Paula Northwood July 5, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 11:18–19, 25–30
You have likely heard this fable from Aesop: An old man, a boy and a donkey were going to town. The boy rode on the donkey and the old man walked. As they went along, they passed some people who remarked that it was a shame the old man was walking and the boy was riding. The man and boy thought maybe the critics were right, so they changed positions. Later, they passed some people who said, “What a shame, he makes that little boy walk.” They then decided they both would walk! Soon they passed some more people who thought they were stupid to walk when they had a decent donkey to ride. So, they both rode the donkey.
Next they passed some people who shamed them by saying how awful it was to put such a load on a poor donkey. The boy and man agreed they were probably right, so they decided to carry the donkey. As they crossed the bridge, they lost their grip on the animal and he fell into the river and drowned. The moral of the story? If you try to please everyone, you might as well kiss your . . . donkey good-bye.
In our text this morning, Jesus faces a similar quandary. If he acted like John the Baptist living off the land in the wilderness, he would be called crazy, but if he acted like a regular person, eating and drinking with everyone, he was called an alcoholic and a playboy. What was he to do?
We know what he didn’t do. Jesus did not worry about pleasing people. In our text Jesus says that his message will be simple enough for children to understand and confusing enough for the wise to misunderstand because the Jesus way is often countercultural.
People tried to trick Jesus into picking a side. They would ask questions like, “Should we pay our taxes? Should you heal people on the sabbath? Should you be hanging out with those people?” and so forth. They could not understand why he was upsetting the status quo. Why was he rocking the boat?
Jesus was not interested in playing partisan politics. Partisan politics are rarely about the big picture and the well-being of everyone. Partisan politics are often about holding up the status quo. But Jesus was not interested in holding up or maintaining the current state of affairs because the current state of affairs were inequitable. And he acted the way he acted, not because he followed his own drummer, but because he had this relationship to a divine source which informed his conscience and his heart.
We have domesticated Jesus in such a way that we no longer view his actions as subversive. But they were. Even his healing of people were actions of social change. For example, a person with a skin disease, like leprosy, was physically isolated, set apart and ostracized. In the act of healing, Jesus brought them out of isolation and restored them to the community. Jesus intervened with social constructs and turned them upside down. He spoke with women, even listened to them. He called unclean people to be his followers and thus defied the religious purity laws and social constraints of that time. He questioned the laws that were unjust. He rejected the status quo of his day.
Jesus refused to be lured by the power of partisan politics. Some people think politics has no place in the church. But in its simplest meaning, politics is about group decision-making and power and how that power is used. The politics of Jesus were unlike anything people had experienced before! His power dynamic was humility. Again, it’s Jesus’ relationship with the divine—which he called “Father”—that informed his life. It’s out of that deep connection of love, mercy and compassion that he lived a politics of conscience that transcended partisanship.
Robert V. Thompson, author of A Voluptuous God, writes “A politics of conscience seeks truth, not power. It seeks the wealth of compassion, not the love of wealth. The only demand it makes is that every living being be treated as holy. It requires humility, openness, and a willingness to admit we may be wrong. A politics of conscience is the politics of the heart.”
Politics of the heart: wow, what a great thing to think about on this July 4 weekend! Czech playwright, poet and politician Václav Havel put it this way: “Nothing has convinced me that doing what our hearts tell us to do is not the best politics of all.” He writes it in the negative, but what he is saying is that the best political action comes from our hearts.
I think for many years, here at Plymouth we have placed the importance of our intellect, our minds, just a bit higher than our hearts. As we know, heart/head metaphors have existed since antiquity, maybe the beginning of humanity, with the head being associated with rational, strategic decisions and the heart associated with compassion or emotion. It may not really be helpful to even think of them dualistically, but we do and, in that vein, I offer this definition of mind and heart from the book Be the Change: “While the mind is the content of who we are, our heart is our essence. Our true heart is not subject to chaos or limited by pain, fear and neuroses, but is joyful, creative, and loving. Some believe that the heart can be too uncertain and even misguided, but that is the head talking!”
