Attuning to God
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Since the advent of Netflix, my wife and I have gone through several television series. Right now we’re coming to the end of our obsession with House, M.D. Dr. Gregory House is a compelling character because he is a living contradiction. On the one hand, he is cruelly blunt with patients, he belittles his subordinates, he’s addicted to prescription painkillers, he’s into pornography and hookers, he lies to get his way, and is always skirting the edge of either being arrested or sued. He is a thoroughly despicable person.
On the other hand, he is like a dog on a bone when it comes to healing his patients. He will not rest until he cracks the mystery of their illness. He claims that he is doing this only to solve medical puzzles, not because he actually cares about people. But you suspect that his passion and calling is truly as a healer.
Is he, then, despicable? And which would you rather have as your doctor if you were gravely ill? A mean, immoral atheist like Dr. House, who stays on your case until you get better, or a charming, respectable churchgoer who doesn’t really care? Which one is the sinner, and which is the saint?
These are the questions that both Ezekiel and Jesus are asking in today’s readings. Who is righteous? Who is wicked? How do you tell the difference?
Ezekiel the prophet was addressing people who were pious, law-abiding, and well-respected. They knew who they were – the righteous. They also knew who they weren’t – the wicked, those other people who were out of God’s favor, living on the margins of religion, shamelessly flaunting their godless lifestyle. Their world was divided neatly between the good and the bad.
In our gospel today, Jesus was speaking to a similar crowd – chief priests and elders of the temple. They stood proudly in their own assumed righteousness, in their piety and social standing. They looked down upon Jesus’ association with the wicked and the unclean, and demanded By what authority do you teach and heal, and who gave you this authority? Who do you think you are? You’re not one of the righteous, obviously.
According to people who study human development, this kind of worldview is typical for a fairly low level of maturity. Starting in early adolescence, it is normal to define oneself as part of the right group - to conform to a common way of thinking, dressing, and behaving - and to set oneself against those who are different. It’s a black-and-white world, and such things as inconsistencies or subtleties are rejected as a threat.
But some of us never grow out of this phase. In fact, when I’m feeling pessimistic, it seems as if most of the world is stuck in early adolescence. Those of the opposite political party are dead wrong on every matter; even their motivations are bad. You’ve got those who are saved and those who are damned. There are evildoers and there are champions of liberty. There’s the righteous and there’s the wicked, and never the twain shall meet.
The prophet Ezekiel cut through all this. He would not let people rest comfortably in a dualistic view of themselves and the world around them. He told them that if a so-called righteous person sins, they are a sinner; if a so-called wicked person does what is right, they are righteous. Both are judged according to their ways, not by their supposed religious status.
And Jesus replied to his detractors the same way. He said, in essence, I know who and what you are. Your hearts are far from God. And those you despise, even the tax-collectors and the prostitutes – yes, the wicked – are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. So much for dividing humanity into neat compartments of good and evil.
I am reminded of that wonderful story about Samuel the prophet being told to go to the family of Jesse of Bethlehem, where God’s new king would be revealed. Samuel looks over 7 of Jesse’s sons, all strapping young warrior-types.
But the Lord says to Samuel Do not look on [their] appearance or on the height of [their] stature…for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. And the Lord revealed to Samuel that David, the youngest, the smallest, the lowly shepherd, was the one to anoint. Why? Because the Lord looked on David’s heart, and his heart was right with God.
This is what matters. This is why Ezekiel, blowing past all social categorizations of the righteous and the wicked, says to all of them Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. This is why Jesus said You must be born from above. What matters to God is not whether we are a “good” person or a “bad” person, whatever we think that means, but the condition of our heart. Is it attuned to God, or not? Is it fresh, is it newly born?
So how do we find that attunement?
I used to be very disciplined about spiritual practice. I did all the traditional things a spiritual person is supposed to do. But at some point, it was as if the training wheels fell off. What became important then was riding through the day with an open heart and mind, with faith and trust in the Spirit. Look, Ma! No hands!
In some ways this kind of spirituality of attunement is much harder for us, because it requires a moment-by-moment authenticity, a wakefulness, an honesty about where we really are, and an awareness of our need for God.
So when Ezekiel speaks of getting a new heart and a new spirit, I don’t think he means that it is a one-time thing. That’s the fallacy of the born-again Christians. We’re not cut off from God one day and then the next, completely connected for evermore. We have to seek a new heart and a new spirit every moment.
As Paul wrote in our second lesson today, Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. In my experience this is a continual process, learning to be attuned to the Spirit, cooperating with grace, becoming freer and more loving over time.
Fortunately, this is not something we have to do all on our own. As Paul goes on to say, For it is God that is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. So God plants both the desire for redemption, and the ability to move towards it.
Most of us are neither terrible sinners or angelic saints. I suppose there are those who are truly wicked or truly righteous, but they’re on the far edges of a very large Bell Curve. The rest of us in the middle need to drop those categorizations about ourselves and others, and try to look as the Lord looks: on the heart.
And as we look there, we will see a mixed bag, depending on the day. But we also might see as the Lord sees, which is a heart that is trying to become new, to stay freshly born. As Thomas Merton said in that prayer that is so often quoted -
O Lord, the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire to please you. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road.