The time is the 5th Century BC. The place is somewhere within the sphere of the Hebrew religion. A person, most likely a man, lies sick; perhaps to the point of death. Pondering his life, his physical aliments, and his many transgressions, this person realizes that first and foremost he must become right with God. He writes these words, which are some of the best known in the entire Psalter:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
It is a verse found often in our liturgy and I can’t tell you how many times I have prayed its prayer with only a degree of sincerity. Let me tell you about my heart. There are evil things rooted in it which you may glimpse on occasion and there are some things which I will work very hard never to let you see. There lurks still more in my heart that I try to hide even from those closest to me. And if the psychologists are right, there are things in my heart hidden even from me.
There is a part of my heart, too large I am afraid, that is deeply bitter. This part believes no adversity should ever befall me. Its doctrine holds no adversary should ever prevail against me and no one close should ever disappoint me. My heart spews forth an acid-like emotion when ever its arrogant assertions are violated.
Tell me about your heart. What lies in its secret places? Tell me about your heart. What hides within its deepest recesses? Is there hatred? Immorality? Bigotry? Rampant pride and conceit? Vindictiveness? Does your heart covet? Is it consumed with shame? Is it controlled by an addiction? Does it ever boil over into violence? Or perhaps your heart is mostly passionless and indifferent; lacking hope and purpose. Maybe it is broken and, to your estimation, wounded beyond repair. Tell me about your heart.
Let me tell you about another heart. It belongs to a character named Morrieaux in Michael Christopher’s play The Black Angel. The play tells the story of a W.W.II German general named Herman Engel who was sentenced to 30 years behind bars for atrocities committed by his army. At the time when the play takes place, Engel has been released from prison and is living in a cabin in a remote woodland location where he and his wife hope to finish out their days in obscurity.
Waiting in the wings is Morrieaux, a Frenchman, whose entire family had been massacred by Engel’s army. Morrieaux had privately vowed that, if ever presented the opportunity, he would take Engel’s life. His personal death sentence was kept alive over three decades by the fire of hatred which burned in his heart. Now, with Engel free, the time has come. Morrieaux stirs up nearby villagers into a frenzy and they plan to go to Engel’s cabin at night in order to burn it to the ground. They plan to execute the general and his wife.
But even this is not enough to appease the hatred of the lead character. As the play reaches its climax, Morrieaux posses as a reporter and goes to Engel’s cabin. He grills the general about the details of the village massacre. The years have taken their toll on the Nazi and in his feeble humanity he seems to Morrieaux less like the monster he had imagined and more like a tired old man. Beyond this, some of the details of the Engel’s version of the story do not fit together as neatly as Morrieaux had imagined. Doubt begins to contaminate the place where once only pure hate and vengeance had dwelt.
As the afternoon wears on, Morrieaux takes pity on Engel and tells him of the villagers’ plans for that very evening. He offers to lead the old man and his wife to safety. “I will go with you on one condition,” Engel tells Morrieaux, “You must forgive me.” In his fantasies Morrieaux had rehearsed a thousand different ways in which he would kill this man, now he was willing to cancel the execution, but not the hate. Morrieaux departs alone, his hate-filled heart in tact. As he walks away we hear the villagers approaching who, with sacks over their heads, proceed to burn the cabin and murder the general and his wife.
The play asks the question why was Morrieaux unable to forgive? Why was it easier to save a man’s life than to forgive him? It was too much for Morrieaux to forgive because his hatred had been a passion too long lodged in his soul. He could not live, he could no longer be the person he was, without his hatred. He had become his hatred. His hate did not belong to him, he belonged to it.
When I say the words, “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” the longer I go without offering up my bitterness, the more I sense it becoming me and me it. Sometimes I cannot imagine what life would be like if I did not carry it in me. Do you want to know something strange? Thinking about the people I am bitter at without being bitter at them scares me to death. How about you? What about your heart? Are you afraid to let it go?
I think back to the Hebrew Psalmist, whoever he was, lying close to death. I wonder what it is about facing mortality that opens the desire within us to put our hearts right. I don’t want to wait until the end of life to open myself to the Creator of heaven and earth to create a right spirit within me.
Our Gospel reading this morning records a one verse parable of our Lord: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The meaning of the parable then follows: “He who loves his life loses it and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” We don’t need the character of Morrieaux to show us how difficult it is to disdain the present condition of our hearts. If we seek validation of this truth all we need to do is take stock of the things which we do not want to turn over to God’s creative renewing.
One time Jesus met a lame man who was sitting by a pool of water said to have magical, healing powers. There were dozens of people around the water waiting for the chance to be made whole, but for some reason our Lord focused in on this particular individual. Jesus asked him just one question, “Do you want to be healed?” I always thought this to be such a silly question until I realized how desperately we all cling to the things that pull us down. Every smoker knows how devastating cigarettes are to the body, yet each continues. Alcoholics will watch their lives fall apart, along with the lives of those who care about them, all the while believing the bottle is their best friend. Young people will engage is sexual activities which threaten not only their future, but their very lives. Me, well I have my bitterness and you know what lies in the secret places of your heart.
Do you want to be healed? If so, you must truly hate that part of your heart which you fearfully grasp with all of your might. You must surrender. You must die to that part of self where you have not let the light of Christ shine nor let the joy of the Gospel ring out. You must let go, but letting go is exactly what we struggle most in life to do. It is what we fear. Just as the grain of wheat begins to grow only when it gives itself up to the unknown of the soil, we too will only begin to grow when we let go of the safe, the familiar, and the known in order to reach out for the new and unknown. Not to let go is to assure death, yet we have been told since our early years, “Look before you leap; never quit your job until you have a new one; better safe than sorry; a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” So we just hold on to it.
Jesus Christ calls each of us to a radical faith and trust. This call begs each of us to name as evil the familiar poison in our hearts. This call questions, “Do you want to be made well?” This call lifts up the example of the grain of wheat which remains alone until it dies to self. And the person who issues the call gives nothing less than the example of His life. Jesus Christ faced the greatest unknown of all – death – and He triumphed. Jesus Christ bids us, “Crucify the bitterness, the hate, the pride, so that I may resurrect your heart.”
St. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old things are passing away. Behold, new things come.” May God give to you and to me the hatred of the present condition of our hearts and the courage to face the unknown so that our hearts may contain only the law and the light of the new covenant of Christ. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”