Annual Spirituals — Heart

Ezekiel 36:24-28
February 21, 2021
Matt Goodale

Our new Lenten series is titled “Annual Spirituals.” Each year most of us go to the doctor to receive an annual physical to see how our bodies are doing. After checking us thoroughly using different gadgets and gizmos, the doctor will give us a sense of how physically healthy we are, including any potential warning signs to watch for and advice for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. If we’re lucky we may even get a lollipop. We go to a doctor at least once a year because we care about our physical health. We know that a healthy and functioning body is essential if we want to keep living.

But how often do we get our spiritual health checked out? Maybe I’m missing a business opportunity, but you don’t see many pastors setting up spiritual clinics for people to come get checked out. And how would you even check someone’s spiritual health? There’s no blood pressure device that measures your level of sanctification, and it’s not like someone can stick a light in your ear, nose or mouth to determine your relationship with God. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take the time to slow down and reflect upon our spiritual health.

This is exactly what we’ll try to do during this season of Lent. We’ll slow down and take a close look at our spiritual health as we seek to move out of what has been a season of unhealth and toxicity for many of us, and we will seek move into a season of health and restoration. Lucky for us, with scripture as our guide, there are ways we can check out our spiritual health. We’ll focus on our heart, eyes, ears, tongue and lungs to see what they reveal about our spirituality and to see how they can either foster or hinder a healthy spiritual connection with God and neighbor.

Today we begin with our hearts. Ezekiel will be our guide as we examine our hearts to see what’s working well, and what needs attention from our spiritual doctor, the Holy Spirit. I’ll begin with a story.

In my junior year of college I was a resident assistant (also known as an ‘RA’) in Baldwin-Jenkins, the campus’ all-freshmen dorm. As an RA my role was to enforce policy, build community and work with my fellow RAs to host events and manage the overall dorm culture. If you’re thinking that it sounds exhausting to live and work in an all-freshmen dorm, you would be correct! The amount of energy these freshmen show up with to college is enough to make the energizer bunny work overtime.

Being the invincible college student that I thought I was, I jumped into being a RA just hours after I finished working at a children’s summer camp for three months. Talk about exhausting! As you can imagine, it didn’t take long for the burnout that would be inevitable to set in.

I signed up and interviewed to be an RA because I had a passion for people; it was that same passion that led me to work at a summer camp for three months with long hours and meager pay. But this passion for people that led me to serve in a freshmen dorm quickly turned sour.

More out of self-preservation than anything else, just weeks into the semester I stopped caring about what my residents were up to or how they were managing the transition to college. I scraped through the bare minimum of work the job required and just tried to survive. And my boss, who was in her first year ever as a resident director, noticed. 

She was new to Whitworth and the Northwest, fresh from grad school. She showed up bright-eyed and eager to be a resident director. She was new on the block and it took her a few months to figure out how things worked at Whitworth. Her expectations of our RA team were a little ambitious and she micromanaged more than any of us cared for. I later recognized that she was just trying to figure the job out, but at the time I had zero tolerance or grace for her. I found her to be more annoying than helpful. We clashed frequently as she requested more and more of me and I pushed back on her poor understanding of the position. After about a month of this, I was so fed up with her that I was ready to quit.

 So she and I met one day to discuss my job performance and our relationship. I remember sitting there, bracing for the worst, ready to quit if I needed to. I kept a few choice words for her in mind, ready to fire once she launched in with a harsh critique. But no harsh words came; there was no sharp critique. Instead, she started to cry. Through her tears she shared how difficult the year had been for her. The transition to Whitworth hadn’t been easy and she couldn’t figure out why I wouldn’t be more helpful, more understanding, more gracious to her as she struggled to get a hang of the job. I was stunned. I came into the meeting ready to do battle, but now her tears melted my heart of stone. I started to get choked up too and shared through tears of my own how hard the year had been and how burnt out and exhausted I felt all the time. I shared with her that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to support her, I just didn’t have it in me to. And in that moment we shared a connection—a deep human connection. The type of connection that can only be felt when two people really look at each other and allow their hearts of stone to be melted by the common pain, the common experience, the common humanity they share.

In our scripture reading today, the prophet Ezekiel shares God’s vision for Israel—a vision that Israel would receive a renewed heart and a renewed spirit. It was a vision that their hearts of stone would melt into hearts of flesh.

Being the brilliant biblical scholars that I know we all are, this raises some questions for us: why did Israel need a renewed heart? What was wrong with their current one? What turned their hearts to stone?

Ezekiel’s book opens with a vision from God calling Ezekiel to go preach to the Israelites who are described as a rebellious people who chose to worship idols instead of the living God, and who chose to conform to the ways of the surrounding nations rather than the ways set out for them by God. The other prophets help fill in the gaps for us, describing the Israelites as a people who oppressed their poor, trampled their widows and ignored their orphans. They chose idols of greed and lust, idols that assured them that life was to be found in more money, more stuff, more drink, more “me”, no matter that it was at the expense of others. They decided they liked the ways the other nations operated and weren’t so sure any more about God’s desire to shape them into a nation that took care of the widow, the immigrant, the outcast, the sick and the poor. And just as Pharaoh’s heart became hardened the longer he oppressed the Israelites for his own gain, Israel’s heart became hardened as it was now their turn to oppress, revile and ignore.

