A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
Open Heart Surgery Required for All Christians
The Rev. Dr. Ruth Bradbury LaMonte
Grace Episcopal Church, Woodlawn
Year C 2004
February 29, 2004
Todays lesson, always scheduled for 1 Lent because all three synoptics tell the story, is about temptation, temptation and resistance, the temptation of Jesus and his resistance to the Devils call. By this annual sermon, we are supposed to be reminded that we each have our own struggle in the spiritual wilderness during these 40 days between the mortality of Ash Wednesday and the victory of Easter Sunday.
In this lesson Jesus is tempted three times the first concerns itself with the physical: the fact that Jesus was hungry, in fact, famished, and he was offered nourishment. Remember: If you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread. But Jesus just says, NO.
The second temptation is, perhaps, more subtle than the first. The first dealt with basic survival. This one goes a step further; its about power. Remember this: Jesus is taken to the top of the hill where he is told that the kingdoms of the world would be his if only he would pay homage to the Devil. (I always remember my first trip to Birmingham when I think of this passage.) I flew into Birmingham the spring of 1973, arriving at midnight, being met by a representative of UAB and taken to, what was then, the University Inn. I could NOT believe it, but there was a real, live palm tree outside my room! The next morning, I was retrieved, taken to breakfast I dont remember where but what I do remember most clearly is that I was driven to the top of a hill they called it a mountain where there was/is a great big restaurant, a club, well, actually, The Club, sprawled over the summit. We got out of the car, went into that place, and looked out over Jones Valley, Birmingham, and its environs. All this can be yours, they told me, if youll just join the faculty at UAB. And unlike Jesus, who said, no, I said, Yes.
The third and final temptation in Lukes account is as ingenious as the others. This one appeals to our identity and our sense of positive self-esteem. This time the devil says, If you really are who you think you are, prove it by throwing yourself off this summit, this pinnacle, to the ground (without a parachute No bungee jumping here!). If he were really the Son of God, angels would come flying from the sky to pick him up before he crashed and smashed into the ground. God, also, could have suspended gravity. I mean, after all God is God. But Jesus said, Do not put the Lord your God to the test. And you know what happened then. The devil tucked his tail between his legs and departed from Jesus until an opportune time. Thats how evil operates. Evil visits us when we are at our weakest. Well come back to The Last Temptation of Christ during our film series during Lent. And, so, there you have it, a lesson about temptation and resistance.
I read that Peter Gomes said the following:
If the devil had known my Grandmother, he probably would have quoted her words with pleasure, when in response to her doctors admonition which came in the form of her diet, she said, Better to die from havin it than wantin it. So think about Peters Grandma when you have ideas about giving up candy, ice cream, wine, beer or martinis for Lent. Lent has more to offer us than just a chance to test our appetites.
Which leads me to what I want to say Lent can be, and, by the way, the insert in your bulletin is Peter Gomes own suggestions for a holy Lent. But let us now turn to Marcus Borgs new book, The Heart of Christianity and talk about two metaphors which I think, are essential to being Christian.
Do you realize that the word heart appears well over 1000 times in the Bible? By heart I dont just mean just them what you see on Valentines Day. No, the Biblical use of heart includes love and courage, that is the face of brave hearts, and grief, as in broken hearts; not only that, but the inner self as a whole. You know what I mean. Southerners use it that way, too. Hes just a little breezy in the head, bless his heart, or She doesnt really mean to be a gossip, bless her heart. The heart metaphor stands for the whole inner self. Biblical usage to give only a few examples: Your law is neither my heart Psalms 40:8. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (From Ash Wednesdays Gospel) Matthew 6:21. God searches the heart. Romans 8:27. And there are many, many more. God tells us that we must have an open heart. Why? Because what goes with a closed heart?
1. Blindness, limited vision
2. A closed heart affects the mind, the reasoning process itself. The closed heart is associated with lack of understanding.
3. A closed heart and bondage go together whether we are talking about ancient pharaohs or cotemporary politicians.
4. A closed heart lacks gratitude.
5. A closed heart is insensitive to wonder and awe.
6. A closed heart forgets God.
7. A closed heart lacks compassion.
8. A closed heart is insensitive to justice; closed hearts and injustice are bedpartners. The prophets and Jesus, champions of Gods justice, often indict (the condition of the hard heart.)
Closed hearts close us off from the world. We all need to have open heart surgery is we are to follow the Christ. The promise of an open heart, a new heart, a pure heart, runs through the Bible. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Psalm 51:10 Get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Ezekiel 18:31 and, lastly,
A new heart will I 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. Ezekiel 36:26.
And how does this happen? How do hearts become open? Through the spirit of God. And the Spirit of God operates through, what Marcus Borg calls, thin places.
This metaphor, thin places, comes from Celtic Christianity that Christianity that flourished in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Northern England beginning in 5th C. Thin places, and Im quoting Borg now, has its home in a particular way of thinking about God. Deeply rooted in the Bible and Christian tradition, this way of thinking sees God as the more; as the encompassing Spirit in which everything is. God is not somewhere else. God is right here.
Paul in the book of Acts says that God is the one in whom we live and more and have our being. We are in God, we live in God, we move, and have our being in God. Look at the hymn St. Patricks Breastplate on page 370. That says it all. God is a non-material layer of reality all around us. Right here, right now all through us! There is the visible world of our ordinary experience, and there is the reality of God the sacred.
Thomas Merton, 20th c. trappist monk explained it this way:
Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shinning through it all the time. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything, in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. Its impossible. The only thing is that we dont see it.
But, let me say, Thomas Merton, occasionally we do see it; we do experience God shinning through everything. Thin places are the places where these two levels of reality meet or intersect. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God, and we experience the one in whom we live and move and have our being.
Thin places can literally be geographic places. For Christians there are classic thin places: Iona, off the coast of Scotland, Jerusalem, Rome, Canterbury, Walsingham; for us, Hayneville, the site of Jonathan Daniels martyrdom. For Muslims, there are Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. But thin places are more than just geographical. A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. A thin place is a sacrament of the sacred, a means whereby the sacred becomes present to us. A thin place is a means of grace.
You know, for some people, a wilderness area is a thin place; for others the Arts music, poetry, literature, the visual arts, and dance can all become thin places in which the boundary between ourself and the world momentarily disappears. Even people can become thin places. Think of the saints. Think of Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, Jon Daniels, and our own Jim Douglas.
One hopes that worship can become a thin place. After all, thats its purpose, isnt it? Sometimes when our choir is singing, I know Im in a thin place. And when Susan Nuchols and Tom play the organ and violin together, I feel as if I just going to fly away. And the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. That is what theyre all about, folks. Once in a blue moon, even a sermon might be a thin place. The Bible is a thin place. Saying the prayers and the creeds together worshiping the Lord in the beauty of holiness, whatever, whenever that is a thin place.
For us, as liturgical Christians, liturgical time is sacred time. The great festivals of the Church Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and, yes, even Lent. During the coming five weeks we journey with Christ from Galilee to Jerusalem and then participate in the holiest week of all with its inevitable climax of death of death and resurrection. The purpose of Lent is not that you pray louder or more often, not that you starve yourself nor give up single malt Scotch, not that you increase your pledge although you might; all are up to you. The purpose of Lent is to become a thin place for the Christian life is about opening your heart, opening yourself to the Spirit of God by spending time in thin places, those places and practices through which we become open to and nourished by the mystery in whom we live and move and have our being. The Christian life is about the Spirit of God opening our hearts in thin places.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Peter J. Gomes, Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, Avon Books, 1998, 50-54.
Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity, Harper-Collins, 2003, 149-163.
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