Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘heart’

It’s What’s on the Inside That Counts

Mark 7:1-7; 14,15    

You ever hear this before: It’s what’s on the inside that counts!

Image result for its whats on the inside that counts
You know what it means, right? That your outward appearance is less important than your personality. Or, to take it a step further, that your SOUL [your whole self] is THE most important thing. If that’s what you get out of this, so be it.

Right now I’ll go back in time to consider that this idea is ancient—that our SOUL/WHOLE SELF is the absolute-most-important thing and supersedes what people see.

May be weird, but let’s do this together. Let’s go back in time to the end of the 1st Century in Israel and Palestine. There’s a big issue here: Jews vs. Gentiles [non-Jews] but it’s not fair to say it was just Jewish people vs. non-Jewish people. Really, it was religious elites or religious fanatics vs. non-religious or lower-income people. I don’t think it’s hard for us to imagine this type of situation, considering that in 2018 in the U.S. there are plenty of religious people who criticize, judge, or even shut out others who don’t share their religious moral beliefs or practices.

Image result for gay wedding cake refusal

Well, in the case of the end of the 1st century in Israel and Palestine it wasn’t about wedding cakes, but it was about food and clean vs. unclean, which for the religious people was akin to our modern rendition of moral vs. immoral. For those called Pharisees or Sadducees or Temple authorities, it was all about the interpretation of the Torah [whether you had the “right” interpretation] or whether you took the Torah literally and didn’t interpret it at all.

Sound familiar? Yeah, people do that with the Christian Bible all the time.

Image result for taking the bible literally

Image result for taking the bible literally

Back to the story. People were grumbling about Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew, hanging out with and even eating with non-Jews who obviously did not follow the Torah teachings, according to those religious folk. But Jesus was no dummy. He knew the Torah well and he also knew well the hypocrisy of the religious folks. I mean, think about it. You can take any scripture right now and come up with an interpretation that fits your lifestyle or worldview. Or, you can say that you don’t interpret scripture and “take it literally” which is just another way of saying “I’m going to hide behind these words written centuries ago for people in a different time and place and not with me in mind.” Either way, it’s hypocrisy—if you choose to cop out and hide behind a literal reading, or if you interpret it to fit your own moral system.

So Jesus, to address this [And I think it’s relevant for us today], kept it simple. Yes, we can interpret scripture or say we don’t interpret it, blah, blah, blah, but if in doing so we contradict ourselves, we are showing our true colors.

In other words, our actions reflect what is inside our heart, and our heart is truly what matters most—what’s on the inside.

We can put certain food or drink in our mouths and absorb scripture teachings, but if what comes out contradicts it all, who cares? We are a walking hypocrisy.

A word about heart. Heart, in this context, an ancient Jewish understanding, meant soul/identity. The common Hebrew word for heart is lev. It was the center of personality and of being. It drives us. This inward self is what actually moves us to do what matters most in the world. It is our heart and not our rules that matters most to our neighbors.

So, what do you think? How can we as a community address those who criticize, marginalize, or judge others based on interpretations of scripture or cultural or religious practices? How can we focus on matters of the heart, what’s on the inside? How can we do that for ourselves, but also for others?

Comment below.


Where Is Your Heart…?

Luke 12:32-40

Today’s message is about treasure.

But when we hear that word treasure today, our minds tend to wander off into thoughts of pirates, maps, and perhaps Johnny Depp.

ImageOkay, so let’s contextualize the word treasure. Treasures are what we value. So what do you value?

There are hundreds of online exercises you can do to help you determine what some of your core values may be. Perhaps at work or at school you have done some sort of test or exercise related to core values.

Today we don’t have time to do an extensive core values exercise, but we can start with something simple. A few questions have always been helpful to me and I hope they are for you.

The first question to ask yourself:

What would I do if I knew the world was going to end one week from today?

Answer honestly and quickly.

The second question:
Jump ahead to the end of your life. You know that your time on this earth is at an end. What are the three most important lessons you have learned and why are they so critical?

Next, think of someone you deeply respect. Describe three qualities in this person that you most admire.

That is a good way to wake up our minds and to get us thinking about our values. A reminder: values are part of who you are, they are not who you think you should be nor are they what others think you should be.

Let’s keep going.

Here is a short list of possible values. I want you to make a mental note of the values that feel right to you. Or, come up with some of your own.

 _____Commitment to Family                     _____Commitment to Spouse/Partner

 _____Commitment to Community            _____Commitment to career

 _____Spirituality                                        _____Health

 _____Nutrition                                           _____Exercise

 _____Integrity                                            _____Responsibility

 _____Self-Respect                                     _____Honesty

 _____Friendship                                        _____Sense of Humor

 _____Loyalty                                              _____Creativity

Have you done it? Okay, now of the values you marked, how many are there? Narrow them down to five or less.

