Sermon: A Matter Of The Heart
Scripture: John 4: 19-24
Date: August 19, 2018
It’s been about eight years ago since I had a heart attack. Now in some ways that wasn’t a huge surprise to me. Heart disease runs in the family. My uncle died from a heart attack when he was just 39, and my grandmother died from a heart attack, and my father suffered from heart disease for many years. I had been working in the yard, and as soon as the chest pains started, I knew what was happening. So I went inside, and called 911, and it couldn’t have been more than 30 minutes later, I was being rolled in to the Heart Cath lab at St. Joe East and the Doctor was inserting a couple of stents into my heart to open up the blood flow and I overheard him telling Karen how lucky it was that I got in so soon because one of the arteries that was blocked was the one they called the widow maker. And then the next thing I knew I was in the ICU being instructed to lay flat on my back until the chance of bleeding had passed and then sometime later the doctor came to see me and I listened as he explained that with diet and exercise and medicine and perhaps an additional stent of two along the way, I should be able to live a relatively normal life with heart disease. And I heard that but I also heard the unspoken qualifier at the end of the sentence. “But eventually heart disease will catch up with you because the only real cure for heart disease is a complete change of heart.” Medicines and diet and exercise focus on the symptoms: the clogged arteries and leaky valves and irregular heart beats and angina, but the only sure cure is a complete change of heart. And as I thought about that in the days following my episode, I realized that many things in life require a complete change of heart. Especially when it comes to matters of church and faith. There have been many articles written that talk about the problem of declining attendance in the general church. Last week I talked about a poll that indicated that average attendance has gone from 50% of the population to 22% in the last ten years. These articles all talk about similar causes of the decline. These include the breakdown of the nuclear family, to the increasing number of options that the church has to compete with today that we didn’t have to just a few years ago, to the devaluing of the church by society in general, and by the increasingly secular nature of the General Church. And though I have no doubt that all of those are factors, it seems like they are more symptoms to be treated, rather than getting to the heart of the problem. One writer gets closer to that when he writes:
The church today is suffering from a potentially fatal disease – lackluster worship. All too often, people come to church and go through the motions without truly experiencing a sense of adoration. (Without truly engaging in worship). The key to fixing this problem is to reignite a heart of worship in each member of the congregation. A heart of worship means returning to the original goal of attending church – to engage with God for the self and others, from the heart. Stripping everything else away, all the worries, fears, and distractions, allows the worshipper to focus on what really matters most.
So here are a couple of heart conditions that are infecting the church today:
First, there is a prevailing and growing misperception by society in general that the church is filled with people who think they are perfect and so the church is all about judgment and condemnation more then we are about forgiveness and grace. And sometimes through our actions and inactions we prove them right. Jesus himself often criticized the Pharisees and Priests for their self righteous, judgmental spirit. In the church of His day, there was a clear distinction made between those who were labeled as clean or unclean by the Priests. And only those who were “clean” were deemed worthy to worship in the Temple. And so much of the every day existence of the common Jew was centered around being made worthy to worship God. So at the Temple gates there were bath houses full of dozens of ritual immersion baths where most people had to go and be cleansed of their unclean nature before they could ever enter into the temple to worship. And the Priests and Pharisees established themselves as the gatekeepers. When Jesus healed a man from leprosy, the man wanted to immediately go to the Temple to worship but Jesus told him he should first go to the Priest at the Temple gate, show him that he had been healed, and then the priest would determine if he was spiritually clean enough to enter the Temple to worship. You may remember that Jesus told a story that spoke to the heart of the matter. There were two men, he said, one was a Pharisee, a keeper of the law, who had established himself as the Temple gatekeeper, deciding who was spiritually clean and could come and worship and the second man was a tax collector – a collaborator with the Romans – which in the eyes of the church made him a sinner and an outcast. And so the Pharisee, the keeper of the law stood in the middle of the Temple court yard, and shouted “look how clean and righteous I am. Thank you God that I am not like those cheaters and tax collectors and adulterers who are condemned by their sin and have no place in this Temple.” But here’s the thing, those were the persons that Jesus hung out with. And so by condemning them, the Pharisee was condemning Jesus too. And to the Pharisees Jesus said when you judge others you are really judging yourselves because on the outside you look clean, but you really are just like white washed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but inside you are diseased and dying. You need to change on the inside, you need a change of heart. Throughout the history of the church, the Pharisees have always been present, and there are many in our