Having a Heart of Flesh

mp3 Audio: 2015_02_22-Fr Michael-Having_a_Heart_of_Flesh.mp3

This sermon was preached on Sunday February 25, 2015 at by Fr. Michael Keiser at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois. 

Transcribed by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services 

Gospel Reading: 1 Corinthians 13

Meanwhile, faith, hope, and charity persist all three; but the greatest of them all is charity.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God is One.

We should remember that Orthodox Christians in the West for over a thousand years read their Scripture in Latin not in Greek. Sometimes, that led to some problems like that thing in Romans about faith, but by and large it worked well. The translation was done originally by Saint Jerome, and it was very good. It was not until the Renaissance, which would have been the fourteenth or fifteenth century, that people began going back to look at the Greek to see how it corresponded to Latin.

So we have a bit of a problem here, because the more modern translations will say “love” [in] “faith, hope, and love.” That really doesn’t fly, at least not in terms of the original text. Caritas is the Latin word that gets translated here as “charity.” That’s a weak translation. The problem is that there’s not really a translation that will capture the essence of what that word in Latin means.

It doesn’t mean “charity” in the sense of “charity begins at home” or “soup kitchens are good things” (they are!) or anything like that. We were told to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but that’s not what the word caritas means.

Like I said, the more modern translations use the word “love,” but that won’t cut it either, because it’s not what caritas means. When we think of love, we think generally of sex or something [to do] with our children or something like that. When we think of love, we’re probably thinking more of friendship, or whatever, but it’s not what the word caritas means.

If you gave it a translation at all (I sometimes think we ought to leave the word in the original language and explain it), if it means anything at all, it means “a continuous and faithful lovingkindness, a mercy that we give to all people at all times.” That’s different from what most people think about in terms of charity.

Paul starts off this chapter [1 Corinthians 13] by saying,

“I may speak with every tongue that men and angels use, yet if I lack charity, I am no better than the echoing bronze or the clash of cymbals. I may have powers of prophesy, no secret hidden from me, no knowledge to deep for me; I may have utter faith so that I could move mountains, yet if I lack charity, I count for nothing. I may give away all that I have to feed the poor; I may give myself up to be burnt at the stake; if I lack charity, it goes for nothing” [1 Cor. 13:1-3, Knox translation].

So, he goes through this list of good things to do. All of these things – having utter faith – this is a good thing, and yet he still says [that] without charity, frankly it’s not going to save you.

Saint Augustine, in one of his sermons, points out the profound difference between the person who gives money through the Church or to the Church to support the poor and does so secretly, and he contrasts that with the person who does it so publicly that, often, it winds up getting published in the bulletin or something like that. His point [was] that acts of charity done publicly to get recognition are worthless.

Jesus says the same thing about the man who tithed in the temple. You can do a good thing for a bad reason, and God’s not going to be particularly impressed. He will certainly be glad that somebody hungry got fed. He will certainly be glad that somebody naked got clothed, but He’s not going to be impressed with our reasons for doing it if, like we tend to do. . .

You know, we have the food for hungry people program in the archdiocese and what have you, which is a wonderful thing. Yet, I always cringe when, at the end of Lent, we print how much we gathered, how much money we raised. Was it more than the year before? It becomes almost a competition between churches as to who can send in the most. This gets printed in The Word magazine, and there I kind of go, “Ooh. I don’t like that. I really don’t like that.”

If ever a church took seriously the verse, “Do not let the right hand know what the left hand is doing” [Matthew 6:3], it was Orthodoxy. One would think we could apply that sort of thing, that we wouldn’t trumpet what we or our congregations are doing, but we would just faithfully and humbly do it without recognition or anything like that.

Faith, hope, and charity are three virtues which come from God. They are gifts. In fact, I think he says in here that charity is a gift. Faith is a gift. “Faith,” Hebrews says, “is the substance of things hoped for” [Hebrews 11:1, KJV]. So faith and hope go together, and those two are gifts. Charity is a gift.

We tend to think, when we think at all about our spiritual lives (and I know a lot of you here do, which is a good thing), that, somehow, this is the result of our effort, that we grow in faith through our effort, that we grow in hope through our effort, that we become more kind, more loving and merciful (which would be caritas) through our effort. There is a lot of effort on our part involved, but that, in itself, doesn’t cause these things to grow within us.

What God does to kind of push the vehicle forward with His one finger is worth more than all our effort through all our lives. Our effort is necessary, because we have to work. Paul says, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” [Philippians 2:12]. We have to work at it.

We’re the ones who need to change, but the fact is [that] we are not the ones who bring about our salvation. We are the ones who try the best we can to follow the very clear instructions that have been given so that we can become transformed into caritas, into merciful lovingkindness, into faith and hope.

These things are implanted in us when we are baptized in Christ. This comes to us then. You received faith, hope, and charity, and much, much more into your souls when you were baptized. When we baptized you in the water, when you went down, when you came out, you came out different than when you went in. You came out dead to this world and its sinful works and alive to faith, hope, and charity, to caritas. God gave that to you.