What remains?

This is a helpful exercise to get us focused on the story in Luke’s Gospel. This teaching of Jesus challenges the disciples [and all of us] to ask:

What do I value?

Your treasure/value determines where your heart is.

In other words, what we value moves us to decisions, actions, and the giving of ourselves [resources, talents, time, and energies].

Let’s put this Luke story in context. Previously, Jesus told the story of the rich fool. Then, he followed that up with the charge to live without anxiety. Look at the birds of the field…Do not worry about food or clothing, because God knows that you need these things. It is a provisional “duh.” The disciples were meant to see birds and other animals and plants, and they were meant to remember this teaching. If these living things are taken care of, shouldn’t we believe that we are taken care of, too?

People who fret and worry do so because they buy into society’s assumption that we do not have what we need. Anxiety follows.

Society teaches us the myth of scarcity.

We are made to believe that there isn’t enough food and shelter for all people, so we must compete for even the basic of things. Jesus challenges us with a different point of view: there IS enough for everyone and we need to stop with this attitude of scarcity. It is destructive and causes nothing but anxiety and suffering.

A healthy change from a perspective of scarcity to an attitude of abundance helps us to stop being afraid. Our anxiety level goes down. It is God’s great pleasure, says Jesus, to actually freely give humanity the Kingdom. In other words, God enjoys providing what is necessary for all people. In God’s perspective, every human being [created in God’s image] should have enough to live, should be care for, and therefore fear is not necessary. It’s not about waiting for heaven so things get better. God is freely giving this in the present tense. Now.

This shift from scarcity and competition to abundance and sharing leads to Jesus commanding the disciples to actually do something.

Give to the poor.

Why? Because society is unbalanced. Even though there is enough for people to eat, some still go hungry. This is our doing, not God’s. The disciples are commanded to “act out” the principle of the last being the first. Who does society reject and trample on? The disciples are called to bless them and to be generous so as to lift them up. In this way, they participate in God’s loving action in the world.

This teaching rejects the idea that treasures are individualistic desires for more things.
Disciples are instead called to place their treasure [their values] in the poor, in the downtrodden, and ultimately, they are called to place their value [and trust] in God’s generous, giving love.

Where your treasure is, your heart will be also.
It is a famous, bumper sticker-type Jesus saying.
But we often get it wrong.

Notice that Jesus does not say, “Where your heart is, put your treasure.” He says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

So, if you really want to get your heart into something, give a lot of money to it.

A lot of money.

Like..all of your money.


Jesus’ teaching contradicts our typical perspective.
Usually, we assume that our imagination can draw us into a different reality.

I imagine that I want to be kind and generous. I think about it. My heart is into it. And so…that should lead to me actually doing it.

But no!

Jesus says the opposite.

Instead: creating a new reality can change our imagination.
Living a new reality can change our hearts.
Are you with me here?

For example, say I want to be live out my core value of being compassionate. Instead of thinking about how I can be compassionate, reading about it, imagining it—I should instead put my treasure into it. I should put my resources into compassion; my time; my energy; my enthusiasm. I should create a new, compassionate reality for myself and for others.

And only then will my heart truly be in it.

So, to review: this is teaching us:
Do not fear. We should not fear because fear paralyzes us.
Without fear, we are free to move, act, bless, give, and love.
Without fear, decisions become clearer.
Without fear, we trust rather than distrust.
Without fear, we focus on what’s important and we don’t hoard the unimportant.
It all starts with do not fear.

We need to stay awake and alert, but not out of fear.
We need to stay awake out of love.
God loves us, and it is God’s great pleasure to take care of us, to provide, so it follows that we should trust and stay awake out of…love.

Perhaps, if we take this to heart [literally], we will be less reactive and more proactive; less apathetic and more compassionate; less depressed and more joyful; less selfish and more generous.

If we stayed awake, with our lamps burning out of love, how would that change our actions?
I think it would, and I think it would change the church.

After all, the church is just people.
But sadly, the church is often an organization that acts out of fear and certainly believes that there is more scarcity than abundance.

There are two pastors who post funny church signs that also have deep meaning. I chose three that I’d like to show you.

ImageImageImageWhile funny, these signs also speak a truth.

Most churches live in fear.
The core values become obvious when these are the only questions:
Will we meet our budget? Will our endowment run out?
Will we scare people off? Will our ministry be controversial?
We don’t have enough resources to help in our community. So what?

And yet, as we’ve been thinking about our own core values as individuals, I wonder if the church did the same. What if we valued justice, peace, compassion, and love and put all of our treasure into those things?

What if we made decisions out of love and not fear?
How would that shift our energies and refocus us?

