quietly and in secret and keep it short. Forgive everyone for everything. Do not hoard. Stop worrying about the future. Trust God. Don’t judge. Do to others exactly as you wish they would do to you.
Jesus did all these things. In our Gospel reading, Jesus chose to suffer deprivation in the wilderness. Jesus became poor in spirit, despite knowing he is God’s son. Jesus mourned for the world, though he had eternal life. Jesus became meek and humble, though he had the power and authority of God available to him. Jesus hungered and thirsted for righteousness for us all, as his body hungered for food. Jesus put his own needs behind and wept for the needs of others. He experienced suffering in empathy for all who suffer.
Jesus gave us lecture teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. And He gave us his divine example. He called us to follow the same path. To truly become meek, merciful, peacemaking; to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek. We all know what it’s like to avoid evil, even to do good, while still harboring resentment, arrogance, or revenge in our hearts. Those are basic human reactions. We’re called to transform those hearts.
We can look at our own reactions to check in on where our heart really is - what’s up with that flood of anger when someone cuts in line at the supermarket? As a training exercise we should certainly “fake it ‘til you make it” knowing that slowly, but surely those human reactions will begin to reshape into a true Christian heart. It’s a long journey. God knows that and forgives and supports us as we stumble along the way. He’s given us the elementary primer, and the middle school lessons. We’re still in school. There’s more to come.
Following Jesus takes us off the Interstate and onto a narrow service road. We are tempted to take the basic human way, the upward-sloping, wide and well-traveled path. But that path comes to a dead end. In 1 Corinthians Paul warned: If we travel the wide road, no matter the good we do on the way, or if we give away all we possess, even give our body to be burned, if we have not been inwardly transformed by love, we are a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
Paul gave a simple direction to the road leading to a happy and successful life; Be no longer conformed to the pattern of this present world but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable, and perfect.
Christianity is a journey of transformation. It’s the journey from the instinctual human reaction to truly seeing this world with love and humility. This transformation from self-seeking human to Love is the turning point and purpose of our lives. It’s a paradox. But when we shut down our puny human engine, we begin to feel the staggering, awesome power of God.
We’re called to become something new in Creation, beings with transformed, loving hearts. It’s a struggle to change our human hearts to lead with love and humility, but it’s our call. We’ve been taught, “Blessed are the pure in heart.” God has plans for us.