31 March 2019

Matters of the Heart

Matthew 6:19-24

Fourth Sunday in Lent

One of the major themes running through the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ concern for the integrity of the human heart; it’s a steady current that runs through the entire sermon. We saw this last week in our exploration of Jesus’ call to wholeness, not perfection.  Jesus summons us to be whole, even as God is whole.  We also saw that Jesus, as a teacher of wisdom and physician of the soul, is a kind of cardiologist: he wants for us healthy hearts.  More than an organ that pumps blood or the seat of emotions, the heart was understood as the totality of one’s self, the source of thought, emotion, and will or action. Jesus understood the pain and destruction caused when hearts are divided, when we are at war with ourselves, or when our outer life is not aligned with our interior life.  As we saw this morning in adult education, Jesus came to heal our divided, broken hearts, to lead us toward wholeness, toward a life that flourishes in the Kingdom, and that this healing, this desire for wholeness is directly related to how we understand salvation.  “Flourishing are the pure in heart,” Jesus said, “because they will see God” (Mt. 5:8).

These verses before us today put a spotlight on how we move from the inner to the outer expression of our walk with Christ.  He wants us to pay attention to the divisions we carry within us and the way they get in the way of kingdom living.  And often, our divided hearts come into focus when we reflect upon the things that we treasure, whether we are serving God or wealth. Instead of using a Greek word, Matthew uses an Aramaic word in the text, mamona or “mammon,” which means property, possessions, or money.  Mammon is difficult to translate into English. It refers to “physical money,” as well as everything that money can buy, all the goods of the world, as well as everything that one owns. Implicit to “mammon” is all the privilege and power and security that then comes with having money.  Mammon is extremely seductive and wields an enormous influence over our lives; even when we don’t consider ourselves especially materialistic, it has a hold over us, we’re in its grip, just by living in a society such as ours that worships mammon as a god. New Testament scholar, Jonathan T. Pennington reminds us, “One cannot flirt with money as if it has nothing to do with one’s inner person.”[1] Did not Paul say, “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim. 6:10)?   

With this allusion to love we are brought back to the heart.  We can’t serve two masters.  We might think we can.  We might think we can hold our attitude toward money and wealth apart from our hearts and what God requires of us, but we can’t.  That’s a lie.  Jesus, who knows us better than we know ourselves, knows that we can’t serve two masters, we can’t live a full, whole, flourishing life with divided loyalties, for “we will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Mt. 6:24). We can’t be both servants of money, wealth, property, and possessions and servants of the Living God.

Jesus was enough of a realist to know that matters of commerce, trade, wealth, and the desire for financial security come with being human.  What he’s concerned about is the way our anxiety around these things, our proclivities to hoard and save, worries about “having enough,” our greed, our obsession with wealth and money and things as if they were gods—and our obsession and fascination with those with lots of money and things, blitz and bling—are, together, unhealthy, neurotic, and sick.  Chief Sitting Bull (c.1831-1890), the Lakota leader, said of the European settlers, said of most Americans, in 1887, “…the love of possession is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break and the poor may not.”[2] It’s a kind of disease that eats away our souls. In the end these “treasures” will be taken away by moth and rust, or thieves, or, in the end, death itself. 

So, why not put your treasure in something of ultimate value and worth? For the sake of your heart, put your treasure in the things that make for life. Doesn’t that make more heart sense? Where you place your treasure says something about who you really are in the core of your being.  What you treasure most tells the tale of who you really are.

This is a tough teaching to hear.  Jesus is intentionally turning up the heat here,  upping the ante. But Jesus offers this, not to make our lives more difficult, but because he loves us and knows what’s best for us.  He knows what our hearts require.  He wants to help your inner life to flow out, to shine out for the world to see.  “Let your light shine before others,” Jesus said, “so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).

And to shine we need a good eye. Today, we know that light enters the eye and allows us to see. In Jesus’ time, the eye was understood as a kind of lamp or torch, and the light of the lamp flowed from deep in the core of one’s being. The source of light was within. The science might be all wrong in this text, but the spiritual and psychological truth is as true as it ever was.  We see with the heart.

In Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s (1900-1944) classic children’s story The Little Prince, the fox says to the little prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” We see with the heart.

To have a good eye means there is light within.  “A good eye is proof of inner light…Inner light makes eyes shine.” In the Judaism of Jesus’ time, if someone said, “You have a ‘bad eye,’” it meant that you’re selfish, covetous, that you carry an evil or envious disposition,  that you “see” with hate. If someone says, “You have a ‘good eye,’” it meant that you were generous, you had an attitude of giving, that selflessness flowed from the light of the heart.[3]  Jesus wants us to have healthy eyes, or, better translated, he wants us to have “whole” eyes.  Whole eyes produce generous eyes, and generous eyes lead to generous lives.[4] 

St. Augustine (354-430) knew the value of a whole heart. And he knew that faith is born in the heart. In his journey to becoming a Christian, as told in his Confessions, Augustine came to a critical moment when he realized that his life didn’t belong to him, he became conscious of just how anxious and confused and divided his intentions were, his heart was “restless;” focusing here and there, following one diversion then another.  Then he came to see that the human heart can only find its true home when it finally rests in God.  And so, he confessed, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

It’s difficult for a disordered, divided heart to wholeheartedly serve God. But when our hearts are ordered, whole, they can then be placed in service to something and someone larger than ourselves.  Then the kingdom, God’s love and justice, becomes our treasure, which we “invest” in with our hearts. We put our hearts into it, put our hearts behind it. We place our hearts in service to the kingdom, which is what Jesus did with his life, which is what Jesus calls us to do with ours.  Like John Calvin (1509-1564), we can offer our hearts up to God, promptly and sincerely.  Core meum tibi offero, Domine, prompte et sincere. (I offer you my heart, Lord, promptly and sincerely.) 

This was his personal motto. And he came up with an image, a symbol to go along with it: an upturned open palm holding a heart.  He offered up his heart, a heart on fire, a heart alive to God.  Isn’t this what we’re called to be as a church?

Shortly, we will invite women and men, called by this congregation, to be ordained and installed as Elders, Deacons, and Trustees.  The call to serve is a call to offer one’s heart, promptly and sincerely, wholly and completely, to God and God’s desire for this church.  My prayer is that you will lead this congregation from your hearts—may you serve with all that you are, thought, feeling and will, the totality of your self, give it your all.  May you put your hearts into this work and into this beloved people of God.

As we consider matters of the heart on this Lord’s Day, it’s fitting for us to dedicate our new website.  A lot of heart went into the creation of this new site, our new online home on the internet: www.catonsvillepres.org.  This website is a mirror that reflects back to us something of who we are, it reminds us who we are.  And this website is also a window that allows our neighbors to look in and catch a glimpse of who we are, to see something of our hearts, to see where our treasure is, to see and even feel how we love one another and try to love this hurting, troubling, yet beautiful world.  Something of our heart is there.

But, ultimately, the website is not about us, it’s about the heart of God’s love pulsating with life and passion and joy through us—and, to be honest, if we’re not reflecting the heart of God as a church, then tell me, why are we here?

May our prayer be that whoever looks at us, whether online or offline, sees something in us of the heart of God.  May it be so. 

 * * *
This sermon is part of a six-week Lenten series:
Following Jesus: The Sermon on the Mount
March 10: Are You Flourishing?
March 17: Becoming Salt and Light
March 24: Wholeness, Not Perfection
March 31: Matters of the Heart

[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017),244
[2] Mark Diederich, ed., Sitting Bull: The Collected Speeches, (Coyote Books, 1998), 75.
[3] Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination (New York: Crossroad, 2016), 143.
[4] Pennington, 241.

24 March 2019

Wholeness, Not Perfection

Matthew 5:48

Third Sunday in Lent

When I was a boy I believed that God expected me to be perfect. I’m not sure how I came to think this this way, but it emerged early in my life. I’ve spent a lot of time and money over the years in psychotherapy and analysis trying to get at the source of this idea, to understand it. A child’s image of God is often shaped by parental relationships. My parents weren’t authoritarian or unusually demanding.  I have no memory of them ever saying to me, “Kenny, you have to be perfect.” I never felt I had to measure up to high, unrealistic expectations. But this feeling, this thought was there.  God wants me to be perfect, perfectly good.  Errors, faults, mistakes were unacceptable.  God will judge me every time I miss the mark. That’s what sin is, as I learned in church school; to sin is to miss the mark. It’s an old archery term for missing the bullseye, for missing the “gold” at the center of a target. To miss the target is to sin. I had a very legalistic view of God and the world, and a moralistic view of Christianity.  A Christian must follow the rules, never mess up. I remember boasting to a friend, I was around 11 years old, that I had kept all Ten Commandments, that I never broke one. That’s what I thought it meant to be a Christian. Following the rules. Being a good boy. Pleasing people, pleasing God by never making a mistake.

Such a fool. How naïve. Sad, really, to be burdened with this kind of expectation.And then I read in my Bible, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." There it is: I must be perfect—the Bible tells me so.  To a child there’s nothing ambiguous about the word “perfect.” I knew it meant never making mistakes, being morally upright, pure, sinless, beyond reproach. The hearing of this verse distorted a lot of things.  It hindered my ability to hear anything about God’s love. I had no understanding of grace. Looking back now, I see that my psyche coopted this text and then used it to reinforce, justify, even “sanctified” my skewed perspective of things.