Friends, this is a challenge, to be sure. It is not easy to shift perspective overnight. But I do think we can start with do not fear.

I think if we start with an attitude of abundance and thankfulness, we will be much more capable of making a positive, lasting impact in the world.

It is true–we are driven by our treasure.
What do you value?
Wherever your treasure is, your heart will be.

Why not go for it?

Why not pursue your values, giving of yourself?
Why not act on those values on a daily basis?

May it be so in me and all of us.

A Response

Mark 7:1-23     

 The Human Heart Leads Us…

           Today’s story is in the Gospel of Mark. Remember that Mark is known to be the first Gospel written—the one that the other Gospels borrow from. Imagine yourself in Syria. Yes, a long time ago, but in Syria. The authors of Mark may have gathered together this collection of stories there, sometime around 70 C.E. These writings seem to be aimed at a specific audience: Greek-speaking non-Jewish people [called Gentiles], living under Roman rule. So imagine yourself there, in that context. Mark must explain Jewish traditions you see, because the readers aren’t aware. They don’t really know the Torah [books of Moses] or even the Talmud [Jewish oral tradition]. They don’t really know or understand all the religious rules of the synagogue [called the temple]. And they don’t speak Hebrew, they speak Greek. So imagine yourself a Gentile; wait, we are!

          And now imagine Jesus of Nazareth, a man of Jewish heritage, educated in Jewish law, the Torah, the Talmud, the religious practices. This Jesus knew the Pharisees and the Sadducees well. The Pharisees were the Jewish people who believed in authority from the oral law, which was their tradition of interpreting the Torah [Moses Law]. The Sadducees [often called scribes], on the other hand, only recognized Moses’ Law, the Torah. So you can see why these two groups both of the same basic religious belief system were at odds with each other. And notice that they came from Jerusalem, the big city, the religious epicenter, the temple’s resting place. They were the religious elites. But they found Jesus in the towns, in rural areas, in Galilee, far from the temple. And he was with Gentiles who knew very little about laws and religion. They were the marginalized.

          Obviously, the Pharisees and Sadducees noticed that these Gentiles were outsiders; they were different. They ate food without washing their hands properly. Ew! But it wasn’t that the Pharisees and scribes were acting like parents telling their kids to wash their hands before dinner. They were actually more concerned with tradition than they were with germs. They were religiously Gentile-phobic. Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands? they asked. This was a huge barrier between people—all this religious tradition. Jesus knew it and so he was convinced that this issue of Gentiles being unclean needed to be settled once and for all. Otherwise, this kingdom community of God idea, where all were welcomed, would not be viable.

          I’m actually really glad that I never got into a debate with Jesus. He was good. He went right to the Hebrew Scriptures, quoting Isaiah: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. The temple authorities, according to Jesus, were ignoring the commandment of God and clinging tightly to human traditions. That’s a direct reference to the Pharisees’ claim that their oral tradition was of God, just like the Torah Law. But Jesus called it mere human habit. And he brought it home by talking about the family, more specifically, mom and dad. Honor your father and your mother. A big commandment.

          And then he drops a word we don’t know and once again you and I definitely feel like clueless Gentiles. Korban. Korban was a word that meant money or assets willed to the Jerusalem temple. These korban monies could no longer be used by a family once someone made a vow of korban, promising this money to the temple; there was no way to go back on it. It didn’t matter if tragedy hit your household, if someone needed assistance, even if mom and dad were dirt poor. Korban was final. So it was a huge contradiction. Both Pharisees and scribes claimed to follow God’s commandments, and yet, how were they really honoring their father and mother if they gave all their money to the temple and refused to help their families in need?

          This statement seemed to quiet the Pharisees and scribes, because Jesus then had plenty of time to address the Gentile crowds. Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. Now the story shifts. Jesus and the religious leaders had been arguing about the body, the external, what was clean or dirty. Now Jesus talked about what was on the inside; the heart. Notice the thematic word-play. The Pharisees and scribes were religious insiders who mocked those like the Gentiles who were outsiders. The Pharisees and scribes were concerned about what was outside the body. Jesus was concerned with only the inside. Now let’s get to the heart of the matter, pun intended.

          For the ancient Hebrews, the word for heart was lev, spelled lamed-beit. The heart was the center of personality and being. As described by Jewish scholars and writers, the heart is the inner self—what it means to be human. It is intellect and rational thought. The heart is memory, emotions, determination, desire, will, and courage. The heart is completely an internal concept. What is external, on the outside, does not affect the heart. This understanding is quite different than much of the Western world’s thinking about the heart, which can often include the idea that “the devil made me do it.” That Western thinking does not exist in the majority of Biblical Jewish thought. Instead, when we as humans act, our action is motivated by our heart—not some external force causing us to be bad or good. Therefore, people have the ability to choose which impulse to follow, a dichotomy of the heart. The two sides to the heart in rabbinic understanding are yetzer hatov [good inclination] and yetzer hara [evil inclination]. But it’s important for us to understand that yetzer hara is not some demonic force that forces someone to do something bad. Instead, it is a drive towards pleasure, property, or security. Pursuing these things is not evil, but if we pursue it without limit, it can lead to evil. This idea is appears in the book of Genesis.

