Written on our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 51:1-13 | Hebrews 5:5-10 | John 12:20-33

On this fifth Sunday in Lent, it seems like being so far into the wilderness journey that I should be bowing my head parched in penitence, wearing my sackcloth and ashes. Especially revisiting Psalm 51, the same psalm we recite as we receive the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday. But I got to attend an ordination this weekend, and to me those services are nearly as joyful as baptisms. I get giddy with joy, even though I know the life in ministry is full of its own trials and tribulations. The bishop ordained six new deacons into the church, one of whom was our own Greg Warren, and it was a delight, honor, and privilege to serve as one of his presenters, alongside Mark. This solemn-joyful contrast reminded me of the video I sent out along with the newsletter this week, the one where Jesus needs some time alone and embarks on the forty days in the desert. Along his way, halfway through, he finds a flower, another day he chases birds, gazes at the sunset, or whistles with a bird. These are portrayed as pleasant experiences, in sharp contrast to the circling vultures, chapped lips, and tests of Satan.

Just because we’re going through a season of acknowledging our sins, of recounting the commandments, of bowing before the Lord in prayer . . . this doesn’t mean that there won’t also be moments of wonder, delight, awe, and even joy. This is life, right? If you’ve ever gone on a strict diet or done a cleanse (I’ve only really done it once or twice), after the first three days of feeling really yucky, there’s a sense of clarity that arrives with being more healthy.

Having let go of that which we don’t need, there’s a lightness and new perspective that’s especially focused around that which we really need.

The Greeks on their way to a festival decided they needed to see Jesus. They did what any of us would do: they go up to someone like them who has a connection to the one they seek. Philip then goes to Andrew, and then they go to Jesus who then says the time has come and again remarks about the kind of death he would die. We don’t know if the Greeks got to see Jesus, but something about their seeking was enough to signify to Jesus that the time was ripe, that his mission was drawing near to completion. For no longer was it just the inner circles who were hearing the message of Jesus; news about the new Way was touching the hearts and minds of others. There was a desire to see Jesus.

When I think about where desire comes from, I think it comes from somewhere deep within. I think of desire as a yearning of the heart. For those of us who just can’t stay away from the church even when we’ve gotten mad or doubted or just wanted to be lazy on Sunday morning, maybe we feel a connection to the Israelites upon whose hearts the LORD had written the law so that God would ever be their God and they God’s people. This was a new covenant for the Israelites because it focused on an internal knowing and God’s forgiveness–not a new law but a new covenant, one that indicated an inward transformation of the human heart that (would) allow the people to know God intimately and to be obedient to the commandments.” This sounds strikingly familiar to us Christians who believe God sent Jesus Christ to bring us a new covenant that transforms the lives of those who believe and commands us to love.

If only we could read what was written on each of our hearts, what the mark of our Creator has spoken to each of us.  How many layers of barriers do you think we need to peel away before we get to a place where we not only recognize with our minds but truly know in our heart, in our being, that we are not only created with love, commanded to love but also worthy of love?

How different do you think our society would be if we lived into what is written upon our hearts?

We’re wrapping up Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy this week in our Lenten Soup and Study (so if you haven’t been and want to see what that’s like, this is your last chance!). Last week we discussed the chapter titled “Mother, Mother,” which shared stories of women who had been incarcerated, separated from their children. This is tough, painful material. Particularly we focused on the story of Marsha. Marsha and her husband both worked but still didn’t have enough to make ends meet. They lived with their six children in a FEMA trailer, their house having been destroyed by a hurricane. The trailer was right by their ruined home so they could keep the kids in the same schools, for these are devoted parents, determined not to fall back into a life destroyed by addiction. Stevenson captures beautifully the love and devotion Marsha has for her children: what she can’t provide for them monetarily, she makes up for in her love and affection, spending time with the children, reading and playing with them, staying clean and sober. When she finds out that she is pregnant, she does what many a poor mother has done and sacrificed her healthcare rather than deprive the rest of the family. She figures she’s been pregnant many times before and pretty much knows what to expect. She would love this child as much as her others. Without prenatal care, however, she missed or ignored the warning signs that her pregnancy showed complications. On a particularly tiresome day she went to soak in the tub of their previous home that still had water . . . only she was met with a fierce and quick preterm labor, and she birthed her stillborn child. She loved the baby instantly and grieved its loss. The family mourned together and held a burial for it at their home. But we know there’s no rest for the weary. Life marched on for them.

But a neighbor . . . a neighbor noticed that Marsha, who had been pregnant, was no longer pregnant, and there wasn’t an infant in sight.

If this were the case for one of our neighbors, mightn’t we wonder what had happened? Wouldn’t we take a deep breath to fortify ourselves and approach our neighbor to gently ask how she’s doing, what happened? I certainly hope I’d be brave enough to ask directly.

