Harrowing Of Hell
September 12, 2021

Getting to the Heart of the Matter

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I’ve been hearing lately about conversations people have had with family members and good friends who refused to get vaccinated. (disqualify people who are immune-compromised) These conversations are exasperating! Nothing they say inspires their loved one to change their mind. Nothing works. It is crazy making. This is life and death, and there are not many times when we are confronted in our relationships with issues of life and death.

But there are many times when we are confronted in our relationships by confounding conversations in which we find ourselves on the opposite side of a particular issue. Indeed, it seems that’s the case more and more in our country. We are a deeply divided. Our politics is split into camps which pressure (or just entice) us to pitch our tent in the echo chamber of a particular point of view, and there that point resounds, working its way into our perspective where it codifies, or shall I say fossilizes, our opinion.

What makes this more disturbing, at least to me, is fossilized thought patterns not only atrophy our spiritual growth, because we are too committed to the idolatry of that idea, but also, quite possibility lease our tongue out to someone who doesn’t really care about us. We parrot their point to the benefit of their empire and sometimes even against our own best interest. That could never happens to you and me… or could it?

How would I know if it was happening to me? If I had unwittingly leased my tongue out as an agent of someone else’s agenda? We don’t imagine that happening to us because we are smart… and we ARE smart, plus, if you’re like me, I think what I think is perfectly appropriate and certainly independent, not to mention right!

In our culture, there seems very little motivation for changing our minds around anything. But here is what I believe: changing our minds is core to the Epiphany way of being Christian. Before I get into the spiritual exercise of changing our mind, that James is so helpful with in his letter, I want to ask the question: “Why would a follower of Jesus seek to be the kind of person that changes their mind?” Wouldn’t you think a follower of Jesus would be the kind of person who is certain in what they say? Isn’t that how we win converts…with certainty?

This question carries us right into the heart of Epiphany Christian theology. It is a theology that grows out of the first century certainty of the Pharisees and Sadducees and Scribes. They were the keepers of the law, after all. They were also the makers of the law.  And they were also the interpreters of the law. And, as you might imagine, makers of the law and interpreters of the law generally make and interpret laws that fit into their perspective, and advantage, and sometimes this advantage is widely good for all people, and sometimes it is not. That’s what Jesus pointed out, and it ended him dead on the cross.

You see, Jesus got behind the law, he got underneath the law, he looked at the law from 30,000 feet and from 30 feet, and then named the intention behind the law itself. Because Jesus was so brilliant, and he understood the original motivation of the good, Jewish Mosaic law, he could then articulate its heart as intended to include all people, particularly people who were disadvantaged: the orphans and the widows, the crippled and the those of unsound mind, even women and Gentiles.

But this clarification undermined the power structure of the legal hierarchy, if not the social order that men of power enforced, and this landed Jesus on the cross. And yet, it was because of Jesus’ ability to see through human precepts into the heart of the matter, as it matters to God, that we take our opinions to Jesus.

When you find yourself in an opinion conflict, particularly with someone you generally trust and respect, run your opinion through the Jesus filter. Go straight to your Bible. Open it up to the Gospels. Page through them, and find where Jesus defends the opinion you hold. Then flip the page and find another example, because if there is one, then there will be two and three. But if you can’t find an example, or you find yourself twisting Jesus’ words into a pretzel, then maybe consider that your tongue has been leased out to someone who might not have your best interest at heart. If you think I’m encouraging you to quote the Bible, I am! That doesn’t sound very Episcopalian, but actually, its core to the type of Christianity we practice at Epiphany.

Our presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, on his sabbatical some years ago, got interested in finding Bible quotes used during the Civil War. He looked for quotes in defense of slavery and in favor of the abolition of slavery. What Bishop Curry found was that every quote in favor of the abolition of slavery was taken directly from the words of Jesus, and there were zero quotes in favor of slavery that were taken from the words of Jesus. Maybe that’s surprising to you, maybe not.

