Hearts of Flesh, Proper 22(B) – 2015

(RCL) Job 1:1, 2:1-10 and Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Today’s gospel leaves many of us uncomfortable for one reason or another.  It doesn’t come across as good news.

First, we have what sounds for all the world like Jesus’ absolute prohibition of divorce. That’s enough to cause us to squirm if we have a divorce in our personal background or as part of our family history. It’s uncomfortable as well for others of us who realize that our intact marriage does not make us better people than those whose marriages have collapsed; we too could have experienced divorce.

Jesus sounds demanding as well when he confronts his disciples over their efforts at crowd control. He doesn’t want children to be kept from coming to him. However, the thought that runs through the mind of many a parent and grandparent is, “but should there not be some decorum?”

Jesus offers us children – in all their innocence, spontaneity, and even wildness – as a model for the kingdom he has come to proclaim. The entrance requirement for that kingdom is that we become like them: accepting, trusting, in the moment.

We who are adults may understand all too well what Jesus means about children and the kingdom, we may even admit that what he says rings true. But we look at our sad adult selves and realize that we are jaded, calculating, suspicious, and world-weary, hardly fit to pass through the portal; and this makes us sad and disappointed in ourselves, disappointed by life.

Today’s gospel deals with these discomforting matters, but the real center of what Jesus says here lies somewhere else. It is to be found where he speaks about “hardness of heart.”

Do you recall where that phrase appears? Jesus is explaining why the law of Moses recognizes divorce: “because of your hardness of heart.” The passage in question, found in the twenty-fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, doesn’t legislate divorce, but simply admits that it takes place. It then legislates about certain cases involving remarriage of the same couple after their divorce. Jesus says that hardness of heart required this legislation. Then he raises the discussion to a higher plane by citing the establishment of marriage when humanity was brand new.

Hardness of heart is the problem. The big one. Not just for people who divorce or come close to doing so. It’s a problem for all of us adults, whatever the state of our relationships. This hardness of heart can damage our most intimate relationships, and it gets played out in other areas of life as well. Hardness of heart is what distinguishes us from the young children whom Jesus offers us as models for his kingdom.

The heart in question here is not that beating organ in your chest, the subject of cardiology, nor the heart pictured on Valentine’s cards, the emblem of romantic feeling. What is meant is the heart in the biblical sense: the core of human existence, what makes us who we truly are.

The hardening of this heart is the great danger in life. A hard heart is a lost opportunity, for God most readily works in the world through hearts truly alive.

A heart that has become hard cannot be pure because it cannot pursue the purpose for which it exists. To the pure in heart Christ makes a tremendous promise: they shall see God. To miss the realization of this promise is to miss everything.

Yet all of us suffer from hardness of heart to one degree or another, and such hardening can happen without our awareness of it.

The core of our existence hardens when we run scared, when forces such as pride and fear and hatred reign inside us.

Our hearts harden when we accept glittery substitutes, sensational idols, or even prosaic security in place of the authentic and challenging life God constantly offers us.

Many forces in this world, including people and institutions, contribute to hearts becoming hard. The deadening of our core is often presented as something else: a toughening, a maturation. Sometimes it is even applauded. We take this internal deadness as a normal development rather than as a travesty.

Christianity claims that in response to this menace, God wants to replace stony hearts with hearts of flesh, hearts tender and alive.

One place where the exchange is meant to happen is in worship. This is what we are about here and now. Public worship is an important part of Christianity’s discipline for maintaining a heart that lives.

All this carries important implications for how congregations worship, for the messages communicated through liturgies, sermons, hymns, and sacred actions. Anything that passes for worship yet causes hearts to harden takes people in the wrong direction and must be rejected. But worship that fails to soften hearts and restore them to life is also seriously flawed. Attending church must not increase the deadness at people’s centers nor leave them unchanged. What all of us need is nothing less than a new heart.

The Christian tradition refers to many reasons why people attend church, indicating how public worship is in truth a complex activity. These reasons include praising and thanking God, hearing the Scriptures and the sermon, praying for the needs of all people, participating in the Holy Communion, and engaging in fellowship with believers. All these reasons are important.

Yet the case they make for public worship may not be convincing to people who have not experienced such worship on a regular basis or have not found it engaging. To them these reasons may seem unrelated to their concerns and those of the world.

