Sunday, September 2, 2012

From the Heart

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
September 2, 2012

            Since I decided to give my sermon the title, “From the Heart,” I thought it would behoove me to do a little review work on the actual human heart.  It’s been a few years since my 10th grade biology class, so I knew I needed to brush up on the actual structure of the heart.  The heart is a muscle.  We probably all know that much.  That’s why one aspect of heart health is cardio exercise.  Cardio exercise raises our heart rate.  It works and strengthens the heart muscle. 
            Each person’s heart is about the size of his or her fist.  It beats approximately 60 to 80 times per minute and it beats about 100,000 times each day.  The heart is basically a pump.  It has four chambers, two ventricles and two atria.  There are arteries and valves and while the process is complicated and beyond my ability to understand. The simple point of the heart is to keep our blood pumping and circulating.  If our hearts stop pumping, we stop living. 
            If I weren’t already fairly committed to staying healthy, I probably would be now that I’ve watched a step-by-step demonstration of what happens when you have a heart attack.  Let’s just say I don’t want one.
            The human heart is the primary muscle that keeps us alive.  But we place a larger meaning on it than just an internal organ.  The heart is the center of our being isn’t it?  Even though scientists might tell us that our emotions are actually neurological responses in our brains, we see them as being centered here in our hearts rather than here in our heads. 
            Think about how many songs you hear on an average day that has to do with the heart.  Heartbreaks, heartaches, hearts down and out for the count, hearts filled with love, hearts rising above.  I found a list of 124 songs that have heart in the title.  These were from both pop and country, which means it’s not exhaustive because there are many other genres of music and many other songs about the heart. 
            My heart could keep going for another 50 years, but no matter how much longer I live I’ll never forget the first time I fell in love and my heart soared.  I’ll also never forget the first time my heart was really broken.  The heart isn’t just the organ that pumps our blood.  It is the metaphysical center of our being.  Within our religion there is the idea that I grew up with of letting Jesus into our hearts.  I still have a vivid memory of a picture of Jesus standing outside a door, knocking. That was the door to our hearts and he was waiting to be allowed in.  As I said, we invest the human heart with a much larger meaning and purpose than the center of our circulatory system. 
            In that light, I chose to look most carefully at the last of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees in this passage from Mark’s gospel. 
            “It is what comes out of a person that defiles.  For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come:  fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander pride, folly.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”
            This passage begins with certain Pharisees challenging Jesus about his disciples’ flaunting of tradition.  They didn’t do the ritual cleansing of their hands or their cookware before they ate.  This wasn’t so much about hygiene or sanitary practices as it was tradition.  It was a ritual of spiritual cleanliness that was a tradition of the elders.  To eat something with unclean hands or that wasn’t prepared in properly cleaned pots was to be physically and spiritually defiled.  My understanding is that it made them impure before God.  But Jesus and his disciples turn this tradition on its head, so the Pharisees and scribes question Jesus. 
            Whenever Jesus is challenged, he challenges back.  In our passage he quotes scripture, specifically the prophet Isaiah. 
            “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
            In other words, Jesus tells the Pharisees and scribes that their tradition has become empty ritual.  If it is supposed to honor God, then it is done in name only.  Their hearts are not in it.  And in the part of the story that we are focusing on today, Jesus debunks their understanding of the tradition in the first place.  It is not what goes into us that defiles.  No food that we eat, no washing ritual that we undergo will make us clean or unclean.   The source of defilement is not outside of ourselves.  It is within us.  It is within our hearts. 
            Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, says that this is the most straightforward part of this passage.  Jesus tells us, succinctly, where evil comes from.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that it comes from us.  It comes from the people I don’t like, which I have no problem whatsoever believing.  Yet it also comes from the people I love, which is a little harder to bear.  Hardest to accept of all, it comes from me.  It comes from the heart. 
            Whether we choose to believe that our heart breeds avarice and murder and hatred, etc., or not, one point is dramatically driven home.  Jesus calls for self-examination.  We have to look inside ourselves for the bad things of this world, don’t we?  It’s not all just out there. 
            Yet even though it may sound as if Jesus is condemning the human heart to total depravity, I don’t think he was trying to imply that nothing good comes from the heart.  But he was making it clear to the Pharisees and scribes that they had invested more in tradition than in the actual word of God.  They used tradition as a shield against what they saw as outside evil forces, and their tradition was also used as a weapon against others.  In fact, it seems likely that it was the tradition that closed their hearts to God and to God’s people. 
            I also don’t want to imply that Jesus believed all tradition is bad.  We have no indication that Jesus himself didn’t adhere to Jewish dietary laws.  But following the Law never stood in his way when it came to love – loving God and loving neighbor. 
            Bad things are bred in the human heart – character traits and deeds.  But good comes from the heart too.  Love comes from the heart.  Hope.  Compassion.  Forgiveness.
            The other night I watched a longtime favorite movie, Leap of Faith with Steve Martin and Debra Winger.  This is a movie I was first introduced to in seminary.  The evangelism class watched it and it rippled out from there.  Martin plays a con man named Jonas Nightingale.  He has a traveling ministry.  If you ever want to learn how the televangelists make those “miracles” happen – you know where people suddenly walk again or have money when they didn’t have it before – this is the movie to watch. 
            Nightingale and his ministry team are on their way to Topeka, Kansas to do their big show for a few days.  But one of the tour busses breaks down outside of a small, sleepy, broke town named Rustwater.  They decide to do their revival show there.  As Nightingale tells the local sheriff, “Usually I play in towns that can afford me, but what about playing in a town that really needs me.”
            I don’t want to give the story away, but let me say that a real miracle happens in the midst of all the fake ones.  For the first time ever, Jonas Nightingale, con artist extraordinaire, experiences something he can’t explain or control.  And he has a change of heart.  He finds himself caring, really, truly, deeply caring, about someone else.  And when he starts to care, he finds that he can’t do something that would hurt or harm that person.  He has a change of heart.
            Jesus said that it’s not what we put in us that defiles, it’s what comes out of us.  It’s what comes from our hearts.  But the good news is that just as our hearts can produce so much bad, they can also produce so much good.  Hate comes from the heart, but so does love.  Contempt comes from the heart, but so does compassion.  Despair comes from the heart, but so does hope. 
            The good news of the gospel is that our hearts can be changed.  We can look at each other and our world with love, then put that love into action.  We have the capability to change ourselves and the world for the better.  It just has to come from the heart.  Amen.

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