Choosing Life, Choosing Love
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 Matthew 5:21-37
6th Sunday after Epiphany February 13, 2011
Tomorrow is Valentine’s day, so I thought this was a perfect occasion for us to give some attention to the heart. The gospel reading according to Matthew this morning continues Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In this section, he is speaking about the importance of following the heart of the law and not just the letter of it. He gives several examples of how the laws might be interpreted according to the heart, some of which are surprising. For instance, Jesus compares being angry with someone to committing murder. He says that insulting someone or calling them a fool is bad enough to consign a person to the fires of hell. This all seems pretty extreme at face value. How in the world could calling someone a fool be bad enough to attract God’s harsh judgement? Are we really to think that God expects us to stay calm, cool and collected all the time, never giving in to anger? Does God expect our minds to be clear of any compromise? If that is true, then most of us may as well throw in the towel. We fall short of these standards every day.
What I think Jesus is trying to get at here, is to push faith deeper into his followers. It is easy to keep up appearances, to do what we think other people (and even God) expect of us, but it is not easy to follow through all the time, under every circumstance.. Living according to God’s standards needs to become a part of who we really are, if we want to do what is required of us all the time. It needs to be rooted in our hearts, and integrated into every aspect of our lives. Stephen Buhner has written several books that talk about the heart as the primary organ of perception. He says that our hearts are better at receiving and interpreting information about the world around us than our heads. He explains how it works this way: “We all live immersed in meaning-filled fields of information….We experience these fields not as a stream of words on a page but as emotions, the touch of life upon us…. Heart cognition moves us from a rational orientation in a dead, mechanized universe to one in which the unique perceptions and emotions are noticed and strengthened. It allows us to deeply experience the living soulfulness of the world, constantly reweaving us back into the fabric of life.”
I particularly like his comment that heart cognition, or experiencing the world around us through the heart, “weaves us back into the fabric of life.” Often it is our heart that reminds of what is important, coaxes us back to the center of our lives after a difficult time. The heart knows things that the rest of us takes time to figure out. For example, picture, in your mind’s eye, someone you love, someone who is very special to you. Notice how you feel when you see them. Maybe your breathing slows down, maybe your heart beats a little differently, maybe you even smile. Now picture someone with whom you have a hard time. Notice what changes about how you are feeling as you change focus from someone you love to someone you don’t particularly care for. These symptoms such as breathing, heart rate, warmth or rigidness are primarily heart-reactions. Sure, as you think about either person for awhile, some thoughts and judgments will come into play, but they come after the heart’s initial response. This “weaving us back into the fabric of life” so that we are so connected with one another that we respond without thought, is what I believe Jesus was speaking about in the Matthew passage. It is a way of being so fully integrated into the world around you, thanks to the deep knowledge of your heart, that you cannot lie to others or to yourself. The comment Jesus ends this passage with is, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” in other words, know yourself well enough that you cannot possibly say something you do not mean or intend to follow through with. If we are tuned into our hearts, and the things that our hearts tell us about the world around us - who is friend and who is foe, when we feel safe and when we do not - then the truth becomes clearer and clearer with every interaction. We learn to trust our hearts as we experience the truth of their information to us. Essentially, we have to unlearn years of false information that came when we over-rode the information our hearts gave to us. Have you ever met someone new and had an uncomfortable feeling about them? You tell yourself there is nothing wrong, and you ought to just relax and be friendly with them. However, given time, it often turns out that that person is not a good person for you to befriend. They may be physically unsafe, but what is more often the case, they can be someone who undermines you in some way, leaving you feeling “less than” with each encounter or causing you to feel bad about yourself.
Our hearts can be the source of good, solid and honest information, if we pay attention. If we live according to our hearts, then we are better able to act in ways that are in alignment with Jesus’ teachings. The author of Deuteronomy, in writing about the choices set before us each day - of life or death, goes so far as to say it is the heart that enables us to distinguish between these choices. Without the heart to guide us, we have no hope of finding the path that leads to life. He says,“if your heart turns away and you do not hear, and you are led astray,” affirming that it is indeed our hearts which are capable of reading a situation clearly and helping us to interpret it. It is our hearts which enable us to hear the truth, and therefore our hearts which are best suited to guiding us in making good decisions and following the best path. It is our hearts that are tuned in to the ways of God.
During the time in which Deuteronomy was written, people were very familiar with teachers telling them what was not acceptable. Rather than preaching sweetness and light, or trying to be encouraging, religious leaders would pepper their speeches with threats and warnings that told people what would happen if they did not do what was deemed right and proper. In modern time fundamentalist circles this is often known as “scaring people into heaven.” Most churches and contemporary societies don’t use this so much nowadays, but vestiges still remain, of course. The threat of a speeding ticket, can effect on our driving, for instance. Fear of being chastised works to a certain extent, but most people would agree that it is better if we act from our hearts, rather than out of fear of negative consequences. It is better if we choose to do whatever we do simply because something inside of us is urging us in that direction. It is better if we make choices based on our relationship with God, and on wanting to be true to the holy heart at the center of our lives. The words within Deuteronomy are powerful ones; “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him and holding fast to him, for that means life to you and length of your days...” The author of Deuteronomy is saying that God is our life. By choosing the way of God, we are choosing life and choosing love in its most powerful form.
God of life and of love, we are your children. We strive to act as your people, and yet we sometimes fall short of your will for us. Help us to tune our hearts to you, and ourselves to our hearts. May we follow you and may our hearts guide us. Amen.