community today who look at the church today and see only Pharisees standing as gatekeepers. If we are to reverse the decline in the church we need to be a church where everyone feels welcome to come and worship without fear of condemnation. The bottom line is that many people don’t come to worship, because they are afraid that when they come they will be judged rather than welcomed, condemned instead of forgiven. When the Pharisees tried to stand in judgment over Jesus, Jesus said “guilty as charged but Priests and Pharisees judge not, lest you be judged. Before you worry about the speck of dirt in my eye, you need to deal with that log that is sticking out yours.” He walked into the Temple anyway to worship at the altar of grace. We need to be a church where people know that nothing that they do will exclude them from worshiping God, but instead we come through grace that throws open the doors of the church to everyone. Now this does not mean that the church needs to be a place where anything goes, where every lifestyle is condoned and every sin tolerated, but rather the church must be a place where grace makes us all clean and forgiveness is available to all. A place where we all can come and have our hearts changed. When the church truly becomes a place of changed hearts then all will feel welcome to come and worship. You know, that is our heritage as Methodists. John Wesley confronted an Anglican Church that was suffering from heart disease. Their hearts had turned cold and rather then welcome everyone they stood in judgment towards everyone who didn’t look like them, and dress like them and made it clear that they were unworthy to worship in Anglican churches. But then John Wesley had what he called a heart warming experience, a change of heart in which he finally understood that Christ had not just died for the sins of everyone else but that he too, was a sinner saved by the grace of God, and when Wesley failed to change the hearts of his fellow clergy in the Anglican Church, he said “okay then, the whole world is my parish” and from that time on he spent his life ministering to those that the church pharisees considered to be unclean and unworthy. And the Methodist movement became known as the religion of the warmed heart and while the established church declined, people flocked to the Methodists.
And then people are not worshiping in the church because the church is struggling to engage people in worship. Churches that are growing are finding ways to engage people in worship in many ways. The hard truth is that for many churches, decline is not because of a failure to attract people to worship, but rather a failure to engage people in worship. In my experience, much of the controversy that often grips churches is about the difference in attending worship and engaging in worship. As I read scripture one of Jesus’ biggest criticisms of Temple Worship was that all the rituals had become more about excluding people from worship, rather than engaging them in worship. It was all about the Priests worshiping on behalf of the people . If the church is to reverse this cycle of declining participation, we have got to find ways everyone can be more engaged in worship, offer worship that is less about observing and more about participating, and many of us in the church just aren’t comfortable with that. But the labels we place on worship – traditional, contemporary, blended, ancient modern, or whatever we call our services – are human attempts to describe worship that we are comfortable with, but they mean nothing to God. They are not Biblical terms. All scripture says is that we are to “worship” the Lord our. God with our whole being. Sometimes I fear we use those worship labels to subconsciously communicate who is welcome and who is not welcome to come and worship in the church, and so rather than our worship pleasing God, I think there are times when it breaks His heart because it says to some that you are not welcome to worship. Think about this passage from John that we read earlier, when Jesus engages the Samaritan woman, I think the question that this woman asks breaks Jesus’ heart. She says, “You Jews worship in the Temple in Jerusalem but we Samaritans are not welcome there, so we worship in the Temple on Mt. Gerazim. Which is the true worship.” And Jesus says, “Neither, because whether you are Jew or Samaritan, the day is coming when true worshipers will worship in Spirit and truth. That is the true worship that is pleasing to God.” Last week I said that scripture tells us that all of us were created to worship God and that when everything of the world passes, all that will be left for us to do is worship. But God’s creative work did not stop when He placed the desire in each one of us to worship. When Jesus talks about worshiping in the Spirit, He is saying that through His Spirit God also gifts us to worship. He gives us a heart for worship because true worship comes from the Spirit working in each one of us. And so whether it be the Temple in Jerusalem or the one on Mt. Gerazim, or on Alumni Drive in Lexington, the church must be a place where every person can come and give out of their giftedness in praise and worship for and with our great God. Jesus is saying that True worship in the church happens when every person, Jew or Samaritan, old or young, no matter what category we identify, is allowed and encouraged to bring their individual giftedness into worship in order that every person can truly worship in Spirit and in truth. The Apostle Paul is talking about the church when He says to the Corinthians that “we are one body made up of many parts. One Spirit but many gifts. And one part can’t say to another, we don’t need you. The body is not complete if any of the parts, any of the gifts are missing. Neither is it complete if we are all the same part. If we all bring the same gifts.”
But the Priests and Pharisees were not big on allowing many gifts into the church. They were all about conformity to what they believed to be acceptable in worship. And when Jesus refused to conform, they put Him on a cross.
And that was the same message that John Wesley received from the Anglican Church. “You and your followers are welcome to continue to worship in the Anglican Church as long as you worship the way we do.” And when John and Charles Wesley began to have church in the streets and fields and even the mines, the church rejected them. They ridiculed John as a “shouting Methodist, and they said Charles’ music, which was set to the common tunes of the day rather than the works of the great composers, and played on common instruments rather than the great organs, as crude, and common, and worldly. And one by one Anglican churches were closed to the Wesleys.
I love this entry that John made in his journal:
Sunday, A.M., May 5
Preached in St. Anne’s. Was asked not to come back anymore.
Sunday, P.M., May 5
Preached in St. John’s. Deacons said “Get out and stay out.”
Sunday, A.M., May 12
Preached in St. Jude’s. Can’t go back there, either.
Sunday, A.M., May 19
Preached in St. Somebody Else’s. Deacons called special meeting and said I couldn’t return.
Sunday, P.M., May 19
Preached on street. Kicked off street.
Sunday, A.M., May 26
Preached in meadow. Chased out of meadow as bull was turned loose during service.
But somewhere along the way, the church had a change of heart and what was once considered to be inappropriate for worship, and people who were once considered to be unworthy to worship in the church, were welcomed in. And the Methodist Church was born.
At the end of the last century, the Church in England went through a period of steady decline similar to what the church in America is going through today. At one point, average worship attendance dropped below 10%. And the church experts prescribed treatments for the problems, but no cures.
One church in Watford, England had tried every fix that the experts proposed, but with limited success. Thinking that music was the problem, they hired a worship leader by the name of Matt Redman and started worshipping in a more contemporary way. Which sparked a great division in the church about what kind of music and ritual was appropriate and inappropriate in worship. Which led the pastor to realize that the problem in the church was not a question of form or style, the problem was a problem of the heart. And so he had all the musical instruments, including the organ, removed from the Sanctuary along with the hymnals, and all the audio visual equipment, and then he and Redmon took a hard look at all that they did during the service and stripped from the order of worship everything that was more distracting them from the worship of God, then engaging them. And then for several weeks he led the whole church on a journey back to what he called the Heart of worship. All they did in church was praise and adore God. And hearts were changed, The conflicts that divided them disappeared. And the whole spirit of worship was renewed. And gradually people started to come, some come back and others for the first time, and all they did was worship from the heart. The church was completely transformed. And in response, Redmon wrote a song that kind of became the anthem of a revival that swept across England and into Europe as it called people to worship with changed hearts as Redmon described the change that had taken place in his heart:
When the music fades all is stripped away
And I simply come
Longing just to bring something that’s of worth
That will bless Your heart
I’m coming back to the heart of worship
And it’s all about You – all about You Jesus
I’ve asked Will and Cheryl to come and share this song with us as we close because I believe that change in the church begins when our hearts are changed. (Congolese-Swahili). Won’t you come and join me now as we pray:
“Oh Lord, touch us now. Change our hearts, change my heart, Oh God.”