Luke 7:1-17, Ez. 36
It is a blessing to be back with you as the conversation continues about living wholeheartedly in Christ. While there are glittery, red, and pink hearts abounding this time of year, let’s begin our focus by dipping into a conversation between God and the prophet Ezekiel about hearts.
The Prophet Ezekiel could tell us about hard uncertain times filled with trauma and great despair. He was in captivity with the other Israelites in Babylon after Jerusalem had been sacked. Mixed with their despondent grief are questions the people have.
Why would God allow the temple to be destroyed?
What are they to do with God’s judgment for their faithlessness?
Why has there been this prolonged exile in a foreign land?
These are questions about their very relationship with God, vulnerable exposed wonderings that came from the deepest part of their collective pain.
As we near the end of the book, words of promise, restoration, and hope point to God’s holiness as a response. The beginning point of healing is God’s holiness. Ez. 36:25 heralds this promise of God’s action, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will removed from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” More promises of God’s restoring acts follow and then as if to tell Ezekiel to believe in what is unseen, God gives the vision of the valley full of dry bones, God leads Ezekiel all around the bones, he can reach down and touch them, he has to step over them, can you imagine? All around, there are remnants of death. For someone like Ezekiel whose survived invasion and a forced march, he has seen death and suffering many times before; he will return to it after this vision.
I wonder if to survive, to keep putting one foot in front of another in a bleak present, having an armored heart seemed like the best option for the Israelites. A heart of stone God says.
Heart by its very definition is alive, organic, and pumping. It always is moving, beating, living.
Brené Brown says, “To be alive is to be vulnerable.” – it is risk, emotional exposure, uncertainty. So leaving the valley of the dry bones, dwelling in our lives here in MN, the reality is, every single day, sometimes moment by moment we have the choice to let vulnerability be our path to greater connection, or the choice to armor up to it – to plate our hearts in the steel of perfectionism, numbing out on Facebook, or gossip, or drinking to take the edge off, catastrophizing, deflecting. If I haven’t named your armor of choice, I will get there.
Like Elsa’s father taught her in Disney’s hit Frozen, “Conceal it, don’t feel. Don’t let it show.” That gives us an armored heart . . . and a frozen Nordic kingdom! When our hearts are armored we are in a self-made prison. Much like King Agnarr in Frozen, we think this will keep us safe and protect us and those we love. If you don’t know the real me, you can’t hurt me. If we don’t feel too much, or care too much, or get invested too much, we just might make it through this life without our hearts being broken. Chinked a little but not really shattered. Not the type of broken that buckles your knees, makes you fight for the next breath and makes you say, never again. Because, like Ezekiel and all the other exiles, the world, your world, has changed and all you want to do is go back.
Armored hearts Brene Brown calls them; God calls them, hearts of stone, start to look like our best choice. “Conceal, don’t feel.”
Because this life can suck the very life out of you.
Which is what the centurion is face to face with – for all his actual military armor, for all of the weight of his breastplate, shield, and his helmet when death of someone he cares about – his slave – comes too close, he is not protected at all; he needs help.
Which is what the widow of Nain is face to face with – this life can suck the very life out of you – she will be heartbroken with grief and destitute without her son. Who will care for her? Just another widow begging for shelter and alms. Just another woman falling with no safety net. His heart stopped and her heart broke.
The state of our hearts matters . . . to God.
Which the elders seem to understand with a human level of meritocracy – they are lobbying to Jesus on behalf of the centurion. Odd. Because the centurion represents the occupying empire – the centurion typically is the enemy of the Jewish people. The elders point out that this centurion deserves, is worthy, has the right resume – he’s not like the other Romans the elders seem to be saying – he’s a good one – for him to merit the attention . . . and favor . . . of Jesus’ power. This soldier, in essence, through his service by building the synagogue and loving the people, has earned this act of healing.
Isn’t it interesting that the elders in this moment recognize, acknowledge, affirm publicly the healing power of Jesus; he can do what they cannot . . . They earnestly entreat Jesus to save their friend’s servant’s life. The religious leaders are willing to use their position, their box seats if you’ve followed the Brené’s arena metaphor, their privilege and power to lobby for the other. Because the servant matters to the centurion and the centurion matters to the elders they will use their influence. Because they value him. Because they see him.
Who do we see? And who do we not see?
While much has changed over the last 2000 years, the urge in our human hearts to determine who is worthy of our love or respect or belonging or listening or compassion, who deserves our help, our time, our use of our privilege, or an opportunity plays out in powerful ways. Sin breaks relationship and we stop seeing each other. And as I speak these words, I do not speak them as one above but one also captive to sin who cannot free herself. We have not love you with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. True enough.
But don’t you hear? Don’t you hear? There’s a breeze blowing through that valley of the dry bones. And on that breeze is wafting these words, “I will remove from you the heart of stone.”
And then, through the word of the Lord, there’s a rattling in that valley. The bones are joined together, joint to joint, sinew to bone, flesh, and skin and the words of God that Ezekiel gets to speak because God invites humans to be agents of healing, “you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.”
This is what the elders seem to miss when they were so focused on showing the centurion’s resumé. The resumé didn’t matter. The centurion seems to get this in his faithful response – “Only say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus heart was open to the servant, to the centurion, to the elders themselves all along, Jesus heart was beating with and for them so that their hearts would beat with and for others.
It was as if the elders believed they removed the hearts of stone – that is was human effort and control. But they – and the elder in each of us – had forgotten who the actor is in Ezekiel’s vision. God is the one to remove the heart of stone. God is the one to give the heart of flesh. God is the one who says, “you shall live, and you shall know that I am the LORD.” Why? Because God is the actor. God is always the actor. God is the do-er of removing our hearts of stone and replacing them with hearts of flesh. God is the one who rolls the stone away on the resurrection morning. This transformation of wholeness and compassion, of being broken open in love is God’s good work and not our own.
In Christ when our hearts break, they break differently. When your heart is broken and so is mine, and so is yours and yours and yours and so is the heart of Christ when we pick up the pieces and start to put them back together again, I’ve picked up some pieces of yours, and yours, and yours, and you’ve picked up pieces of mine, and we’ve all picked up pieces of the heart of Christ.
God’s word given to Ezekiel, “You shall live” are the very words the widow of Nain wanted to hear. “You shall live.” And then her son’s heart starts beating again, he sits up, a huge gasp goes through the funeral procession, and all the broken pieces of her heart are gathered together again.
This is the work of the church. To gather broken hearts together again in response to God’s action. To say, ‘we are with and for you.” To say, “You are our neighbor.” To be church in this broken world in which divisions cause us to armor up in assumptions and fears, is to say, “It isn’t going to be easy, but we are showing up, anyway, because in Christ, we can do hard things together.”
Can we even begin to imagine God’s wholehearted love for us?
Ezekiel couldn’t and so he needed a vision.
The elders couldn’t and so they needed an invitation.
Another centurion at the foot of the cross couldn’t and so he needed a revelation – which came when Jesus breathed his last. When Jesus’ heart stopped, the centurion’s heart was broken open and he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” (Luke 23:47).
Broken. Open. Whole. The heart of Christ. Our hearts in Christ. Amen.