"The Heart of the Matter"

March 16, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:24

The Psalmist cried out to the Lord: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me." (51:10) In reply Jeremiah promised for God, "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people." (31:33) Ezekiel continued the Lord’s refrain, "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you..." (36:26-27)

I’ve thought a lot about hearts this past week. In the first place, I was in the Cathardization lab of St. Joseph hospital on two consecutive days, first with sister Margaret Bayless, and then with brother Bob Marsh. At the end of that second day Bob underwent open heart surgery. No, it wasn’t a new heart he received, but it was a new valve, replacing one put in 13 years ago. We’re not sure it’s going to work. The last I heard his heart was unable to beat on its own without a pacemaker. Unless some things change for the better, major decisions need to be made.

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies," Jesus said, "it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."(John 12:24) Between Bob and brother Herb Reed, who’s condition over at Franklin Square hospital is likewise not very good, death has also been on my mind. A new heart... a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying... this is a time for such thoughts. You see, we’re in the middle of "March Madness." No, I’m not talking about what’s happening out on the basketball court as all these college teams strive for the final four. Nor am really speaking about Cathardizations, heart surgeries, hospital stays, or even funerals down the road, whether they be sooner or later.

No, the "March madness" I’m referring to is this season of Lent, which reaches its high point (or low point, depending on how you look at it) next week. It is both a "march" and a "madness," a journey toward death. "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies," Jesus said, speaking of his own crucifixion, "it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." In the quest for the NCAA men’s basketball crown, only one team wins - but in a way, all win through the effort. In the madness of Lent, however, only one person loses - but in a way, all lose (and yet gain). "By his stripes we are healed," promised Isaiah. The seed bears fruit.

Next weekend is a vital one for the life of this congregation. I hope you are taking this spiritual growth opportunity seriously. I know we live very busy lives, torn in so many different directions. Several of us will not be able to attend part or (for a few) any of the events planned. Still, we need this weekend. Is your heart in it? Are you really anticipating something good happening? I hope so. Your heart’s desire is important!

Speaking of which, let me ask: what are you expecting out of this coming weekend? I’m excited about the possibilities. From one perspective, I think it’s going to be fun. Jonathan specifically asked for time to share with the children. In fact, Friday and Saturday night we’ve planned to let him have them for a whole half hour while the rest of us clean up from our meal and sing. The native church he served in southern Africa was a people on the move, literally marching from village to village, much like the women of the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, who share the good news by walking and singing from home to home. I have a feeling Jonathan will have our children (and maybe even us older folks) marching through the sanctuary. Remember the song he taught us, "Thuma Mina," which is now in our hymnal? All our kids will be with us for at least part of each session, and then head to child care. You older children will need to decide with your parents whether you’ll leave or stay with us adults for the whole time. Jonathan is a master story teller, and he will be plowing the fertile ground of the Gospel of Luke to bring alive the stories of Jesus for us. I’m excited! Are you?

Still, let me ask again, what is it you are expecting out of this weekend? It’s good to have expectations, just so long as we’re willing to let them go if something better comes our way. As you anticipate it now, what do you hope will be different after this weekend from before? Are you envisioning change? If so, what do you hope will be different?

I guess I’m trying to get to the "heart" of the matter. The heart, you know, is more than merely a physical organ which pumps blood to all parts of the human body. Figuratively speaking, we think of the heart as the seat of the human soul. It’s not just feelings that come from the heart. Now, mind you, emotions are very important. But the heart also involves our will, what drives us forward or backward. If our "heart" isn’t in something, we won’t go anywhere.

God has always struggled with the human heart. The Bible, you could say, is a series of "heart to heart" talks between God and the people he created. There have been times, too numerous to count, when we’ve turned our back on this relationship with God, our heart has seemingly been stolen away. By the same token, too many are the occasions when we’ve only played at this relationship, making a game out of it, only half-heartedly involved. I say "we" because we today are part of the ongoing story. If we see ourselves as only interested bystanders to the great drama of redemption, then where is our heart?

In your heart of hearts, what are you expecting out of next weeked? Will there be a difference when it is over? If so, what will be changed? Will it be you? Is that one of your dream of dreams? Maybe you are longing for what John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, once called the "strange warming of his heart." Perhaps, for whatever reason, your heart has felt in the grip of a coldness that needs the warmth of the Holy Spirit, whether for the first time or after a winter of the soul. You know, it doesn’t matter what we call it: spiritual growth, renewal, revival (as in the old days), the intent is to fire up the heart, isn’t it?

I hope you are expecting to be changed. I don’t presume to say how. That’s not in my hands, and really - when it comes right down to it - it’s not in any of our hands. We may not "feel" any different afterward. That doesn’t mean God hasn’t touched the heart. It may not even be individual. That is, we tend to think of spiritual growth as a personal affair, something only between "me and God." While it does need to be personal, the "heart" of which Bible speaks is much bigger than you or I. Literally, Jeremiah said, "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their "heart" (singular). God’s promise was to "the whole house of Israel," to the "people," not just a collection of individuals. Ezekiel’s promise of a new heart was likewise to the people as a whole.

So, let me ask, what are you expecting out of this weekend for our church? How will we be different afterward? Will there be a difference? It may be that the change God brings about in our common heart will not be easily seen. That doesn’t make it any less real, however. Think of the heart, now, as the physical organ which pumps blood to all parts of the body. Nutrients from the food we eat, and oxigen from the air we breath are thus provided to every cell. If spiritual growth is to happen, it needs to take place in the heart of this body which we call the church. Now, the heart is not the institution, the committees, the bylaws, the pastor of this congregation. It’s rather the place where we beat together in unison. Where is this common heart? What is the "spirit" of this church? (Same question). Every church has a spirit, you know. Look at the book of Revelation, chapters 2 and 3. The 7 churches spoken of there each had an angel, a spirit - if you will, a collective personality. The letters to the 7 churches were addressed to the heart of those congregations.

Our congregation also has a heart. If this heart is not awakened, then all personal hearts will be asleep. Likewise, if each of our hearts is not touched by God’s Spirit, whether we say it’s "strangely warmed," "revived," "renewed," or experiences "spiritual growth," then the heart of this church will be cold, dead, old, or stuck in place. Both our inner hearts and our collective heart need this newness promised by God. As you prepare for renewal, pray for both, aware of what your expectations are for this weekend.

The good news is like a seed planted in, a Word written upon our heart. Don’t forget, now, what Jesus said about seeds , "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."

1997Peter L. Haynes

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