Purity of Heart

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
July 26, 2015
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 12B

2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-19
Ephesians 3:14-21
Mark 6:35-52

My Friends:

Many of you know that I spent most of my childhood and adolescence deeply immersed in the immigrant culture and spirituality of the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church. And while that experience created dispositions and habits of mind and heart that I value and cherish to this very day, growing up surrounded by my extended family as a Roman Catholic in an Italian-American neighborhood of Boston did have its distinct anomalies, especially because my maternal grandparents and great-grandmother were genuinely pious Roman Catholics devoted to the Church.

My beloved grandfather, in particular, had a very deep devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, a form of popular piety very much in vogue during the post-WWll years.  In fact, the first Friday of every month, together with the entire month of June, was especially dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus back then.  So much so, that on every “First Friday” of the academic year, the sainted nuns would bring our entire Roman Catholic grammar school to a special Mass in our adjacent parish church to honor the Sacred Heart.  So, my grandfather’s devotion to the Sacred Heart was very much in the mainstream of Roman Catholic piety at that time.

What was somewhat unusual, however, was that wherever I turned in my grandparents’ home, besides the numerous statues and pictures of Mary, the mother of Jesus, there were statues and pictures of Jesus pointing to his large red heart, wrapped round with a crown of thorns, and topped with a bright yellow flame set against the white background of his tunic.  It was quite an arresting image for an impressionable young boy.  However, as a result of such extravagant religious iconography, I could not escape the awareness that we were loved beyond words and measure by our Lord Jesus Christ, who is, after all, the incarnation of a God described in Holy Scriptures as “Love” itself.  Say what you will about the limitations of so much pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic piety, with its incomprehensible Latin Mass, there were compensating factors in the popular piety of that Christian communion, and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was certainly one of those.  All of us knew—even as young children in a city still hostile to Italian immigrants and their second-generation offspring—that Jesus of Nazareth was a “suffering servant” of God made flesh, and that the heart of God was large enough to encompass all sorts and conditions and to embrace all the worlds of God.

Well, by now, you may be wondering just what my little ethnographic story about my Italian-American youth has to do with this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Mark.  And my response is that it has everything to do with today’s Gospel because Saint Mark frames the problem of discipleship today as a matter of the heart.”  Unlike God’s heart in Christ, which continually pours itself out in spousal and covenant love for God’s people, our human hearts are often so “hardened” that they are nearly impervious to God’s pathos: God’s steadfast, suffering love and concern for humankind.  In fact, Saint Mark’s Greek word for “hardened” in today’s Gospel connotes “stubbornness” and “obtuseness”—an almost deliberate effort not to “get it.”  As a result, Saint Mark tells us, Jesus’ disciples “do not understand about the loaves” and fish—that foretaste of the Messianic banquet described so eloquently by the holy prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible, over which Jesus now presides in the fields of Galilee.

In a similar way, these same “hardened hearts” fail to grasp the meaning of the “sign and wonder” that they witness in the eerie, pre-dawn darkness on the Sea of Galilee.  Of course, Saint Mark’s frightened and obtuse disciples think that they are seeing a ghost!  I would venture to guess that you and I would as well; even more so, perhaps, in our positivistic age that so relentlessly divides reality into the material and the spiritual, the rational and the irrational.  And, once again, our prosaic and thoroughly modern NRSV translation of the Christian Testament completely obscures the astonishing significance of just what the disciples are actually witnessing as Jesus walks by them on the lake after spending the night alone with the Father in prayer:  They are experiencing nothing short of a full-fledged theophany of Jesus’ status as the “beloved son,” akin to his baptism, transfiguration, and ascension.  We know this because, in Saint Mark’s original Greek, Jesus doesn’t say, “Take heart, it is I”; rather, he boldly asserts, “Take heart, I AM; do not be afraid.”  Jesus deliberately uses the divine Name “Ehyeh,” “I AM,” first revealed to Moses at Sinai’s “burning bush” and claimed by God as God’s holy Name forever!  No wonder the fearful and hard-hearted disciples are going nowhere fast until Jesus—through the same “compassion” with which he fed the hungry and confused multitudes just hours before—now joins his disciples for their nocturnal cruise in the “boat,” a biblical image for the remnant “people of God” beginning with the Bible’s story of Noah and the flood.

And so, we come around again to that sticky matter of the stubborn, obtuse, “hardened” human heart so often in conflict with the compassionate, merciful, and loving heart of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.  So, is Jesus asking us this morning to feel more intensely toward him?  Is it mere sentiment that he is seeking from us?

“Not at all,” as Saint Paul would say, for the biblical understanding of the heart goes far deeper than our modern notions about it.  And it has very little to do with sentiment and feeling.  In the Holy Scriptures, the “heart” is the center and the crossroads of all the human spirit’s powers, the deepest and most intimate dimension of our being, the potential dwelling-place of that “still small voice” of God within us.  And because we are made in the “bet ‘selem,” in the “image and likeness” of God, the human heart possesses a radical, inviolate freedom to think and to feel and to act and to love as it will without any compulsion.  We may—and too often do—surrender that freedom to the power and influence of another—usually any other except God—but the “heart” remains the image of God in us nonetheless. And so God always waits, like a beggar of love at the door of the heart, never presuming to enter uninvited, even in the case of personal or collective extremity.  We are free to choose the “yetzer ha tov,”“the good inclination” or the “yetzer ha ra,”“the evil inclination”; “life or death”; to encrust our heart with thick walls of fear, anxiety, rationalization, disobedience, and the thousand other defenses and disordered loves that may claim it. We may hem it in through an incorrigible bondage to the powers of sin and death, which always seek to separate us “from the love of God in Christ Jesus”—often in the name of liberty, false transcendence, and that peculiar American invention, “the pursuit of happiness,” misunderstood as an untrammeled autonomous chase after pleasure and conspicuous consumption.

But, thanks be to God, like an injured spouse, according to the holy prophet Hosea, or the father of the prodigal son, according to Jesus of Nazareth, God’s heart never ceases to search for hearts willing to repent and to surrender to God’s abundant and amazing grace, faithfully abiding in the sacred heart of Jesus; not because God needs our love, but because we need God’s, for without it we can do nothing of any lasting value or consequence.  The love of God is so powerful that it creates and sustains both persons and worlds, and it alone has the power to transform them completely and “to make all things new,” including our very mortal embodied souls.  “Love never dies,” according to Saint Paul, and “Love is stronger than death,” as we read in the Song of Songs.  God seeks our love and lays claim to our hearts because without God at the very center of our being and alive in our hearts, we have no life and no heart.  Without the Creator, the creature fades to nothingness.  Saint Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “You, O Lord, have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  In the sacred heart of Jesus, we have all the love of God incarnate, and we are invited and privileged to abide there forever.

In his “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus promises, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  And with these words, our Saviour locates the struggle for God squarely in the often torn and embattled heart.  Let us pray, then, this morning, that God will purify and soften our stubborn, “hardened” hearts—yours and mine—that we might seek and find our redemption and salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ alone.  Let us also pray for the true gift of a biblical “heart of flesh,” ever faithful to God’s one, spousal covenant with God’s holy people.  And, above all else, let us pray for the grace always and everywhere to give thanks for the creative and transforming love of God—who is Love—by responding to that love incarnate in the sacred heart of Jesus.

AMEN.

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark:

When it grew late, Jesus’ disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii* worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men. Immediately, Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and Jesus was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately, he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

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