Ash Wednesday: Rent Hearts

(I preached this sermon on February 14, 2018 at Messiah Lutheran Church)

“Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the prophet.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God,” says the psalmist.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” says the Lord.

I have a slightly defective heart. Where your aorta meets the left ventricle of your heart, you have a valve. That valve consists of three leaves that open and close together, so that blood flows out of the heart into the aorta and from there to the rest of your body, and no blood flows back the wrong way into your heart from the aorta.

Except that for me, and about 2% of people, that valve has only two leaves. The two leaves can do the job just fine for years and years and years. But once they figure out that you have this defect, the doctors want it to be checked every few years to make sure your little valve is still working as it should.

So I was at the doctor for a routine physical recently and she went over the results of my last heart ultrasound. The report wasn’t alarming, but since this condition was detected over ten years ago, some things had changed. I now had “mildly sclerotic leaflets.”

In other words, my two heroic valve leaflets had started to get hard. They were starting to get thick. If they kept going this way, they would eventually stop working and I would need a valve transplant.

“Mildly sclerotic indeed!” I thought. This is wrong. I’m good! Pretty good, anyway. Surely the march of time can’t have affected me the same way it has affected everyone around me, I who am still 25 in my own mind. Surely the accumulation of all those little decisions, all the sugar I didn’t really need to eat, all the extra salt, wasn’t enough to justify this. I know about this condition and I face it seriously and surely that counts for something.

But here’s the thing: the universe doesn’t care what I know. The universe is not impressed by my self-evaluation. The universe does not bargain. In our bodies, and in our world, time’s arrow flies one way—from birth to death. You can slow the hardening of your heart, but you can’t reverse it. You can stop eating the food that hurts you, but can’t un-eat anything that put you, little by little, into the condition you’re in.

Realizing that truth can bring an almost religious feeling of remorse. All of those things I did, and for what? Did I even enjoy it that much at the time?

It just so happens that I have been thinking a lot about what we call, in Scripture and in church, the hardening of our hearts. When Pharaoh thinks about releasing the Israelites from slavery, God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. The psalmist says to the people, if today you should hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.

A soft heart is pliable. It responds to God’s call to worship and repentance. It responds to the need of a neighbor. It aches for those who are suffering. It yields. It expands. It works.

A hard heart is the opposite. A hard heart resists the voice of God. A hard heart turns away from the neighbor, is unmoved by need, and persists in its own destructive path. It does not yield, it does not expand as far as it should.

“Hardness of heart” is a powerful metaphor. Because that’s how we live and make our choices: one at a time, little by little, day by day. We don’t feel the sclerosis of our hearts because it doesn’t happen all at once. We just lose that softness a little bit each day. We lose that responsiveness to God, or to conscience, or to our neighbor. At first it was hard to ignore the voice of God, but it got easier every time. A hard spiritual heart, like a hard physical one, eventually just stops working.

And when it gets exposed by God, it seems so wrong. We’re good! We’re pretty good, anyway. We haven’t done anything other people don’t do, or wouldn’t do if they were in our shoes. But by then, there’s no fixing it. You can stop doing the things that harden your heart, but you can’t un-do anything that got you to this point.

On Ash Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent by acknowledging that our bodies and souls are riding that one-way arrow that flies from birth to death. We begin by confessing that there is really no arguing with sin and death. There’s no special pleading we can do for our own cases. There’s no saying “I could do better, but…” There’s no saying “I tried.” There’s no saying “my intentions were good.” God is not impressed by our self-evaluations. God does not bargain.

Instead, we hear this: Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. It’s right there, on your forehead, in the sign of the cross whose hero and savior bore all our sins. Whose heart was great enough, and soft enough, to expand so far that it absorbed the cruelty of a hard-hearted world. Who was plunged to death by time’s arrow and raised again to life by the power of God.

We bother saying this, and hearing it, because there is a difference between our physical heart and our spiritual heart. The spiritual heart can be broken without losing the patient. “The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O Lord, you will not despise.” The Scriptures reach for dramatic words when they talk about this. We don’t need a modest plan for a better diet and more exercise. We need a new heart. We don’t need God to indulge us, we need God to wipe the slate clean, to yank the tears of contrition from our steely eyes, to let us want nothing more than to be made new again.

God wants to do this for us. God wants our treasure to be in heaven, and with that treasure, our hearts. God wants to forgive our sin. God does not bargain, but God is infinitely generous to those who lay down their arms and give up their arguments.

You can do this any day in any season. But this is the time, brothers and sisters, when we are directly told to do it. This is the time to lay our burdens down. A hard heart is a terribly heavy burden. We don’t feel it day to day but when we see it for what it is, it is so terribly heavy. If you are carrying a heavy sin, ask me and we will name it and have it forgiven. If you are glutted on saying yes to yourself, make an effort at the spiritual hunger revealed in the fasting of Lent. If your heart has closed itself off to your neighbor and will not open again, open it by giving alms. If you have stopped listening for the voice of God, return to God in prayer each day. Maybe it will feel like a small thing and maybe it will feel like an unbearable task. But we don’t do this in order to succeed. We do this in order to be made new. We do this to let God give us new, contrite, and soft hearts.

That is what God wants. “Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” says the prophet, not because God wishes to leave our hearts rent in two but because God wishes to give us newly healed and kind hearts. God does not wish to leave us wandering toward death, but to rescue us for life. God does not seek to deprive us of any good thing, but instead to place our treasure in heaven. That grace is here for us today—yes, in our remorse and even our tears, in ashes, words, body and blood. And it is in the forgiveness and the new life that follows. Amen.

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