The Heart of the Matter
Based on Psalm 105, Mt 14:22-33, Romans 10:5-15
Today we are talking about the heart and why it matters spiritually. Physiologically, the heart is an electronic pump which was created to efficiently and effectively move un-oxygenated blood through your lungs to receive oxygen and then pumps that life sustaining blood to the farthest reaches of your body. It contracts an average of 70 times each minute for your whole life – more than 3 billion beats by the time you reach 80 years of age. Beyond its physiologic functioning, however, humans have long associated the heart with emotions (love, hate, courage, jealousy, fear, doubt, etc). In fact, from the time of the Egyptians until the late 17th Century, common wisdom was that the heart was the very center of the functioning of the body – far more important than any other organ, including the brain. Spiritually, the condition of our heart is central to how we receive what God has to offer us. To that end, let us open our hearts once again to God in prayer as we prepare to hear God’s word proclaimed…
I recently finished reading a book entitled, “The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict”. This is a book that was recommended by the Rev. Tom Berlin who is a member of the “Way Forward” commission of The United Methodist Church. The “Way Forward”, you might know, is the group of clergy and laity who have been tasked to study the issues around gender and inclusivity, and propose a way forward from the impasse that the UMC currently finds itself. Each of the members of the commission began their task by reading this book and then worked with other team members to implement what the book suggests. What they found was that they had been given a new way to look at the things that separate us, and how that starts with whether our hearts are in a state of peace or war.
The Bible has a lot to say about the condition and spiritual function of the heart. Scripture speaks of the heart in a variety of ways: as a stand-in for the mind and understanding, for human will, for love and altruism, for conscience and morals, and finally for the whole soul. When used to indicate the soul, it usually denotes the whole soul and associated functions of a person as they work together to produce good or evil actions. It is interesting to note as well that God plays an active role at times in hardening hearts (think of both Pharaoh and of the people of Israel prior to the exile to Babylon). All this having been said, it should be apparent to all that our hearts are indeed a place where we feel our connection to God most acutely. Consider the case of a Church of England priest by the name of John Wesley, who while listening to the lead-in to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans had a conversion experience that he described as his “heart being strangely warmed”. He was never the same again.
Our scriptures today are examples of different aspects of how our hearts can react to God. The Psalmist, in verse 3 of Psalm 105, writes about how as we seek after God that our hearts should rejoice. Think about that for a moment…just in the seeking after God our hearts should react with joy. In the searching for God, we sometimes come through very dark and lonely times. This is because we have to get rid of a lot of secular baggage and give up the worship of false idols such as money, fame, busyness, acquisition, et cetera. Once we free ourselves from the dominion of these lesser gods, then we are ready to connect to the One whom is love, and who is searching just as hard to connect with us. God rejoices when the lost sheep is found – and that rejoicing resonates deeply within us as well. You may have felt this when you had a conversion experience (like John Wesley) or you may have come to experience the “glow” of a presence that you could not explain and yet you know that you have encountered God.
In the Gospel account that I just read, Jesus has finished his miraculous feeding of the huge crowd and had sent them and the Disciples away. Jesus, needing some time to reflect and connect again to God, heads to a nearby mountain to pray. Leaving the Disciples to their own devices is never a good idea, and once again they find themselves in trouble. In this account of the storm and the boat, Jesus comes walking across the water in the early morning. The Disciples are fearful thinking it is a ghost – but Jesus says, “…Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid….” (Mt 14:27, NRSV) Peter, wanting to be sure that it is Jesus standing on the water, asks to be “commanded” to come across the water. Picture this for a moment…the boat is still rocking up and down, the wind is still blowing as it has been all night, the Disciples are all still rowing against it, and in the middle of all that chaos Peter jumps overboard and begins miraculously walking towards Jesus. Before he reaches Jesus his faith is overcome by the reality of the physical world (the force of the wind) and he begins to sink. He cries out, “…Lord, save me!” (how often I have cried out those words) and Jesus reaches out and pulls him up. They return to the boat together and the wind ceases.
How often the “heart” of our faith lets us down when we get overwhelmed by life. We forget that it is our heart which first recognizes the holy and thus leads us to the understanding that there is more to this world than the things we can see and rationalize. Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Roman church, “…because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and is justified, one confesses with the mouth and so is saved….” (Rom 10:9-10, NRSV) Justification, which is the forgiveness of all of our sins when we realize them and repent of them, comes from the belief (faith) that we hold in Jesus in our hearts. When we truly believe in our hearts that our sins have been forgiven, through the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus, then our mouths can’t help but proclaim that Jesus is indeed our Lord. In that way we find our salvation…from heart to mouth to life eternal. Then, the heart of the matter comes (according to Paul) in verses 13 through 15. This is what disciples of Christ are supposed to do.
Why haven’t we done what we are supposed to do? I think that it comes down to fear and doubt. We fear that if we speak the truth about Jesus and the good news, that we will be seen as zealots or evangelicals. We doubt that we have enough knowledge or the right words to speak when people ask us questions about our belief in something we can’t see, taste, touch or feel with our fingers. The heart of the matter is that we will often need Jesus to say to us “You of little faith, why did you fear and why did you doubt?” There is evil and injustice and avarice and hatred and war and famine and so many other things that blow us around and make us take our eyes off of Jesus and his message. It has ever been so in our world because of our sin – both individual and institutional. Yet, the crux of the matter is what is going on within our own hearts. Do I really love God with ALL my heart and soul and mind and strength? If I do, then do I REALLY love my neighbor in the same way and to the same extent that I love myself?
This is where the book, “The Anatomy of Peace” builds from and why it is so important for all of us. Its premise is that we are so often in conflict because instead of having a heart at peace (like Jesus) we have a heart at war. We want people to change and become like us (behavior and beliefs) and then we will be able to have a relationship with them. This is not reality-based however, and it was not how Christianity spread. The good news of Christ spread throughout the known world because at its heart it was a message of grace. Grace is that un-earned acceptance and unconditional love for all persons. Grace is pardoning of sin and the reconciliation of all persons to God and to each other. It is also the activity of God to heal and transform us and our world into the likeness of God as shown in Jesus. It didn’t expect people to change, it met them where they were and gave them a new hope for themselves and their world. It showed them how to live in a world of hate with a heart of love and acceptance. It is time for us to live with the grace-filled heart of Jesus – the way of the heart that truly matters.