Monday, February 13, 2017

"Who Holds Your Heart?"

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Reading: Matthew 5: 21-37

The truth about this gospel in the life of the church now is that this gospel  is intolerably hard to read, hear and speak on.  We have been through the doctrine wars, the ethics conflicts and through the kind of social and cultural change that means there is a massive misfit between the literal reading of the gospel and where we typically find ourselves as a people.  Divorce is not unusual; the various aspects of sexual desire and thought are inescapable and anger, resentment and fear are endemic to church life.  We stand for this gospel and are flattened by it.  How can we approach it?

I start with a question you have heard me ask many times.  What or who are we becoming?   Behind that question stands the proposition that we are created for the purpose that we are to develop through our lifetime into what we would gladly recognise as a human being.   Our lifetime is all about the process of becoming this person.  It is a messy business.  We become through a lifetime of choices, of opportunities for training, through errors and deeds ill done and through the good that we have managed by chance or purpose.   

This past week I had an opportunity to minister alongside another priest.  It was late evening and we were aboard the cruise ship (The Emerald Princess) to help and support the 1200 crew who had lost a one of their number in a dreadful accident with an exploding gas cylinder.  We were down below decks in a training multi-purpose room just off a galley and dining room and people came in no particular order and just as they liked.  We were simply giving anointing, prayer and blessing for those whose lives had been cruelly shocked by mortality. In the prayer for anointing Mark added a phrase, he spoke of Jesus who “holds your heart” – and as we made our way along the rows who came for blessing, the thought of Jesus holding the hearts of these men and women made perfect sense.  Paul talks about having ‘the mind of Christ’ (1 Cor.2:16) but to be assured that Jesus ‘holds your heart’ made good sense to me.  It places the question of who or what we are becoming in a clearer and more grounded context.

The gospel this morning resonates with the memory of Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments: it has Jesus reaffirm the Jewish Law, the Torah; he does not abolish or replace it; instead he takes it further and deeper – into the heart.   He does not just look at how we act but what is at work in us and how that drives our actions.  What do we think? What do we feel?  No wonder we are shattered by it.
Behind this there is huge debate. For instance – how are people to be guided in their thinking? 

Censorship immediately comes to mind – what may we not read, see or even think?  John Milton blew that out of the water in his essay Areopagitica and his determination that Christian virtue consists not in ignorance (masquerading as innocence) but informed choice.  His words haunt my memory: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”

It is easy to get discouraged: one may be able to refrain from murder, but anger, resentment?  Are we not even to think such things?  The trouble is we are almost infinitely suggestible – for instance the familiar difficulty that if we are told not to think about something we are almost inevitably forced to think of it.  That recognised, the trick is to move on and move the mind to something else.  The thought of the Jesus who holds our heart …

One writer (Mary Margaret Funk. Thoughts Matter: The Practice of the Spiritual Life) has explored the place of our thoughts in the spiritual life and our need to be very intentional and aware of them.  Listen to these excerpts:

“Thoughts that are thought about become desires. Desires that are thought about become passions. Good thoughts become virtues. Bad thoughts become bad desires; bad passions or habits of action become sins. The passions are acted upon us when we consent, then the passions move from passive to active engagement.”

“...First thoughts beget second thoughts, which become intentions. Intentions constitute motivations and indicate where the heart resides. Motivation moves the will to decide and act on the thought. Decisions give voice to the choices we intend to act upon.”

“Attention to our thoughts reveals our intentions. Right deeds must be accompanied by the right reason, or the deed becomes wrong for us in that particular situation. Discernment is our ability to do the right deed with the right intention or motivation.”

Our gospel this morning is invasive.  It probes aspects of our being that we would rather not share or review.  It can induce despair.  But austere and challenging though it is, it calls us into reality and truth.  Who ‘holds your heart’?

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