August 17, 2017 Sermon

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 17, 2014, Proper 15, Lectionary A

The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr.,+ Rector                     Scripture: Matthew 15:(10-20) 21-28

“Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  Acts 4:30

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter


Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, source of peace and joy, send now the Holy Spirit to encourage us to strive for and know that peace and joy through Jesus Christ our Lord who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever.  Amen.


“USA Today’s,” Kirsten Powers wrote on 7-29-14: “Iraq’s Christians are begging the world for help. Is anybody listening?  Since capturing the country’s second largest city of Mosul in early June, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has ordered Christians to convert to Islam, pay jizya taxes levied on non-Muslims, or die.


Human rights lawyer Nina Shea described the horror in Mosul: ‘(ISIS) took the Christians’ houses, took the cars they were driving to leave. They took all their money. One old woman had her life savings of $40,000, and she said, ‘Can I please have 100 dollars?’ and they said no. They took wedding rings off fingers, chopping off fingers if they couldn’t get the ring off.’ ‘We now have 5,000 destitute, homeless people with no future,’ Shea said. ‘This is a crime against humanity.’


For the first time in 2,000 years, Mosul is devoid of Christians. ‘This is ancient Nineveh we are talking about,’ Shea explained. ‘They took down all the crosses. They blew up the tomb of the prophet Jonah. An orthodox Cathedral has been turned into a mosque.  They are uprooting every vestige of Christianity.’”


“In what may be one of the most shocking photos passed around on social media, a 7-year-old Australian boy is seen holding up a decapitated head in Syria.  ‘That’s my boy,’ reads the caption reportedly posted by Khaled Sharrouf, a convicted terrorist who fled Australia to join the Islamic State militants waging war in Syria and Iraq.  Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott condemned the image,” (ABC Radio)


“LOS ANGELES — Peering through his camera at Robin Williams in 2012, the cinematographer John Bailey thought he glimpsed something not previously evident in the comedian’s work. They were shooting the independent film “The Angriest Man in Brooklyn,” and Mr. Williams was playing a New York lawyer who, facing death, goes on a rant against the injustice and banality of life.  His performance, Mr. Bailey said Tuesday, was a window into the “Swiftian darkness of Robin’s heart.” The actor, like his character, was raging against the storm.


That defiance gave way on Monday to the personal demons that had long tormented Mr. Williams. With his suicide at age 63, Mr. Williams forever shut the window on a complicated soul that was rarely visible through the cracks of an astonishingly intact career. Given his well-publicized resume filled with depression, addiction, alcoholism and a significant heart surgery in 2009, Williams should have had a resume filled with gaps.” (NY Times, 8-12-14, Benedict Carey and Jeffrey DelViscio)


“A Florida court has heard how a man accused of killing his roommate didn’t know where to hide the body – so he asked Siri.  Pedro Bravo, 20, told Apple’s digital assistant ‘I need to hide my roommate’ after allegedly kidnaping and strangling Christian Aguilar in 2012.   According to evidence recovered from Bravo’s iPhone, Siri responded to his request: ‘What kind of place are you looking for?’ it asked.  ‘Swamps, reservoirs, foundries, dumps.’”


Our human heart, that curious, paradoxical, maniacal, loving place within us, what can we say about it?  What can we not say about it?  It is the stuff of nightly news.  It is the stuff of TV shows, movies, and novels.  It is the stuff of scientific study.  It is the stuff of our lives, which brought us here this very morning.


Carson McCullers titled her debut novel; The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.  The novel explores the spiritual isolation of misfits and outcasts in a small town of the South.  (She was from Columbus, GA.)  I suspect one of the reasons her novel attracted so much attention was because there is a bit of the misfit and outcast in all of us.  You know what I mean.  The unexpected death of Robin Williams, successful and talented beyond measure, drives home that there is a misfit in all of us.  Sadly, for some that is more than he or she can live with.


