Sermon “Need a New Heart?”
I worry about the state of my heart. Now I need to explain that this is not some abstract metaphor for my spiritual condition or my moral conduct, I mean this in a completely literal sense. The heart I worry about is that part of me that works 24/7, pumping oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the rest of my body.
I have memorized the warning signs and know that it doesn’t normally happen like a movie heart-attack, where a person clutches his or her chest and falls over. The warning signs are:
Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the centre of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
Shortness of breath. Often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.
Other symptoms. May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness.
Now the reason I am worried is that I was born this way, not as a worrier but as a potential heart attack person. My father had open heart surgery at the age of 45 and died before he was 60 on the operating table for his third open heart surgery. So when I am doing my cardio exercises in the early morning, I pray part of the fifty-first Psalm in a literal way— “Put a new heart in me, O God, and give me again a constant breath. Do not cast me away from your presence, do not take your holy breath from me.”
A number of years ago, because of my anxiety, my doctor sent me to the hospital for a stress test. It will be painless I was told. Yeah right! First, the nurse comes in with a razor and shaves off all that chest hair that I had from eating as a child all that horrible tasting food that “would put hair on your chest.” So already I am suffering painful memories. Then eight wires are attached to my body and I am put on a treadmill. In about five minutes the track is steeper and faster than what I do in the gym, and the doctor asks every minute “are you feeling any discomfort?” The only discomfort at this point was with my ego—I should have done more cardio before I came in for this test. It was no longer my heart being tested—it was my whole sense of self-worth. Anyway, to make this long story short—at fifteen minutes my legs gave out…my heart was fine.
“Put a new heart in me, O God, and give me again a constant breath:” and, if you have time, do something about my legs.
An interesting thing has been happening to my heart these past weeks—it has become a little numb—and I mean this figuratively because there is no other way to describe the condition. I became aware of my heart’s condition when I heard one of the latest Donald Trump jokes.
Donald Trump and General John Kelly are sitting in a bar. A guy walks in and asks them, “What are you guys doing?” “We’re planning World War III,” Trump says. “We’re going to kill 10 million North Koreans and one bicycle repairman.” The guy exclaims, “Why kill a bicycle repairman?!” Trump turns to Kelly and says, “See, I told you no one would worry about the 10 million North Koreans!”
In 1954 Chairman Mao, the leader of China, told Nehru, the leader of India, that “China has many people, the atomic bomb is nothing to be afraid of…the death of ten or twenty million people is nothing to be afraid of.” In 1957 in Moscow, Mao boasted that he was “willing to lose 300 million people.”
Two thousand years ago after one battle, Emperor Qin, the first Emperor of China, killed four hundred thousand prisoners. After another, he located all the members of families who were his mother’s family’s enemies and had them buried alive.
Quite recently, English policy deliberately starved a million men, women and children in Ireland—one person in eight. Pol Pot killed one (or two) million of his own Cambodians—again one (or two) of eight. Stalin’s decision to export grain, long before his 1934 purges, killed ten million peasants. Another ten million Soviet citizens died in purges and gulags. In 1994 Rwandan Hutus killed eight hundred thousand Tutsis in one hundred days. Syrian Civil War today—now half a million.
What does it mean for our hearts when we become simply spectators of calamities taking place in another country? What hope is there for our hearts if they become cold as stones? “Put a new heart in me, O God” because this one that I have cannot contain all these numbers. Each victim’s personal death, possesses its unique history and sacred form. My heart echoes the questions of Susan Sontag, “Are war images promotions of agony or invitations to mourn?”
In the gospel reading for this fifth Sunday of Lent, Jesus is moving inescapably toward his death. He speaks of himself and his life as a grain of wheat that falls to the earth and dies before it can grow and bear fruit. It is actually a story of the very heart of God.
It is a story about a God who wins victories, not through the conventional means of power and glory, but through suffering and death.
Do you know why most churches do not have national flags placed in their sanctuaries? Actually, there may be many answers to that, but one that I think is worthy of consideration is that it might detract us from the cross. A flag may lift up one’s heart for courage in battle, but only the cross can lift up the heart for the Christian life.
If you have not seen the new movie “A Wrinkle in Time” based on Madeleine L’Engle’s timeless classic you should. With the characters you will journey across dimensions of time and space, examining the nature of darkness versus light and, ultimately, the triumph of love.
It is about Meg Murry who is a typical middle school student struggling with issues of self-worth and who just wants to fit in. The daughter of two world-renowned physicists, she is intelligent and uniquely gifted, as is Meg’s younger brother, Charles Wallace, but she has yet to realize it for herself. Complicating matters is the mysterious disappearance of Mr. Murry, which has left Meg devastated and her mother broken-hearted. Charles Wallace introduces Meg and her fellow classmate Calvin to three celestial beings who have journeyed to Earth to help search for their father, and together they embark on their formidable quest. Travelling via a wrinkling of time and space known as tessering, they are transported to worlds beyond their imagination where they must confront a powerful evil force. To make it back home to Earth, Meg must face the darkness within herself in order to harness the strength necessary to defeat the darkness rapidly enveloping the Universe.
It is the story that each person needs to live out as they face their own primal trauma, acknowledge it (that is name the sin-that that separates us from whom God intended us to be) and then to live in the light. Or as the movie says it become ‘warriors of the light.’
If you go see the movie, then you need to also read the book. In the traditional Disney fashion religion is stripped away. Naming Jesus and numerous Biblical quotes that are in the book are removed from the movie. But even more essential the movie ignores the books most important theological lesson: evil can take root anywhere, as long as it is offered the fertile soil of the human heart. The point of the book, the Bible and the life of Jesus is that love is as strong as death, but love costs—it involves self-sacrifice, courage and strength.
The theology of the cross is meeting God where God chooses to find us—in our sorrow, our pain, our weakness, in broken and contrite hearts.
God’s response to all the sound and fury of the world is to remain the crucified God. The crucified God is not a god who can be called upon to bless economic systems, military forces, or political powers.
The crucified God is the God who died at the hands of the Romans, in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, under the bomb at Hiroshima, of starvation in the Sub-Sahara, in the streets of El Salvador, in the deserts of Syria—and the God who lives now as Lord and will put an end to all gas chambers, all bombs, all hunger, all death squads. The crucified God does not try to explain our evil; the crucified God suffers and dies as a victim of our evil, and precisely in suffering and dying overcomes evil.
And, as the prophet Jeremiah said, “the days are surely coming” when we will have new hearts, all our hearts will be at one with the heart of God, the land will be at peace, the thirsty will be given drink, the hungry will be fed and death itself will be no more.