Pentecost – Proper 17
Song of Solomon 2: 8-13; Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
THE REV. JAMES M.L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
One day when I was in high school, my anatomy and physiology class took a field trip to the Texas Heart Institute in the Medical Center. The tour included a visit to an observation area where we watched open heart surgery being performed. I am sure the technology has changed a lot since that time, but I recall looking down into the operating room through a window and seeing this massive heart and lung machine that was pumping in and out of the patient. It took a giant and sophisticated machine to handle the physiological work of the human heart.
On the surgical table, and completely covered in sheets, was the patient. The only part of the patient that was visible was the opening in the chest where the doctors were working on the heart. It was beautiful.
In the Bible, it was the heart, rather than the brain, that was considered the center of a person’s life and emotions. But this kind of thinking pre-dates the Bible. Ancient Egyptian belief in the afterlife involved the weighing of a person’s physical heart after they died. This was like their last judgment. A person’s heart was placed on a scale, and on the other side of the scale was placed a feather. If the heart weighed more than the feather, then the person to whom the heart belonged was punished. The heavy heart was a sign of a life lived with sinister intentions. It was more preferable in this scenario to have a light heart, one lighter than a feather, because that represented an unburdened conscience, a life lived that was moral and right.
While some may scoff at a rather binary understanding of judgment, the story of the Egyptian afterlife nevertheless makes an important point: heavy hearts burden us and they bring us down. I am sure in your life you encounter people with heavy hearts. Maybe their hearts are weighed down by guilt, remorse, shame, embarrassment. People who have expected to be more than they are by now. But let’s be fair and acknowledge that what we say about others is also true for us: many of us have heavy hearts, hearts burdened by too much responsibility, too many commitments, too many expectations – all impossible to meet if we try.
Though not a cardiologist, Jesus nevertheless understood a lot about the human heart and the weight it can carry. He had such an opportunity to do so in the story we hear this morning from the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus is confronted by a group of people judging him and his followers because they weren’t following the rules. Specifically, they weren’t following the expected customs and rules regarding eating, which involved eating with clean hands.
Now before you write these accusations off as silly and having no point, think about how you would feel if you were eating a meal served to you by a waiter with dirty hands and you watched the water let the food slip off the plate, fall onto the floor, and then you saw the waiter pick the food of the floor, put it back onto your plate with their dirty hands, and then brought it to you saying “Bon Appetit!” Cleanliness matters. Rules matter.
But for Jesus, what mattered was not following the rules, which probably upset a lot of people. His point was that the rules became like a God to worship. So that what mattered wasn’t loving God, but loving God in the right way, in a rule-following kind of way. Okay so you are thinking “What’s wrong with that?” For Jesus, the problem is us. We’re just not very good at following rules all the time. And when we break the rules, our hearts get heavier and heavier and heavier.
That’s a problem because a heavy heart, a heart weighted down by resentment, anger, and bitterness, becomes a toxic place that produces envy, slander, pride, and all the other things Jesus mentions today. A heavy heart is in need of a spiritual angioplasty, a heavy heart is desperately in need of hope to lighten it.
When our hearts are focused on the right thing, I believe that that our hearts will be light. And a light heart is a joyful heart – a heart that espouses hope. We make our hearts light by practicing gratitude, by honoring the people in our presence, and by being grounded where God has placed us. By being humble. By not making rule-following a higher priority than following God.
The human heart, on average, will beat 2.5 billion times in one lifetime. To put that into some context, during the time that you have been in church this morning, your heart has already beat some two thousand times. Remarkable, isn’t it? With every beat, is your heart growing lighter or heavier? Is your heart growing kinder or colder? With God’s help, may your heart and your burdens, be always light. AMEN.