But that’s not what the neighbor did. The neighbor reported her to the authorities who came out and searched the place, took pictures of an unflushed toilet and a beer can which was used to testify to the improper, unclean living environment. The baby’s body was exhumed and examined by a fraud of a pathologist who declared that had there been medical attention at the birth, the child would have lived (this wasn’t the case, as determined by credible doctors who testified). But Marsha ended up serving ten years in prison before Stevenson helped her get released. Ten years of being separated from her children. (Children of incarcerated parents are so much more likely to end up drug addicted and/or incarcerated themselves.) One of our study group questions was “who was the most guilty one in Marsha’s case?” We unanimously agreed that it was the neighbor. Instead of showing an ounce of concern or compassion, she had made a judgment that ended up dividing a family, sending them into a wilderness more harsh than the one they were already traversing. She didn’t bother to ask what happened, to know Marsha’s story, to even get a glimpse at what was written on her heart. Lest we be quick to decide that this neighbor was just one of those gossipy women who has her nose in everyone’s business, we don’t know her story, either, what pains and hurts she carries that has blinded her to the call for compassion and love of neighbor. Maybe she thought what she needed to do was make sure that someone else was following the law of the land, blind to the command on her own heart that comes from God.

How well are we listening to the true desire of our heart–not the superficial ones that we mask with whatever makes us feel good in the moment but the deep desire that pulls us in the direction of Christ? Following this desire will definitely lead us into the wilderness where we will have to make choices on whether we hide and build up more barriers or let go and persist along the Way, calling out to God to “Create in me a clean heart . . . and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:11). It is the clean heart and right spirit that guides us with clarity toward what is written on our heart, that delights in the joyful even amidst the darkness, and that keeps us tethered on our way to seeing Jesus in everyone around us. It’s also this clean heart and right spirit that we’re refining throughout Lent that painfully become part of the crowd who shout, “Crucify him!” in the Passion Narrative. We’re working so hard, dear Christians, to seek Jesus, to see him in our neighbors. Let us not forget how easy it is to slip into darkness and judgment and be the mob quick to crucify and to deny the message of love written on our heart.

 

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Our Fertile Ground

 

Genesis 25:19-34 | Ps. 119:105-112 | Romans 8:1-11 | Matthew 13:1-9, 19-23

Hopefully you’re all familiar with the Sunday School curriculum we use with our children: Godly Play. In this curriculum, which is heavily based on story-telling, there are special lessons in golden boxes, golden because they hold something to be treasured and opened like a precious gift. These are the parables, holy mysteries in our tradition. And we tell the story in Jesus’ words and ponder at the mystery of it, wondering–because that’s what we do together in Godly Play, we wonder–what it is that Jesus is really trying to tell us, if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear.

Thanks to our gospel lesson, we impatient adults don’t have to wonder too much today because Matthew shares with us Jesus’ explanation to the disciples. The parable of the sower is focused on the good soil, the fertile ground, that will bear fruit of the kingdom once it’s given the seed of the Word.

Whereas Jesus gave a very quick riddle of sorts to the great crowds that surrounded him (so much so that he makes an auditorium out of the sea side), he explains the parable to the disciples in clearer terms.

  • The word of the kingdom = seed
  • The path = heart
  • The various conditions = world/what’s between the world and the heart
    • Evil one
    • Lack of depth/roots
    • Too much of the secular world

It seems clear-cut, but what does it mean for the “word of the kingdom” to be sown into our “heart”? The seed is not just the words that come from Jesus’s mouth but his very words and deeds, actually himself that is the Word made flesh. Jesus is the seed, sowing himself into the hearts of those who surround him . . . or at least trying to.

What of the various conditions of the soil, of the hearts of the people in whom Jesus Christ is trying to germinate?

In the midst of the pericope we have today, in the verses we jump over, Jesus quotes Isaiah. Isaiah was prophesying what would go wrong with the people of Israel, what would come between them and the LORD their God and set them up for judgment, and we realize that this is also true of the people in Jesus’ time because he says the prophecy is fulfilled in them. They can’t understand or perceive because

“… this people’s heart has grown dull,

And their ears are hard of hearing,

And they have shut their eyes;

So that they might not look with their eyes,

And listen with their ears,

And understand with their heart and turn–

And I would heal them.”

The great crowds are flocking to Jesus for healing, whether they knew it or not. Their hearts drawn to him like a magnet.

