Sermon May 22, 2016 "Heart Condition"


Sermon Title: Heart Condition                                                                                 Scripture Lessons: Acts 2:42-47 and Romans 5:1-5                                                 Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

Heart disease is one of the biggest health threats in America today. We all know people with heart-related health problems. We know folks whose hearts beat irregularly and they have a defibrillator or a pace maker. There are doubtless those who have had angioplasty among us this morning. We know people who have had bypass surgery and valve replacement. And even heart transplants have become routine since the first such surgery in 1967. We know people who have what is commonly called “hardening of the arteries” with the build up of plaque in the arteries limiting blood flow. We know people with high blood pressure. All these conditions and more limit the full functioning of the heart, which, of course, is necessary to the functioning of the body.

Symbolically, the heart is also essential to good health and happiness. The term “heart” is used to refer to the seat of emotion, will, and purpose. “She stole my heart.” “My heart wasn’t in it.” “Have a heart.” The military gives the honor of the purple heart. We talk about someone being cold hearted – uncompassionate and insensitive. All these examples show how we use the term heart to refer to our emotional state as well as our sense of moral courage.

The Hebrew word for heart, lev, implies the seat of emotion, the mind, and the actual organ in the chest. There are many examples in the Psalms of orienting one’s whole heart to God: “Happy are those who keep God’s decrees, who seek God with their whole heart.” [119:2] “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart.” [119:34] “I will give thanks to God with my whole heart.” [9:1] This expresses the intention to be completely devoted to God, with emotion, intellect, and body. In addition, the heart was thought of as the throne of God in the human being.
Our tradition tells us that we are born as God intends: With a heart oriented to God. With a heart filled with divine love. We are created with the capacity to love as God loves. We see this exemplified in the life of Jesus who shows us what it is to live a human life with a whole heart devoted to God; fully expressing divine love in our daily lives and sharing that love with the world.

That is the ideal of which we are all capable. But things happen. Life intercedes. We are hurt or betrayed by those we love. And our hearts break. Disappointment gathers as life goes on. Guilt burdens us. We have regrets. These things start to block the love in our hearts like the plaque that clogs our arteries. We look back on what we should have done. We are sorry about the path we chose. We did not live up to our dreams. We disappointed others who are important to us. Perhaps we have experienced neglect or abuse. Maybe our failures weigh on us. All these things make our hearts heavy. Maybe restricting the flow of love. To ourselves. To others. And to the world.

The gift of our faith is that it is intended to help our hearts be healthy, yes, physically, but also spiritually. Our spiritual path is one of heart health. The Christian faith helps us to work through the difficulties and challenges of life in a way that encourages healthy hearts – hearts of single purpose, hearts flowing with love, hearts committed to the common good, hearts of moral courage. The kind of heart that we see in Jesus.

In the scripture that we heard today from Acts, we heard about the follow up to Pentecost. Last week we commemorated that glorious festival that marks the beginning of the church. After Peter preaches about the infinite love and grace of God as seen in Jesus, love and grace so vast that it includes those responsible for the killing of Jesus, 3000 people choose to be baptized. Three thousand people find themselves moved to accept this God of grace and love. Three thousand people want to be part of this new reality, this new creation, which is really a return to the original intent of creation – humanity and nature and God living in harmony, an appreciation of the sacred in all of creation, a spirituality without the keeping of accounts, a way of life in which no gift is too great, even the giving of one’s life for the good of the world, a new vision of community in which everyone has an equal place at the table.

On Pentecost we see people drawn to this vision: People whose lives are clogged by poverty and the oppression of the Romans. Those whose consciences are heavy with guilt, perhaps even over the death of Jesus. Those who are tired of a religious establishment that seems more intent on taking than giving. People hear a message of grace and hope that is life-giving and life-affirming and inclusive of all. They sense the presence of a bigger God, a universal God, a loving God not a judging God. Their hearts rejoice in this good news.

So the story tells us that 3000 are baptized. What did they do then? We are told that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” So they have had this transcendent moment but that is just the beginning. To follow up, the people immerse themselves in this new community and in the teachings of Jesus. They meet together, eat together, pray together, discuss and spend time together. Daily. They reorient their lives. They put their energy, time, and effort into going deeper into this new way of life. Like the changes in diet and the regular exercise needed for the health of the physical heart, these people show us a reorientation of their daily lives that supports their commitment to the health of their spiritual/emotional hearts, their center. They are committed to working to get rid of former habits, former ways of thinking, former behaviors and attitudes that block their living wholeheartedly for the God they have experienced through Jesus.

For some, this new wholehearted spiritual devotion with its disciplines and commitment meant leaving family. Some families were so against this new movement that they would try everything to keep their loved ones from pursuing involvement with these Jesus followers. And the new believers were so convicted and passionate about this spiritual path to new life that they were forced to choose between family and the Jesus way. And many chose the way of Jesus. Yes, mothers even left their children. For some who were drawn to this movement, it meant leaving jobs and work, and facing the challenge of economic uncertainty. It was a drastic, risky commitment, this new path toward heart health.