So it’s not a question of “how can I find this stuff?” It’s not a question of “how can I find faith? How can I figure out where faith is? How can I find love?” All of this is in each and every one of you from the smallest child to the oldest adult (who I guess today would be me).

The problem is: Very often, when you get out of the font, and the warm glow of that has kind of worn off (and it invariably does, because we go back to a world which literally is one blasted thing after another that seems determined to knock us over), we forget. I don’t think so much with most people that it is a deliberate attempt to push away or suppress these things. You just get so wrapped in living your life that you forget.

Last weekend, I was in Washington, DC, where it was like it is here but way colder. I was staying with a friend, and the bedroom was on the second floor. I don’t know whether it was [a problem with] balance or slipping, but I hit the second step and I just went. I fell down from the second floor to the first floor. I felt every vertebra hit every step, my head going back and snapping. I got down to the bottom of the stairs, and I went, “Enough! Enough already! Geeze! Can’t you give me one weekend where I don’t hurt myself?” You know, that’s what happens all the time, and I wasn’t thinking about being charitable, faithful, or hopeful. I was just really PO’ed. And that’s what happens.

It’s like the “Sower and the Seed Parable.” You get out there, and this is hard. This is very hard. If it were easy, this church would be full. Every church would be full if it were easy. The churches that make it easy are full. We can go and hear the pablum preached, and [say] “thank you Jesus” and that sort of thing. They don’t have any trouble attracting people. They’re not telling them what the cost of their discipleship is going to be.

So, we have the faith and the hope and the charity there. What do we do?

I’ve said to you before, and maybe you can remember: What did God say about the people of Israel’s hearts? I think it was in the Book of Ezekiel [when] I brought this up to you before. What does He say their hearts have become? What are their hearts like? Stone. Remember? Stone. Let me try to get it right: “The hearts of My people Israel are stone, and I must replace it with what? A heart of flesh” in other words, a living and a loving heart [c.f. Ezekiel 36:26].

How frightening would it be? It certainly scares the heck out of me. How frightening would it be to have God say, “Your heart is stone”? I mean, God’s judgement not mine being that your heart is stone – that’s scary. That means you’re not just dead to Him, but you’re dead to everyone else: to your spouse, to your children, to your friends. You literally go through this world as if you were an automaton separated from everything. That’s frightening.

But then does say, “I’m going to replace it with a heart of flesh.” How does he do that? By implanting faith, hope, and caritas within you. [He infuses] these things into your soul so that you, in prayer, can turn to them and say, “Yes, I have these gifts. I have these tools. I can work with these. I can try to become more merciful. That’s a hard one. It was hard when the semi tried to run me off the freeway yesterday.” It’s just, I mean, the hope and the faith. Those are gifts that God gives you to turn your heart from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh.

To do that, you have to be faithful in talking to [God]. We call that praying, but it’s basically talking to God. You have to be faithful in refraining from making judgments about people and their actions, because we never know the whole story even when we think we do. We make judgments about what people are doing or what people are saying, and we don’t really know completely why. So we make a judgment as to why. Very often, we find out later, perhaps after some damage, that our judgment about that person was wrong. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t doing something wrong. They were, but it does mean that our judgment about them was way off base.

Many years ago, I was working a mission we started up in Wyoming – beautiful, fun-filled Gillette, Wyoming. The Motel 6 there started life as a double-wide [trailer]. The towels were so thin you could count the threads in them. [There were] 18,000 people who didn’t even veer on demographics, and [the industry was] primarily oil and gas. It was a kind of bleak place, but I went out there.

We started this mission, and it’s still going. The guy who was the pastor there (He is now in Arkansas.) asked me to meet with an Episcopal priest who lived in a town further down and was interested in Orthodoxy It’s amazing how many of those guys are interested in Orthodoxy but have no desire to do anything about it, so you get a little jaded after a while.

I said, “Yeah, when I’m on my way back from Denver I’ll meet Mickey and his wife.” I was simply unimpressed. I was not impressed. The guy didn’t have a parish. He was one of these – you know, they ordain a lot of supernumerary clergy in the Episcopal Church who hang around churches and that sort of thing. [He had] bad teeth, you know, it was just. . . We had a nice breakfast, and I [thought], “This is useless. This guy is not going to come into the Orthodox Church, and certainly we can’t make use of him in a parish.”

So the very next Lent, I was in exactly the same congregation, and we were going to do Forgiveness Sunday (which we will do later here this morning). At the beginning of Lent, we ask people to forgive us. We try to put all of that past us and try to reconcile. We try to do whatever we can to go into Lent with our hearts, minds, and souls open.

He and his wife were there. They had started coming to church! I think they were catechumens by that point. So we’re doing the thing where people are coming up, prostrating, hugging and kissing. It’s going through relatively easily, and this guy comes up to me, and says, “Please forgive me for thinking you did not value either myself or my ministry.” Thank you Jesus! I really needed that. I felt about two feet tall, because that, of course, is precisely what I had done.