Contemporary Christian mystic Cynthia Bourgeault says that the heart–our path, our soil–is an “organ of spiritual perception,” the “perfect holograph” of the divine. Created as we are, perfectly and in God’s image, our heart is the “homing beacon” that ever yearns for its source, its pure identity. Can you imagine the magnetism of Jesus, perfection incarnate? Bourgeault and others point out, however, that our hearts are overrun with interference, which drown out its connection to its source, dulling it so that we neither see nor hear the kingdom at hand, even when it’s within our midst. Our hearts are dull, indeed, our ears hard of hearing, our eyes unable to see.

This might sound very esoteric, but practically speaking, we realize how true this is. If you were to answer on a scale of 1-10 how fertile you think your heart is to receive the Word, to let the Spirit fertilize and nurture the Word in the midst of your life and others so that you bear fruit of the Kingdom, are you super-rich soil at a 10, or nearly depleted and rock-hard at 1? Chances are that we span the spectrum on any given day, really.

During morning prayer, I’m fertile ground, and journaling feels like a dance with Spirit, pouring out my heart and soul, nearly writing poetry in praise and thanksgiving. Then the weeds and thorns start to crowd in with all the stuff of life that has to be done. What if I’ve just gotten back from a conference or a really good gathering that has given me one of those mountain-top experiences? I’m high on life lived in the Spirit, but then I can be devastated by tragic news, someone’s terminal diagnosis, or a challenge I don’t see a way through. Then put me in 5:00 traffic on I-49 in a construction zone, and my heart can become rock-solid. Morning prayer is long-gone, and by the end of the day, I’m too exhausted even for compline.

It would be easier for me to tell you the ingredients we could buy to amend the soil of our hearts, where we could go to find the best soil and keep it ever-fertile and rich, but the truth is, as faithful disciples of Christ, we don’t buy anything or go anywhere. We can’t, actually. We have to be who we are, where we are. We realize that the very heart we have, whatever state of health it is in, it is our path to God. We might get benefit out of a retreat or vacation, to let some of the interference fall away, but we open our hearts right where we are; there’s no escaping them, no place we can go where our heart isn’t with us (at least in the same room, in cases of surgery!) just as there’s nowhere we are that God isn’t also present.

The Word that we see or hear may be out loud or beneath the surface, kind of like a parable, but we only find what we seek, we only see what we’re looking for. We only grow that which we nurture. Any gardener will tell you that a garden requires work and tender loving care to produce the best fruits. Now, Spirit is generous and sometimes gives us abundant volunteers (I used to think the compost pile was an intentional cherry tomato factory), but the best fruits come from loving intention.

Between our God-given heart, the Spirit that dwells within us, and Jesus Christ, the Word that is, as our Psalm suggests, “a lantern to my feet and a light unto my path,” if we focus our attention and intention on God’s will, what is there that we cannot do? It might sound like we have to align the stars just right–and in a way, we do–but it’s not impossible. When we acknowledge and comprehend that God is very much at work in our lives, the stakes change.

Like I’ve said before, life can get harder. The evil one that plucks the Word out of our heart before it’s had a chance to sink in gets even more stealthy as our faithfulness grows. But so do we. We learn what practices keep us nurtured. When and how do we pray. With whom do we surround ourselves? What are we listening to? What are we reading? What kind of community are we nurturing locally and globally in the decisions that we are making? Am I doing this all on my own, or am I letting the Trinity work through me? Am I giving my best effort to tend to my gifts and skills so that when people meet me, they know that I’m doing something important, even if they don’t know what it is. It could be that Jesus is healing them through us.

This has mostly been framed with a mind toward the individual, but it works at the corporate level, the group level, as well. What is the state of the heart of All Saints’? We’ve been planted well, the Word settling deep in our heart. We’re still young as a congregation. Seedlings have to be tended to carefully, often supported by something more stable, as we have been by surrounding parishes and are by the diocese. We’re often repotted when we’ve outgrown our current pot, eventually settling in a place where we can let our roots grow even deeper.

But all the while we are living and growing, participating in the cycles of our lives and the liturgical year, always beginning again with the purpose first and foremost to give glory and praise to God. At the Tri-faith book club, we realized that our traditions all have as our focus to worship God. Worshipping God is part of our mission in the Christian Church, which is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ, in Love. We work toward this restoration through prayer and worship, through proclamation of the Gospel, and by promoting justice, peace, and love. (I’m not just making this up; it’s in the Catechism, BCP p. 855.) These are good practices to keep the heart of All Saints’ nurtured and aerated and nourished so that the Word of the Kingdom will fall onto our rich soil, our ready heart and bring forth the Kingdom of Heaven in ways we have yet to imagine.

And that’s why we hold the parables in their golden boxes. The mysteries they hold are full of divine imagination we will receive differently at various times in our lives. Sometimes we’re ready to understand, and sometimes we can’t quite yet. We have to make sure our path, our heart, is tended to so that when the gifts come our way, we’ll know how valuable they really are.

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