Craft of Preaching

Dear Working Preacher

Insights, ideas and inspiration related to the coming week's lectionary texts.

Searching the Heart

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"Lily Heart," image by Kathrin & Stefan Marks via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


No one is exempt from a strong searching of the heart. That’s the first thing that we should notice about these selected verses from Mark 7. The Pharisees, the crowds, the disciples are all called to an examination of just how much their religious acts, their various rituals, even their dedication to following God’s law actually correlate with the love they hope to profess in their hearts. It’s a hard truth to hear -- how more often than not our faith lives seem disassociated from what we think we believe, what we want to believe.

And it’s another hard truth to hear that what we want to believe about the goodness of our hearts is frequently not true. That as much as we will ourselves to have a decent and right heart, every heart is susceptible to evil, to corruption. But before we go the route of “we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves,” and so Jesus comes along to free us from the evil the lurks deep in the recesses of our innermost being, a reminder is in order -- the heart is capable of both good and evil. And following Jesus will require a rather constant vigilance to just what side of the heart is showing its true colors.

Perhaps this moment is Jesus’ way of calling out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Perhaps it’s Jesus’ way of telling the crowds just what it takes to be one his followers. Perhaps it’s Jesus’ way of foreshadowing for the disciples both Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial. But perhaps also it’s Jesus’ way of communicating to us just how delicate and difficult faith is. Not just for us, but because how we exercise our faith also affects others. The Kingdom of God relies on our watchfulness as to just what side of our hearts is revealed in our behavior.

This past week, Republican Senator from Arizona, John McCain, died of brain cancer. Quickly, my Facebook and Twitter feeds filled up with tributes to McCain, expressing admiration of his service to the country, his patriotism, and his courage. Most interesting in reading through the various accolades and homages was the consistency of the reverences and regards. Regardless of political loyalties or partisanship, the praise for McCain centered on the senator’s constancy in how his leadership, his decisions, his relationships revealed his true heart. That there was a perceivable correlation between the beliefs of his heart and his behavior in his career as a politician.

Living a correlate life is not something you can fake. But we try hard, so very hard, thinking that we can fool others and ourselves with our good intentions, all the while masking our true feelings with what we have determined as anticipated and acceptable good behavior for a Christian. All the while convincing ourselves that our actions are indeed worthy of God’s desires, that our actions are truly demonstrative of God’s will and not subject to the will to impress, the will to communicate success, the will to suppress what we don’t want people to see.

A sermon on this text could take two dangerous turns. One would be that we are all worthless worms, incapable of good in any form, and thus need Jesus to save us from our sorry state. Why is this dangerous? Well, it reeks of supercessionism. That without Jesus, the evil to which we are inclined will rule our hearts indefinitely. That salvation, and typically, Jesus’ death on the cross, is being saved from our valueless selves and that without Jesus, if you are not a Christian, not a believer in Jesus, you are inherently evil.

A second dangerous turn is that it gets us off the hook far too easily. Jesus doesn’t show up to relieve us from self-examination. The Christian life demands that we revisit, and often, our heart’s intentions, not for the sake of being good and moral people, above reproach and devoid of criticism, but because complacency and compliance are quick to take over even the most earnest of believers.

The bottom line is that we don’t want to believe that we are capable of showing the underside, the underbelly, of our identities. It is just plain hard to admit our own proficiencies in and tendencies toward that which is not on the heart of God. Why? Because all too quickly, hearing the truth about our shortcomings, our imperfections, our inabilities, turns into doubts about our vocations and a sense of unworthiness, that God could not possibly rely on us to reveal the heart of God to others. And then, it becomes easy to dismiss God’s need for our active witness to the manifestation of the Kingdom of God here and now. God’s need for our persistence in living out and pointing to the principles of the Kingdom of God when others deny or disbelieve its presence in our midst.

No one is exempt from a strong searching of the heart. But maybe we can hear grace in these words, because our searching, earnestly and intently, could lead others to finding God’s heart.

Karoline

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