We try to overcome those kinds of things as we enter into Lent, and the faith and the hope and the caritas are the tools that we use for that. Remember to ask forgiveness from each other before we go to bed at night: Children should do that of their parents.

Parents should do that of their children. For some reason we have this idea that when we’re adults we can just annoy our kids and not have to apologize for it. In fact, as parents, we make mistakes, and when we do, we should say to our kids, “I’m sorry.”

Also our children have got to learn to say, “I’m sorry.”

We have to ask forgiveness of our spouses. I’m talking [about] every day before you go to bed. I’m not talking [about] waiting until Lent starts. That’s the easiest way to keep ahead of our stuff.

We have the ability to grow with those virtues that have been infused into us. We also have to remember that the replacing of a heart of stone with a heart of flesh is a Godly action. It’s in His control. We open ourselves to it, but He does it. He does it!

Now, this first Sunday before Lent begins (and for us, that’s officially Ash Wednesday, but I don’t think it matters) is kept by many Orthodox who call it, as I said, Forgiveness Sunday. It is a time when we ask each other in the congregation to forgive us of the sins and the false judgments and the gossip done about each other, all those things that we have done to each other. Like I said, we try to clean the slate.

These days, we probably do that more with people by text and email. I was texting people all over North America yesterday asking for forgiveness and what-have-you. They were responding, and so far, nobody said, “Up yours.” That does occasionally happen! If they’re really angry, they may not [forgive you].

But this you have to remember: if you looked at the internet, stop that now as far as religion is concerned. If you’ve got to look for business purposes, do it. During Lent, it is the devil’s playground. Don’t even look at blogs and websites. If you looked at Facebook, there was a minor discussion going on between the Orthodox in the Eastern Rite and Orthodox in the Western Rite. [Eastern Rite Orthodox asked],
“Why do you [celebrate] Ash Wednesday?”
“Well, it’s an Orthodox custom from the fifth century.”
“Well it seemed Catholic.”
“Well should we do this?”

Everybody, of course was making it a Big Deal (capital B, capital D)! We can’t do anything calmly, or passively, or silently.

I have always done in the congregations I am in, because I think it’s an important start to Lent. This you must remember: No external rite, no fiddling with an external rite (if I took the Eastern Rite vespers from that service, which I’m not supposed to do anyway. . .) – nothing like that will change your heart! It will not change your heart of stone to a heart of flesh.

What happens? I have seen people come to Forgiveness Sunday at great anger and enmity with each other and leave with great anger and enmity towards each other. It didn’t do anything at all. I’ve seen other come and, yes, some relationships transform. There’s nothing magical about all of this.

I had a brother priest one time who had a very grumpy congregation to say the least. He said, “I am going to start doing the Forgiveness Sunday Vespers. That will change them.” He had to break up a fist fight! There’s nothing magical about this. The rite will not change your heart. Humility and repentance before others will change your heart, and this becomes an external expression of that. The rite in and of itself does nothing except provide context.

Things that are not spoken are generally not healed. Sins that are not spoken are not forgiven. Wrongs that we have done to others that we have not specifically asked forgiveness for are not covered.

When my wife and I were much younger than we are now (which is getting harder to conceive, frankly), we would go through this thing and say, “What are you forgiving for? Whatever.” It was a blow-off. It was not an actual asking and giving of forgiveness. We mistake that for it. Or with our kids or whatever. . .

You ask forgiveness for the specific things that you have done. They must be spoken to somebody. They should be spoken to the priest in confession, but you also have to (and this is where it gets sticky, because you know I’m not going to say anything to anybody) trust your spouse to deal with it, too, in a mature and responsible way, or your children. Since we frequently (let’s be honest) don’t trust each other to act as Christians, that can be a problem. So we hold back.

My wife one time (who is all of 4’9″) and I got into an argument over something that I can’t even remember. Of course, she’s Greek so it can be a fun ride. At the height of this argument, I was so angry I was going to go down and drink coffee at McDonald’s. That’s about as angry as I get anymore. She says to me, “Go to your room.” I went to my room. You don’t fool around with angry Greek women! But I am sitting there thinking, “How did we get here?”

We got there because we were not being serious about our conversation. She had, quite frankly, confronted me about something I looked at on the internet which I should not have done. I was very sensitive about that. I was insecure about it, and I responded not in repentance but in anger.

Faith, hope, and charity, that continuous loving mercy that God extends to us and which we are called to extend to all people, is the way in which we begin, with God’s grace, help, and leadership, to change our hearts from hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. When you reach the point where your heart is a heart of flesh, you are going to find out that it’s going to hurt more. But it is more alive, and it is more attuned to God’s love.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God is One.

This sermon was preached on Sunday February 25, 2015 at by Fr. Michael Keiser at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois. 

Transcribed by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services. Dormition Text Services provides full service secretarial support, including homily transcription and publishing services, to Orthodox Clergy and parish communities. 

About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in 1 Corinthians 13, Fr. Michael Keiser. Bookmark the permalink.

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