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The Reverend Kathleen Killian

Proper 17B/21

Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Heart Disease

When I prepare a sermon for Sunday, I spend time throughout the week reading, reflecting, studying, praying, and readying myself to receive God’s word. An idea or theme will emerge, a very good one even, yet sometimes never really gains traction. If this happens, I’ve learned then that it’s best to take my hands off the proverbial wheel and let the Spirit take me where She wills. This surrendering to the way of the Spirt, though a good thing, can also be a stressful thing, because as we well know God doesn’t operate on our schedule—heck God doesn’t even have a schedule let alone a deadline! But I do, and this was one of those weeks that I waited upon She of the Wind, until I woke up Friday morning with these words on my lips: the disease of the heart, and it’s antidote. 

Our gospel today does indeed call us to examine our diseased or sinful heart, as Jesus lays bare; for it is from within, he says, from the human heart that all evil intentions come: obscenities, licentiousness and lusts, thefts, murders, and adulteries, greed, depravities and deceits, envy, slander, arrogance, and foolishness or recklessness. All of these evil intentions defile or trample down the goodness of the human spirit, sometimes to the point of death; though the body walks and talks, the spirit within is deadened, lifeless, and the heart hardened.

But our lessons also point us to the antidote to a heart diseased by sin, which is that of love; and most especially that we, though sinful, are loved by God. The most radial element of our faith, and perhaps the most elusive, is that I am, and you are loved unconditionally (Max Oliva, SJ). As Christians, we affirm the redemptive truth that God is love, which means there is possibility of God’s partial or conditional love. 

From the onset of his ministry to its end, Jesus taught that God loves each one of us. Our acceptance of this love enables us to look within the heart to any “rank growth of wickedness” that would enslave us, and corrupt the world; for evil “out there” comes from within. Jesus says: even If you do everything right and by the letter of the law, but your hands are cut off from your hearts, and your doing from your being, you are far from me and your hearts from God. 

How we get from hypocrisy to honesty, from salaciousness and lust to discretion  and respect, from theft and greed to gift and generosity, from angry and murderous violence to peaceful new life, from lying and duplicity to truth and integrity, from depravity to decency, from envy of others to rejoicing with others, from arrogance to humility, and foolishness to wisdom, from pretension to authenticity is a matter of love. The transformation of the heart of darkness to the heart of light is the journey of a lifetime and its many conversions of faith, and faith’s many invitations to enter into the garden of God’s cherishing love.

The Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs as it’s known in the Hebrew Bible is such an invitation. Its author is unknown, as is exactly when where or under what circumstances it was written (10th-2nd BCE). With its lush and explicit imagery of sexual and erotic love between a man and a woman, the Song of Songs stands as unique in our canon. The Song has also been understood over the centuries as an allegory about the love between Israel and her God, God and creation, and between Christ and the Church. Whatever the interpretation, it remains a celebration of the great gift of love incarnate and covenantal. 

As a rabbinical teaching says: Each of us should have two pockets. In one pocket should be the reminder, “I am dust and ashes,” and in the other we should have written, “For me the universe was made.” Do I believe I am so loved, that the whole of creation is a gift to me, exactly as I dusty ashy am? Though it might be surprising, we need not change to be loved by God and receive this gift, which has already been given. Divine love itself will change us into who we really are, beloveds of God, and who we are intended to be, lovers of God.

Love beckons us into the singular reality of God is love: Come out come out where ever you are! the Beloved calls to us: Arise my love, my fair one, and come away. We are issued an invitation like no other: to be with the Holy One in paradise, now. Yet this beckons to come away involves a leaving behind and relinquishing of what we have and hold. What might that be? What habits, grievances, and securities of the heart do we need let go of? Perhaps bittersweet, the Beloved calls us beyond the conventions of our assumed lives into new and greater freedom; for love alone can conquer the final and most impregnable stronghold which is the human heart (Frederick Buechner). 

Some years ago, during the second semester of my seminary career, I came down with an awful flu-like cold. I was miserable, and sleeping as fitfully. But one night in the thick of it, I had an intensely vivid dream in which I was studying, researching, and analyzing the entire history of Christian scripture and teaching. My work seemed to go on all night long—2000 years of material was a lot to get through—but at the end of my exhaustive inquiry I realized, while it was also pronounced to me by a commanding voice, that all of it—scripture, literature, teaching, vision, prophecy—pointed to one thing, and that one thing was love; the end of all things is love. 

When I awoke in the morning, I was like got it; for despite my sneezy-snuffling-stuffed-up-state, the message was numinous, absolute, and absolutely clear. I thought to myself: lesson learned—I get to go home now. 

A favorite passage of mine about the heart was written by St. Mararius of the 4th century: The heart is but a small vessel; yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace; all things are there.

All things are there, and love is the end of all things. God’s love for us is the antidote to the divided, distorted, and diseased heart of humanity. We can never achieve or produce this love but only receive it from the lover of our souls, and participate in the being that flows eternally from the Holy One. Becoming one will heal our captive spirits; being one will set us free.

Let us deeply believe in and accept the gift of God’s foundational love for us and the world, from which all love arises, however faint or dim its reflection. Faith too is a gift, which grows each time we put our trust in God’s love (Max Oliva SJ). 

May it be so, that our hearts are such fertile ground.