If we are to live our politics from the heart, it is to let our soul lead us. According to Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum:
Living from the heart feels much different than living from the head. When you live from your heart, you feel at peace, at ease, and in control of yourself because of a deep inner knowing. You lead with love. You learn how to care for yourself and love yourself. You relax because you know that everything is going to be okay. Living from the heart coaxes your body back into balance. When the heart is in control, your body finds optimum health and starts acting like a well-oiled machine instead of a broken-down car.
We are so used to letting our heads be in charge of our lives that when we start reacting with our hearts instead, it feels like a miracle, like a whole new existence. And it is! The heart is the center of our body’s universe and the center of our feelings. This is as it should be. Your head is way off at the edge of your body. You can’t balance when you are living from there. Your head isn’t grounded in the reality of your body. Let your heart be the center and watch your whole life transform.
Right now, many of us feel a bit off-center, a little out of balance. There is so much swirling around us and in our heads. Recently on a news program, I heard the guests talking about living into this new normal. I’m not sure what that means anymore. We are dealing with two viruses, I think: COVID-19 and white supremacy terrorism. These recent forms of terrorism in our state and country are comparable to a virus, aren’t they? This disease of white supremacy works quietly, spreading, and then attacks as if out of nowhere. But it has been there all along; it’s manifested itself now because we have a leader who emboldens it. Terrorism flourishes when the world’s immune system is weak, when leadership is weak and there is no moral center. But when everyone is paying attention and working together to prevent violence and terrorism, the social immune system is strengthened.
The best to way to prevent this kind of violence and bigotry is to alter the climate that allows it to take root. On this July 4th weekend, it is good to be reminded that we have a role to play in strengthening the social immune system. As with the body, in which you need a strong heart to fight a virus, we need a strong heart to overcome this white terrorism virus. Every one of us can become a peacemaker, a mediator, a healer, a listener, an advocate and an ally. This is a greater challenge than flying a flag or saying the Pledge of Allegiance or singing the national anthem or shooting off fireworks.
We are called now, more than ever, to a greater patriotism. A greater patriotism transcends the boundaries of a country and its authorities. A greater patriotism breaks down walls and builds bridges. A greater patriotism cares for the well-being of the disenfranchised, people on the margins, understanding that our very survival depends on each other. A greater patriotism knows there is no such thing as “us” and “them.”
From our scriptures, we know that our true country is not the nation we live in, but it is the country of the human heart. Jesus spoke a great deal about the heart as a metaphor for the inner life. The heart is the center and the source of the whole inner life, our thinking, our feelings and our actions. Let us live from the heart!
Our scripture ends with this wonderful verse: Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are tired, weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” When you live from your heart, you feel at peace, at ease, and in control of yourself because of a deep inner knowing. You lead with love. It’s not about trying to please others.
When Jesus says the yoke is easy and the burden light, he means that living from the heart coaxes your body back into balance. It does not mean there is no suffering or hardship but that you have a tap root deep in your heart where you can go for sustenance.
And when a catastrophe cracks open our hearts, let us open ourselves to its teaching. Let’s not waste this defining moment by indifference or a hardened heart, but rather let us use our higher vision as an antidote to the virus surrounding us.
Learning to live out the politics of the heart is not a competition; there is no finish line. It is a never-ending, ever-expanding adventure of love. My friends, grow your roots deep and make your heart strong to stand up to the viruses that surround us. Let us live from the heart and see where it takes us! May it be so. Amen.
Robert V. Thompson, A Voluptuous God (Kelowna, BC: CopperHouse, 2007), 137.
Ed and Deb Shapiro, Be the Change: How Meditation Can Transform You and the World (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2011).
Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life (New York: Avery Publishing, 2012), 26.