Heart Troubles


Heart Troubles                                                                                     Jamie Maciejewski

Mark 7:1-23                                                                                                    March 10, 2019


A dozen years ago, we were visiting George's dad in Cleveland in August.  It was warm, as you might imagine for the midwest, and Walter was ever the hard-working host.  No matter how much we tried to help, he was always up and around and doing something.  Roasting our favorite pork rib dinner, running to the store to get something he had missed, even mowing the yard in that heat.  And, no, he wouldn't let one of us mow for him.  I remember him stopping midway through mowing and coming in to sit and rest for a while.  He seemed more tired than usual.


On Sunday morning, we got ready for church.  And then Walter did something odd.  He turned to George and asked him to drive him to the pharmacy.  The only one open on Sunday morning was in the local hospital, so off they went.  About an hour later, George arrived back to the house without Walter.  While Walter was in the pharmacy, he was taken to the emergency room and admitted for evaluation. 


We received a phone call a short time later that he was being airlifted to the Cleveland Clinic.  Walter was in the midst of a massive, ongoing heart attack.  It turned out he had been having this slow heart attack for several days.  By the time he was in surgery, his heart was severely damaged because he hadn't taken his symptoms seriously. 


Walter lived another eight years or so, but his heart was permanently damaged because he didn't pay attention to the warning signs. 


I've heard, maybe you have too, that denial when it comes to serious heart conditions isn't unusual.  In Mark 7, we read about people who are in denial about their own spiritual heart disease.  There are two maladies Jesus addresses: hearts that are far from God, and hearts that are seriously sick.  Let's look at each one.


Mark writes, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.”  (Mk 7:6b-7)  Hearts that are far from God are like planets that are far from the sun.  Frozen solid.


This is an interesting heart trouble, because it clearly afflicts religious people.  Did you notice that?  “These people honor me with their lips.”  These are people who are interested in God, people who want to honor him!  The Pharisees and religion teachers are the ones Jesus is talking to. Most Jews thought of them as especially devout.  Churchy people!  But Jesus says their hearts are far from God.


The second trouble Jesus addresses is a sick heart.  Actually, so sick that it's gross.  Let's read.  Jesus “went on: 'It's what comes out of a person that pollutes: obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness – all these are vomit from the heart.  There is the source of your pollution.'” (Mk 7:20-23 The Message)


The religious leaders were trying to clean up, trying to be morally pure.  That's the reason for the hand-washing ceremony.  But Jesus nails them.  He says they are obsessed with cleaning up stuff that's on the outside, while what desperately needs to be cleaned up is all on the inside.  In the heart.  Washing your hands, your food, doesn't do a thing when it's your heart that's a toilet!


Well, you might be saying, I think I can stop paying attention to heart troubles, because you're talking about people who aren't Christians.  Sure, Pharisees were religious, but they didn't follow Christ.  Once you follow Christ, it's different.


I would just so love that to be the case!  But I want to read you one more passage, one that occurs just before today's reading, when Jesus performs two amazing miracles.  Mark says Jesus' disciples “were totally amazed, for they still didn't understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves.  Their hearts were too hard to take it in.” (Mk 6:51b-52)  These are Jesus' followers.  And they are suffering from yet a third heart trouble – hardness of heart.


Apparently... apparently!... spiritual people are prone to heart troubles.  Hearts far from God.  Sick hearts.  Hard hearts.


Why is that, anyway?  After all, it's religious and spiritual people who are most interested in God.  Yet somehow they are far God, with polluted and hard hearts.  Is it like certain cancer genes that run in families?  Spiritual heart trouble genes just run in religious folks?


We get a clue when Jesus says that religious people are trading closeness to God for human ideas.  They're substituting their own ideas about religion for doing what God actually commands them to do.  “Then [Jesus] said, 'You skillfully sidestep God's law in order to hold on to your own tradition.'” (Mk 7:9)


He gives two examples of these traditions, or human ideas.  One is ceremonial washing.  The other is called “Corban” - or sacrificial giving.  It's when someone gives something over totally to God.  Both look like examples of tremendous devotion. 


With ceremonial washing, the religious people are just building on what God already said he cared about: staying away from unclean foods.  Moses addressed this.  With Corban, the religious people gave everything to God.  In fact, they were so devout in giving that they had nothing left to share with their poor parents.


As I said, both washing and Corban seem very spiritual, like signs of tremendous devotion to God.  But Jesus isn't impressed... at all.  He says they've exchanged their ideas about religion for God's.  Careful washing doesn't address a filthy heart.  And giving everything to God while not obeying his command to honor your parents is just plain disobedient.


Why is it so hard to do religion God's way?  I think there's a couple of powerful reasons. 


First, we like to feel spiritual.  The religious people “felt” spiritual.  “Felt” close to God.  This is the problem with with relying on our feelings as a measuring stick of how close we are to God: spiritual feelings are notoriously unreliable.  In fact, if there's something you do in order to feel more spiritual, there's a significant possibility you are relying on a human idea about being spiritual. 


The way the Pharisees figured it, they were really close to God, because what they did made them feel very spiritual!  In reality, their spiritual feelings kept them from moving closer to God, because the way we move closer to God is by obeying him.


We not only like to feel spiritual; we like to look spiritual to others.  We applaud super-spiritual types, people who are always busy in the church or community, those involved in a gazillion activities, filling important roles, being spiritual leaders.  But all this super-spirituality can be a cover for not  obeying God.  A friend of mine told me how painfully shy she was in college.  Her roommate was super spiritual, always rushing off to this Bible study or that involvement.  When, my friend says, “I really needed a friend to sit with at dinner.” 


Feeling and looking spiritual is much easier that obeying God.  Maybe I'm so busy being spiritual that I don't take time to listen deeply to my husband, or to sit with my mom.  Maybe I'm so worn out giving and giving my time that I snap at my family, or ignore them completely.   


Loving your family is not spiritually sexy.  No one may even know how hard it is for you to do it.  You may carry deep sadness at unreturned love.  You may feel less spiritual than your brothers and sisters in the church who are saying Yes to taking on great and visible roles. 


But here is what you, what all of us, must remember: God sees these small and great acts of the heart.  When you take the time to be with your aging parent or grandparent, you are holding to God's command to honor your parents.  When you choose to pick up the mess you made rather than leaving it for your spouse or roommate to deal with, when you notice someone who could use a friend, whenever you go the extra mile even though you are tired and the TV or a good book beckons – you are holding to God's command to love him and love your neighbor.


Heart troubles develop gradually, out of a lifetime of habits and choices.  My father-in-law's heart didn't give out from nowhere.  It's likely it had been coming on for a whole lifetime.  He'd probably had many small warning signs, and maybe some large ones, along the way, signs he thought nothing of, signs he simply brushed off. 


Will we pay attention to our own spiritual heart troubles before they kill us?  Remember, the hearts of God's people are vulnerable – to hardening, to becoming distant from God, to being full of pollution.  Every single small and quiet choice we make to obey God by loving him and our neighbor helps to reverse our own spiritual heart disease.


Will you pray with me?