Sermon 22 Pentecost Year C (Proper 24)
October 16, 2016
St.Mark’s Episcopal Church, Fairland
The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde
Tend to Your Heart
Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” Luke 18:1-8a
Good morning, friends. I’m so happy to worship God with you today, and to spend time throughout the day in deeper conversation with you and your leaders. If you are a guest today, welcome to St. Mark’s! Please know how honored we are by your presence; we pray that you feel God’s love, mercy, and delight in you, and that you are among friends.
I’d like to draw your attention back to the first sentence from the passage just read from the Gospel of Luke, one of the four accounts we have in Scripture of Jesus’ life and teachings:
Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lost heart.
Now let me ask you a question:
When someone who loves you, and whom you trust as wise in ways that you are not, tells you not to worry about something, what do you suppose you’re doing in that moment? You’re probably worrying. Or if that person tells you not to be afraid, how do you suppose you’re actually feeling? Afraid.
So when Jesus told his disciples not to lose heart, it’s a safe assumption that in that moment their hearts were somehow lost, that the disciples were feeling disheartened and discouraged.
We all know what that’s like; I know that I do. I know what it feels like to have waves of sadness or anxiety wash over me. I know what it feels like to feel stuck, desperately wanting a situation to change but also realizing that all my efforts to bring about change have come to naught, or even made things worse. I know what it feels like to worry about where we’re headed as a community or a people, and wondering what on earth can be done for the good. As bishop, I’m often asked or expected to speak on public issues or in response to what’s being reported in the media. I confess that these days, I can’t keep up with the latest offensive, deeply worrying statement from one presidential candidate in particular. How many times must we say that these things are unacceptable and dangerous to our country?
So when Jesus tells his disciples to about their need to pray always and not to lose heart, he’s speaking to me and to my heart. Perhaps he’s speaking to yours as well, if not to you, perhaps to one that you love.
You’ll notice that Jesus didn’t scold the disciples for losing heart. He knew that the disciples were carrying a lot in their hearts, as are we. They had good reason to lose heart, from time to time, as do we. Their hearts weren’t made of stone and neither are ours.
So let me ask you this: how can you tell when your heart is lost? Do you recognize the symptoms? For we each respond differently and sometimes we don’t realize that we’re losing heart until the symptoms surface and we need to take time to trace the symptoms back to their source. Some of us respond with sarcasm and cynicism; others with anger; still others by withdrawal, or maybe a combination of all these things. Sometimes we get really busy, as if to drown out the emptiness with activity; other times we zone out in front of the TV or computer screen, losing ourselves in distractions. When our hearts our lost, we’re particularly vulnerable to behaviors and substances that can become addictive because they seem to fill that empty space, at least for a time. Or we lash out at those we believe are to blame for the lostness we feel, or just as often, we lash out at ourselves.
It’s important to recognize your lost heart symptoms. You’re not a bad person when you’ve lost heart, but you’re not your best self. None of us is. And we’re particularly dangerous when we’ve lost heart and don’t realize it, when we assume we’re at our best and we’re not.
Your bishop knows something about this. I know what it’s like to try and make it through the day on an empty heart. And because I’m particularly strong-willed, I can go a long way on an empty heart. But it’s not good for me, nor, in the end, for those around me.
I remember one particularly empty time several years ago, when I was with a group of colleagues commiserating about the challenges of ministry. At some point in our meeting, the mood shifted and we allowed ourselves to be real with one another, rather than competitive. At some point I remember asking aloud, “Does it always have to be this hard?” No one responded in the moment, as I recall. But the next morning one of my colleagues, who had also been a mentor to me in years past, pulled me aside and said, “Mariann, I want you know that it doesn’t always have to be hard. You can get help, and I think you need help.”
She was right and I knew it. And when I returned home, I set myself on a path of asking for help, actively seeking out those who could help me find my heart again.
When you get to that place, of if you’re there now, where can you go to find your heart again? Or, put another way, what fills your heart? Who are the people that inspire you? And how might the loving-kindness of Jesus reach you when your heart is lost?
