Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Soft Hearts

Soft Hearts
Psalm 95[1]
  We live in a world where it can be risky to have a soft heart.  People with soft hearts often get their hearts broken, or trampled on, or pierced with betrayal.  Most of us learn to harden our hearts early on, even in grade school.  If you don’t, it’s too easy for your feelings to get hurt by the taunts of your schoolmates.  And as adults, we assume that we can’t open up and really be honest about what we think and feel.  If we do, somebody’s sure to come along and shoot us down.  So we keep our mouths shut and we close off our hearts.  It seems the only way to survive this world is to harden your heart against the slings and barbs that it throws at you.
  But hard hearts tend to fossilize over time.  They get harder and harder, until it seems impossible for anyone or anything to get through.  Hard hearts will have nothing to do with the sweeping changes the Spirit wants to bring in order to give us new life.  When our hearts are hard, we close off to protect ourselves from having to admit that we may be in the wrong, or we may need to change.[2]  Hard hearts are hearts that are defensive and defended, closed to those around us, closed even to the life-giving presence of God.
  One of the themes that gets repeated over and over in the story of Israel’s history is that their hearts were hard.  The prophets continually rebuked the people for being hard-hearted in their willful disobedience to God and in their continually going their own way.[3]  The prophets repeatedly called the people to open their hearts to God and return to him.[4] It seems to me that in order to do that, you have to admit that you’re going the wrong way and soften your heart to what God is trying to do in your life.
  The Psalmist was reflecting on this aspect of Israel’s experience in our lesson for today.  He was particularly talking about the wilderness wanderings, when the people complained seemingly incessantly about Moses and about God.  They didn’t like being in the wilderness, and they made it clear every chance they got!  They weren’t happy with the way things were going in their lives, and they rarely missed a chance to blame God, or Moses, or both.  Unfortunately, it would seem that it never even occurred to them that the root of their bitterness was within themselves, not in someone else.  They simply quarreled with Moses and “tested” God (Exod. 17:2, 3).  The question at the center of their quarrel was significant: “Is the Lord among us or not? (Exod. 17:7).[5] 
  I would offer the suggestion that they were not the first, and certainly not the last, to “test” God.  The Psalmist defines it as demanding that God prove himself to be trustworthy (Ps. 95:9).[6]  Ironically, there are numerous stories where individuals asked God for a sign or for an answer using various “tests.”  But it would seem that there’s a difference between trying to discern our direction and demanding that God give us assurances that we will get out of life whatever it is that we want.  One of the problems with that approach to faith is that you can never get enough proof.  You always need one more test to be sure you can “really” trust God.
  The Psalmist says that the people responded to God in this way because they had “hardened” their hearts (Ps. 95:8).  They had closed themselves off in such a way that faith was essentially impossible.  And so the Psalmist, speaking to later generations, warns them (and us) to avoid hardened hearts.  How then do we follow this warning?  Well, it seems to me that it starts where the Psalmist does.  He calls to all those who would hear, saying “ O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!  For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (Ps. 95:6-7). It seems to me that the place where we begin to soften our hearts so that we may “listen to his voice” (Ps. 95:7) is when we’re able to humble ourselves enough to kneel before our Maker.[7] 
  That kind of humility doesn’t come easily for those of us who have been schooled in a dog-eat-dog world.  And yet, over and over again, the Scriptures call us to soften our hearts so that we can open them to the life-giving presence of God.  And over and over again, the way the Scriptures instruct us to begin is by humbling ourselves.[8]  We have to humble ourselves to recognize with St. Paul that we were “weak” and “ungodly” when Christ died for us (Rom. 5:6).[9]  It took humility for the woman at the well to admit to Jesus that “I have no husband,” (Jn. 4:17)![10]  And it takes humility for us to open our hearts to God.
  That kind of humility is difficult for most of us.  But it truly is the first step toward softening our hearts.  When we can let down some of our defenses, and soften our hearts, then maybe we can open ourselves enough to listen, really listen to God’s voice.[11]  That’s what it takes for us to experience the kind of change Jesus was talking about with Nicodemus.  That’s what it takes for us to experience the new life of the Spirit that God wants to give us.  The call to faith is a call to humility, a call to soften our hearts and open them up enough to receive the grace and the love that God wants to pour into our hearts in such quantity that it becomes like “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:14).

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 3/23/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: The Spirituality of the Twelve Steps, xix: “Grace is always a humiliation for the ego, it seems.”
[3] Cf. Isaiah 46:12; Jeremiah 5:23; 9:26; Ezekiel 3:7.
[4] Cf. Jeremiah 24:7; 29:13; 32:39; Ezekiel 11:19; 18:31; 36:26; Joel 2:12.
[5] Cf. J. I. Durham, Exodus, 231: “the dissatisfied people put Yahweh (and Moses) to the test by their complaining, a complaining which posed the unbelievable question, ‘Is Yahweh present with us, or not?’ The scandal of this question of course is that their release and their freedom, their rescue at the sea, their guidance through and sustenance in the wilderness, and their very presence at Rephidim all answered such an inquiry in pointed and unmistakable events.”
[6] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 307: “Putting God to the test is a self-centered demand for signs and wonders ..., as though the signs and wonders of God’s creation and salvation were not enough reason to trust him, and him alone.”
[7] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1063, where he emphasizes that the Psalm is about the proclamation of God’s reign,  In that context, “God does not coerce obedience; God invites obedience.”  He continues, “The proclamation of God’s reign calls for a decision” and that decision is made in the context of worship: “In worship, we profess who is sovereign, and we actualize today the reality of God’s claim upon us. ... Worship really is a ‘service’ in the sense that we act out our servanthood, our submission to the God whom we profess rules the world and our lives.”
[8] Cf. Exodus 10:3; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Psalm 25:9; Isaiah 57:15; 66:2; Matthew 18:4; 23:12; James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, 127-130, where he contrasts kneeling in prayer as a subservient position with the position of standing with arms held up, hands open, and heads held high as an expression of the freedom believers receive in the Spirit.
[9] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:771-772.  He says (p. 772), “If [God] loves [man] because he is sinful, being moved to compassion by the fact that He finds him in this weakness, godlessness and hostility, this carries with it the fact that He wills to free him from the necessity of being a sinner.”  He continues, “The sin of the one loved by [God] is a stain which cannot stand against the fact that God loves him and gives Himself for him, but must yield and perish. It is the work of the love of God to cause this stain to yield. This is why we call it the purifying love of God.”
[10] I think this is true because she may have been saying that five different men had married her and then rejected her.  Among NT commentators, it is common to point out that the woman’s five marriages was evidence of her immorality.  Only Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John,” New Interpreters Bible IX:567, challenges this. She points out (p. 571-72) that the woman is not portrayed as a sinner in this passage, but as a witness! She suggests it’s possible that the woman had been “trapped in the custom of levirate marriage ... and the last male in the family line has refused to marry her.”  Either way, it would take humility on her part to say, “I have no husband”!
[11] Cf. Rohr, Breathing Under Water, 12: “I think your heart needs to be broken, and broken open, at least once to have a heart at all or a heart for others.” 

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