However, tradition offers this further reason for attending church that may make more sense and possess greater urgency: through participation in public worship, our hearts can be kept from becoming and remaining hard.

This reason for public worship may make sense to some people who do not appreciate the other reasons.

These people recognize hardness of heart as a human problem.

They wonder where a remedy lies.

They believe, or want to believe, that our God can replace stony hearts with hearts able to love.

These people are standing on the doorstep of this temple.

They are eager to find a fellowship where week by week those who participate welcome God’s gift of a living heart.

They await an invitation to enter, so that together with us they may experience through worship how hardness of heart need never have the last word.

Let us pray.

God of astounding mercy, make the heart of each of us like that of a little child, that we may welcome your kingdom with joy.  Give us hearts of flesh, able to love with a love like your own.

Through our worship continually transform us, that we may welcome others who desire your gift of a new heart.

We ask this in the name of Jesus, and in the power of your life-giving Spirit.


Download the sermon for Proper 22B.

Written by The Rev. Charles Hoffacker who is rector of St. Paul’s Parish, Baden, Maryland.  He is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications).

A run through the thorns, 19 Pentecost, Proper 22 (B) – October 7, 2012

Job 1:1, 2:1-10 and Psalm 26 (or Genesis 2:18-24 and Psalm 8); Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

This morning, may we dare to run through the field of thorns and find the great treasure that awaits us there. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Today’s gospel passage catches our attention because it addresses marriage and divorce in a way that’s unavoidable. Many preachers would like to bypass this text on this day, preach on marriage only at weddings, and not have to talk about divorce at all.

And who can blame them? Preaching about divorce and marriage is like running through a field of thorns. Why? Because any contemporary congregation is likely to contain people who are married, people who are divorced, people who are divorced and remarried, people who may get divorced at some time in the future, people who have been treated shabbily by churches due to their marital difficulties, peoples whose lives and families and friends have been hurt by the pain of divorce. It’s everybody’s issue, indirectly or directly. Preaching about it looks like running through a field of thorns, and listening to a sermon on marriage and divorce can, no doubt, seem the same way: one misstep and we just add to the hurting.

But let us venture together carefully into the thorny field, in the hope that amid the briars we can find together what sermons are supposed to reveal: good news for a world that’s broken and in pain.

The discussion gets started because some of the Pharisees are out to get Jesus. They want to trap him in his words and so destroy his credibility. The issue they raise is a controversial one at that time: whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Authorities differ on this question. Some allow divorce only in instances of adultery. Others allow divorce for the slightest of reasons. But note how the issue is framed: Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife? No consideration is given to the possibility of a wife divorcing her husband. That is out of the question. Here men have all the power.

Jesus knows this question is not an honest inquiry. These Pharisees are not interested in his opinion, but in testing him, defeating him. He responds to the question with a question: “What did Moses command you?” In other words, How does the Law of Moses read, the law you hold in such high regard?

Jesus knows the answer, of course, and so does everyone within hearing distance. It’s what today is called a no-brainer. And so the Pharisees shoot back the correct reference: Moses allows a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.

The reference here is to Deuteronomy, Chapter 24. It’s arguable, to say the least, that Moses is giving permission to divorce. What he does instead is to recognize that divorce happens and to set forth norms regarding certain types of remarriage. Like the canon law of the Episcopal Church, Moses acknowledges that divorce happens here in this world outside the Garden of Eden.

The acknowledgment found in Deuteronomy is turned by these particular Pharisees into permission for divorce. But remember, here we are not talking about an egalitarian model of marriage and divorce, but a system where men have all the power, where the sexes are treated unequally, and where a divorced woman has very little hope for the future.

Rather than endeavor to trap Jesus in his words, these Pharisees could have sought to learn something from him. Rather than raise questions about divorce, they could ask advice about how to live faithfully and well within marriage. What an opportunity they miss!

These Pharisees get the reference right, but get the spirit wrong. And Jesus lays into them. “So you give that Deuteronomy passage as permission for divorce, with its demand that the paperwork be in order? Moses would never have written that except for divorce happening anyway, except for the hardness of the human heart in this world outside Eden!”

