Monday, March 18, 2024

Tell Me about your Heart


John 12:2--33

Lent 5 / Year B

“Create in me a clean heart, O God,

and renew a right spirit within me.” 

These are, of course, the words of what we now know as the 51st Psalm.  The author invites us to ponder the condition of our heart; not as a cardiologist would, but as God does – emotionally, morally, spiritually. 

Let me tell you about the heart of Morrieaux, a character in Michael Christopher’s play The Black Angel.  It tells the story of Herman Engel, a W.W.II German general who is sentenced to thirty years behind bars for atrocities committed by his army.  The play is set after Engel has been released from prison and is living in a cabin in a remote woodland location.  There, he and his wife hope to finish out their days in obscurity.

Waiting in the wings is Morrieaux, a Frenchman, whose entire family has been massacred by Engel's army.  Morrieaux has privately vowed if he ever has the opportunity he will take Engel’s life.  His personal death sentence is kept alive over three decades by the fire of hatred burning in his heart.  Now, with Engel free, the time has come.  Morrieaux stirs into a frenzy nearby villagers who plot to go to Engel’s cabin by night and burn it to the ground; the elderly couple trapped inside.

But even this is not enough to appease the hatred of the lead character.  As the play reaches its climax, Morrieaux poses as a reporter and goes to Engel’s cabin.  He grills the general about the details of the village massacre.  The years have taken a toll on Engel 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 as neatly together as Morrieaux had imagined; opening the possibility the general is not the villain he has been made out to be.  Doubt begins to contaminate the place where only pure hate and vengeance have reigned for so long.

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 general and his wife to safety.  “I will go with you on one condition,” Engel tells Morrieaux, “You must forgive me.”  In his fantasies Morrieaux has rehearsed a thousand different ways in which he would kill this man, now he is willing to cancel the execution, but not the hate.  He leaves the cabin and Engel, his hate-filled heart intact.  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 is Morrieaux unable to forgive?  Why is it easier to save a man’s life than to forgive him?  Why?  Because his hatred has been a passion too long lodged in his soul.  He cannot live, he can no longer be the person he is, without his hatred.  He has become his hatred.  His hate does not belong to him, he belongs to it.

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?  Bitterness?  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.

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: “The person who loves his life loses it and the one 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 heart.  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.

I think back to the Hebrew Psalmist.  The text tells us he or she is lying close to death.  There is something about facing ultimate consequences which affects the human heart.  Either it can make a person callused and closed, or it opens the heart – often miraculously – to some new possibility; the vision of which is so overwhelming, so beautiful it brings to the heart restoration and renewal. 

The prophet Jeremiah, in our first reading, is at such a moment.  As he walks among the ruins of Jerusalem and the Temple and surveys all that his people treasure is gone, everything supporting them in their faith lost, he receives a breathtaking promise from the Holy One:

“There will come a day when My law will not be kept in a temple located in a holy city.  I will make a new covenant.  I will write My law upon the hearts of the people.” 

With this promise of God’s internal presence, the Hebrew religion, though it was in ruins, is reborn.

It is no simple task to keep your heart in this place, so says our collect this morning:

…among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found…

Tell me about your heart.  Better yet… tell the One who recreates and renews.