Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
II Corinthians 6:1-13
April 25, 2021
Paul says , “Open wide your hearts.” How do we do that? Put your hand on your heart, as you do when you pledge, and try to feel the beat.
The heart’s job is to pump blood through the circulatory system. Oxygen-rich blood travels to 30 trillion cells in your body, so they can survive and do their work. An average heart beats 60 to 70 times per minute. Today your heart will thump away over 115,000 times. In an average lifespan, it was hammer away 3 billion times. The heart never sleeps, never stops to rest. Its rhythm keeps the body alive. Hearts serve life, a constant giving, flowing out into its small world of our bodies. Think about that before you order a Baconator Burger.
When you get to the heart of a matter, it means you have understood the essence, what’s most important. Many religions understand the heart as the seat of emotions, the place where compassion flows. To be “lion-hearted” is to be courageous.
What does the Apostle Paul mean when he tells the Corinthians to open wide their hearts? His second letter to a conflicted church encourages them to treat each other well. Embrace the love of Christ for each other in a love which hopes all things, bears all things, believes all things. (I Cor. 13) Paul appeals for funds to the Jerusalem church, which has fallen on hard times. Open wide your hearts is a fundraising appeal also to open their wallets. Corinthians reads like a spiritual stress test, an EKG of the heart of the church, to see if it is healthy, strong, and capable of service to others. Just as the heart serves the body, we each serve the body of Christ.
Paul is not sentimental about love from the heart. He knows conflict is inevitable, but he believes that reconciliation is the church’s essential work. In the previous chapters, he challenges everyone to be ministers of reconciliation; just as we are forgiven and reconciled by God, we strive to do the same with each other.
New Testament scholar Stephen Patterson has recently argued that the first Christian creed was not a proclamation of separation from others (believers from nonbelievers); instead, it was a declaration of human solidarity. That creed was part of the very first baptismal liturgies of those who followed Jesus, and written by Paul in Galatians:
For you are all children of God in the Spirit.
There is no Jew or Greek;
There is no slave or free;
There is no male and female.
For you are all one in the Spirit.
Patterson insists that Christianity was successful because it imparted a social vision of unity in a deeply divided world and called people to a new shared identity: “We human beings are naturally clannish and partisan: we are defined by who we are not. We are not them. This creed claims that there is no us, no them. We are all one. We are all children of God.” (Patterson, The Forgotten Creed, p.5)
I thought about this while reading Yuval Harari’s book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.” Harari outlines the significant challenges of climate change, disruptive technology, and vast inequality and suffering. We need voices that pull us together and move us toward a common purpose. In his chapter on religion, Harari notes that all faiths have lost their crucial functions over time, predicting harvest cycles and healing the sick. He thinks religion now focuses on deciding who belongs and who is the other. (Richard Rohr, a contemplative Franciscan, said almost the same thing. Christian history has so often been about who is in, who’s out, rather than how we all belong.). What surprised me about Harari, a secular Israeli, is that he doesn’t say religion needs to die and give way to science. He says religion needs to recover its deeper function of providing meaning and teaching us that we are all in this together. What if we become ministers of reconciliation? What if Christianity was known for peacemaking rather than judgment?
Honest dialog is hard, but it is not impossible. It requires a willingness to cross the bridge into unknown territory and meet others where they are. Nicholas Kristoff wrote a piece in the NY Times Review two weeks ago entitled “They Overcame Their Mutual Loathing and Saved a Town.” Environmental lawyer Susan Brown championed endangered species in Oregon and stopped logging cold. She was public enemy #1 to loggers, who faced a 90 percent decline in revenue and the collapse of small-town economies in places like John Jay, Oregon. In desperation, some loggers invited Brown to meet them in the forest for a weekend to understand their plight. She feared murder but agreed to go with a burly friend to watch out for her.
“It was very tense,” she remembered. But while the two sides didn’t agree, each was surprised to find the other not entirely diabolical.
“We thought, ‘Well, we haven’t killed each other, so maybe we should keep talking and let’s see what happens,'” she said. In 2006 they formalized the dialogue by naming it Blue Mountains Forest Partners.
The significant outcome of the dialog was the insight that logging smaller trees removes kindling, which larger trees from fire damage. They found a way to preserve the forest and save the small-town mill, even though at a lower output. Now that sounds like a happy ending. But the challenge is that environmentalists were furious and viewed Brown as a compromiser, and the lumber industry won’t speak to the John Day loggers because they worked with environmentalists. It’s tough to cross ideological lines when there is real pain and anger. But where do we go if no one will take the step of crossing the bridge and open wide their hearts?
This work can start with our closest relationship. Jeanne and I follow the work of Helen and Harville Hendricks, called “getting the love you want.” As a marriage counselor, Harville trained couples to talk about what they needed and practice compromise. Couples learned to negotiate and create contracts. It sounds good, right? But here’s the catch. Almost no couples fulfilled the contract and slid back into the same old arguments. Hendricks thought he wasn’t training them properly. Maybe some people don’t belong together because of irreconcilable differences. In his worst moments, he thought couples therapy was just crap.
But what if the problem isn’t the people but the nature of “compromise”? Do you want a compromised relationship? Harville reflected that the heart wants what the heart wants. Our deepest self wants to be seen, understood, loved, and valued. If we don’t get that, we will never really fulfill compromised agreements. Harville shifted towards teaching people to see each other, discover what they truly needed, and give each other what they truly need. To reach that, we have to open wide our hearts in love to each other, to pursue what Martin Buber called an I-Thou relationship.
Jeanne and I learned these techniques, and I won’t tell you it was easy. It took us a few years to experience transformation. We often got it wrong and stumbled into old arguments. (You know the kind of arguments where we knew each other’s lines so well that we could switch roles and keep going.). But every time we did it, we got a little better.
Can we translate this kind of work into our social and political divisions? Yes and No. I don’t think I can reach the sublime heights of an “I-Thou” relationship with Mitch McConnell or a fervent Trump supporter. If you can, great. Some people are toxic for us, even abusive, and Jesus said there are times to shake the dust off your feet and walk away. I can’t love the whole world this way, nor would God expect that of any of us. But I do have to start somewhere. Just as love doesn’t happen because we found the perfect partner, social and political dialog and healing will never have the perfect conditions. Love and justice come from the willingness to make choices, work together, listen and find dignity and worth until we liberate each other through mutual respect. My hope is we can each find some space, some person, some issue, where we can do this work of transformative listening.
Friends, we are close to re-opening our building and meeting together again. We have learned much about opening our hearts while being separated. Out of love, we have had to stay apart, and now out of love, we want to come back together with wide-open arms and hearts. I long to be together but I also long for something more. Paul’s phrase of opening wide our hearts sums up this hope.
During this Stewardship Season, my appeal to you is not only to pledge as generously as you have been doing, but also it is time to engage again.
It is time to grab your work gloves and paintbrushes and help us prepare to re-open.
And as we gain momentum, it’s time to engage in this ministry of healing the world.
It is time to do what hearts do, pump the blood, deliver oxygen, and through our steady beat create a more just, kind, and healthy world. Remember, you all have 3 billion beats in your heart. Let’s make them all count. Amen.