It is as though he thumps a finger against the sternum of each of those Pharisees and says: “Don’t you get it? You hearts are hard! If human hearts were not hard, then marriages would always work, and Moses wouldn’t have written about what happens when they don’t!”

Jesus addresses each one of us and says the same thing: “Don’t you get it? Your hearts are hard!”

But please note this, and note it well. He’s not just challenging the divorced among us. He’s challenging every last one of us, even if we have been married happily for six decades. The divorced are not to be regarded as some pariah class different from the rest of us. The problem of the hard heart is not limited to divorced people, but is common to us all. In some it becomes manifest in a marital break-up. In others it shows itself in a marriage that remains together but is lifeless. In still others, hardness of heart appears in a failure to forgive our friends, in a judgmental spirit toward our children or parents, or any of the other forms of sin in which we humans become trapped. The divorced are not worse and not better than the rest of us. We all find ourselves in the same place: outside the gates of Eden.

But then Jesus stops talking about hard hearts. Instead, he takes us by both hands and looks at us with an expression of compassion, hope and remembrance. He calls us back to a time before the invention of power games, whether the sexism of his own period or today’s equal-opportunity destructiveness, where either partner can damage the other. Jesus, looking at us with that expression of compassion, hope, and remembrance, calls us back to a time before time, back to when our home was the Garden, back to the intention of God at creation. God made them male and female. Delightfully different. Wonderfully equal. Intended to be one flesh. No hardness of heart. No games, no secrets, but naked and unashamed.

We read in Genesis that the woman was made from the man’s rib. It’s said in Jewish tradition that the reason for this peculiar procedure is that woman and man might be intimate and equal. Woman was not made from man’s head, so that she should be superior, nor from his feet, that she should be inferior, but rather from a bone near his center, near his heart, that the two might be equal and intimate.

Just as a husband and wife can draw strength from remembrance of their early days as a couple, so all of us can discover again the mystery of marriage by recalling God’s original intention: that man and woman both are made in the divine image and meant for one another in a relationship of equality and intimacy.

Yes, of course, there are some marriages that are dead from the start, and others that die along the way. There are people who simply marry the wrong partner, and spouses who have the right to escape what has become of marriage when their safety or sanity is threatened.

But in other cases, divorce happens because people see marriage like those opponents of Jesus did: as a power relationship, as a problem that divorce can solve, where an insane consumer culture leads people to treat as disposable not only houses and cars, but also spouses and families.

That’s not it! Marriage is not a problem to be solved. It is a mystery to be lived. It is not a business deal subject to a cost-benefit analysis. It is a means by which wife and husband can participate in the kingdom of God – and do so in the comfort of their own home!

Some of the male contemporaries of Jesus saw their wives as merchandise, property. It is dubious progress that now both wife and husband can regard each other in that belittling way. Instead, each spouse is to be to the other joy and challenge, cross and crown.

If you are married, God has given you your spouse not so that you can experience mere consumer happiness like the owner of a new appliance designed with obsolescence in mind.

If you are married, God has given you your spouse so that together you can taste in your human way something of the joy of the marriage between God and creation, Christ and the church, the Lamb and his bride.

In our time we know too well that a broken marriage can seem like the road to hell. May we not forget that God’s abiding intention is quite the opposite: marriage is intended as a road to heaven; not a problem, but a holy mystery; not a mere happiness, but a divine joy.

In the name of the God who in the end calls all his children home to the wedding feast where by the Spirit’s power we will find ourselves united with Christ forever. Amen.


— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

How much should I give to the Church?, 18 Pentecost, Proper 22 (B) – 2009

October 4, 2009

(RCL) Job 1:1; 2:1-10 and Psalm 26 (Track 2: Genesis 2:18-24 and Psalm 8); Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

“How much should I give to the Church?”

This is the dilemma faced by most Episcopalians each year around this time as they consider their pledge and annual giving to the work of the church. As a Sunday bulletin insert from the Ecumenical Stewardship Center explains the issue, “People are often asked to give the church a tithe, a tenth of income. But a tenth of what income? Gross income? Net income? Earned income? Investment income? It’s just too confusing.”

So here is a radically different way of going about this. Why not give it all – 100% – to the church, or better yet, to God?

