Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)
I want to talk with you today about heart disease. As a guy about to turn 46 whose many pounds overweight, heart disease is something I think about. But for the purposes of this morning’s sermon that kind of artery clogging, high cholesterol, fat laden, heart disease is not what I mean. Rather, I want to talk about the kind of spiritual heart disease Jesus points out in his encounter with the Pharisees, the kind James alludes to in his epistle.
In our gospel for this morning, Jesus and his disciples have come off the road tired and worn out. They have been all over teaching, healing, and proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Everywhere they have gone large crowds have gathered around them bringing the sick, the lame, and the possessed for Jesus to heal. I can only imagine the crushing demands of so many people on Jesus and his friends. Exhausted, the twelve sit and eat trying to find the strength, the nourishment they need to get back out there on the road. Some religious leaders who have been hanging around watching Jesus notice that his disciples do not follow the appropriate religious rituals of hand washing before they eat. For these Pharisees, hand washing has nothing to do with germs, (germs weren’t even an idea until 1400 years later) rather they have everything to do with proper ritual. For these religious watchdogs, this lack of hand washing is evidence that Jesus is not orthodox in his faith. Jesus doesn’t enforce the right religious behaviors; therefore he must not be the holy man he purports to be. In their minds they wonder – how can he really be from God if he won’t even teach the respectful behaviors that God requires of the religious?
In response, Jesus quotes from Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” Then he calls together the crowd and teaches them – “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” In other words, Jesus says to the Pharisees – We have been out there teaching, healing, feeding, caring for God’s people and you want to pick on us for not washing our hands before we eat? You’ve got it all wrong. Ultimately God doesn’t care about the externals, the trappings, what God cares about is the attitude of our hearts.
Think about it. If you had to choose, “which would you prefer for a good friend: a person of excellent habits, or a person with a good heart? Which would you prefer for a husband or a wife: a person of excellent habits, or a person with a good heart? Which would you prefer for a child: a child with excellent habits, or a child with a good heart? It is wonderful to have a friend who always treats you with consideration. It is wonderful to be married to a husband who always is thoughtful and courteous, or to a wife who always is gracious in her comments and deeds. It is wonderful to have a son or daughter who shows respect and uses good manners. As wonderful as those situations are, none of them compare to having a friend, a husband, a wife, a son, or a daughter with a good heart. When you discuss good behavior, you are discussing the quality of a person’s self-control. When you discuss a good heart, you are discussing the quality of the person.”
Spiritual heart disease happens when you and I, like the Pharisees, focus too much on the externals and forget that what matters most is whether or not we are good, compassionate souls who translate our love of God into love for our fellows. Spiritual heart disease happens when we spend more time focusing on the people we appear to be rather than becoming the people God wants us to be. It’s like paying more attention to the box and the wrapping paper than to the quality of the gift inside. Spiritual heart disease is what makes people shallow, petty, and small-minded. And like physical heart disease, if left untreated, spiritual heart disease leads to death.
Thomas Merton once said, “As long as you have to defend the imaginary self that you think is important, you lose your piece of heart.” How much time do we spend thinking about things like: How do I look? How am I coming across? What do people think of me? What’s my image in the community?
There is nothing wrong with asking these questions and doing what we can to put our best foot forward whenever possible. But concerns like these often consume so much of our energy that we actually spend very little time on the quality of our souls. Many of us spend so much time obsessing about how we appear in the world that we neglect the real questions – Who am I really? Am I doing all that I can to become the loving, kind, compassionate person I am supposed to be? In my heart, at my core, am I growing in Christ or am I just getting better with the boxes and wrapping paper? As James reminds us today and every time we walk in this sanctuary – are we doers of the word or just hearers only?
You see, the problem is, when you have spiritual heart disease, when you focus on the externals long enough, not only do you get good at projecting them for others but after a while they are all you see both in other people and in yourself. You and the people around you are reduced to being nothing more than wrapping paper. And then life becomes the tragic never-ending game of – how do my externals match up with yours.
It seems to me that one of the most important reasons we come to church is to constantly strip away these trappings, these non-essentials, and remind ourselves of what’s most important. Out in the world we are always told about what we don’t have and what we need. Here we are reminded that what is indispensable is our gratitude to God for all that we have already been given. Out in the world we are told that we are only valuable and loved because we are smart, or beautiful, or talented, or wealthy, or funny. Here we are reminded that we are loved simply because we are God’s children. Out there we are told that the stuff we accumulate is everything. Here we are reminded that ultimately God cares only about how we do or do not love the person placed right in front of us.
Stop worrying about what isn’t important, Jesus tells the Pharisees. God doesn’t care about good religious practices, God cares about good hearts. Get real, Jesus tells you and me. Stop worrying about who people think you are and spend more time trying to actually become the person God created you to be. Amen.