Were somebody to ask you later today what this morning’s sermon was about, I have a hunch that many of us will say, “The Sacred Heart of Jesus.” And many of us may add, “Can you believe it? A sermon about the Sacred Heart in an Episcopal Church?!” While I am going to talk about the Sacred Heart, this sermon is really about something deeper that the Sacred Heart symbolizes. This morning’s sermon is about making the inside match the outside, about connecting the divine, which is around us and within us, to our human lives in such a way that we can not only perceive but relish it. And in the process, I’m going to introduce us to the surprising Anglican context to which the Sacred Heart owes much of its devotion.
But first I’d like to begin rather with Tom Clancy’s spy thriller, The Cardinal of the Kremlin, in which the KGB is seeking to find the “cardinal” – or, US agent – in the Kremlin. Though Svetlana is probably not the cardinal, she may know something about the cardinal, and the KGB apprehends her, tranquilizes her, puts in her in a kind of full-body wetsuit, only with a gel underneath that prevents her from feeling anything. She is immersed in a dark, zero gravity pool where – when the tranquilizer wears off – she can neither feel, see, hear, smell nor taste. Svetlana’s captors let her go through one panic phase of not knowing whether she is dead or alive, and then a second, before whispering into her ear piece, “Svetlana, what have you done?” Svetlana – so relieved to hear a human voice – confesses all. She is then tranquilized again, brought out of the pool and will remember nothing of the episode, save the fleeting feeling of unease one might have after a bad but unremembered dream.
I have a hunch that many of us, when it comes to the spiritual life, are not unlike Svetlana in the immersion tank: we are completely surrounded, held and touched by God’s love, yet we have absolutely no idea that we are so surrounded, held and touched. All day, every day we are immersed in a God who loves us completely, continually, unconditionally and who will continue to so love us until our dying breath and beyond. But are we aware of God’s love for us? Can we feel it? Does the outside match the inside, or does our sensory deprivation prevent us from catching even a glimpse of how much God loves us?
This morning’s reading from Genesis is a reading in which somebody becomes aware of God’s abiding presence in his life. In this morning’s reading from Genesis, Jacob is traveling from Beer-Sheba to Haran, fleeing his brother Esau, whom he fears seeks his life. When he comes to a certain place, Jacob spends the night, and the Lord appears to him in a dream. Jacob dreams of a ladder going up to heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it. Jacob’s is a dream about heaven’s connection to earth, of the human to the divine, of the outside to the inside. If only for a moment the sensory deprivation that prevents us from seeing God’s all-encompassing love is lifted from Jacob, and Jacob experiences something of this God in whose love we continually swim.
Jacob’s setting up a pillar of stones is an example of a healthy spiritual practice. Jacob knows how fleeting these moments are in which we experience God’s love, in which we finally notice and feel the divine surrounding us. When Jacob notices that “the Lord is in this place,” he makes a permanent symbol to remind him of God’s love and connection. Jacob sets up a pillar of stone so that, every time he or his ancestors see the pillar, they can be reminded of – and maybe even relish – the close connection between heaven and earth, that we are immersed in a God who loves us completely, continually and unconditionally.
Like Jacob’s pillar at Bethel, the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a symbol that can remind devotees of the connection between the “outside” and the “inside,” that we are immersed in a God who loves us completely, continually and unconditionally. But before I get too far with the Sacred Heart, let’s circle back to the surprising Anglican context to which the Sacred Heart owes much of its devotion. I was shocked to discover this context…
Adjoining St. James’ palace in London is the Queen’s Chapel. Though today it is an Anglican church, the Queen’s Chapel was built in the early 17th century for Henrietta Maria of France, the Roman Catholic wife of Charles 1. (Charles 1 is the king after whom Charles St. on Beacon Hill is named, and after whom the Charles River is named.) The Queen’s Chapel was the first Roman church built in England since the time of the Reformation, and I believe the only one for about 100 years after that! The Chapel served Henrietta Maria, and then also the wife of her son, James II, Mary of Modena. The Chaplain to Mary of Modena was one Fr. Claude de la Colombiere, a Jesuit who promoted devotion to the Sacred Heart. It is through de la Colombiere that, in the midst of the household of the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, devotion to the Sacred Heart was given the energy and impetus it needed to grow… and to plant statues of the Sacred Heart in thousands of front yards and gardens across the United States. Perhaps you’ve seen them: Jesus stands pointing to – and sometimes holding – his heart, which is surrounded by thorns and topped with a flaming cross. The Sacred Heart is a symbol of God’s complete, continual and unconditional love, and it reminds me that this love is not only to be known in the head, but also felt in our core (our “coeur,” as the French say), and it is a symbol of the outside being connected to the inside, that we can notice and even relish God’s love that is always around and within us.
If the monarch and head of the Church of England was OK with having a devotion to the Sacred Heart in one of his chapels, maybe we can give ourselves permission to at least footnote it in our tradition…
We may or may not be might inclined to a devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, but we live in a town that has a Sacred Heart Church, that has a Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, that has statues in people’s gardens of Jesus pointing to or holding his Heart. I wonder if, when we drive by these institutions or statues, we might not let them remind us that “the Lord is in this place,” that we are immersed in a God who loves us completely, continually and unconditionally, and that it is possible for the outside to be connected to the inside, for us to know – and relish! – God’s intense love for each and every one of us.