Yes, you heard that right. Give 100% of your income, your treasure, to God and the work of the church. While you are at it, throw in your time and talent for good measure. Certainly makes stewardship a lot easier. You do not even need a calculator or a 1099 for this one. Hold nothing back.

How can you and I possibly do this?

Well, when you stop to think about it, we really do not have a choice. As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you. There are no pockets in burial shrouds. That same Stewardship Center insert reminds us forcefully, “Everything will eventually be returned to God as its rightful owner anyway,” including our very lives. So why not be gracious about it and give it all back right now – lock, stock, and barrel?

Truth be told, probably only one person in all of Christian history has ever come close to succeeding at this. That is none other than the humble Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast is celebrated in many churches today, on October Fourth. Having turned all of his possessions and great family wealth over to the poor and downtrodden of his community, Francis literally stood at the cathedral steps shivering in his skivvies until the mortified bishop came along and covered him with his robes.

Francis gloried in what he called holy poverty and even spoke of “Lady Poverty” as his bride in Christ. Unencumbered by worldly distractions and possessions, he experienced the utter freedom and abandon of “the little children” mentioned in today’s gospel account. Others soon came to join Francis in a life of simple community and prayer. They became known as Franciscans.

While such radical gospel living may have worked well enough for Francis and his followers centuries ago, it might prove a bit more problematic for us today, as well intentioned as we may be. So here is a suggestion.

Let’s pledge 100% of our income, and ourselves, to God.

But then, let’s make an honest inventory of what we need to survive – and even thrive – as a child of God. The Lord will understand this, as all the things we need come from God to begin with. We might want to keep that roof over our heads, so we will need money for the rent or mortgage payment. In today’s world, most of us will probably need a car to get to work and church and practically anywhere. So better put aside something for the car payment and gas and occasional repairs.

Then there is the matter of eating. Since we no longer live in an agrarian society as did Francis, we will need grocery money to feed ourselves and our family. And of course these days who could dare forget to figure in the high cost of health care and education? But after we have calculated out what we truly need and added in a little more for entertainment because “God loves a cheerful giver,” the rest will go to God and the work of the church. For most of us, this will probably come out somewhere around 10%. For a few, perhaps more.

Why go through this exercise? Why not just give the 10% in the first place and be done with it?

Well, you can certainly do that if you want to. And God bless you for it! But for the rest of us, it can be a worthwhile exercise to inventory our lives at least once a year, remembering that we “all have one Father,” as our lesson from Hebrews tells us. We are all God’s children.

Jesus demonstrates in today’s gospel account that it is to such as “the little children” gathered in his arms “that the kingdom of God belongs.” Little children of course know implicitly that “the kingdom of God” is the only treasure in life worth having – at least until the example of grown-ups teaches them otherwise. Alas many folks today, children and grown-ups alike, stand little chance of finding the kingdom amid the clutter of their busy lives filled with playthings and possessions too numerous to count. Like Francis, we all need to simplify. We need to remember the kingdom.

So if some Sunday morning you see your clergy and fellow parishioners, like Francis, standing around in their skivvies in front of church, you will know what happened.


— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus can be found most Sunday mornings in front of Saints Peter and Paul Episcopal Church in El Centro, California, where he is priest-in-charge. 

They are sacred mysteries, Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 22 (B) – October 8, 2006

(RCL) Genesis 2:18-24 or Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 8 or 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16 

Sometimes we are so familiar with something that we don’t even notice it anymore. The little bit from the second chapter of Genesis that we just heard, and that we just heard Jesus quote, is like that. It’s so familiar it’s invisible. But it is dreadfully important and says some absolutely basic things about our vision of the world and of human life.

Remember the central pronouncement of God in the creation story? Throughout the first chapter of Genesis, God has said one thing about His creation over and over: “God saw that it was good.”

But now God looks at all he has made, everything, and says, “It is not good.” It is not good that the man – and here “man” means, not a male person, but a human being – should be alone.

Think about that. Listen to that. Everything else is good, but this isn’t. Notice also that Adam, the human being, was hardly alone in the garden. First of all, God was with Adam in the garden. That’s a lot all by itself. Then, when the animals were all done, all of nature, all of creation, was with Adam in the garden. The whole world was there. The man was not alone.

