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Tuesday, September 08, 2009  

Last Sunday's Sermon

The Heart of the Matter
Benjamin J. Dueholm
Pentecost 13B (August 30, 2009)
Wicker Park Lutheran Church

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I like to read The Onion newspaper--I’ve been reading it since I was a kid in Madison. Mostly it’s just entertainment for me, a mirror held up to a crazy world. But sometimes you learn something from it about how people think.

A month or two ago, they had a review of a movie called Silent Light, a film about Mennonite Christians in Mexico. It’s a movie about the distinctive faith and life of this community and about a married man having an affair within it. But the reviewer says, in the end, that it’s “less about faith than matters of the heart.”

Think about that for a moment. What this says is that faith is one thing and our intimate and emotional lives are another. I suppose he means that faith is a matter of what you believe in your head and what rules you live by. Matters of the heart are different: what you love, what stirs your soul, what connects you to other people.

This reviewer has it all wrong, however. Faith is the ultimate matter of the heart. Don’t take it from me. Martin Luther wrote that whatever your heart clings to is your God. In describing faith to a skeptical world, French writer Blaise Pascal said that the heart has its reasons that reason does not know at all [Pensee #277]. And it’s in the Bible, too. The writer of the Song of Songs describes love between a man and a woman. And this is an image of God’s love for his people. The Psalm writer prays for God to create a clean heart within him. And Jesus today makes a very serious argument about what makes a person unclean and unfit to stand before God. It is not about washing your hands, Jesus says. It’s not about observing a ritual--making sure you fast before going to church or that you make the sign of the cross after you receive the Sacrament, though there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not about looking good for the cameras or convincing the pastor and everyone else that everything’s fine when you’re falling apart.

Jesus says rather that what makes us stand or fall before God is not what’s outside of us, but what’s inside of us: what our heart contains. Envy, theft, murder, adultery, deceit, all the rest--these things come out of us. They come from loving the wrong thing or loving the right thing in a wrong way.

Matters of the heart have been at the center of some recent controversy in our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As you have probably heard, our churchwide assembly in Minneapolis had the task last week of deciding how to handle same-sex relationships. Should we continue to hold to the teaching that only relationships of a man and a woman in Christian marriage can reveal God’s plan for humanity? Or should we embrace committed, monogamous, life-long same-sex relationships as revealing of God’s love, too? The church ultimately voted to allow congregations who wished to do so to publicly bless, affirm, and hold accountable those people in same-sex relationships. We also decided to let congregations who wished to, to call people in those relationships as pastors.

This has caused both joy and heartache within our church, and it has demonstrated what is best and worst about a group of Christians disagreeing over important matters. It doesn’t change much for Wicker Park. We’ve been clear for years now that you’re welcome here regardless of your sexual orientation, your marriage status, or your family situation. But for our denomination, we don’t know exactly where this will end up. My own hope is that we will learn to live with disagreement and that we will cling all the harder to Christ who gives us life and unity in his body. Many will find this hard.

In any case, for Christians, an argument is always a good time to re-examine our own lives. Jesus says to take the log out of our own eyes before we point out the speck in our brother’s eye, and we have experienced a lot of speck-finding lately. For most of us, our intimate lives are the most important test of our faith. If you wake up next to someone and share your life with them, it may be someone you’ve exchanged promises with in front of a pastor or not. It may be the first person you’ve been married to or not. You may have a relationship that is good enough for the state of Illinois, the Catholic Church, or Focus on the Family, or you may not. We all make our decisions and take our chances in life.

But whoever that person is, and whatever the legal status of your relationship, how you treat that person is the biggest test of your faith in most days. The second biggest is how you spend your money, but we’ll get to that some other time. How you live with that person you’ve chosen to join your life with is the biggest test of faith in most days.

What comes out of your heart is what puts you at risk: as Jesus says, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. These things can come from within any of us. We can all find ways to be dishonorable, to deprive another person of what they need, to harbor hostility in our hearts, to begrudge our partner their own successes and blessings. We can all lie, we can all lose our self-control, say hurtful things, take ourselves too seriously, and play the fool. And if we do, it will as often as not be with that person we need and care for most. Apart from honeymoons, vacations, and weekends when the kids are with their grandparents, almost every morning requires a new dedication, a new measure of love, a new heart.

And there is great blessing in this. You might feel bad about cutting off the old lady in traffic, but you’ll never get the chance to make it up to her. You might feel some guilt about that high school boyfriend, but he’s not your responsibility any more. A true relationship gives us the chance to forgive and be forgiven, to show and be shown patience, to lean and be leaned on. Jesus only tells half the story today. Fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, and the rest come from within us, not from outside of us. By the same token, whatever good we do comes not from outside, but from our hearts.

This can be tested. Those of you who have someone you love next to you, or waiting at home can probably come up with one small gesture or kind word to share with that person today. One task that you’ve left undone for too long. One necessary moment of honesty. One bone of contention that you can settle with a little less pride. Patience, gentleness, generosity, persistence, humility--these things don’t come from marriage licenses or the Pope’s pronouncements or the decisions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They are the gifts of the Spirit. They are the very heart of faith. Amen.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:03 AM
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