Based on Psalm 72, James 1:17-27, Mark 7:14-23
It is difficult to find any family in America that hasn’t been touched by heart disease. One in four deaths in the U.S. is due to heart disease each year; every 40 seconds someone has a heart attack and once each minute someone dies from heart disease-related event. Thus, we will lose 10 to 15 people during the time of our sermon today. Both Lucinda and I have dealt with loved ones dying from heart disease – most of her family in her mother’s generation, and I lost my brother at 53, while my father had triple bypass at age 52. Many people by the time they enter their 50’s find themselves taking medicines for blood pressure and high cholesterol to decrease the likelihood that they will become part of this overwhelming statistic. Because heart disease is so prevalent, the U.S. spends more than $200 billion each year to control it.
There is another type of heart disease that we need to consider today. It is manifest by how Americans understand and live into their spirituality. The Pew Trust, in their large study (35,000 respondents) reported in 2015 showed that almost 25% of persons responding to the survey were “unaffiliated”, with about 3% of those labeling themselves atheist and 4 percent agnostic (all significantly increased). Pew also found that both Catholic and Mainline Protestants had decreased by about 3 to 5 percentage points respectively, and Christianity as a whole had dropped from about 79% of persons to 71% (2014 vs. 2007). In another interesting tidbit, almost 40% of marriages since 2010 are of mixed religious couples and one in five are between a self-identifying Christian and someone who is unaffiliated. We have a spiritual heart health problem that is every bit as large as our physiologic heart health problem. The downside is that we don’t have any medicines or fancy interventions to fix our spiritual heart disease. We do however have the ability to turn to God in prayer and ask for God’s wisdom and healing. Won’t you join me in prayer?
A king’s heart must be in the right place and his outlook must be healthy. The writer of our Psalm today sings about the kind of king that we are to be blessed to follow. Certainly, Jesus is such a king and emulates all of the attributes described in Psalm 72. Jesus judges with righteousness and justice for the poor; gives deliverance to the needy; is both Savior and deliverer, while being empathic towards the weak; He is redeemer of those who suffer from oppression and violence. His name is blessed and He alone does glorious things on behalf of the Father towards all creation. Certainly, following such a king would help to heal our spiritual hearts.
Jesus and the Pharisees are debating again about spiritual laws and their role in life. The Pharisees believed that by following every rule laid down by God that they were living lives that kept their spiritual hearts healthy. In essence, they were fully accepting the gift of the Law that God had given them, so they could be a witness to the world around them. They believed that if everyone did the same then all would be well in the world. Jesus points out to them that they needed to focus less on the laws and more on their hearts. By deciding clean versus unclean they had alienated or marginalized a set of people. God’s laws were meant to be inclusive not exclusive, thus all the rules on what observant Jews could or couldn’t eat was simply an arbitrary way to demean instead of raising up. Jesus tells everyone that in reality, the only things that can defile come from inside – from their unhealthy hearts.
The writer of the letter of James has much to say in Chapter 1 that will be amplified in subsequent chapters. Here we find the writer helping the audience understand what it means to be a spiritually sound and heart healthy follower of Jesus. The listing of things to rid oneself of looks just like those things that Jesus talked to the Pharisees about. Christians with their hearts aligned to God are slow to anger, good listeners, who welcome God’s word in their lives. They not only welcome the word, but they implement in their lives what the word of God teaches them. They care for those less fortunate and keep themselves “unstained by the world”.
This is the kind of heart health that we should all be working toward – this is the kind of spiritual health that Jesus is forever modeling and teaching. The writer of James, in the verses before our reading today says that those who endure temptation (who remain undefiled if you will) are blessed by God. The writer states that “…one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin when fully grown, gives birth to death….” Worldly desires will always lead us to idolatry – to worshipping that which captures our attention and hearts. Hearts captured by sin give rise to all the evil intentions that Jesus lists in verses 21 and 22, and thus to our spiritual death to everything good and healthy and nice.
The good news for today is that we can regain our spiritual heart health as we can regain our physiologic heart health. We need to see a different kind of healer, and we need to understand what the Psalmist meant when he wrote: “…For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence (one could say here from “defilement”) he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight….” Our redemption has already been accomplished through the sacrifice of Jesus. We come together today to share in the body and blood of He who died so that our sins could be forgiven – so that our hearts could be healed. It is in this shared meal – this Communion with each other and with God through Jesus that we are once again made whole. In this way, we can start again to live lives that are free from defilement and are set on a course to right living and peace among all of God’s children. With hearts that are whole and healthy spiritually, we can sing with the Psalmist, “…Blessed be the Lord…who alone does wonderous things. Blessed be God’s glorious name forever; may God’s glory fill the whole earth….” May God keep your hearts physically and spiritually healthy from now until the end of days. Amen and amen!