If you’ve lived in Nashville long enough, you may find yourself challenged to remember what a particular corner of town looked like just a few years ago. St. Ann’s corner is a case in point: all around there are new buildings, a new look, a new urban landscape. I myself struggle to remember what Korean Veterans’ Boulevard looked like when we moved here back in 2006: before the building of the Convention Center, before the rash of hotels south of Broadway, and all the rest. It’s hardly recognizable as the same place. Renovation has been preceded by demolition. What we have, in parts, is not so much urban renewal as urban transformation. And of course, there’s more on the way.
As colossal as all these changes have been, our Gospel reading today gives us an even more ambitious project of transformation. Not of the structural sort, of bricks and mortar, but a project of moral transformation. This project, of necessity, is on a larger scale. In comparison to the altered landscape around us, the project of moral transformation called for by the Gospel requires an even larger tectonic shift.
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off… If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off… If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out…” (Mk. 9:43, 45, 47). Jesus’ words in our reading give us the scope of the project. Transformation is preceded by demolition, the altering of our interior topography. Though the reference is to hand and foot and eye, these are placeholders for realities that lie much deeper within us. Hands and feet and eyes are superficial in comparison. In order to make room for the new thing that God wants to do with us, there is much to clear away.
For the placeholders of hand and foot and eye, we might substitute the seven deadly sins. When we look within, do we discover pride, or anger, or greed? Is there spiritual laziness or gluttony, envy or lust? If Jesus’ words seem strong, about cutting off or tearing out, then this is the reason. The inner dispositions of sin that have taken root within us are hard to pluck out. In fact, this work is impossible for us on our own. It requires the work of grace, the gift of God’s power and presence in our lives, to work this transformation.
Jesus’ teaching, here in the Gospel of Mark, on cutting off or tearing out, is precisely on target, because sin needs rooting up, not finessing. We are in desperate need of transformation, of renewal in heart and mind. St. Paul writes in the Letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). The transformation of our moral topography requires change within us, radical change that we cannot accomplish on our own.
The altered landscape will be different. Again, St. Paul gives us a picture of what it looks like, in terms of spiritual gifts. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). Renewal is manifested in works of mercy and acts of forbearance.
Our liturgy of confirmation today brings these themes to the fore. The candidates today are stepping into the spotlight of commitment, solemnly renewing their baptismal promises in the presence of the community of faith: not just here at St. Ann’s but before our whole diocese. Those gathered are engaging in prayer on their behalf. Renewal of life is on offer to our candidates, as they promise once again to follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
But the work that is being done today is not solely theirs or even ours. The work that is taking place, the work of moral transformation, is the work of God in Christ. It’s only possible through his death and resurrection, which destroys the power of sin and brings a new reality into being. The demolition work is God’s own, through the cross of Christ. The mighty acts of God create an altered landscape that we can scarcely recognize! We see, breaking out around us, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and generosity; fruitfulness, gentleness, and self-control. All of this is the work of God, building up within us the people we were created to be.