If I were to hold up a big red construction paper cut-out with two lobes at the top and a point at the bottom, even a small child would know instantly what it is – a heart. And we know that a heart symbolizes love and affection; it’s probably portrayed on every Valentine’s and anniversary card. This heart shape has become so ubiquitous that it is even available as an emoticon on text messages and Facebook posts. We know something else about hearts, as well – our physical health. We know that what we consume and how we exercise goes a long way to keeping our hearts healthy. And if our hearts are healthy, that counts for a great deal of our over-all well-being. In the ancient Biblical world the heart was considered to be the seat of human will and rationality, the center of our character, as well as the place of love and desire. And so our Scripture readings today all have something to say about the human heart – in one way or another.
The first reading from the Song of Solomon is love poetry – pure and simple. This book of the Old Testament is one of only two (the other being Esther) in the whole Bible that don’t mention God anywhere in them. Throughout Christian history interpreters have read this passage as an allegory of the relationship between God and a human soul, or between Christ and the Church. It’s not bad to read it this way, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the original meaning and value of human love between two people. That is a gift from God, and a big red heart would convey the meaning of this passage and the whole book very well.
James’ letter and Mark’s Gospel both deal with human will, and rationality, and character – the heart in different ways. James wants to make clear to his readers that merely participating in the outward forms of religious practice, or giving lip-service Christian doctrines and ideas, does not make you righteous or holy or put you in good standing with God. James, a leader in the early Church, was urging the Christians in his spiritual care to make their discipleship, their following of Jesus, their religion, to be whole-hearted – springing from their character that was shaped by devotion to God. In other words, if their hearts were really in the right place, then their actions would follow suit. And the reverse, for James, is also true: if a person’s actions do not align with the values and precepts of Christianity, and with the character of God who made us and loves us, then his or her relationship with Jesus is probably superficial. Those are harsh words, James, but true, nevertheless. Our actions reveal our character, the condition of our heart.
In the Gospel Jesus addresses the same reality, but from the other direction. Some Pharisees and some religious teachers have come from Jerusalem to check out what Jesus was saying and doing, most likely with the intention of fault-finding. It’s important to remember that in the world of first-century Judaism the Pharisees were the group who most wanted to be obedient to God, most wanted to keep the Commandments, who were wary of any rabbi or leader who might be trying to water down or compromise devotion to God. These were not people looking to cut a deal with the Roman authorities. Hypocrisy, in and of itself, was not something that members of this religious party would have been accused of. And yet, in their zeal to defend the Torah and the traditional interpretations of the Law, they missed what was happening right under their noses in the person of Jesus.
So the Pharisees question Jesus about why his followers aren’t as scrupulous in their kosher observance as they themselves are. And Jesus responds with a quotation from Isaiah about giving God lip-service, but not heart-service; and then gives an example from the Pharisees’ own tradition which the lectionary has chosen to omit. He then goes on to say that holiness or goodness, or being close to God isn’t a matter of ritual purity, or of what a person eats or drinks. Instead, holiness comes from the heart, from the depths of one’s being and intention. If what is in your heart is greedy, or false, or envious, or prideful, or murderous, then that will be revealed in your actions.
Some questions – how hard or easy is it to put what is in your heart, in your soul, into practice? Have you ever had good intentions, but the outcome of what you were trying to do went awry? Or have there been times when you did what you knew was right, even if you didn’t want to do it, and found yourself changed in the process? Why does it seem to be hard to act on your beliefs or convictions sometimes? Are there other times when acting from your truest character is effortless?
To be clear, Jesus is not saying that outward practices and influences and habits are of no consequence. In fact we know that the weekly gathering for worship in the liturgy can form our souls in a profound way. We also know that the habit of daily prayer, meditation, Scripture reading, and turning to God can shape our hearts in ways that can carry us through when we hit dry or rough patches in life. And all of this is a growing, developing process. But Jesus’ point, and James’ as well, is that our outward behavior and our inner character and heart-attitude are bound up together. We should look for our actions to bear the fruit of God’s presence in our hearts. And we should also examine our hearts to see if what we profess to believe actually is at the root of our lives and what we put our trust in.
So that leaves the question – how do we come to have Christ in our hearts, at our root and center? What has been your experience? There are so many ways that God speaks to us, that the Holy Spirit takes us in hand, that we come to know and love Jesus – each one as individual as you are; and yet we also have some ways that, for centuries, Christians have found and been found by God.
The one I want to consider at the moment is Scripture – both the Old and the New Testament. We know that the Bible is full of stories – stories of people and their encounter with God. In those stories there is also law, history, poetry, public witness, prayers, prophetic stances against oppressive rulers; there are letters, and vision literature, the words and actions of Jesus, and theological reflection. But most especially, the Scriptures are an account of God’s relationship with God’s People throughout the millennia. Sometimes these accounts may seem dry and dusty, or confusing, and other times they speak to us directly – “the words of eternal life” , as Peter said in last week's Gospel – and they resonate deeply, we hear God speaking to us directly.
The passage from Exodus that we have been hearing at the end of our services off and on all summer, about Moses encountering God in the burning bush, has been an example of this kind of direct, personal encounter between the Lord God and an individual. This story was chosen by our diocesan Going Local group for the participating parishes to become steeped in, so that we – as a parish – might learn to listen to God in Scripture more deeply. By hearing and considering and meditating on the same words week to week, we were to be open to the nuances and insights that the Holy Spirit might bring to us, drawing us close to God, even as Moses drew close to the bush to hear what God had to say – and then, changed by that experience, be sent out to do God’s work.
I hope for some of you that this is what happened; I know for others of you, it did not, and became annoying and seemed pointless. Merely hearing the text, without the opportunity to discuss it with several other people each time, probably was not as helpful as what the diocesan Going Local design team had in mind. We were supposed to be finding ways to read aloud and discuss this passage in multiple settings, multiple times, in small groups, as we gathered for parish meetings and activities, hearing God speak to us in various and sundry ways. So this particular venue did not work for the purpose. After today we’ll discontinue a Going Local reading as a regular part of worship.
But the larger truth of Scripture as a primary way to encounter God still holds true. And so when you encounter a passage of Scripture that you’ve heard or read before, or don’t like, or disagree with – don’t tune out! Stay with it, keep the door of your heart open, pay attention to whatever word or phrase stands out to you and know that the Holy Spirit is probably speaking to you through it – whether it be a message of comfort, or challenge, or peace, or reassurance, or forgiveness, or love, or direction. God wants to form you for his very own; and from that place and character of love and truth and goodness, God wants you to act to bless the world around you in Christ’s Name.
Let us pray. Lord Christ, your friend and co-worker and apostle Peter said; “To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Let us listen to your words in Scripture and in prayer, that hearts may dwell in your heart, and that our lives may reveal your life in us. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 30, 2015