This was last Sunday’s sermon at Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA.
The resting human heart beats an average of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Thump. Thump. Thump. In addition to pumping our blood and keeping a steady supply of oxygen flowing throughout our bodies, the heart has long been seen as the center of thoughts, personality, actions, emotions, and wisdom. So I’d venture to say it’s pretty important.
These texts we have for this morning are tough. And they’re tough not because they have hard words or are particularly difficult to understand. In fact, they’re fairly straightforward. But they’re tough because we don’t like what we hear. Deuteronomy tells us that the law was a gift given to help people to live out the covenant in the new land of Israel, and by living them out, help other nations see who God is. Jesus tells the Pharisees that they’re elevating human rules to a divine status, while ignoring what is truly important – hearts that follow God. And James gives instructions for the new Christian community, calling them to turn from the things of the world in order to live out of their faith.
Each of these texts calls us to a higher standard of living. As Eugene Peterson translates James: “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.” Ouch.
These texts hold up the mirror and call us to take a long hard look at ourselves to see where we are missing the mark, falling short and not following God. They remove the excuses we so artfully craft about our words and deeds and call us to account. They strip everything down to some basics and challenge us to live out our faith in the world. They call out, “when did you last say something unkind or hurtful about someone else?” “How many times have you refused to help another in need because you were ‘too busy’ or wanted that extra money for something else?” “When have you found yourself looking down upon someone else?” “Have you been envying what your friends, family, or neighbors have?” These questions make us squirm. We don’t want to think about them or answer them. We don’t want to think about how our speech and action might reflect our hearts. We rush about, perhaps rarely taking time the think about the effect our words and deeds have on others. But it is necessary to slow down and sit with them. To ask God to reveal in us those places where we are not living out the life to which we’ve been called.
As some of you may know, I am a “Walking Dead” fan. Last summer, Jeff and I began binge watching this show on Netflix. I’m sure binge watching is another sin! For those of you who don’t watch, the walking dead or “walkers” are zombies who have begun wreaking havoc on society, bringing about an apocalyptic scenario. The show follows a small band of very different people as they try to survive. One would think that the zombies would be the scariest part of this show. But the surprise is that the real threat – the real underlying danger – is not from the undead, but from the living. The people who have survived the apocalypse are capable of far more hurt, pain, deceit, inhumanity and death than the zombies are. That’s why the show is so interesting. Zombies are fun, but the psychology and group dynamics are fascinating. You watch an episode and think, “who would I be in this situation? And how would I respond?”
And so it is with us. Jesus tells the Pharisees that they’ve got things all backwards – it’s not all about the rituals that keep us clean on the outside or insure that we’re eating the right foods. No, we should be more worried about the inner workings of our hearts and whether or not they are leading us down the wrong path or are following God. The threat could be coming from the outside as with zombies, but most likely, it’s coming from within. A truly scary thought indeed.
It is abundantly clear that the human heart is capable of evil things. This week has brought reports that the Nigerian schoolgirls are still missing, that ISIS continues its reign of terror, of two journalists shot and killed in Roanoke, of the continuing struggle against racism, of infidelity on the Ashley Madison website, of migrants and refugees displaced by violence and searching for a place to lay their heads. The list, unfortunately, could go on and on. It is easy to hear this and to feel paralyzed by the evil within our own hearts and that we see taking place around the world.
So where is the good news? James uses this beautiful phrase that I love. He calls us to “…welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” Looking at our asphalt driveway, I’m always amazed at how weeds manage to push through asphalt and concrete, driveways and sidewalks. These hearty little plants find a way to thrive in spite of their tough circumstances. The Word of God, planted in our hearts, has the power to bust up our rocky and hard hearts – to burst through the hardness of our sins and selfishness – and bring about the beautiful flowers and fruits of the kingdom. The word of God – the grace and promises of God – implanted in our hearts are slowly at work, calling us to account for our sin, bringing forgiveness, and inspiring us to live out God’s love in the world.
Because God loves us far too much and far too generously to leave us with hard and sinful hearts, God becomes human, even ripping apart the heavens at Jesus’ baptism to get through to us. And at the end of Mark’s Gospel, at the crucifixion, God will once and for all rip apart the Temple curtain that separated God from humanity. That says something about God’s heart for us. God’s actions, retold throughout scripture and seen on the cross and in the resurrection, reflect God’s tremendous love for all creation.
That’s the love and the life we’ve been welcomed into in baptism. When we were washed in that font, we were raised to new life in Christ. That’s not just a nice phrase! It is an invitation into a new way of being, a new way of thinking, a new way of speaking, and a new way of living. Each and every one of us has been freed from sin, death and the devil in order to live a new life – a life of Christ-like love and service to others. As James puts it, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We live out our faith and show others that our hearts love God when we care for orphans, widows, the marginalized, and all those in distress. And we point to God’s action in our lives when we refuse to give in to the ways of the world – the ways that would tell us to use others for our own personal gain, to put personal riches and power above the poor and the voiceless, or to turn a blind eye to violence, hatred, and injustice. Because, miraculously enough, the human heart is also a place where wonderful things can happen – transformation can occur, compassion can spring up, kindness and empathy, charity and generosity can flow forth.
We have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow Christ and to bear fruit in God’s kingdom. It is not easy. It is difficult and frustrating because we run smack dab up against our own selfish desires and the temptations and priorities of the world. But we are not alone. Christ has called and equipped us for this work and he will see it through. Look around. These are your sisters and brothers whom you have been called to support and with whom you have been called to worship God and serve in the world. We will not live up to this godly life perfectly – no one can. But we have been welcomed into this new life in baptism and these texts today call us to pause and think about what it looks like to live that life out. To ask for forgiveness where we’ve fallen short. To celebrate and give thanks for the way that God’s implanted word has begun to transform our hearts. And to dream with hope, wonder, and awe about the amazing things the Holy Spirit might do in our lives and in this place to help others know God’s incredible love.
I’ll leave you with an Irish prayer from the 15th century that is a wonderful reminder and a promise of God at work: “O Son of God, do a miracle for us and change our hearts. Thy having taken flesh to redeem us is more difficult than to transform our wickedness.” If God can take on flesh to redeem all of creation, think about how God is at work in our hearts. Thanks be to God! Amen.
© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.