          All human beings, therefore, have the ability to choose. This is the basic concept of free will. In the Talmud [the Jewish oral tradition], it notes that all people are descendants of Adam. Therefore, no one can blame his/her own bad impulses on their ancestry. Everyone makes his/her own choices; everyone is responsible for those choices. You can see why this more Jewish understanding of the heart is important if we are to better understand what Jesus was teaching. In the Western world, we most often associate the brain with thought and the heart with emotion. The ancient Hebrews, however, saw the heart as the mind—including both thinking and feeling. Apply this to Deuteronomy 6:5: Love God with all your heart. This is not just an emotion, but also a thoughtful process of making decisions and acting on them.

          I’m fascinated and encouraged by such an understanding of the heart that in the American Christian church we have misunderstood, or in some cases, pushed to the side. It’s easy, you see, for us to verbally attack the Pharisees and the scribes, noting their legalistic nature and obsession with religious rules. They exclude; they marginalize others; they are hypocrites. But let’s keep in mind the story in Mark. Jesus doesn’t just criticize Pharisees and scribes; he makes a statement about human beings in general, including his disciples. We are all hypocrites—all of us. We are all legalistic; we all marginalize others with our religious rules. The question is: will we admit it and turn away from such attitudes that indeed, come from within our hearts?

          In Christian circles these days, there is a lot of focus on who belongs in or who is left out of the church. Some draw the line with certain sexual behaviors or orientations. Still others invite into their church only those who vote just like them and agree on certain political and social issues. Other churches are just fine with everybody being Anglo-Saxon; or English-only. Many churches welcome people of the same social level and leave out those who have less material wealth or a limited educational background. It’s tiresome. Really. I’m weary of all this. Thankfully, Jesus has something to say about it. All of us who think we’re church insiders who know what God’s law is and which religious rules people ought to follow—we are left on the outside. This is ironic to be sure, but it’s what Jesus taught. It’s also what Paul taught, even though many have misinterpreted much of his writings. Paul wrote in Romans 2:29: But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.

          So why do we continue to keep discriminating by the letter and neglecting the heart? Why are some out and others in? Why do we keep focusing on external rules and neglect the inward heart? The Christ teaching is that sure–we can follow doctrines, religious rules and rites, but they do us no good if we neglect the heart. Our inward self is what actually moves us to do what matters most in the world. It is our heart and not our rules that matters most to our neighbors. Yes, friends, we are all more than capable of evil, of stealing, of killing, of cheating, lying, gossiping, selfishness, envy, and cowardice. But we are also fully capable of good, compassion, love, sharing, healing, justice, truth, encouragement, generosity, gratefulness, and courage.

          What Jesus asked his disciples to do was to consider what matters most in life. Do we care more about external religious rules? Or do we care more about the internal heart? Do we care more that people see us performing pious acts so they will call us a good Christian or a religious person? Or, do we care more about being honest with ourselves and with God, claiming our decisions [good and bad] as our own, not blaming or judging others? Jesus of Nazareth made it clear: in God’s community of reconciling love, dirty hands and feet, people who cannot follow all the rules, they are welcome and accepted. The Pharisees, the scribes—they are also welcomed and accepted. The people who pray and the people who don’t know how; those who read the Bible a lot and those who are afraid to; people who marry, divorce, drink, smoke, dance badly, sing well, speak languages other than English; those who laugh and those who cry; people who have hope and those with none; kids, babies, teenagers, adults; religious and non-religious alike. This is God’s community.

          And we are invited in—even if we’ve felt like we’ve been on the outside. And we’re invited to accept responsibility for those times when we hurt someone or caused evil. And we’re encouraged to ask for forgiveness, humbly and honestly. And as broken human beings who daily struggle with our heart’s motivation, we can encounter hope in the message of Jesus. For God knows our hearts, knows what we are capable of. And this Still-Forgiving God extends compassion and mercy to us so that we can remember that we are capable of doing good in the world. This is the heart of the matter. This is the core of life. We are to listen to our hearts. We are to cultivate all that is merciful and compassionate within it. We are to recognize also its imperfections so as not to hide them. We are to love God and our neighbor by using our brains, feeling emotions, and moving our feet. What is on the inside will always bear fruit on the outside. Amen.

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