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A Heart Close to God

  • September 2, 2018
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for 2 September 2018 (Proper 17 Year B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             1 Kings 8.1-13, 27-30 REV; Psalm 84; Mark 7.1-8,14-15,21-23

Title:               A Heart Close To God

“Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’” (Mark 7.6).

My dear friends, my fellow disciples: where is your heart? Is it close to God? Or is it far from God?

Our first reading today comes from the dedication of the Temple of Solomon, somewhere around 950 years before the time of Christ.

Solomon prays as he dedicates the Temple to the glory of God and he quotes this odd yet fascinating quote from an unknown source: “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8.13).

No one seems to know quite what this means. Perhaps it refers to the cloud that filled the Temple in the previous verse, though the reference is not clear.

In any case, a cloud always signifies mystery, the unknown, the imperceivable.

Think of the cloud that encapsulated Mount Sinai when Moses talked with God. Or the cloud that surrounded the apostles on the mount of Transfiguration. Or at the Ascension, where the text states that a “cloud took the Lord out of their sight” (Acts 1.9).

The cloud obscures what we can see with our eyes. And perhaps that is the entire point. Because we humans are far too quick to trust in what we think we see with these eyes.

Yesterday morning I got sucked into watching the funeral of Senator John McCain at our National Cathedral ( Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad I watched it, but it took a lot more time than I really wanted, though I could not bring myself to turn it off.

Throughout the week, the celebration of John McCain’s life has paid tribute to his ability to look at the heart of a person rather than the exterior.

Larry Fitzgerald, the great wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, spoke earlier in the week about his surprising friendship with McCain. At a memorial service in Arizona, Fitzgerald said:

“Many people might wonder what a young African-American kid from Minneapolis, and a highly decorated Vietnam War hero turned United States senator might have in common…But that’s just who he is…[John] evaluated people on the merits of their character and the contents of their hearts.”

You see, there are people like John McCain who come to understand at least a bit about what Jesus was teaching the people so long ago.

That it is not what happens on the outside that matters, including the expression of your particular DNA. It is who you are on the inside that matters.

I must admit that yesterday I experienced a sense of pride, a bit of justifiable pride in my opinion, at how well our Episcopal Church was represented.

Using the very same Book of Common Prayer that we are using today, the Bishop of Washington presided over the gathering of presidents and senators and admirals and generals and leaders from around the world.

And that particular Bishop is a woman. Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde. Who presided over that gathering with grace and dignity and aplomb.

In a world where so many remain fixated on external characteristics, on the superficial things that differentiate one human body from the next, in a world where so many still believe that a woman cannot do what a man can do, in this very world our church stands as a witness to the teaching of Jesus the Messiah that it is not the exterior of a human body that matters in the sight of God!

No, it is the heart that matters. Quoting the prophet Isaiah, the Lord Jesus said, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Mark 7:6). And as far as I can tell, it does not seem to matter whether those lips are male lips or female lips or gender-neutral lips!

In his context, Jesus was answering a question about keeping the law, observing the commandments of God. This was a open question in his day, a running debate about the best way to do things.

The context was very different, but the message of his teaching was clear then and it remains so today. It is not what happens on the outside that matters.

There is no characteristic of your physical body that can ever disqualify you from being God’s beloved.

Look, we’ve all heard this a thousand times before. We’ve all heard Dr. King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington in 1963 when he shared his longing for his children to live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I am certain that every teenager and adult in American has heard this, and yet…it is so hard not to judge people by what we see with our eyes.

With these eyes. They lie to us. They deceive us. They lead us astray.

Somehow, even millions of faithful Christians are led astray by what they see on the outside.

Forgive me if this seems to be a cheap shot at the Vatican, but somehow the Magisterium in Rome has lost sight of this teaching of Jesus and instead they continue to insist that only men can faithfully represent the Lord. Only men, because – well, you know – men are better.

Is it because the hearts of men are more pure and more godly and more righteous?

All of the evidence that we can gather clearly suggests the opposite. In fact, it may be that men are beset even more than women by evil intentions in the heart.  And yet, sadly, the stubborn folly of Rome continues.

The famous Buddhist teacher, Tich Nhat Hahn, once remarked that people consider walking on water to be a miracle. But, to him, walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle.

He may be a Buddhist, but I think he’s on to something. I think he perceives a deep truth about the teachings of Jesus.

Walking on water, healing the sick, feeding the five thousand, even raising the dead – all of these things mean nothing compared to the miracle of being liberated from sin, from evil intentions and passions in the heart.

Slander comes from evil intentions in the heart. As does pride and adultery and deceit, as well as anger and greed and so much more.

These are the things that corrupt and destroy the beauty of God’s creation. And that corrupt and destroy our lives.

This is where we need God’s power and cleansing grace. Not to heal our bodies, but to heal our hearts.

Listen closely to another teaching from the Desert Tradition which understands what Jesus is trying to teach us.

And elder said: “For this is the true progress of the soul, that day-by-day it holds itself yet more humble, saying that every [other person] is better than I am. [For] without this thought, even if [one] performs miracles and even raise the dead, [that one’s heart] is a long way from God” (Apophthegmata Patrum Anonymous N 592.27).

Unless day-by-day we are growing in humility, no matter what amazing feats we might accomplish, no matter what victories we might claim – without daily growth in humility, our hearts are moving away from God.

And so, my dear friends, my fellow disciples: where is your heart? Is it moving closer to God? Or farther away from God?

If it is your goal to be close to God, to live a life that is integrated and whole and in harmony with God’s will and purpose and design for your life, then train yourself not to judge the exterior of any person.

Train yourself not to evaluate life on the basis of what you see with these eyes. Train yourself to look deeper. And pray. Pray for a pure heart, for a heart that is free, for a heart that is saturated with the goodness of God.

May it always be so among us. Amen.

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