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Sermons

Hearts of Stone or Hearts of Flesh?

April 20, 2003

Bible Reading

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again. They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:17-20)


After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.

Suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.

But the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, 'He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.' This is my message for you."

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, clasped his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me." (Matthew 28:1-10)

Sermon

One phrase struck me in Matthew's telling of the Easter story: the women left the empty tomb, we read, "with fear and great joy." Fear and joy--a fascinating combination, since we don't think of them as naturally going together.

Yet they do go together in a deeper way as well. From my own personal experience and from a study of Scripture, I have come to the view that there is essentially one and only one fundamental choice before us as human beings: we can either open our hearts or close them. As we open them, we welcome in the full human experience in all its richness and emotional complexity. We start to feel the joy around us, and also the pain.

There is a popular quote from Swedenborg's Divine Love and Wisdom #47: "Love is having what belongs to oneself belong to someone else; feeling another person's joy as joy in oneself--that is loving. But feeling one's own joy in someone else is not loving. The latter is loving oneself; the former is loving the neighbor."

The loving heart, in other words, is an open heart--a heart that is open to another's joy, a heart that welcomes in another's joy, a heart that makes another's joy its own joy. What Swedenborg doesn't say, but which I think is implied as well, is that to love is also to feel another's pain as pain in oneself, another's sorrow as sorrow in oneself, another's fear as fear in oneself. This is the way of compassion.

I think that as human beings we often act as though we wanted to choose what to let into our hearts. It is as if we prayed, "Okay, Lord, I'm going to open my heart now, but I'm only going to let the joy in, I don't want any of that other stuff." But that is not the choice we are offered. When we open our hearts, it all comes pouring in--joy and sorrow alike. When we close our hearts, seeking to keep out the fear and the pain, we also close our hearts to true joy.

To use Ezekiel's language, we sometimes make our hearts into hearts of stone--or at least we try. But we can't see this hardening through to the end, because a heart of stone doesn't pump blood. It doesn't experience life to its full depth. To carry the hardening of the heart through to the end would be to die spiritually. On the other hand, a heart of flesh pumps blood, but it risks getting hurt. This is what the Lord is working to create in each of us: a heart of flesh--one that can feel another's joys and sorrows--to replace our hearts of stone.

Do you ever wonder what it feels like to be God? I often do. When I reflect on this, I consider how God created each and every one of us, and loves us all equally. Then I think of human history. I think of the headlines. How the divine heart must ache, when it sees what happens to us; when it sees how we treat each other! I suspect that God simultaneously feels the most ecstatic joy and the most heart-rending sorrow. Our Creator is the ultimate, the infinitely open heart, the ultimate heart of flesh. There is a place for us human beings to feel compassion for God. For God feels the joys--and the sorrows--of the world more profoundly than any of us.

The message of Easter is that life is stronger than death. Another way of saying this is that God has the power to melt the hardest heart of stone. The prospect before us is joyful, but also--for humans with egos to protect--frightening. The full wonder and beauty of being a living, feeling human being lies before us . . . but we might get hurt! We are in the position of the women as they left the empty tomb, feeling fear and joy. Jesus meets them on the road and says to them, as he says to us, "Fear not!"

What can give us the strength and courage to open our hearts? To let in all the joy and all the sorrow that surrounds us? One word comes to mind immediately, and a very old-fashioned word at that. To be strong enough and courageous enough to open our hearts, we need faith. We need a fundamental and unshakable trust in God. We need to rely on God's power to heal all wounds.

And as we open our hearts, we have another resource as well. We have each other. When we join a community of hearts that are, like ours, in the process of opening, we are not alone. We are not alone when we face the scary prospect of starting a new job or entering a new relationship. We are not alone when a relationship breaks up. We are not alone when we face the illness of a loved one. We are not alone when we grieve. We are not alone as we seek to find our highest uses.

Moreover, we are not alone in our joys. This may seem like a strange thing to say, since we usually say that we know our true friends in times of crisis. But a joy that is purely private, one that is not known to others nor understood by them, is a mute joy. Such a joy can be lonely in its own way. A community of opening hearts celebrates with us in our joys.

What is a spiritual community, a church, if not a community of opening hearts? And note that I don't say "open hearts" but "opening hearts." This not a place for any of us but a path; and it is often a back and forth process. But together, and with the Spirit to guide us, we can join together in a community of opening hearts. We can enter into the full richness of the human experience. We can live the lives for which we were created.

On this Easter Sunday, may the Lord grant us all the wisdom and courage to join the community of opening hearts. Amen.

Prayer

O Risen Lord, as you broke open the deadening tomb of stone and rose on Easter morning, break open also the deadening tomb of our hearts of stone. Where your presence has been laid out as if dead forever within us, rise again in power and glory, bringing us new life within our souls, and a new sense of joy in the sacred community of love and service to one another and to you. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mitchell