It’s easy to look at Israel and shake our heads. They should know better, we say. They were God’s chosen people for goodness sake! But they let their hearts grow hard. After God had set them apart to be a different kind of nation, after God had set them free from their oppressors in Egypt, how could they go and harden their hearts to their own poor, their own immigrants and strangers? And even as the question forms on my lips, I already know the answer: because a heart of stone hurts a whole lot less than a heart of flesh.

I know the answer because my own heart knows its propensity for sitting like a rock in my chest. Sometimes I’ll intentionally harden my heart towards someone who has hurt me, but most of the time my heart shuts itself off, becoming as dead as rock, because it’s easier than feeling too much.

I drive through downtown Spokane every time I go to Cheney, and on both the drive to and from work, I know I’ll always have to stop beside someone with a cardboard sign who has strategically set up next to a traffic light. And each time I pull up next to this person who usually fits the profile of someone I expect to be without a job or home, I have a choice. I can choose to look them in the eye, acknowledging their humanity with a smile or a wave, with a box of granola bars or some spare cash. Or, I can pretend I don’t see them and once the light turns green keep driving on my way as if nothing has happened. I’d like to share that I choose the first option all of the time, but that would not be the truth. If I am in a hurry, if I’m overwhelmed, stressed or exhausted, I’ll clutch the steering wheel a little tighter and look straight ahead, pretending not to see the human being next to me asking for help. And each time I look away from the cry for help from my fellow human being, my heart turns a bit more to stone.

Now, I’d like to preach to you about how painful a heart of stone can be and why you should avoid it at all costs, but the reality is that a heart of stone hurts a whole lot less than a heart of flesh. A heart of stone insulates you from absorbing and experiencing the pain of a fellow human being. A heart of stone whispers reasons why you shouldn’t have to care, or feel bad for the plight of someone else. A heart of stone is our own self-defense system that protects us from hurting too much, feeling too much, caring too much. A heart of stone hurts a whole lot less.

This is why I think so many Christians have issues with the Black Lives Matter movement and can’t seem to stop talking long enough to listen to the cries of their brothers and sisters of color. It’s because it’s easier to believe the narrative we’ve been indoctrinated with, that America is great and racism only exists in the corners or on the fringes of society. That’s much easier to believe than it is to open our hearts to hear the real life pain and stories of our brothers and sisters of color who daily experience racism in our churches, our criminal justice systems, our healthcare and educational systems. A heart of stone hurts a whole lot less than a heart of flesh that can be pierced and broken for the sake of others.

I don’t think most of us choose a heart of stone because we’re malicious people. I think we choose a heart of stone because it hurts a whole lot less. You see, when I pull up at that traffic light, to turn and look this person with a cardboard sign in the eye is to acknowledge that I share a bond with them; it is to acknowledge that we are fellow human beings trying to make our ways through this life here on earth; it is to acknowledge that we both fully bear the image of God and are beautifully and wonderfully made by our Creator. To look them in the eye is to allow my heart to break for their situation and to mourn a society that produces so many people who like them have few or no opportunities for a good job and safe housing. A heart of stone hurts a whole lot less.

In Jesus’ famous Beatitudes he tells the crowd around him that “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” If you’re familiar with Jesus’ beatitudes you’ll know they’re all backwards and upside down. Who in their right mind would say that you’re blessed if you mourn? That goes against our sensibilities. But Jesus isn’t speaking about the type of blessings we are. We often think of blessings in material terms. Jesus is speaking in spiritual terms. Jesus knows that to mourn is to be human. To mourn is to engage in a God-given act that we were created to do. To mourn, to allow our hearts to break for one another, to allow our hearts to be saddened by the state of our nation and world, is to be fully human the way God created us to be. To allow our hearts to break is to care. To mourn is to refuse to turn away from what is difficult to look at and pains us to see. A proper theology of mourning never allows us the privilege of apathy.

Because even though a heart of stone hurts a whole lot less, over time, our heart of stone deforms us. Like the Israelites we ourselves become hardened and closed off to others. Just like I treated my resident director in college, we become less and less in tune with the image of God that resides in every person and that demands our attention and love.

Created in God’s image, our hearts were made to break, to feel, to mourn. How often do we let it? If you want to measure your spiritual health, pay attention to how often you turn away from the pain of others, instead of leaning into it. Jesus modeled for us what it looks like to have a real heart of flesh. His heart of flesh led him to the cross. His heart of flesh broke over and over throughout his ministry. Jesus’ heart of flesh allowed him to forgive freely, to love without conditions and to enter into the pain of others without regret.

A heart of stone may hurt a whole lot less, but there is much freedom and life to be found in a heart of flesh. We were created for more than we settle for. And God is always beckoning us forth, out of the shadows, to give us a renewed heart of flesh, one that is capable of caring, feeling, loving, forgiving and breaking. We don’t earn this heart of flesh; it is a gift freely given. If we let her, God’s Spirit, who resides in and around us, is renewing our hearts and spirits, restoring our hearts of stone once again into hearts of flesh. Amen.