From the Heart
Based on Matthew 5:21-37, February 12, 2017
Rev. Mark Seifried @ The Second Church in Newton, UCC
I received a letter just the other day. It said:
Dear Child, I love you for you. Let go and let yourself feel loved. All the love you deserve and thought you never had is yours right now. But you must let me love you. All the sunshine in the world means nothing, if you won’t see the light to feel the warmth. Letting yourself feel my love changes everything. Let me love you, and then you live my love.
The letter concluded,
I love you madly … always have, and always will,
Actually that letter wasn’t something I composed. It’s something that one of my professors from Andover Newton Theological School wrote in his book Fulfilled. Kirk Byron Jones talks about how we lose track of the awareness that we are loved by God – sometimes for whole swaths of time – from an hour some days to an entire lifetime.
Dr. Jones says that the most precious news in the world is that we are Beloved children of God. “We are continually being loved from the inside out and the outside in by a God of relentless grace and mercy. The sweetest decision in all the world is to choose to believe our divine acceptance and proceed to live from acceptance, not for acceptance.
I think this is the sentiment Jesus was trying to convey in the portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we heard Andy read a few minutes ago. Jesus says, “It’s a joke if you feel like you’ve accomplished something for not murdering someone. You’re a child of God. Of course you won’t murder. Neither should you be angry with someone. You’re not deceiving God with your sanctimonious façade. Deception of having it all together while harboring resentment is a dangerous breach of love. Your anger is a pretense that you know better than God. Your anger becomes your prayer for your life. Jesus suggests that we can change not only what we think but how we think about things.
After this bit on anger, he goes onto talk about adultery, lust and divorce – things that some preachers love to focus on, while they pass over the parts about anger, false witness, and lying, which actually are all about deception. I’m not going to focus on any of them in particular. But I do wonder, “How are things in your heart?”
Are you at peace? Not many in our liberal bastion of Massachusetts are. We have a new administration in Washington DC that is scaring us. They are capitalizing on fear and making us angry in doing so. Yes, fear and anger is rampant in the United States. If you’re like me you’ve become fearful and angry because certain policy proposals that would oppress or marginalize entire groups of people are an affront to our beliefs as Christians and as Americans. The reality is that the things coming from Washington DC are epitome of American attitudes. I know that sounds harsh, but we know it’s true, even of this tranquil city where we live, work, and worship.. I’ve been ministering here for a year. In that time I have heard rhetoric, publicly spoken, from Newton residents that is born out of anti-Semitism, racism, and nationalism. The things that anger some of us about our neighbors and the new administration are the things that we recognize and fear in ourselves and the culture to which we have peaceably acquiesced.
A friend of mine who happens to have dark brown skin said the other day, “The way you felt the days after the election is the way people of color feel every day of their life.” I don’t want to believe that. Like you, I want to believe that we are advanced in the way we treat people in the United States, including people of African, Asian, and Latin descent. It’s just not true, though. I go places with my black friends. I see them being treated differently. The people using the elevator make eye contact with me. Then they see that my friend Shantelle is with me and their gaze changes from acceptance to resentment, as if to say, “This is a ‘white only’ elevator.” I wonder where their heart is? I wonder, where is your heart when you witness something like that. And how do you respond? The scenario I just recalled for you happened recently to me and my friend in the city of Boston. I grabbed Shantelle’s hand and smiled at the man and told Shantelle that I love her.
I’ve been doing social justice work for decades and have become accustomed to sneers and jeers from others. I’m at the place in my life where I am either amused or I become saddened for other people. Jesus teaches that our response to hostility is to acknowledge the anger, but then to double down on love. Otherwise the anger would hold us hostage and keep us paralyzed from living a whole and holy life. And we would live in despair. Isn’t that what causes divorce? Despair that things cannot possibly get better? // Isn’t that why we find it so hard to trust and forgive after we’ve been hurt? Because the despair of being hurt again is too much to bear? We think it’s better to stay distant, to keep separated. And to stew on past hurts.
James Baldwin knew about this sense of fixation on the past when he said, “To be locked in the past means, in effect, that no one has a past, since no one can ever assess it, or use it: and if one cannot use the past, one cannot function in the present, and so one can never be free.” He goes onto say, “It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within. And yet the terror within is far truer and far more powerful than any of our labels; the labels change, the terror is constant.”