In fact, this sounds like the perfect situation for much of popular American religion – one man alone, surrounded by nature, with God close at hand. How many times have we heard people say that this is really all the religion anyone needs: just me, God, and the great outdoors? Sometimes this is symbolized by a golf course or a trout stream. But when God saw it, when God saw one person, God, and the great outdoors, God didn’t say, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Instead, God said, about this and only about this: “It is not good”.

Creation wasn’t finished yet. As long as the man lived in isolation from other people, the creation of a good, a complete, human being, had not yet happened.

It was in order to complete creation, to make a whole human being, that the other person, Eve, is created.

There are a couple of things to notice here. First of all, this story is not as much about the roles of men and women as it is about what it means to be a human being. Also, it is not saying that everyone should be married or that only married people are whole people. That’s just not true. After all, Jesus, the perfect image of God, was single. But this is saying that we human beings can only grow into who we are created to be with and through the other – through relationship and community. This growth happens in many ways, but it does not happen alone. If you ask an honest monk where his biggest and most important struggles come from, he’ll tell you “other monks.” We do not become whole or complete in isolation, but through community, through the “other.”

It is to this end that God has given us certain structures and situations in which we can, maybe, begin to discover what it means not to be alone, and where we can have our humanity drawn, and sometimes dragged, out of us. God has given us schools of love, places to grow.

Marriage and families are first of all about this. They are schools of love. And while not everyone is called to the vocation of marriage, for those of us who are, this business of helping one another grow into who we are created to be is one of the primary reasons God created marriage. To be sure, there is more to it than this, but that is primary.

In much the same way, God has called us to be the Church, and he has called us into this church, because without something like this we simply cannot be very Christian, in spite of – or more likely, because of – both the difficulty and the joy other people bring.

One of the central insights of Christianity is that being a part of a real, human, chunk of the body of Christ is essential to any serious Christian growth. Like marriage and family, parish life, church life, is not really about agreement, success, having our needs met, or happiness. Instead it is a school of love. It is about growth into wholeness. That is why, in Church as in families, the real ties that bind are ties of love and circumstances, not of any other sort of homogeneity.

Such growth is simply not possible without commitment to a lifetime of effort and intentionally seeking the grace and help of God. God’s intention that marriage be life-long is not an arbitrary and difficult rule God gives us to make our lives even more difficult. Instead, such intention is a gracious and necessary (if minimal) requirement if a real marriage is even to be possible.

In the same way, our Baptismal vows, which include a commitment to the life of the Christian community wherever we find ourselves, are also for the long haul; for better or worse.

So are life vows in monastic communities and the commitments involved in the other schools of love we are given. These vows are life-long in intention, because God knows we need at least that long to begin doing what we promise to do.

Sure, there are times when that does not happen. There are sometimes situations in which separation is the only option that contains hope and the possibility of healing. We have all known that reality. People leave churches and find new ones – as most of you know from experience.

And the pain and tragedy of divorce – and the fact that it brings very real possibilities of both destruction and new hope – is, in one form or another, a part of the lives of every one of us. If it hasn’t happened to us personally, we have been affected, often deeply affected, by it. These failures of relationship are devastating, and those who hurt need our love, our compassion, and our support.

But there is also an important thing about these experiences, about the times we fall short. We see them as tragic exceptions to the way we know life should be, and the way we want our lives to be. We know that we often miss the mark of our convictions and our beliefs. Yet even in the midst of our failure, we continue to stand firmly for the truth of God’s vision of life. Our vows, our marriage vows and our baptismal vows, our Ordination vows, these are not for just now, they are not for just when it feels good; they are for life. That is our standard and our goal. We may fall short, but we hold to that standard.

All of this is really to say that, at its heart, marriage is not a convenient human institution for protecting property, regulating sexuality, and safeguarding children. And at its heart, the Church is not a voluntary social convenience for like-minded people to share in an essentially private task.

As ordinary and as unglamorous as they usually are, both marriage and the Church are vastly more than this. They are sacred mysteries, built into creation and into human nature. They are schools of love, gifts of a loving God. For it is not good to be alone; and the only way to goodness, to wholeness, is through commitment, relationship, community, and the grace of God.


— The Rev. James Liggett has been rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Big Spring, Texas, since 1994. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Father Liggett and his wife Kathleen have a 20-year-old son.