Reflecting on you and me, we may have squeezed ourselves into some kind of Sunday outfit this morning, and I am not talking about the size of our stomachs.  I am talking about putting a face on that obstreperous, unruly heart of ours, that can at times have its own mind.  On occasions of clarity, we may look back and ask ourselves, “What was going on with me?  Why did I do that?” Sometimes, those times become regrets, “Oh, how I wish I had never done or said that!”


So, it pays for us to try to understand our hearts –what makes them happy, what makes them sad or afraid, what makes them angry, and yes, what makes them loving and forgiving.  In other words, what makes them tick?  The heart can be a dangerous animal, indeed a lonely hunter – hunting for satisfaction, hunting to get even, hunting to get what it wants, no matter the cost or harm to others.  The horror stories, coming out of Iraq, and closer to home the story of the man, asking Siri where to hide the body, are acute, poignant cases of our hunting hearts.  They chill us with the realization of what human beings, of what we, are capable.


We cannot disavow our hearts and blame it on something or someone else.  I saw a cartoon the other day with a pistol, smoke rising from its barrel, yet no one was holding it.  A silhouetted  human form lay dead on the ground.  The caption below, as if chastising a dog, read “Bad, bad gun.” Obviously, the gun had not fired itself.


In Matthew’s gospel this morning, Jesus goes right to the heart of the matter.  “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.”  His words must have stopped His listeners dead in their tracks.  They had thought that the outfit into which they had squeezed themselves earlier that day (washing of their hands in particular) had concealed the truth of what was in their hearts.


Jesus had forced them to take a conscience inventory of their own short comings, of what lay festering in their hearts, polluting and corrupting their lives, their relationships as well as their sense of well-being.  Was there a future Robin Williams among them, slowly collapsing under self-hatred?  Was there a future terrorist among them, waiting to start a blood bath?  Was there a future murder, soon to be looking for a place to hide the body?


Jesus’ finger of accusation was pointing in all directions.  We might, then, remember this episode from John’s gospel:


“Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. 5 ‘Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?’ 6 But Jesus stooped down, and with His finger wrote on the ground. 7 But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ 8 And when they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones.” (John 8:4-9).   The cat was out of the bag of the heart, so to speak.  They all left because they all knew, they all knew, they were not without sin.  As Chicago Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray once quipped about the dispute between the players and the owners during the 1994 professional baseball strike, “I don’t know who is right, but they are both wrong.”


So, when it comes to matters of the heart, self-management is important, but not always possible.  We do get angry.  Our hearts do wander.  There is stress and the need for relief.   We become overworked, needing rest and sleep.  Nothing may awaken the beast of our hearts more than the lack of rest.  This puts a little different spend on the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”


That commandment is also for our self-protection, acknowledging our serious need for rest, lest we become weakened and break the other nine commandments.  Recall that the fruit of the Spirit includes self-control.  The old Roman Catholic term for self-control is continence, the opposite of incontinence, wherein an individual soils himself or herself.  In this context, the soiling comes from the foulness within one’s heart.


However, just as a broken leg cannot be stood upon to walk, neither can a broken heart, whether from trauma or abuse, be stood upon to walk with the grace and love of which it is capable.  What is broken hurts, and what hurts places one under stress.   Our hearts may then fester with bitterness, the need for revenge, despair, anxiety, and yes, depression. What is depression, but self-hatred?   What is suicide, but that self-hatred rising to the level of murder, self-murder?


And so, we may have missed a parallel in this morning’s gospel.  At the beginning of the reading, Jesus tells us that it is what proceeds from the heart that defiles.  Then in verse 21, the message seems to change.  “Just then a Canaanite woman started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’” Jesus seems to resist healing the girl, but then relents.  By His word, the demon left the girl.


We are not told what demon afflicted the woman’s daughter.  I get the sense the daughter might have been of teen years.  We don’t need to be reminded that the teen years can be very difficult.  Hormones and a new social environment elicit all kinds of feelings – some not so healthy.  It was no mistake that the movie, the “Exorcist,” was about a young teen-aged girl.   It was actually based on the true story of a teen-aged boy.


