August 29, 2021 / 14th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer
First Reading Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9 / Second Reading James 1:17-27 / Gospel Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
Living by Heart
When I was a boy, my mom’s entire extended family – about 30 of us all together – would gather on Christmas morning at the home of her Uncle Bob and Aunt Mae. The night before was a bit more formal: Christmas Eve worship and a big dinner at my grandparents’, after which we opened all the presents. Christmas Day was a more relaxed affair. We would gather mid-morning for breakfast. Uncle Bob had a special way of preparing heaping mounds of fluffy scrambled eggs for all the aunts and uncles and cousins. Aunt Mae made a coffee cake shaped like a Christmas tree that you could just grab and pull off a delicious hunk of warm, frosted, cinnamon goodness. After breakfast, most of us would end up down in the basement where there was a large pool table that even us kids were allowed to use and enjoy – as long as we were careful with the pool cues.
There was also a big upright piano in the basement – and when the kitchen was all cleaned up, Uncle Bob would come down and start playing. Uncle Bob was more exuberant and outgoing than your typical Swede. He was full of joyful energy. He would play just about everything on that piano: Christmas carols, of course – but also show tunes, ragtime, honky tonk, you name it. What amazed me, even as a young boy, was that he played it all by heart – without a single sheet of music. The joy and goodness just flowed through his fingers and filled the room with warmth and vitality.
Uncle Bob was a larger-than-life character. It was a joy to be around him. I really don’t know if he could read music or not – but he sure knew how to make music – how to let the music come to life through him. The music came straight from his heart – and so it reached our hearts as well.
Living as a Christian is meant to be something like that. Christianity is a way of living by heart – letting the love and joy of the Lord flow through us to bless those around us.
+ + + +
Of course there is a whole lot to study and to know about being a Christian. The Bible is a big and challenging book. There’s 2,000 years of Christian history. There’s no end to the many books of Christian theology and Bible commentary. One of the main things I learned in three years of study at seminary is just how much there is that I don’t know about Christianity.
And yet being a Christian isn’t a matter of knowing a lot. Most of the first Christians could not read or write. Living faithfully isn’t a matter of knowing a lot – it’s more about having a heart for God. It’s a matter of how we actually go about our lives, day by day. I’ve always appreciated the last line of our Mission Statement. God calls us to follow Christ, make disciples and live the gospel.
Living the gospel is living like Jesus: freely, abundantly, graciously. You and I are not called to be busybodies, telling other people what they should and shouldn’t do. Instead, we are to let the light of faith and hope and love shine forth in the way we go about our ordinary days. We do need to know something about the Gospel of Christ in order to live it. And we must believe the gospel is true in order to want to live it. Week by week we gather together to hear the gospel (and it’s always good to be reminded). But our calling, our purpose, is to live the gospel, as best we can.
In our Second Reading today, James encourages us to “be doers of the word, not merely hearers.” The good news of the gospel comes to life as you and I actually go about living the new way of life we see and hear in Jesus. The prophet Jeremiah speaks of having God’s law “written on our hearts.” Like a song you have memorized, you don’t have to look up the Golden Rule or “Love your neighbor as yourself” – you know it by heart.
The way of Jesus is caught more than it is taught. We catch on to what it is to live as a Christian by hanging around other faithful, loving Christians. I can’t recall anything specific my Sunday School teachers taught me. But I still remember their faith and devotion. It was clear to me they believed in Jesus.
In the scriptures, the heart is understood as the center of a person’s being – the seat of both thoughts and emotions, the essence of one’s character. The notion is familiar to us as well. We speak of individuals as being warm-hearted or cold-hearted, hard-hearted or soft-hearted, heartless and big-hearted. When we speak “from the heart,” we are sharing our true and essential selves. When we are heartbroken, we feel pain in the depths of our souls. Jesus spoke frequently of the heart:
+ He described himself as “gentle and lowly in heart.” (Matthew 11:20)
+ He said: “Blessed are the pure in heart.” (Matthew 5:5)
+ “Love the Lord with all your heart.” (Matthew 22:37)
+ “Set your hearts on God’s Kingdom first.” (Matthew 6:32)
+ “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)
Faithfulness is a matter of the heart – and so also is sinfulness. Jeremiah spoke of having God’s law in our hearts. Jeremiah also pointed to the heart’s potential to turn from God’s ways: “The heart is devious above all else it is perverse – who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Jesus criticized the Pharisees for keeping up appearances and living out the letter of the law – while sometimes being heartless and missing the spirit of God’s law. He said, “Their hearts are far from me.” Jesus declared that it’s not outward things that corrupt a person (like eating with unwashed hands) but inward things – what’s in a person’s heart. He said, “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, envy, slander, pride, folly.” (quite a list!) As Jesus said another time: “By their fruits you will know them….” The fruits of the Spirit grow from a changed heart, a believing and loving heart.
+ + + +
In biology, we learn the basics of how a human heart works. Blood flows into the heart and back to sustain life. The heart is characterized by constant rhythm and flow. In the same way, God’s love flows into our hearts, and then flows out to touch the hearts of others. Ultimately, each heart will be formed by something. If not by the love of God, then it may be pride, or jealousy, or fear, or greed or despair that molds our hearts.
To follow Christ is to have a heart that is open to his steadfast love and grace. It’s about letting his goodness come to life in us, just like the music came to life when my Uncle Bob played the piano. It’s learning to live by heart.
Thanks be to God.