Sermon preached August 17, 2014
Texts: Matthew 15:10-28
So which would you rather be? Would you rather be the person who “always does the right thing” but often with little joy, without having her or his heart in it, or a person who “follows their own bliss,” but often leaves behind a mess, particularly relationship wreckage? Neither seems very appealing does it?
If forced to choose, I would hope most of us would choose to be that person who does the right thing, does their duty. The world is just a little better place when we all seek to do what is good and right. As a Boy Scout, I was encouraged to do a good turn daily. Acting on our intentions to do good matters.
Here is where things can get a little muddy, though. Good intentions don’t always lead to actions that produce good results, even though the good is intended. On our vacation we visited the home of President Rutherford B. Hayes in the small town of Fremont, Ohio. Hayes’ home is a museum, and on the grounds is the first presidential library established in the United States. Hayes was a one-term president, elected in 1876. His was the only presidential election in our countries history decided in the House of Representatives. Hayes had lost the popular vote. By all accounts, Hayes was a good and decent person who sought to do his best for his country. “He serves his party best who serves his country best.” Yet it was under Hayes that the United States ended reconstruction, which resulted in a deep backsliding of civil rights for Black Americans, particularly in the South. And it was Hayes’ policies toward Native Americans which led to the establishment of Indian Schools, places where Native children were taken too and where they were forbidden to speak their languages – “kill the Indian, save the child.”
And if acting out of a sense of duty and good intentions does not always produce good results, we also need to admit that a sense of duty can become narrow, pinched – and that is not so good either.
Many of you know that my family and I vacationed in New York. We visited our older daughter in Rochester, NY and then spent some time in New York City. What you may not know is how we ended up in New York City. Our original plan was to travel into New Hampshire and Vermont, maybe even Maine, after we left our daughter’s. What happened?
The musical Les Miserable played in Duluth in July. Julie had mentioned to me earlier in the summer that she would like to see it, but the dates were not ideal. That week was Ruby’s Pantry on Thursday. I was scheduled to officiate at a wedding on Friday. Obviously these were part of doing the right thing for me. Saturday of that week, the Islamic Community of the Twin Ports, as part of an initiative of the Minnesota Council of Churches, invited community members to a Ramadan dinner. I thought it important to go, and I forgot about the possibility of Les Miserable. I have a pretty strong sense of trying to do the right thing. Julie was kind enough to offer to go with me to the dinner, though I had disappointed her about Les Mis. What made matters worse, though, was that there was some confusion about the time for the dinner, so when we arrived at the Islamic Community at the time specified, 7:00, the only people there were the half dozen community members who had come to dinner. No one from the Islamic Community was there. A few phone calls were made, and we discovered that they were not planning on arriving until 8:30. The meal happens following sunset. Out of my “sense of duty,” Julie missed her opportunity to see Les Miserable. So I proposed we go to New York City on our vacation to see a Broadway show.
This morning’s Scripture reading offers a different vision of life from either the vision of the rather joyless, duty-bound person or the person just doing their own thing regardless of the consequences to others. Jesus teaches about the human heart. Rules about what we eat miss the point, because “whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer.” The heart is what matters, and the heart expresses itself in what comes out in speech and in life.
The vision here is one of heart and life flowing together. It is a vision of speaking from the heart, living from the heart. In the past I have used the Mobius strip to speak about the kind of interconnection that we want to see in our lives – where the inner person, the heart, gets expressed in how we live, but also where how we live affects the inner person the heart. Do you know that the French word for “heart” (Coeur) is related to the English word for “core”? The life we are invited to by Jesus is a life where there is some congruence between our heart, our core, and what we say and do. It is not simply a vision of following our bliss, doing what comes naturally, because what we do also affects that core. The vision is of a good life flowing from a good heart, of an alignment between heart and life where one flows into the other, transforming the other. It is a vision of the active and on-going transformation of the heart and of life.
One of the ways I have appreciated thinking about this relationship between heart and life is in Frederick Buechner’s discussion of vocation. Reflecting on the idea of what God calls people to, Buechner writes: The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing cigarette ads, the chances are you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably me requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a), but probably aren’t helping your patients much either…. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. (Wishful Thinking, 118-119)
Heart and life aligned. Joy and goodness embracing. Core and surface woven together. This is God’s hope and dream and calling for our lives. This is the direction of the Spirit’s movement in our lives.
What makes this morning’s Scripture reading utterly fascinating is the ironic twist that occurs. Jesus says, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” Then there is the story of the Canaanite woman who approaches Jesus asking for help. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” What comes out of Jesus’ mouth? “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” That’s cold. What comes from the mouth proceeds from the heart? Yikes.
The tenacious and courageous woman does not give up. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” It is a transformative moment in the story. Something catches Jesus, surprises him, it seems. There is a change. “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” A change of heart and a new response leads to healing. Jesus idea of doing good gets enlarged, where it may have been a little bit pinched before.
With the saying and the story together it seems we have a vision of the kind of life God desires for us - heart and life aligned; joy and goodness embracing; core and surface woven together. We also have a way for letting our hearts be transformed – be open to the pain and courage in the world, let your heart be broken and touched and opened, be willing to be surprised, be open to growth and change, even changing our idea of what the good asks of us. This summer, a new definition of humility has come to me. At least I have never heard it put this way before. To be humble is to be open to being surprised, particularly surprised by God.
The kind of life God desires for us is a life where our hearts and lives are aligned, where joy and goodness embrace, where the core and the surface flow together and are woven together. That’s the kind of life God desires, and part of the journey to that life and in that life is a journey of openness to pain, to beauty, to being surprised.
Doing the right thing still matters, matters tremendously. We need to find the right things to do when we still suffer the kind of heartache we are suffering in Ferguson, Missouri. We can do better. We need to find the right things to do when we are reminded again of the amount of silent pain and suffering that can be part of even the most successful lives. Robins Williams suicide reminded us of that.
What we yearn for, what we long for, is doing the right thing with joy. What we yearn for and long for are hearts, are cores, that are deeply wise and compassionate and passionate for a better world. This is what God wants for us, too. We get there, in part, by being open to the hurt, pain, beauty, and brutality (“beautality” someone has called it), the wisdom, and courage we find around us. We get there by cultivating humble hearts.
The journey continues, together, with each other, with Jesus. Amen.