Sermon Series #11: The New Thing

Preached at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church on July 21, 2013 on Isaiah 43 & Mark 6: 45-52 as part of a series on journey and transformation that is personal and lived out corporately in the life of our congregations.

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It is the ending of today’s Gospel reading that for me is the most interesting part of it.  The traditional translation of the passage says this:

And they [the disciples] were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (NSRV)

Here’s another translation, that offers us another glimpse into the passage:

They [the disciples] were stunned, shaking their heads, wondering what was going on. They didn’t understand what he had done at the supper. None of this had yet penetrated their hearts. (The Message)

Their hearts were hardened…..

It had not yet penetrated their hearts….

For the last eleven weeks, we’ve taken a journey together in worship, thinking through the themes of journey and transformation.

So, what does it mean for us to go on a journey with God?

What does it mean for us to be transformed by the Word of God?

We began our journey all the way back in May with the story of Abraham and Sarah, who were told by God that in their advanced age they would have a child, God’s promises for them would finally be fulfilled.  Today we are at the end with disciples in a boat on a stormy sea.  They dare not laugh—but like Abraham and Sarah probably thought God’s plans for their lives had both bad timing and an improbable way of coming to light.   We journeyed through Genesis, reflected on the Ten Commandments in perhaps a new way, engaged the idea of what professing our faith might mean.  We listened to the story of our early beginnings—the first congregations in Acts; their ups and downs, the bumps in the road they experienced,  the new ways of behavior they needed to adapt to in order to speak and live the Gospel so that it could be heard.  And for the last three weeks we have closed out with vignettes from the life of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the Gospels—following him through some of his first experiences and encounters around the Sea of Galilee.   Along the way we have celebrated Confirmation Sunday and last Sunday also reflected some on the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case.  The conversations around those topics of race and of justice have continued to be the primary thoughts in my mind and the primary prayers in my heart over this last week.  I will say that as I leave this afternoon to start vacation I do so with a heavy heart and with sadness inside of me for the brokenness of relationships that are around us—but also hopeful that we continue to be as a larger church on the precipice of something new and transformative—the opportunity (if we want to take it) for greater authenticity and greater faith.

What does it mean for us to go on a journey with God?

What does it mean for us to be transformed by the Word of God?

In Mark’s Gospel the writer focuses on the hearts of the disciples.  So what then is the condition of our hearts?  Are they open, receptive?  Or are they closed off, brittle, hard?  Can God’s Word or Jesus’ transforming Spirit get inside?

It is interesting to me that the writer of Mark’s Gospel talks about hearts in a passage like this one.  He doesn’t care about the condition of the boat; he doesn’t want to describe the storm at length as some of the other Gospel writers do when telling this story.  There isn’t a long conversation between the disciples and Jesus; it is not even named in this passage which disciples are in the boat.  The other Gospel writers share these details.  But not Mark.  He gives the bare bones of the story.  He wants to get to that last sentence….”their hearts were hardened.”

As we all know, if you heart gets sick—then you are usually in very bad shape.  Some people survive heart attacks and have a new lease on life.  Others do not.   Our hearts push blood throughout our body, over and over and over again all day and all night long.  It’s almost involuntary.  Our hearts beat.  They are beating right now.  We might imagine that on the boat out on the Sea of Galilee the hearts of the disciples were beating fast.  Maybe some of them that felt that twinge in their chests that comes with the irregular heartbeat of a panic attack.   Others might have felt like their hearts were in their throats—the fear and worry must have been overwhelming.

On the other side of the coin, you get the impression from the way the passage is written that Jesus has almost an almost Zen-like heart.  He’s gliding over the water, walking on it out to the disciples.  He was hanging out on shore, by himself—enjoying the solitude, but then he realized the disciples were in trouble.   Mark tells us that Jesus’ intention was to “pass them by” but then he stopped to tell them to not worry, he was there.  Jesus got in the boat, and the wind stopped.

The heart of Jesus is calm.  It probably had a perfect beat.  No irregularities.  No murmurs.  No blockages.   As the Dalai Lama, a great spiritual teacher today likes to say about him, Jesus was a “pure heart.”

But the disciples were a different story….Jesus was offering them new things, a change in how they would relate to others and do their ministry…

But their hearts were hardened…..

It [the miracle of the feeding of the 5000] had not yet penetrated their hearts….

Mark’s Gospel begs the question: what is the condition of our hearts?

Over these 11 weeks I have also tried to offer some of my thoughts about the changing nature of the larger church of which we are a part and how our biblical journey can help us lesson the anxiety, see our place in history—and be given some new ways of thinking and acting as those who follow the God in Jesus Christ.   Another way to look at the passage and at the question is this:  What is the condition of the heart of our churches when change comes along?  Are they blocked up?  Hard?  Impossible to get blood flowing?  Or are they open, receptive, healthy?

I recently read an article on change and how our brains react to change.  Here are 8 short insights about how brains process change… eight reasons why change is hard based on brain science and how our brains are wired.  These are the almost involuntary barriers our bodies put up to change….

1. People naturally assume the worst.

2. People usually fill in knowledge gaps with fear instead of faith.

3. We don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression.

4. Emotions influence receptivity to change.

5. The brain can only handle so much change at once.

6. Old habits die hard.

7. Resistance to change often increases the closer you get to the change.

8. The brain often interprets change as a threat which in turn creates resistance.[1]

Sound familiar?  Sound like a way you might respond?  Sound like the way a group of people might?  Sound like the disciples in the boat?  Our brains can get in the way of our ability to get in touch with God or where God is leading us, what God wants us to do.  Maybe this is why Mark talks about the heart.  If we let our faith or our churches be led by our brains—then we are in a world of trouble!  But if we let them be led by our hearts…perhaps then we can get closer to Jesus and perhaps then the Jesus-moment or the Jesus-opportunity won’t just pass us by.

One of the things that worries me today about the Presbyterian Church (USA) is that we are a “brain-church.”  We are very smart.  We only let people become a minister and lead a congregation if they have a lot of education and know the arcane languages of ancient Greek and Hebrew.  Our “standard” for leadership is not really grounded in the heart.  It’s grounded in the brain.  And for a long time that worked for us.  But it isn’t anymore.  Our world is craving a “heart-church.”  I love my brain, I love exercising my brain.  I was raised and formed into being a professional by using my brain.  Brains are important.  But we haven’t given our hearts enough time—or enough attention.   And to me, that is the most important part to Jesus.  That is the part of who we are that can help us to transform and change on individual levels and as parts of systems and groups—like the church.

Think about…imagine the possibilities with God….

  • Our way as a society and as a church out of the sinful state of affairs that gives laws and a way of thinking that justifies the murder of a 17-year old isn’t a brain thing. It’s a heart thing….
  • Our way forward in church to the new things God is offering us isn’t a brain thing, it’s a heart thing.
  • The ways to heal the hurts in our families, the ways to teach our children isn’t a brain thing, it’s a heart thing….
  • Our opportunity to draw closer to God isn’t a brain thing, it’s a heart thing…..
  • The way forward for the disciples the way they’d get to the other side of the sea of Galilee, the way they would lead the early church….it wasn’t a brain thing…it was a heart thing….

The moments you most remember in life, that help, transform or renew your soul—those are heart things.

The moments we are most alive with God’s Spirit…it is when we are most invested in our hearts….

May we use our hearts….

May we use our hearts….

Amen.

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