Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
The American author Anne Lamott tells a lovely Hasidic story “of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.” (Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)
When your hearts break, holy words fall inside. The good news is not good news to anyone who has never been broken-hearted. A broken heart provides good soil for the gospel to take root. What grows from a broken heart filled with the Word of God is compassion and wisdom, the life-giving fruits of healthy religion.
In today’s gospel, Jesus grieved at the hardness of heart of the Pharisees who would rather let a man suffer than heal him on the Sabbath (Mark 3:5). The hardness of hearts is a refrain that plays throughout Mark’s gospel.
“When our hearts are hardened, we cannot see the grace and the gift of the Sabbath or of the law. When our hearts are hardened, we stop seeing the freedom and healing of another as important. When our hearts are hardened, we are blind to the depth of the truth of who Jesus is and what he is up to in the world.” Unless our hearts are broken religion becomes a deadly enterprise for hardened hearts hell bent on control, exclusion, and maintaining privilege. Look, Jesus and disciples do not keep the Sabbath as they should. Look, Jesus does not obey the authorities. So, immediately, they conspire together how to destroy him. (Mark 3:6)
God’s love for you is deep and never-ending. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) Each of you is utterly unique, blessed, and created in the image of the divine. At the same time, each of us only finds our humanity fulfilled, our joy made complete, and our life filled through belonging and connection, joined together as flesh is joined with bone. This is the wisdom God grows from our broken hearts.
The word ‘religion’ comes from the same root as ‘ligament.’ Ligaments connect muscle and bone. Our bodies could not operate without connective tissue. Likewise, human life does not work without a connection to all living things that surround us.
Religion is the task of putting our divided realities back together: human and divine, male and female, heaven and earth, sin and salvation, mistake and glory, matter and spirit. If it isn’t then re-check your religion.
The body is firmly joined together but also flexible. Our bodies hold everything in its place and also ready to move in an instant. In Jesus’ day, the prevailing religion was stiff and unyielding. Despite good intentions, their resistance to Jesus is proved ignorant, dangerous and deadly—the work of self-contented and hardened hearts. Just look at what else is going on in the third chapter of Mark’s gospel.
Jesus goes home, and people are confused about who he is. Scribes sent from Jerusalem to investigate describe Jesus as being possessed by a demon. Members of his own family are so concerned they staged an intervention. According to Mark, they go out and try to “restrain him.” Jesus’ family believed what they were doing was in his best interest. They seem convinced he has lost his mind. The scribes add fuel to the fire by describing Jesus’ ministry as the work of Satan and accusing him of being possessed by a demon. They say he casts out demons by the ruler of demons.
It’s an unnerving story. How do we keep our hearts open to God’s Word in our own time of great change to the religion we hold dear? “It’s a story about Jesus walking through the sacred fields in our lives and plucking away what we hold dear. It’s a story about Jesus seeing people we’re too holy to notice, and healing people we’d just as well leave sick. It’s a story about a category-busting God who will not allow us to cling to anything less bold, daring, scary, exhilarating, or world-altering than love.” (Debie Thomas, Lord of the Sabbath, Journey with Jesus, 5/27/18) There is a single yardstick by which we can take the measure of our faith, our church, our religious institutions, and traditions. It is measured in the compassion we have for others. Our broken hearts break for all those who suffer.
Apparently, nothing is more sacred to Jesus than compassion. “The true spirit of the Sabbath — the spirit of God — is love. Love that feeds the hungry. Love that heals the sick. Love that sees and attends to the invisible. If we truly want to honor the Lord of the Sabbath, then we have to relativize all practices, loyalties, rituals, and commitments we hold dear — even the ones that feel the most “Christian.” There is only one absolute, and it is love. (Debie Thomas)
Perhaps we too, like the Pharisees and disciples and saints before us, have hardened hearts. But the graceful truth is that in spite of our hardened hearts, life and the Spirit conspire so that eventually, they will be cracked wide open, for grace and love and gentleness to fill and heal them again.
The beautiful story from 1 Samuel shows the resiliency and strength God brings from our broken hearts. Eli realizes God’s call to Samuel means he’s fired. Eli is being passed over for allowing his sons to dishonestly use temple offerings to enrich themselves. Yet Eli does something unexpected. He does not conspire against Samuel but guides and encourages him. Open hearts produce open hands. Compassion has the wisdom to know we are always part of something greater than ourselves.
Why would anyone bring the business of a synagogue to a grinding halt on a Sabbath morning? Why would a man risk his own life to heal a stranger’s withered hand? Why have we gathered here on a Sunday morning? Why do we, year after year, open our hearts to friends and neighbors, children and youth of this community? Because God is here, our broken hearts find comfort and open. “Here, [we] servants of the Servant seek in worship to explore what it means in daily living to believe and to adore” (ELW # 526). We cannot live without God’s Word. Joined together in one body, as muscle is joined to bone, we live and move, and have our being.