Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sermon for Third Sunday After Pentecost, "Open Wide Your Hearts"

Sermon 6/21/09

2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Mark 4:35-41

Open Wide Your Hearts

I feel like I should have been able to connect in with the gospel lesson from Mark this week, set in the midst of a windstorm and waves on the sea with the disciples’ boat being swamped, what with the nearly nonstop rain we’ve had this week, this month really. But I’ve been caught, as I mentioned in my newsletter article this month, by this final phrase in our passage from 2 Corinthians: “Open wide your hearts.” What a beautiful verse, and what a perfect focus for my last Sunday here.

As I began looking at this passage more closely, I realized that it was even more appropriate for my last Sunday with you than I thought. Paul was really the first itinerant pastor, serving in different faith communities for periods of time and then moving on to establish new ministries elsewhere. His time in Corinth? 18 months. If my time here seems brief to you, remember, I’ve got Paul by nearly half a year! Paul does visit Corinth again, while he’s serving in Ephesus, but this 18 months is the time he builds his main relationship with them. But of course, he continues to hold them in his heart, and continues to seek out the best for them as a growing community of faith. 2 Corinthians is written after he has spent his time in Corinth, probably while he’s serving in yet still another community, like Philippi or Thessalonica in Macedonia. They’re words of wisdom that he’s sending their way to keep them on the straight and narrow as they struggle to be faithful disciples.

Our reading from 2 Corinthians picks up immediately following our passage last week, about being made new creations in Christ when we start to see things not from our human point of view, but from God’s point of view. Paul starts by urging the Corinthians not to accept the grace of God in vain, not to accept God’s grace without, in a sense, putting in good work and reaping the benefits. “Now is the day of salvation!” Paul says, quoting from Isaiah. Paul then goes on to describe the suffering he’s been through for the sake of the gospel, which is where I lose my ability to compare myself to Paul(!), telling the spiritual means by which he has remained faithful: he’s been through afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger, treated as imposters, punished, and more: but Paul and his companions have sought to remain pure, knowledgeable, patient, kind, holy, genuine, and truthful by the power of God. Then Paul concludes this section saying, “we’ve spoken frankly to you; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return – I speak as to children – open wide your hearts also.”

I’ve been thinking about what Paul says here – that he and his colleagues have no restrictions on their affection – their hearts are wide open. He wants the Corinthians to do the same – to open wide their hearts. This is what Paul means when he speaks at first about not accepting God’s grace in vain. In order to get the full effect of God’s grace, God’s free love, your hearts have to be open wide enough to receive it. No restrictions. And so I’ve been wondering, how wide open are our hearts?

In my newsletter article, I told you about a young woman in my congregation in Oneida who was having a particularly hard time with my move. She was convinced that she would not like the new pastor, and that nothing would ever be the same again. But I knew she would like the new pastor, and I told her why: We are created by God, who is love, to love one another – to love and to be loved. And so, even though she would try to keep herself from liking a new pastor, I knew she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from loving yet another spiritual leader in her life, and letting yet another person into her heart. I can tell you that she’s spending this summer working as his intern. When I see her, I’m happy to say to her, “I told you so.” Our hearts expand like that, just as God’s heart has infinite room to expand to love and hold each one of us, flaws and all. Our hearts aren’t meant to function with restrictions. They’re meant to be wide open. Actually, you can even think of the medical, physical analogy when we think about our hearts: people get sick when their arteries are clogged, when their heart can’t pump blood through our bodies like it is supposed to. The heart works best when all the avenues in and out are free and clear and wide open.

So, the question for us, what we have to ask ourselves is: Do we have restrictions on our hearts, or are they wide open? In our ministry, here or there, in our faith journeys, in our discipleship, that’s the question to ask: are there restrictions on our hearts? What if, at the core of everything we do, every decision you make as a congregation, every choice we made as individuals, every juncture we came to, we asked ourselves: how would “opening our hearts wider” look in this situation? Are there any restrictions here? What could we do here to open our hearts wider?

Imagine what that might look like in different situations we encounter as a congregation. A new person or family comes to worship here. How do we respond? How would we open our hearts to them? Opening our hearts is more than just being friendly and polite of course. How do you open your heart? Look around you in your pews – who is it that you don’t know well, or haven’t met even. What does it mean to open your heart to them without restriction? What does it mean to keep our hearts open, after the Sunday they join the congregation, after they’ve been here a few months, but don’t know this community of faith yet like we do? Imagine what might happen if, in all of our outreach programs, with CUMAC, with the homeless shelter, with CROP Walk, with all of them, we asked ourselves: “How can we open our hearts, and remove any restrictions?” when we were thinking about how to get involved, how best to support these missions? Imagine what might happen to this congregation if there were never restrictions on our loving. Imagine what might happen in your life – to you, to me – if we never put restrictions on love but just opened wide our hearts?

To me, this is really what the journey of discipleship is about – we follow Jesus best when we work on opening our hearts wider and wider. I believe that Jesus was God’s son because Jesus most opened his heart to God’s love, God’s will, God’s plan. Jesus opened his heart so wide that there was room for everyone – everyone in his heart. And so if we want to follow Jesus, if we want to be like him, if we want to know what God wants us to do, it’s simple really: open your hearts. Wherever you find yourself, whatever you’re doing, ask yourself how you can be more open in your heart. Sometimes, we’ll find that opening our hearts is a risky thing. Paul certainly did. He literally put his life on the line to open his heart. He wasn’t always popular. He was run out of town more than once. He was thrown into prison. He made other church leaders mad. But Paul didn’t consider those things particularly important, because he wanted most of all to take full advantage of the grace given him by God.

Don’t you, too, want the full measure of God’s grace? Then open wide your hearts. It might be risky. Sometimes you’ll find it easier to put restrictions – subtle or explicit – on your heart, who you love, how you love them, when you love, how much you love. Sometimes, opening wide your heart will put you in conflict with others who aren’t ready for it. But I promise, an open heart is worth all the risk, because an open heart is something God can fill up again, and again, and again, when we realize our amazing, limitless capacity to love and be loved.

Open wide your hearts.

Amen.

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