Listen to the heart of God, 6 Epiphany (A) – 2011

February 13, 2011

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20 or Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

The church makes many claims about God – about who God is and what God does and what God is like. We make big claims, and the biggest of all, the one that is at the core of all our claims is that God is love.

Above all else, God is love. We sing songs about the God of love, we pray to the God of love, we offer the gift of ourselves to the God of love. And then, this morning, which happens to be the day before Valentine’s Day, we hear these lessons, most of which have to do with Law. And we may be taken aback, especially by our gospel lesson, which contains phrases such as, “if you call your brother or sister ‘you fool,’ you will liable to the hell of fire, and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away, it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

These are words from the God of love, the very heart of God made flesh, Jesus?

This is not one of those Well-if-you-read-it-in-the-original-Greek-text-it-sounds-very-different texts. There isn’t a way to get around this lesson. No, we need to go through it, get to the very heart of it, and therefore, to get a glimpse of the heart of God.

Listen to the heart of God. Today’s gospel says a lot about what we would hear if we listen to our hearts and if we listen to God’s heart.

We know the joys of listening to the sounds of the heart. We have felt, even heard the sound of our own hearts beating in excitement. Some of us have heard the heartbeat of a baby not yet born, but already audible and very much alive. We know that listening to our hearts can give us a diagnosis of a healthy or an unhealthy heart.

But we also know the heart is more than a vital physical organ. “Heart” means the core of our selves in all our most vibrant aspects. We talk about the human heart as the seat of loving, of compassion, or tenderness, of courage. Our language knows this: we say, “Take heart.” Be assured. If you have had a change of heart, you have had a shift of perspective, a shift of plans, a significant change in your outlook. Heart is the seat of memory: to know something by heart is to know it perfectly. Heart is the seat of yearning and desire: to seek with your whole heart is to pursue, search for diligently, strive for something with all the perseverance you can muster.

We listen now to the songs of our hearts and of God’s heart in today’s gospel lesson.

Jesus is sitting with his disciples, teaching them what it means to follow in the path he would have them walk. Jesus is giving words to the love song of God’s heart. We hear a section of the Sermon on the Mount, a section that began in last week’s reading with these statements of Jesus, “I have come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it,” and “if your righteousness does not surpass that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.” And lest this be lost to our modern ears, those scribes and Pharisees are pretty righteous. What follows in today’s lessons are the illustrations and implications of those statements.

Jesus came not to abolish the law, but apparently to make it even tougher, to make it more exacting. Jesus lists some of the big commandments: You shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not swear falsely. And were that all, it could make for rather dull preaching.

Yes, of course, the disciples would say, we’ve heard that before. We know that’s what God wants for us. But then Jesus goes on to breathe new life, new relevancy into these commandments by explaining what they mean in their fullness – by going to the heart of the matter. He explains what they mean if we are to love as God loves, because the law tells us what is in God’s heart. Law exposes God’s fondest desires of how we would live with one another. Law also exposes the difference between our hearts and God’s heart.

Listening to our hearts does give a diagnosis. God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep the commandment not to kill one another, we still hate and despise others. We are willing to kill relationship with others, to treat others as if they are as good as dead to us.

God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep a commandment not to commit adultery, we still can disrespect others by treating them as less than fully human.

God listens to our hearts and knows that even if we can keep from swearing falsely, we are still willing to manipulate others with our words, to lead others astray by what we say, to let our words be meaningless rather than let our yes mean yes and our no mean no.

Our hearts, though we are made in the image of God, do not keep time with the beating of God’s heart. While God’s heart sings out a love song, begun in creation and sung to us still, our hearts fall far short.

The diagnosis: our hearts are diseased, unhealthy, disheartened.

And so, in God’s mercy, God gives us law. In the teaching of Jesus, this is law that will not let our hearts fall short of loving as God would have us love. It is law that would have us love in a way that respects the dignity of every human being, as we say in our baptismal covenant.

And it is law that ultimately convicts us, because what it demands of us, we cannot do.

And here again the law shows us God’s love, by showing us our failing and driving us into the arms of our merciful God. St. Augustine put it this way: “The law was given for this purpose: to make you, being great, little; to show that you do not have in yourself the strength to attain righteousness, and for you, thus helpless, unworthy, and destitute, to flee to grace.” The grace of God is there, offered for us. We need only take it.

Listen again. Does all this talk of law and our failing to keep it bring you sadness? Good, said John Donne in a sermon, then it is a holy sadness, because a sense of our sin is “god’s key to the door of his mercy, put into thy hand.” God’s heart is a rich treasure house of mercy to which our sense of sin is the key.

Discovering our failure to love as God loves is not then a cause for despair. No – it is a call back to God, into the arms of God, who loves and strengthens us, and sends us out to love again; bids us love more fully, more perfectly, because although showing perfect love is impossible for us, nothing is impossible with God.

The sound of our hearts and the sound of God’s heart are different now. They’re meant to sing the same song. So we are given law, that we might know more completely how to love, and when we fail – because we do fail – we are given the key to God’s heart, the key to the vast treasure of God’s mercy that stands ready for us to take. The key to a heart that offers us true pleasure, true love.

Take heart. Because our God is a God of love. Our God is love. In that we can be sure.
— The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter serves as rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

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