Looking back now at age 55, I wish I knew then what I know now, that there is nothing holy about living this way.  Today, I can’t go back and change anything, and, contra Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), there are limits to how much we can discern about the origins of our personalities. Sometimes it doesn’t help to know the cause or try to issue blame. I agree with Carl Jung (1875-1961), who questioned Freud’s approach; today I know that that kind of thinking doesn’t always serve me.  Instead, I’ve come to see that my wrestling with these issues is part of my life-task, it’s the summons of my soul, it’s the call of the Spirit. This struggle has shaped my personal and theological development and growth as a pastor—especially when people expect pastors to be perfect. 

I have come to see that the desire to be perfect, as well as expecting others to be perfect, and perfectionism itself, are often masks for a deeper anxiety.  I have come to believe that there’s nothing holy or sacred or even “Christian” about being perfect—it might be anti-Christian, even anti-Christ. A lot of damage has been done by imposing this expectation on God’s people.  I agree with writer and fellow-Presbyterian, Anne Lamott. “Perfectionism,” she said, “is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, ....”[1]

Brené Brown is also helpful here: “Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.” [2]

So what do we do with this verse? Do we cut it out from the Sermon of the Mount, like Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who took a scissor to the passages in the Gospels that he didn’t like? It’s known as The Jefferson Bible (1820).  He cut out all the miracle stories, the birth stories, the resurrection accounts.  Should we just ignore this verse? Did Jesus get this wrong? Are you going to tell him he got it wrong? Should we really expect Jesus to be a psychologist?


In fact, what if Jesus was, psychologically-speaking, very astute?  And what if this verse has nothing to do with perfection? And what if the word “perfect” is a terrible translation of what is, in fact, there in the Greek?

I can’t tell you how liberating it was for me to learn, when I in seminary and read this text in Greek, that “perfect” is a poor rendering of what’s in this verse! The word “perfect” doesn’t fully reflect the richness of the Greek word in the text. And that word—that beautiful word—is teleios. Teleios is an adjective derived from the Greek word telos, meaning “end” or “purpose” or “goal” or “fulfilment” or “realization” or “fully grown” or “complete”—and only in this sense does it mean perfect, as in lacking nothing.

Teleios, the adjectival form of telos, doesn’t mean moral perfection, but describes completeness, or living an undivided life. Or, better, teleios means—and this is what matters most—wholeness. Jesus is not saying, “be perfect,” he’s calling his disciples and the crowd, he’s summoning us to follow in his way, the way of wholeness and wholeheartedness, a life of greater integrity.

When Jesus said, “Be teleios, therefore, even as your heavenly Father is teleios,” the crowd would have heard echoes of what God said in the Hebrew scriptures, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2; 20:26). The call to teleios-ity found throughout the Sermon on the Mount is essentially the same call to be holy, and holiness does not mean moral perfection, but wholehearted orientation toward God.[3]

As we have seen the past two weeks, the Sermon on the Mount is a call to human flourishing. Our text, Matthew 5:48, is a summation of everything that comes before it. Jesus wants for us what God wants for us, and what God wants for us is to be whole, with hearts that are in the right place. The heart is more than an organ that pumps blood through our bodies. In first century Judaism, the heart symbolized the totality of one’s being, the total self, all that we are: thought, feeling, and action. Jesus is concerned about the health of our hearts. 

To be whole means that our inner life is aligned with our outer life. Jesus summons us to be whole and complete, just as God is whole and complete—for how can God not be whole?  God’s heart is not divided, but whole in its desire to love and to save. Jesus invites us to live out our end or purpose, just as God fully lives out God’s end or purpose. Just as God is undivided in God’s intention to love, so Jesus summons us to live undivided in our intention to love.  The call to wholeness is essentially a call to integrity.  Jesus doesn’t want us to be at odds or at war with different parts of ourselves. He knows the dangers of living with a divided heart.

When Jesus judges the practices of the Pharisees in Matthew’s Gospel he’s not judging or rejecting Judaism—Jesus remained a Jew throughout his life and he certainly wasn’t Christian. However, Jesus was troubled by the way many were practicing their faith, living out the requirements of the Jewish Law in an obsession with external obedience, purity, and ritual cleanliness. It was too one-sided; they were preoccupied with outward behaviour, outward religious piety and practice. What about the inner life? What about the heart?  That’s why Jesus calls the Pharisees white-washed tombs. On the outside, they look pure and holy, but on the inside, they’re rotting away (Mt. 23:27). 