Then we are told of how the people sold their possessions and pooled their resources and thus provided for the needs of all. This is definitely a communitarian arrangement. And it was as wild and controversial an arrangement then as it appears to us today. I am intrigued by this portrayal of the community and how it relates to heart health. One way to look at it is that the people’s hearts have become so healthy, so filled with the love of God, that they freely abandoned their attachment to property and wealth and held nothing back: The love pushed the blockage of attachment to ownership out of the way. When we look at it this way, we may think that our hearts are just still too clogged for such signs and wonders today. We are willing to give, maybe a trickle, but we aren’t enlightened enough to expect the wild rush of the opened floodgates of generosity.

Another way of looking at this, though, is that in light of the teaching and praying and fellowshipping, they were directed perhaps by the leaders, to put their money where their mouths were. They were told in the teaching that this is the way of Jesus. That this is humility. That this is universality. That this is equally valuing each person as God does. That this is an expression of full devotion and trust in God as we see it in Jesus. No holding on to money or property as security or for status. Full blown devotion to God and God alone means giving up your possessions and property and knowing that you and everyone else will be taken care of. It is a giving up of control and power, things that can block the flow of love. So maybe those early Jesus followers did this because they were directed to. They were told to do this because it would make their hearts healthy. Maybe they chose to remove the blockage. And then they experienced the full flow of love.

We are told that “they ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people. And day by day God added to their number those who were being saved.” Maybe this happened, this gratitude, this sense of well being, this intense experience of life-giving community, maybe that came as a result of their having sold their possessions and goods. Maybe you don’t experience the full love and joy until you completely release your attachment to your money and goods and all that is associated with it. So maybe the utopian community developed because they gave up their private property. Maybe the full flow of love was possible because they removed that obstacle.

So when it comes to setting free the flow of love, sometimes it might be that we need to do the work of removing the obstacles and that might involve risky, daring choices. And sometimes it may be that the love pushes the blockage out of the way. I think it can happen both ways.
When we hear these stories of the early Jesus community, we see that to reorient your life to a whole new world view – the common good, a radically egalitarian vision of community, including economics – is drastic and taxing. Life giving. Yes. Passionate. Yes. But also challenging.

So, we see that there is suffering and sacrifice involved. Paul, who wrote the epistle to the Romans, knew well of this. He went from persecuting Jesus followers to planting churches. He endured the hazards and discomforts of traveling far and wide in the Roman Empire. He left the economic security of his profession. He left the social connections of his community. And for his wholehearted zeal for the love and grace of God that he experienced in the way of Jesus, he was jailed and finally killed. So, he knew well the pain and risk that can come from commitment of one’s whole heart to God.

People of the first century, much like people of today, expected their devotion to God to lead to an easy life including health, economic prosperity, and status in the community. Those were the expected consequences of devotion to God. But the crucifixion of Jesus, and the killing of his followers, and the persecution of the early Christians, tell a different story. Our tradition shows us that faith, and dedication to the way of love, does not necessarily lead to a life of ease and comfort. In fact, it may quite likely lead to the opposite. But this should not be a cause of despair because, as we are told in Romans, suffering, too, can bear fruit in a way that contributes to heart health. Maybe it is like strenuous exercise for the physical heart.

Here we want to note that commitment to the gospel leads to suffering when we are in solidarity with others who are being oppressed, or when we choose to make a sacrifice for the good of others. That kind of suffering is redemptive. This is not an endorsement of suffering for suffering’s sake. It is not encouragement of abuse of ourselves or others. It is not a defense of the inevitability of victimhood for some as a good thing. When we are effected by undeserved suffering, I think of those harmed in war, or those who have been raped, or the grief of the loved ones of someone who has been shot, this is not suffering that has been sent to improve the person’s character. But, whatever befalls us, it can be redeemed. Through God, all things can work together for good. All things are possible.

As we are told in Romans, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts . . .” [Romans 5:4-5] So suffering, however it may come, can lead to our seeing more clearly the love of God that has been poured into our hearts.

Sometimes it is through these challenges that we learn to depend on God. It can be in times of hardship that we see all that we have to grateful for. In times of desperation, we may feel more fully the divine love that is flowing into us to meet our need. We may discover divine love within ourselves and others that we never could have supposed was there. So even pain and hardship – whether a consequence of conscience, chosen sacrifice, or victimization – can help to promote heart health in people.

The way of God provides us with many different paths to help lead us to heart health. To help us be healthy of heart, wholehearted in our devotion to love. Fully committed to a life of purpose and moral courage.

So, to be physically healthy, we need our fist-sized hearts to pump out 6 quarts of blood through our 60,000 miles of blood vessels supplying nutrition and oxygen to our tissues and organs and removing carbon dioxide and other waste from our system. And heart health is, for the most part, something that is the result of personal choices. What we eat, our exercise and activity level, and whether we smoke are the main factors in determining whether our hearts are healthy.

In terms of our spiritual heart health, we also see that healthy habits contribute – study and learning, relationships with people of common commitments, eating together, praying, suffering and serving together. All these things help to keep divine love flowing in our lives, in our communities, and in the world. So, here’s to a healthy heart. Amen.

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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