Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Heart of the Matter: A Homily for Ash Wednesday

"Remember that you are dust..."
Today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the forty-day season of Lent. I begin this holy season with the congregation at Christ Church Cathedral at noon - just downstairs from my office at Diocesan House. And then I'm at St. Luke's in Worcester at 7 p.m.

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The Hebrew and Greek words for “heart” are used 814 times in the Bible to refer to the human heart and 26 times to refer to the heart of God. Five of those uses come up in today’s readings. In Greek it’s cardio, a root familiar to anybody who has ever had a cardiogram or been in a cardiac care facility or who spends time getting their heart rate up for at least twenty minutes, three times a week, to avoid needing a cardiogram or a cardiac care facility.

In the world of the Bible, the heart was seen as more than a pump. It was the center of emotions and feelings, of moods and passions. Some of that carries over to the Hallmark holiday we celebrated last weekend on Valentine’s Day. The heart is capable of both joy and grief. So in Acts 2:26 we read: “therefore my heart was glad,” while in Psalm 13 the psalmist asks “must I have sorrow in my heart all the day?” The heart can be a source of courage as it is in II Samuel 17—“the heart of a valiant man that is like the heart of a lion.” Or it can be the source of fear, as when Joseph’s brothers discover their brother is still alive “and their hearts failed them and they turned trembling to one another…”  (Genesis 42:28) The heart was also seen as the center for decision-making, and so we listen for God’s still small voice with the ear of our heart. 

Christ Church Cathedral, Springfield
As we begin our Lenten journey together, we are invited by the prophet Joel to “return to the Lord with all your heart.” What would it take for us to give God all of our hearts for the next forty days, or even the next forty minutes? What holds us back from that radical a choice? Joel also says: “rend your hearts and not your clothing.” In Biblical times, to show remorse and grief, people tore their clothes. Joel seems to suggest that God desires a ripped—or torn—or broken heart. What might that be about?

We also heard Jesus saying in today’s gospel reading: “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” If our focus and our energy are on the concerns of this world, then that is where our heart is going to be as well. To put this in a positive way, as Jesus does in another place: seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all the rest will fall into place. And then in Psalm 51 (which we will come to after the sermon today, as part of our confession) we’ll pray: “create in me a clean heart, O God.” There, too, we’ll note that the heart that is acceptable to God is a broken and contrite heart. Again we might ask: why does God want our hearts to be broken rather than whole?

What are we to make of all this talk about matters of the heart? What is the ‘heart of the matter’ when it comes to keeping a holy Lent?

Remember that the forty days of Lent are patterned after the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, following his baptism in the Jordan River. And remember that those forty days were patterned after the forty years that the Israelites spent in the wilderness of the Sinai Desert, after escaping from Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea. In both cases the time in the wilderness is about prayer and learning to trust God, about temptation and spiritual growth—about the journey toward freedom.

In that Exodus story, so central to shaping Jewish and then Christian faith, do you remember how Pharaoh’s heart was hardened? His government was oppressing these Hebrew slaves, but he didn’t want to change. He refused to let God’s people go. Actually he didn’t believe they were God’s people at all, he thought they were his slaves. And where his “heart” was, there his treasure was also: namely with all those pyramids and all the economic wealth that was being built on the backs of slave labor. And so he could not see (or he would not see) the pain that his economic plan was causing those at the bottom rung of the social ladder. His heart was hardened  to their plight and things went down hill from there for him.

It reminds me of a poem by Mary Oliver called, Of the Empire.

                   We will be known as the culture that feared death
                   and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
                   for the few and cared little for the penury of the
                   many. We will be known as a culture that taught
                   and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
                   little if at all about the quality of life for
                   people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
                   the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
                   commodity. And they will say that this structure
                   was held together politically, which it was, and
                   they will say also that our politics was no more
                   than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
                   the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
                   was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

St. Luke's,  Pleasant Street in Worcester
What then is Lent for? Perhaps we can say it this way: it is the antidote to ending up with small, hard, mean hearts. It’s about the invitation to move, like the Grinch, from a heart “two sizes too small” toward a healthy heart that loves God and loves neighbor.  

Here is the thing, though: larger, softer hearts will inevitably be broken. I think to grasp what is at stake here, we need to understand first that the prophet and the psalmist both imagine that God’s own heart is a large, soft, and broken heart, torn by what humans do to themselves and to one another. Sometimes people ask “why does God allow suffering in the world?” But while that is a fair enough question, I think there is another one that is at least as important and maybe prior to the “why” question. Where is God in the midst of wars or cancer or divorce? We dare to suggest after coming through Christmas and Epiphany and down from the Mount of the Transfiguration that God is right there in the midst of it all. Emmanuel—God-with-us—means just that. God with us through all of it. Not standing somewhere high above and detached, but right in the thick of it, in both the joys and in the sorrows of whatever life brings. It is hard to imagine, once you accept that faith claim, that God’s heart could be anything other than a broken heart. To see how people behave, and treat one another, sometimes even in God’s own name, must surely break God’s heart.

I think that what is being suggested in these texts is that if we mean to approach God, then we need to allow our own hearts to be broken as well. We need to become vulnerable, both with God and with one another. Love is not possible without vulnerability. Indeed, that is very much the message when we come to the end of this holy season, in the upper room where Jesus gives a maundatum novum—a new mandate that we love one another, and then he models a way to do that by becoming a vulnerable servant and washing his disciples’ feet.

To pay attention—to be alive—to care about a world beyond our own ego-centric realities is almost certainly to have our hearts broken. We are tempted to “harden our hearts” (as Pharaoh did) and call that survival of the fittest. Or we are tempted to give our hearts away to idols: to money or to security or to pride of nation.

But Lent offers us another way, a way that draws us closer to the heart of God. The heart of the matter is that there are tried and true spiritual disciplines—we might call them practices of faith or even cardio exercises to help us to do this work. We will name them in the invitation to a holy Lent that follows this homily. They include:
  • Fasting—or some version of fasting helps us to be disciplined with our bodies, and to tame our desires.
  • Meditating on God’s Holy Word and studying the Scriptures feeds us with food that really does sustain and nurture us, in body, mind, and spirit.
  • Alms-giving forces us to see the poor and the suffering in our midst.
  • Prayer, especially in the form of confession, cleanses and heals us and opens the door to reconciliation with those whom we have hurt. 

These ancient practices push us out of ourselves, in order to glimpse the world if only just a little bit from God’s perspective. The heart of the matter in Lent isn’t about shame or fear or beating ourselves up. Rather, it’s about learning to care, learning to hope, learning to love. It’s about asking God for a heart of flesh, and knowing that unlike a heart of stone, a heart of flesh can be torn. Yet that is precisely the kind of heart that God can use.     

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