21st Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev’d Richard Smith, Ph.D.
Sunday, October 29, 2017
There were over 600 laws governing the day-to-day lives of ordinary Jews in the days of Jesus: how many steps you can walk on the Sabbath, how to wash your hands, what kind of diet to follow and how to prepare the food, what kinds of fabric to wear in your clothing. But, for the young rabbi named Jesus, none of these laws made any sense without love. If you miss the love behind those 600-plus laws in the Jewish code, you miss the whole point. The whole system hangs on the command to love.
But if love is so central to everything in life and especially in the spiritual life, how do you do it? And how do you learn to love?
Jesus gives one subtle hint. When asked what is the greatest law, he cites the Shema, the prayer from the Book of Deuteronomy. This prayer is said by practicing Jews every morning and evening. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”
And the next verse says, “These commandments I give you today are to be ON your hearts.”
Now the rabbis loved to wrestle with the sacred teachings, sometimes vigorously, trying to figure out what they meant, and how to live them out.
And they wrestled with these words: “These commandments…are to be ON your hearts.”
“Why should this teaching be ON our hearts? Shouldn’t it say the word should be IN our hearts. Wouldn’t that make more sense? Why should the teaching, the commandment, be ON and not IN our hearts?”
Finally, after a vigorous back-and-forth, one of the elder rabbis put it this way. The teaching is to rest ON our hearts just as the scripture says so that when our hearts break open–as they inevitably will at some point or another–then that teaching can fall inside, become part of us, become the source and guide of our actions.
It’s when your heart breaks that you can begin to understand the sacred teaching. It’s then that you can learn to love.
Which is to imply that if your heart never breaks open, you will never learn this teaching, you will never learn to love.
Parker Palmer writes: “[T]here are at least two ways for the heart to break: it can break open into new life, or break apart into shards of sharper and more widespread pain.”
“The broken-open heart,” he continues, “is not restricted to the rare saint. I know so many people whose hearts have been broken by the loss of someone they loved deeply. They go through long nights of grief when life seems barely worth living. But then they slowly awaken to the fact that their hearts have become more open, compassionate, and welcoming — not in spite of their pain but because of it.
“A brittle heart,” Palmer says further, “will explode into a thousand pieces, and sometimes get thrown like a fragment grenade at the perceived source of its pain — there’s a lot of that going around these days. But a supple heart will break open into a greater capacity to hold life’s suffering and its joy — in a way that allows us to say, ‘The pain stops here.’”
In our American culture today, we’re heavily fortified against having our hearts broken. This fortification didn’t just happen. This is no accident. There are carefully crafted laws and zoning ordinances to keep us from living near people of a different color. There are racist, misogynistic and homophobic cultural norms that vilify people of color, blame the victims of rape and sexual abuse, and scapegoat immigrants as criminals and rapists and “bad hombres”. We live siloed in different neighborhoods, economic classes, and cultures.
For example, those of us who are white have probably never experienced police brutality ourselves, and when we read in the paper about the police killing a young person of color, we probably don’t get it. Our first question is likely to be, “I wonder what that black or brown kid did wrong to force the officer to kill him.” We don’t get what’s going on there, that our very police system was founded as a way to keep black people enslaved. And since we don’t have many opportunities to talk with those who do experience police brutality, to hear the stories of black and Latino mothers who have lost their kids to police violence, our privileged and protected hearts never break.
Those of us who are citizens have little idea of what undocumented immigrants go through just to find their way to this country, and then to find decent jobs to feed their kids, all the while living in constant fear of la migra, the immigration police. We almost never hear their stories; our hearts never break.
Lately, it’s clear once again that it’s not only the victims of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, Bill O’Reilly, and Donald Trump who have suffered rape, sexual harassment, groping, and abuse, but also many of our dearest friends, women we know and love and admire. Perhaps more than we knew.
Our lives are carefully siloed, deliberately kept apart by laws and cultural taboos. We never really share or hear each other’s stories, much less have a chance to have our hearts broken, let God’s word sink into us, grow in compassion, and maybe even become friends.
But should we ever have that opportunity to hear each other’s stories, draw close to each other’s’ pain–I’m very sure of this–our hearts would then break. We’d begin to understand what our brothers and sisters are going through every day. And at that moment we would have the blessed opportunity, the grace, of having the word of God sink into our hearts, become part of us. A moment of learning to love.
Poet Mary Oliver had her heart broken by the bitter effects of climate change as she witnessed one day the death of a loon, one of those beautiful and melodious birds that inhabit many of our North American lakes.
by Mary Oliver
Here is a story
to break your heart.
Are you willing?
the loons came to our harbor
and died, one by one,
of nothing we could see.
A friend told me
of one on the shore
that lifted its head and opened
the elegant beak and cried out
in the long, sweet savoring of its life
which, if you have heard it,
you know is a sacred thing,
and for which, if you have not heard it,
you had better hurry to where
they still sing.
And, believe me, tell no one
just where that is.
The next morning
this loon, speckled
and iridescent and with a plan
to fly home
to some hidden lake,
was dead on the shore.
I tell you this
to break your heart,
by which I mean only
that it break open and never close again
to the rest of the world.
All of this is very relevant to us here at St. John’s in this stewardship season. Because this is a place where, if you let it happen, your heart can be broken open. Here, you can grow in love.
For many years before I became vicar, I worked in Silicon Valley. All week long, I was surrounded by “the best and the brightest,” Ph.D.’s from Harvard and MIT and Stanford, people highly successful in business and technology. And then each Sunday morning I would walk here to St. John’s for Mass. Along the way, I would pass people who were very different from my colleagues at work: homeless people, Latino children calling to their playmates in Spanish, shopkeepers sweeping up the broken wine bottles and syringes on the sidewalks. And once I arrived here at Mass, I sat next to people so very different from the supposed “superstars” who occupied much of my time the rest of the week.
That walk to St. John’s became an important moment in my week, a necessary part of my spiritual practice, an opportunity for my heart to break open even if just for a moment. A chance to grow in love, even if only a little.
It’s why I love St. John’s, and why I hope you do, too. It’s why I hope you are drawing on your most generous nature now in these stewardship days to keep our parish strong, not just financially, but as a place
- Where homeless people and professors, retirees and little kids, people of different races and sexual orientations can stand shoulder-to-shoulder at this table, just as God intended, knowing they are welcome here
- Where you can tutor a young person making their way through high school, serve a meal to people who are homeless, walk with immigrant families, take a stand against the violence of both the gangs and the police
- Here, we can hear stories we might not hear the rest of the week
- Here, all our hearts can continue to be broken, even if only a little, and we can slowly learn to love more and never close our hearts again to the rest of the world.