I cannot stress enough the importance of caring for your heart–both your physical heart which sustains the life force within you, and your spiritual heart, synonymous to your soul, the essence of who you are. For your heart’s wellbeing influences every aspect of your life experience and what you have to offer others. And hear me, church, when I say this: You are responsible for your heart.
One of the places I go to find my heart again, and to fill it, is in relationship to people who inspire me, both in real life and in history. I love hearing the stories of people who have persevered in hard times, who have found a way, in challenging circumstances, to live lives of joy, who do not succumb to cynicism or despair, but choose generous, loving lives in the midst of trial. That’s one reason I cannot wait to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I have read everything I can find about the museum. I watched the opening ceremonies online. I listened to the inspired speeches on that day. And I know it will compel me, as all who visit, to face the horror of slavery and its enduring legacy, but also the resilience and strength of African American people. Stories of resilience and enduring hope inspire me, they fill my heart.
One of my favorite songs by the singer/songwriter Holly Near speaks to this very “Change of Heart.” in response to other people. She writes:
Something changes in me when I witness someone’s courage
They may not know I’m watching, I may not let them know that
Something changes in me that will last me for a lifetime
To fill me when I’m empty, and rock me when I’m low.
Something changes in me anytime there’s someone singing
All the songs I’ve never forgotten, let our voices sing them strong.
Something changes in me anytime there’s someone standing
For the right to be completely all the good things that we are.
Something changes in me when my arms are held wide open
Fear and hate are set aside and only love remains
Something changes in me and I feel a deep emotion
While the ones who offer help replace the ones that just complain
There’s a change of heart
Anytime there’s someone counting
All the lives that won’t be thrown away
There’s a change of heart
Anytime you join the choir, be a voice up on the mountain, or see a fire in the rain.
Indeed, music is another place I go to fill my heart. Music inspires and strengthens me. I love listening to the freedom songs, to spirituals, hymns, and folk ballads. For the best music rises from the human soul in times of great struggle and brings forth the best of who we are.
And I go to a few places in Scripture to fill my heart, and I want to share them with you, and I hope as I do that you might think of places you might go, in Scripture and prayer to be filled.
The first is from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, in the place where he writes of the thorn in his flesh. Do you know that passage? He describes this thorn as something painful to him, something that “keeps him from being too elated.” And three times he asked the Lord to remove it and each time the Lord said no. But then “My grace will be sufficient for you,” God told him. “For my power is made perfect in weakness.” “Therefore I am content in weakness,” 2 Corinthians 12:7-12. What that says to me is that I can let go of the burden of being perfect. God has a way of using even my emptiness for good when I allow the Spirit of Jesus to fill it.
In that same letter, Paul also describes having the treasure of Christ’s presence and power in a clay jar. The Spirit of God pours through our humanity, which makes it quite clear that when the power comes, it comes from God and not from us. What this assures me is that it’s not up to me to bring God’s grace and love, but that it can flow through me even when I’m feeling like a clay jar.
And finally, I love the passage that we read today about persistence in prayer, because once again Jesus uses the most outrageous example to make his point. He wants to encourage us to persevere in prayer and so he tells of of a mean-spirited, hard hearted judge who finally succumbs to a pestering widow. I don’t think the point is that we should keep on knocking at the door until God gives us what we want. I think what he’s saying is that if we keep at it, keep at our relationship with Jesus, he will change us and fill our heart and we will be able to find our fulfillment not in what we can do but in what he accomplish through us.
Dear friends, let me close with how I began, with a gentle admonition as your bishop and sister in Christ: tend to your hearts. Tend to that within you that is most precious. Only you know what it costs you to keep going each day. Know that Jesus wants nothing more than to fill your heart.
If you find yourself in a heart-trying time, if you’re carrying a heavy burden; if like so many, you feel discouraged, angry or outraged in response to the seemingly intractable problems before us or the latest offensive actions in the public arena, remember those places, and people and passages, in Scripture that fill you. Pray for Jesus, our precious Lord, to take your hand, lead you on.
It’s important for us not to lose our hearts, for the world needs our hearts. God needs our hearts, and wants nothing more than to fill them with his love.