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What the Heart Holds

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I have a friend who is a pastor in Atlanta, Georgia. She writes a blog and posts poetry on a website called What the Heart Holds. I have always been drawn to her ministry in community and inter-religious settings. Yet today it is the truth embedded in those 4 simple words, what the heart holds, that catches my attention. I think “what the heart holds” concisely summarizes the complexity in this morning’s biblical texts.

I am going to root the foundation of this reflection based the passage from Deuteronomy. However, I do not want to ignore the challenges Jesus sets before us in the reading from Matthew. What we heard read in our midst in the second reading was a continuation of Jesus’ teachings, the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has shifted the beauty of the Beatitudes, the blessed are… to rift on issues of anger, adultery, divorce, and if we were to continue on and read more of Jesus’ sermon—he preaches on retaliation, prayer, fasting, judging others, and more. Jesus’ sermon contains not only the difficult lessons we listened to today, but familiar phrases such as “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Those word pops up just after today’s reading, to which Jesus responds, “But I say to you… if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” These are not easy directives. Thus, I think that it is important to wrestle with how these instructions may resonate for us in our own context… or not.

But let’s start with Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy is a part of the Hebrew Bible, one of the 5 books of the Torah, as well as the 5th book in our own scriptures. At 34 chapters, Deuteronomy is substantial in length. The entire book is Moses’ farewell discourse to the Israelites. If you remember, beginning back in the book of Exodus, God has been engaging with Moses, his brother Aaron and sister Miriam, to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into a new land. This was God’s promise.

This morning we encounter the Israelites at the end of a long, hard, nomadic journey of 40 years. Along the way, the people have been complaining about pretty much everything, from the food to the lack of water in the desert. They have questioned God’s commitment to them and created false idols (remember the golden calf?). However, as we read through Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, God and God’s people have also been developing relationships and building an understanding of the ways in which one person’s actions impact the wider community. God has made a covenant with God’s people, and they with God.

In Deuteronomy, Moses and the people now stand at a boundary. This is a turning point in their story. Today’s reading emphasizes the critical choices the people will be making, both as individuals and as a community, as they move into a new period in their history. The Discipleship Study Bible notes that “what gives significance and meaning to these laws and words is their setting… Historically it sits on the boundary of the initial settlement of the land. It is present as Moses’ words to all Israel before they entered Canaan. Thus it is on the boundary of Israel’s beginning as a people, at a point when they are forming a new nation. Deuteronomy is meant to found a people and to guide them in their ongoing life.”[1]

Nearing the end of his own life, we hear Moses say, “Look at what I’ve done for you… I’ve placed in front of you Life and Good, Death and Evil. And I command you today: Love God, your God. Walk in (God’s) ways” (Deut. 15-16, The Message). In these verses “the primary boundary set before us is that of life and death. Life is radical love of and service to God and neighbor. All around are those who choose not to love, and we can see the deadly results.”[2]

 So love God. Walk in God’s ways.

“But if your heart turns away…” (Deut. 30:17a). If your heart turns away…

I think those words, “if your heart turns away,” is essential to today’s reflection. For what the heart holds is God’s truth. God’s love. Later in the book of Matthew, Jesus tells us that we are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matt. 22:37-40).” Glancing back at Deuteronomy we find a similar commandment in chapter 6, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God… You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart (Deut. 6:4-6).

That is why I believe the words “what the heart holds” is key to grasping Jesus’ teachings today… or at least beginning our attempt to understand where Jesus was taking the listeners in the crowd with the Sermon on the Mount. “In first-century Palestine, “the heart” was considered the central organ of a person’s thought, intention, and moral life.”[3]

Today, both Moses and Jesus are pointing to the heart, that deep down, authentic “who you are as God’s beloved” as where… and how… we must live into our relationship with God, with ourselves, and with those around us. This “what the heart holds” as Karoline Lewis notes is “a template for an alternative community… not the way of being in which the world is currently structured” and asks us to wonder “what does (God’s) alternative community look like?”[4] How might heaven on earth be revealed? Within each of us—all 7.5 billion of us—there is the potential, a template, for an alternative world, a beloved global community. This is what the heart holds.

If you are feeling uncomfortable with today’s readings, know that this is OK. Weaving first century stories into our own context takes time and effort. This is what our life journeys, our faith journeys as followers of Jesus, are all about. Here is one example:

Wrestling with Biblical texts is what the confirmation students have been doing since the beginning of the school year. Having completed the first module, “Bible Bootcamp,” we are now focusing on “Beliefs and Belonging.” Since January, the youth, their mentors, and I have been writing our “God-statements” (or what could also be called our “statements of faith”). Later this afternoon, the confirmation class will be meeting to share their own God-statements. Said another way, their homework for today is to come up with who, or what, they say God is… or possibly isn’t… as we share what each of us is thinking about God so far in confirmation. But that’s just first topic. The second is to reflect on this “simple” question: What do you think the Great Problem of the world is? And, once you’ve named The Problem, what is the solution? How can it achieved?

What do you think? Can we define God and solve the world’s problems in an hour and a half…?

Just as the Israelites did, and those who listened to Jesus sermon, we too are wrestling with what the heart holds. We spend a lifetime working out what we believe, what we know, what we question, deep in our being—in our hearts. Reflecting on Jesus’ words today, Eric Barreto asks, “in your community, what obligations are Jesus’ sermon calling us to embrace? What kind of relationality is Jesus exhorting in our midst today? … (for here Jesus) centers the construction of a particular kind of community, one organized around love and not power.” 

I believe that like the Israelites, we too live in a critical time. A time in which we are on the edge of a boundary. A space between “life and death, blessings and curses” (Deut. 30:19b). A global edge that offers an opportunity for us a people to embrace God’s template and create a new community.

A community, a world, organized around love, not power. Where our hearts do not turn away, but turn towards God and beloved community.

This is what the heart holds.

~ Pastor Kris

Reflection on Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37 offered February 16, 2020.

[1] The Discipleship Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Including Apocrypha. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. 237.

[2] The Discipleship Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Including Apocrypha. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. 284.

[3] Myer, Elizabeth. “Heart to Heart: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany 6.” SALT Project. SALT Project, February 10, 2020. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2020/2/9/heart-to-heart-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-epiphany-6.

[4] #707 – Sixth Sunday after Epiphany. Sermon Brainwave – Working Preacher. Accessed February 13, 2020. https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx.