"Hardened Hearts and Other Disabilities"
Tim Carson
Proclaimed at First Presbyterian Church - 
Broadway Christian Church · Columbia, Missouri
The Worship of God · April 19, 2015
Eastertide
                                                                   Stewards of Life       
 
Psalm Litany
Based on Psalm 4
 
(Humanity): Answer me when I call, O God,
for you gave me room when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
(God): How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?
(Humanity): Know that the Lord has set apart the faithful for himself;
The Lord hears when I call to him.
(God): When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds and be silent.
Put your trust in the Lord.
(Humanity): There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!
Let the light of your face shine on us, O Lord!”
You have put gladness in my heart,
more than when their grain and wine abound.
I will both lie down and sleep in peace;
for you alone, O Lord, make me lie down in safety.
 
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be,
world without end. Amen. Amen.
 
Pastoral Prayer
Nick Larson
 
Great and wondrous God, you are worthy of praise from the heights of heavens to the depths of the sea. From a mountain of donations and old household items, you accept our grand effort and our stuff and transform it into new shelter for the needy. The sun, moon, and stars, and we your church bear witness to your incredible creativity, and our own spirits echo with the joy of your boundless love.
 
We call upon your steadfast and unchanging love that will never ass away, a love that is made new for us today in a walk along the road of life. We pray for those among us and those far away, who are desperate for a word of grace and acceptance. May they know your welcome, and hear that welcome also from us.
 
We pray for those whose lives are out of balance: those with too little food, or too much; those with too little stuff, or too much; those who are fighting infections and illnesses of body or mind; those who mourn the end of a beloved life or fear the loss of their own. May your healing love be made real, and may we carry your presence into the lives we lift up.
 
Walk with us through life, O God, so that your peace might prevail among all people, and help us, your church, to be about the blessed work of making peace. Fill us, your people with your teachings and raise us up to invite you and others with compassion into communion with us. Set our hearts afire within each of us, as we walk along this road together.
 
Guide us, as we embody your love and joy in all our lives and in your world. Help us to walk with one another in mercy and peace, in justice and joy, in welcome and generosity, each and every day that your abundant grace and faith might flow in us wherever we walk, until we dwell secure in your love all our days.
 
We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our beloved one, and we join in the prayer he taught us, saying…
 
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. They will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
 
[Editor’s note: Our congregation participated in an ecumenical pastoral exchange on this Sunday. We were privileged to have the Rev. Carmen Williams, pastor of Russell Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, as our proclaimer this Sunday. Unfortunately, technical difficulties have prevented us from sharing her sermon in printed form at this time. We hope to have the problem resolved soon and will be able to publish Rev. William’s sermon. In its place, we will share the sermon our senior minister shared at First Presbyterian Church on this Sunday.]
 
The Scripture
Mark 8:1-26
 
In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.” His disciples replied, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” He asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.
 
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.
 
Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” They said to one another, “It is because we have no bread.” And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” And they said to him, “Seven.” Then he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”
 
This is the Word of the Lord for us today.
Thanks be to God.
 
The Message
Hardened Hearts and Other Disabilities
Tim Carson
 
When I first visited St. Giles Church in Edinburgh, I was immediately struck by just how monumental and stationary it appears. This Norman building is squat, wide, thick, and, compared to other Gothic cathedrals, has a low profile. The tenacity of these Scots will not capsize easily. This was the church John Knox entered in the 1500s.
 
But it wasn’t just the architecture that was immovable. Centuries of tradition and the consolidation of religious and political power had created hardened silos of the spirit, a fortress of unassailable orthodoxy. 
 
Knox lived in a time of enormous religious and social shifts, what Phillis Tickle has called one of the 500-year yard sales of the Church when everything is dragged out onto the front lawn, and some things jettisoned, and some things retained in a different form. That same reality was facing reformers across post-medieval Europe.
 
One of the enormous shifts had to do with the way the community of faith was constituted. For one, worship was returning to the people for their full participation. Big inner changes came to be reflected in outer form; the orientation of the interior of the church shifted: As a great metaphor of reformation and transformation, everything on the inside of the church rotated 90 degrees.
 
The pulpit and small communion table were moved to the long side of the nave to which the seating of the congregation was now oriented. The chancel – where priests and choir and altar used to reside – became more general seating. No longer would people look toward a remote and inaccessible holy of holies. Now the congregation would be gathered as a community around the life-giving Word. A sea change was occurring in a great reformation, and it was showing itself visually in the way the community gathered in its worship space. The same project was taking place in Calvin’s church in Geneva.
 
All of these architectural statements were manifestations of hard, spiritual work, the work of serious reforms. Was it Churchill that said, “We first shape our buildings, and then they shape us?” That required courage, a willingness to change and take a huge risk. These reforms always encountered resistance from within and without, and the greatest foes were often those, who were committed to the church the most. Some of the greatest resistance arose not from hostility but timidity. Is it possible? Are we capable? Do we have the nerve for it?
 
As we listen to the Gospel lesson from Mark, we hear a story about timid, unpersuaded, doubting disciples who do not believe they have what they need. These are people who have already witnessed the extravagant movement of God in their midst. They have already seen the impossible becoming possible. Even so, when it comes to making a move based on faith they blink. And Jesus just names it outright: “Are your hearts hardened?”
 
That’s pretty harsh. What does it mean?
 
I’ve wondered about that accusation by Jesus, namely that their reluctance to move forward has to do with the state of their hardened hearts. Is that really it?
 
They have forgotten to bring bread with them, at least enough bread, having only tucked one loaf among their provisions. “Don’t leave home without it.” But they did. Are their reservations due to hard-heartedness? Hardened in what way?
 
If I were one of them, I might have been reacting to the most practical of things; we didn’t bring enough. We don’t have enough supplies and provisions. We’re unprepared. We wanted to, but we forgot, and we’re in a pickle because of it. It may be a reflection on poor planning, but not inadequate faith.
 
Maybe they were just realists; the challenge is too great and the resources too few. We have one loaf of bread to serve an enormous need. It would be hard even if we were well-provisioned, much less inadequately supplied.
 
This must have been something of what Knox faced as he cast his eyes on St. Giles for the first time: A structure that is heavy, bulky, stationary and immovable. How in the world can I move, shift, change something like that?  Most of the overwhelming things we face – whether internal or external – are just like that.
 
Do you know what I think? I think Jesus’ accusation may be exactly right, that their hearts were hardened. Like stones, they sat as immovable as St. Giles. But that hardening may not be the result of moral failure. Oh, it might. They might have been weak, self-centered, proud, unwilling, or generally faithless. After all, we all have a shadow side.
 
But in this story, doesn’t the real reason for this cardiac calcification have to do with something simple and obvious? Aren’t these hearts the way they are because they are afraid?
 
They are afraid that they don’t have enough. They are afraid that challenges might be too great.
 
They are afraid that they may perish. They are afraid of deprivation and suffering. They are afraid of failure. They are afraid.
 
Isn’t that at the root of almost everything from apathy, a need to control, anger or some super-sized defensiveness? At their root, they all reflect the deeper reality of fear. We are afraid. We are afraid we are not adequate, not lovable, and not capable. Isn’t it most often the case that we avoid difficult situations, procrastinate and settle for the mediocre … because we are afraid?
 
In recent years, I have been trained in a particular healing modality to help people deal with trauma, including combat vets, as they struggle to overcome their PTSD. In fact, I’m now working with a group that wants to find ways to welcome our wounded warriors all the way home. It is gratifying but difficult work.
 
You may know that we are facing a crisis with the millions who have returned from both Iraq and Afghanistan during the past twelve years. Regardless of how any of us assess the ethical virtue of any particular war, the simple fact is that we continue to send our men and women into harm’s way on our behalf. We send them to do life-threatening and soul-wounding work. No one returns the same person. That is now showing itself in the some 23 suicides by combat veterans every single day. We have lost more of these vets to suicide than perished in battle. That does not include the unreported deaths, substance abuse, unemployment, homelessness and disintegration of families. It is a crisis of colossal proportion.
 
Of course, participating in the kind of events that are part and parcel of war traumatizes the psyche. It has been called different things in different eras – shell shock, soldier’s heart. In addition to the physiological trauma to body and mind, there are other things at work.
 
There is something we refer to as “moral injury.” Moral injury is what happens to our souls when we violate our own inner moral code.
 
No matter the righteousness of any particular war, the fact that you are under orders or that you are doing your job, the truth remains that whenever a person takes life – especially those who have grown up reverencing life, believing it’s wrong to kill – it wounds the soul. As in the Fisher King myth, the king endures a wound that cannot heal and will not heal until the grail is found.
 
The combat veteran who takes life – and sometimes is involved in taking innocent life or participates in atrocities – carries moral injury to the soul. This wound is carried inside and may not be apparent to anyone else. And the great fear is that the soul has been irreparably damaged and is unredeemable, lost and beyond forgiveness. This is the thing that turns people to despair.
 
The second source of this despair is also related to fear. It comes from the way we are conditioned to respond to threat. We are all hard-wired with a survival instinct and it includes the well-known “fight or flight” response. 
 
When the brain has had to remain hyper-vigilant, it doesn’t know how to turn that off, and it continues to act in the same survival mode even when the external threats no longer exist. For the one who is experiencing that, it is terrifying and stupefying, unexplainable, beyond the rational. It’s not only that you are perpetually stressed and fearful and on high alert, it’s that you don’t know if you can control it, if you’ll ever feel normal again, if people can accept or help you, if you can offer your gifts and abilities in a civilian world that could really benefit from them.
 
And that is a state of being that closely resembles where our disciples are in the story today. They are fearful, to be sure. But they are not experiencing either fight or flight. They are not rising to the occasion or running for cover. What are they experiencing? They are experiencing the other possibility that comes along with extreme fear: They are immobilized, frozen in place, statues that cannot move.
 
This is the other side of fearfulness, the way it renders us helpless, passive, stuck, and uncertain of where to turn. That is what fear did to the disciples. They didn’t know what to do, so they did nothing.
 
That is exactly the result found by behavioral psychologists when they conducted tests with rats in a controlled environment. They constructed scenarios in which the rats felt helpless to change their uncomfortable situation. After they tried to flee but could not, tried to resist but could not, they went to a corner and rolled over into a passive ball.
 
And that is the third response of fear. If you wonder why people give up, why they roll over and die or want to die, that is it. They can’t escape, and they can’t resist, so they become immobilized. That is exactly what happens with PTSD. When our natural survival instinct no longer works, you lose hope. And when you lose hope, you become immobilized.
 
I like to describe our present situation with returning vets struggling with inner wounds in exactly that way, except that they are not the only ones who are immobilized. The community that sent their sons and daughters to place where they would be wounded in body and soul is also immobilized.
 
As opposed to earlier traditional societies that knew how to welcome their warriors home, provide healing, purification, and reintegration into the tribe – granting a special status for those who had passed through the extreme rite of passage for the sake of the tribe – we are passive, immobilized, and helpless. This is a deadly dance of fear and helplessness on the part of all concerned. The question is: What to do about it?
 
The first and primary answer comes in the response of Jesus to the disciples.
 
The first thing Jesus asks is, “Why do you keep talking about what you don’t have?”
 
We’ve become expert in identifying deficits. We don’t have this, that or the other. Whether dealing with primary relationships, or poverty, or religious faith, we are overly preoccupied with deficits. Why, asked Jesus, do you keep talking about what you don’t have?
 
The second thing Jesus asks is, “Don’t you understand what has happened to you?”
 
Until you face what has happened, accept your story and dare to identify the way God was acting in this crazy, seemingly random world, you’ll be tossed and torn upon the rocks. Name your story and leave plenty of room in the margins for the unexplainable and unknown ways that God haunts the hallways of history.
 
The third thing Jesus asks is, “Don’t you remember how I took only seven loaves of bread and fed five thousand people?” Yes, we have amnesia. Don’t you remember how much spiritual power is available to you?
 
You are not called to roll over and give in to a scarcity model, a zero sum economics in which there is only so much to go around. Careful! There may not be enough, there is never enough, we don’t have enough, I don’t have enough to meet the challenge. Instead of scarcity, you need to focus on abundance – everything you do have, every asset, every grace, every gift, every unexpected spiritual power, everything that is at your disposal right now.
 
It seems to me that the wounded souls of our veterans and the community that feels helpless to welcome and heal them may all be transformed by exactly these: that instead of focusing on scarcity, what we don’t have, we instead face what has happened, claim our story and the place God might have in it, and then turn to the bountiful power at our disposal in order to transform it.
 
There is hope, there is power available, there is healing community, there is forgiveness, there is the wisdom of God that exceeds our own, there is transformation on the other side of the great passage, and we may experience it if we commit to going there together.
 
Sometimes, we feel like John Knox looking upon the beautiful monstrosity of St. Giles Church. How in the world are we going to move this megalith we have inherited? It seems beyond human strength.
 
And other times our hearts feel just like St. Giles looks – hard, impenetrable, and immovable. But sometimes, you don’t have to move the whole church. Sometimes all you have to do is to rotate the floor plan 90 degrees, and it is enough to tip you over to the next transformed chapter.
 
We may have forgotten the bread. We may have only one loaf. But if I’m not mistaken, I remember someone saying, “I am the bread of life. With me you will never be hungry.”
 
The Benediction
 
And now, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit be with you always. Amen.
 
 
                                                                   
Last Published: April 23, 2015 12:55 AM