That’s what’s happening now, you know? We are being held hostage by the anger we feel over the rhetoric of our nation’s leaders. As a result, we are being terrorized by our own thoughts. And for a time such as this, we need to hear Jesus telling us not to sin. Not to call names. Not to point fingers. SCREAM: Not to even get angry. Because being angry is the same as murder. They are both matters of the heart where we separate ourselves from God’s love and Christ’s peace.
God, help my sin sick soul. God, help your sin sick soul. God, help the sin sick souls of our nation and its leaders. God, help the sin sick souls in the choir. God help the sin sick deacons. God help the poor folks who decided to visit this sin sick congregation for the first time today. God, help us. We are lost. We need your comfort, God. We need your guidance, Jesus. We need your forgiveness. We need your grace. We need to start over again. We need to open our hearts and listen and hear each other. We need to listen and hear from God:
I love you for you. Let go and let yourself feel loved. All the love you deserve and thought you never had is yours right now. But you must let me love you. All the sunshine in the world means nothing, if you won’t see the light to feel the warmth. Letting yourself feel my love changes everything. Let me love you, and then you live my love.
I love you madly, always have, and always will,
Beloved, this is what Jesus was trying to shock us into believing and acting accordingly when he delivered the Sermon on the Mount. Anger, lust, divorce, lying, and breaking promises all cause serious pain in relationships, whether we’re married or single, and they cause us to be separated from God’s love. All of them are things that can quickly push us off the path of God’s ways, pull our eyes away from Jesus and drown out the whispers of the Spirit with shouts of fear and despair. Yet it is not the act itself which is the only problem. Like racism, more problems come when we do not deal with the issue, shove it aside, bury it under the rug and pretend everything’s fine. Each of the things Jesus names in our lesson for today causes suffering; but the real trouble comes in never addressing it. The real problem comes when we sprint through our stressed out lives and fail to reflect on the implications much less address them. Jesus knows anxiety and so he calls us to God’s peace over and over again.
In his meditation called “An Island of Peace within One’s Soul,” the late great Howard Thurman says, (paraphrase) “The individual lives life with a wide variety of stresses and strains… Each has to deal with evil aspects of life, with injustices upon which we are inflicted and injustices which we wittingly and unwittingly inflict upon others. We are – all of us – deeply involved in the throes of our own weaknesses and strengths, expressed often in the conflicts of our own souls. The only hope for surcease, the only possibility of stability for the person, is to establish an Island of Peace within one’s soul.”
He goes onto talk about how we rarely realize how we reveal love, anxiety and fear and how others perceive those things in us, how others act upon that energy that comes from us. And then Dr. Thurman writes, “Well within the (island of peace on which we live) is the Temple where God dwells – not the God of the creed, the church, the family, but the God of one’s heart. Into God’s Presence one comes with all of one’s problems and faces God’s scrutiny. What we are, what our plans are, what our authentic point is, where our life goes – all is available to us in God’s Presence. How foolish it is, how terrible, if you have not found your Island of Peace within your own soul!” It means you are living without the discovery of your true essence, which is the loving energy of God – the loving energy God has for you and for every other created being.
Beloved, Einstein revealed to us that energy cannot be truly destroyed or lost to the universe; it can only be transformed – from matter into heat, from heat into light, from anger to understanding, from fear to love, and so on. Perhaps that is the purpose of our lives and the real challenge of faith – to remember that there is suffering in the world, to honor the suffering, and those who suffer, and to find ways to transform the suffering that they and we have experienced into something that is merciful, just, redemptive and healing.
Traditionally, that’s why we ring bells at certain times: to remember, to honor, to celebrate peace, and to dedicate ourselves to creating and preserving peace – however small or however large. We need more bells! We need to remember how to get back to our Island of Peace where Jesus calls us and where the Spirit dwells. AMEN.
 Kirk Byron Jones, Fulfilled: Living and Leading with Unusual Wisdom, Joy, and Peace (Nashville: Abington Press, 2013), pgs. 58-59
 James Baldwin, Baldwin: Collected Essays (New York: Random House, 1998), pg. 694.
 Howard Thurman, “An Island of Peace within One’s Soul” in Meditations of the Heart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953) pg. 17-18