All that aside, there is a parallel between the two situations of what defiles the heart and the demon possessed girl.  Both are situations of defilement.  Both come from within the individual.  Evil intentions as well as evil demons may inhabit the human heart.  Bad things keep coming out of people in this morning’s gospel.  It poses the question: what is coming out of you and me?  There are thoughts and feelings within us which we would rather not share or have exposed.  Even thinking about them may make us blush or feel ashamed. It is not easy being human.  Again, we may find ourselves thinking of Robin Williams, the Islamic terrorists, or the man, who consulted Siri about where to hide the body.  They have done what they did as a result of what was in their hearts.


Sometimes, though, we may just want to give up on making that heart of ours with its cauldron of feelings and thoughts cooperate.  It may just be easier to say, “Well, that’s just the way I am,” or to go a step even further and declare, “Well, I would not be having these feelings if God had not made me this way.”  That, thought, however, gets us to a scary place, doesn’t it?  How much liberty should we give our anger, our fear, our sexuality, or our depression?


Are we willing to say that God made me to be depressed and therefore made me to kill myself?  I don’t think so.  Indeed, the sixth commandment comes to mind: “You shall not commit murder.”  Suicide is self-murder.  There would be no need for the Ten Commandments if it were not in our very nature (the way we were born) to violate the very thing the commandments prohibit – lying, stealing, murder, and the rest.


Where then is our hope in dealing with our unruly and dangerous hearts?  The answer, of course, is in Jesus.  Oh, I know that answer may sound rather simplistic if not childish.  Can Jesus really be the answer for the turmoil that arises in our hearts?  If He is not the answer, well, I would suggest that the Christian faith ain’t worth a darn.


It may have made you wonder that Jesus was reluctant to heal the demon tormented girl.  Why would He not? Isn’t Jesus supposed to love everyone?  He told the desperate Canaanite mother (she was not a Jew) of the girl, “It is not fair to take the children’s (that is the Jews’) food and throw it to the dogs (i.e., the Canaanites).”  Is Jesus showing prejudice and exclusivity?  It is easy to look at it that way except, except, if you have ever been a position of giving something to someone, knowing that it is going to be wasted, then prejudice has nothing to do with it.   Those of us with children may have experienced this and painfully so.  Experience may have taught you that a gift to one of your children will be wasted.


In Matthew 7:6 we can hear Jesus saying, “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”  He is advising not to give to those who will not appreciate the gift or waste it.   We might then ask, “Why would healing the Canaanite girl, tormented by a demon spirit, be a waste?”  Listen to what Jesus teaches in Matthew 12:43-45b:


When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”


The Canaanite mother was a gentile.  She worshiped, pagan gods – demons, and so did her daughter, we might credibly assume.  For Jesus to heal the daughter would only make matters worst for the girl, as we just heard Him teach in Matthew 12.  Unless, unless, she were to become a practicing Christian.


Now, I know some of you may not believe in demons, but you do believe and know that if you want to lose weight, it will not happen just because you have said you want to.  That would be ridiculous. You have to actually diet, and you have to actually exercise.  Being healed by Jesus is no different.


Jesus can heal our hearts of all matter of evils – depression, anger, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, murder as well as demonic possession.  We simply need to go to Him and ask and ask and ask that He heals us.   In other words, we have to stay close to Him.


Staying close to Jesus, is like the discipline it takes to lose weight, limiting what we eat and exercising.  You see, Jesus wants to do more for us than just heal us.  He wants to make us whole.  He wants us to grow in the fruit of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23a), and not be victimized by the evil intentions of our unruly, destructive hearts.


Fruit, apples or oranges, take time to grow, so too, does the fruit of the Spirit take time to grow.  Translated, that means we must strive to stay close to Jesus through prayer, the reading of Scripture, worship, Christian fellowship, and ministry to others.  Then, then, we will increasingly come to experience that beautiful fruit of the Spirit, peace, love, and joy within us.


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.