It’s in love that Jesus said this to the Pharisees, it’s love that Jesus speaks to the crowd listening to the Sermon, because he knows what happens when we live divided lives. Having a disordered, divided heart is extremely dangerous, it’s destructive—for oneself and for the wider society. And it makes one neurotic. Neurosis is essentially a split in the soul where we are at odds with ourselves, when our inner and outer lives are not aligned, or when we are at odds with different parts of ourselves.  Living a divided life makes us sick—as I painfully know in my own life.

Living a divided life is costly. We might be righteous (or appear to be so) on the outside, but inside we’re seething with hate and jealously. We might act in ways that appear kind, loving, and just and nice in the church or community, but inside we’re full of rage, judgment, and self-loathing toward our neighbour or toward ourselves. We might appear “holy” or “religious” or “devout” or “Christian,” but inside we’re an anxious sea of conflict and confusion. The result is a split in our personality, a split in the heart, a lack of integrity. We Christians say we value grace and compassion, but do we extend the same grace and compassion toward ourselves? And if w don’t—there’s the split, there’s the division.

What about “in here,” in us?  What about the heart?  Jesus wants us to view our lives holistically. This, for me, is the Christian life, and it’s the work of a lifetime.  Jesus wants us to live whole lives, where our inner life is in harmony with our outer life. And when the inner and outer parts of our lives are whole, when we have moments, glimpses of that happening in us, when we sense that our hearts are aligned with the heart of God—do you know what happens then? The doors of the kingdom fling open wide before our eyes, and we discover we’re in new and wondrous place; we are standing on holy ground!  That’s teleios! That’s when we discover what a flourishing life looks like and feels like. But woe to us when our hearts are divided, when are hearts are not behind our actions, when we lack intention, when our hearts are not aligned with God’s vision for us, when our actions do not flow from the heart. “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6:21).

The only other place in Matthew’s Gospel where we find the word “perfect” or teleios is in Matthew 19.  It’s the story of the young man who went to Jesus asking, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Mt. 19:16). Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The young man says, “I have all kept all these; what do I still lack?” Then Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter.  “If you wish to be perfect,” Jesus said, “go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mt. 19:21). Note that the young man never asked to be perfect, but Jesus knew what his problem was. Jesus knew what was missing in his life. Jesus said, “If you want to be teleios”—if you want to be whole—“go sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor….”

Given the way things turned out for the man, we might think this is a warning against materialism, against accumulating things, and having wealth.  It’s not. Yes, there is a danger when an obsession with things and wealth takes over our lives.  This might have been the case for the man, we don’t know.  Jesus does go on to say, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven…it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19:23-24).  Jesus says this, not because being rich or having wealth is necessarily bad or evil. The issue, as Jesus knew, is that many rich and wealthy people have a heart problem.  The problem for the young man was not that his heart was, like the Grinch, “two sizes too small.”  It wasn’t a question of size. There’s a deeper issue.  He had a divided heart.  It was split.

Jesus was a great psychologist—a true physician of the soul.  He knew what our souls long for, he knew what calls us to life, and he knew what we crave: we were born to be whole.  It was psychologist Carl Jung, who stood in the shadow cast by the brilliance of Christ, who said, “Wholeness is not achieved by cutting off a portion of one’s being, but by integration of the contraries.”[4] 

We could also say Jesus was a great cardiologist because he came to heal our divided, broken hearts, to lead us toward wholeness, toward a life that is flourishing in the Kingdom.  “Flourishing are the pure in heart because they will see God” (Mt. 5:8).

Jesus doesn’t expect us to be perfect, but whole, one, complete. I’m not called to be perfect—which is gospel, good news for my soul. Jesus wants me to be whole; he has shown me and given me a still more excellent way. 

God wants us to be whole, and shows us the way to live wholeheartedly. And then can live the way we really want to live, giving all of ourselves, not part of ourselves, all of ourselves to the faithful living out of our lives—with joy, with integrity, with single-hearted devotion, and a passion for God’s kingdom!

So, may this, then, be our prayer as we follow Christ:

Give me a whole heart, O God, an undivided heart.

Make me whole.

* * *
This sermon is part of a six-week Lenten series:
Following Jesus: The Sermon on the Mount
March 10: Are You Flourishing?
March 17: Becoming Salt & Light
March 24: Wholeness, Not Perfection
March 31: Matters of the Heart

Image: Kintsugi "golden joinery" pottery, a Japanese art form in which breaks and repairs are treated as part of the object's history.

[1] Ann Lamott, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (Anchor, 1995), 28
[2]Brené Brown, Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Hazelden Publishing, 2010), 56.
[3] Jonathan T. Pennington, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 78. I am grateful to Pennington’s excellent exposition on teleios, and the centrality of wholeness as a theme running through the Sermon on the Mount, 69ff.
[4] Parker J. Palmer, who was influenced by Jung, makes a similar claim: “Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (Jossey-Bass, 2004)