But Jesus is here to help us get behind our opinions, to see if they are in concert with the intentions of the Kingdom of God. And if they are, then we should continue to do what Jesus did–seeking not the letter of the law, but the heart of the matter. That’s Epiphany Christianity, and that’s the Christianity we are called to share with the world.

Today we are reminded by James that the tongue is a dangerous little character, because it’s elocution is inspired by influencers beyond itself. It does not speak for itself. It speaks as commanded. When it moves the tongue reveals the intentions of the heart it is aligned with, hopefully singing the words of Jesus, and not a kidnapper’s manifesto.

I know what that is like to have my tongue hijacked. It happens most commonly to me through the medium of text messages. These (holding up my thumbs) are the tongues of texts. Speed to respond has caused me, in many cases, to forgo running my response through the Jesus filter. The temptation is to respond to the words on the screen and hit send, rather than getting behind them, underneath them, viewing them from 30,000 feet and from 30 feet. My tongue seeks victory, to convince, to prove, to defend and parry, and most importantly to win!

I grew up believing the myth of one right answer, which is a self-reinforcing myth held by people with power, because when you have power you’re used to your opinion winning, and you can fall into the trap of believing it is because you were right, rather than because you hold the reins. That is the story of the Pharisees, and Sadducees and Scribes, and most kings of kingdoms, and rulers of empires, and titans of industry, and political power brokers, and many, many Rectors as well, myself too often included. But it’s not the Jesus story, and it is not the Kingdom of God reality.

Epiphany Christians seek to move from a place of being right, and judging others, to a place of love. Love liberates us from needing to make everything “right” in the world and then being frustrated by the worlds non-compliance. Love moves us to a place where we practice seeing the world through the Jesus filter.

The Jesus filter reveals people we’re talking with as children of God; as somebody who God set in a particular context for divine purpose; as somebody who God made good; as somebody who God trusts.

The Jesus perspective calls us to acknowledge that our point of view sits legitimately in a world where there are multiple, defensible points of view. If you find yourself in a conversation where you are thinking: “This person is a knucklehead, and doesn’t have the right information,” hear your commentary as an invitation to pull out the Jesus filter and wonder: “Why do I hold this particular point of view? Why do I hold it so strongly? Why does somebody else not share my perspective? What do they see that I don’t?” And, most importantly: “What is the heart of the matter here?”

That is ultimately the question – “What is the heart of the matter here?” because irrespective of one’s content, context, and perspective, there is only one God, and only one Kingdom of God; and thus, there is only one heart of the matter, and it is a heart that pumps love. That is what Jesus taught, and that is what we seek to convey as Epiphany Christians.

And yet, it is important to note the necessity of honoring someone’s freedom even to lease out their tongue for the benefit someone else’s empire. Jesus did not force us to believe in him, which is why he did not exert his power as the second person of the Trinity to demand that we acquiesce to the realities of the Kingdom of God.

Just the opposite. Jesus honored our freedom to have our particular point of view or to even abdicate our point of view to someone else’s empire. He did this knowing that there cannot be love if there is no freedom.

To acquiesce to a person’s freedom is hard when we see them exercise it unto death, but we do it anyway, because as Jesus’ people we know that love is stronger than death. We are resurrection people.

Jesus is God actually walking in our shoes… and doing so without stepping on our toes. And so, as Epiphany Christians we try to reduce the value of our lived experience in favor of taking on, or even prioritizing, someone’s else’s lived experience; honoring the unique, particularity of their life even above our own. That is exactly what Jesus did.

And we don’t do this in a kind of “I’m OK. You’re OK. We’re all OK,” kind of way, but we do it because we know the only way to change minds is to change hearts, and that always starts by hearing the other persons opinion in the context of their unique and particular story. To get there often requires we loosen our grip – even just a bit – around the priority of our opinion enough so to see behind, underneath, and above in a way that allows us to glimpse the heart of the matter.

That’s the style of Christianity we practice here at Epiphany. We are not about changing minds, we’re about changing hearts, which usually starts with our own.