An archaeologist was digging in the Negev Desert in Israel and came upon a casket containing a mummy. After examining it, he called the curator of a prestigious natural-history museum.
“I’ve just discovered a 3,000 year-old mummy of a man who died of heart attack!” the excited scientist exclaimed. To which the curator replied, “Bring him in. We’ll check it out.”
A week later, the amazed curator called the archaeologist. “You were right about the mummy’s age and cause of death. How in the world did you know?” “Easy. There was a piece of paper in his hand that said, ‘10,000 Shekels on Goliath’.”
I wanted to use that to introduce my theme for today which is to talk in three little connected sections about the heart. Not that beating organ that keeps us alive rather the word that in faith goes someway to describing our very essence, who we are, our deepest, truest selves.
And I do so because the heart takes centre stage in both our readings. St. Paul writes ‘The word is near you on your lips and in your heart.’ Then a little later ‘One believes with the heart and so is saved.’ And then in our Gospel Jesus says to the disciples ‘take heart it is I.’
So where to begin?
A few years ago when Pope Benedict came to visit England and Scotland his visit was based around the theme ‘Heart speaks to Heart.’ These are words that John Henry Newman who was being beatified on the trip chose to have as his motto on his coat of arms when he became a Cardinal.
The phrase has stayed with me because it reminds me that in some way faith is rooted in experience. This faith we share isn’t so much about evidence and rational argument, though it can be, rather faith is lived because of an inner conviction of the heart, we know deep down that what we profess is true.
In words, inadequate though they are we talk about heart speaking to heart. For God’s heart of love speaks to the core of who we are in all kinds of ways, word and sacrament certainly but in many other ways too. God loves us and is continually seeking to transform our hearts, even when they grow cold, by whatever means he can.
The life of faith then is essentially a love affair between creator and created. You can’t tell someone to believe something or to love you, they have to be caught up in something or in someone who captivates their hearts.
And the one who has kindled God’s love in our hearts is Jesus. That mysterious, engaging and beautiful man in whom we find purpose and meaning for our lives.
So that’s my first and main point that faith is about heart speaking to heart.
Secondly, taking heart. This summer, mindful that I’d not read as much theology as I should have done to keep the old grey cells ticking, I determinedly purchased a copy of The Van Mildert Professor of Theology in Durham, Mark McIntosh’s book, ‘Divine Teaching’about Christian Theology.
I’ve not finished it yet but one thing McIntosh asserts time after time, building on my first point is that theology isn’t really a subject about proving things, rather it’s a subject that enables an encounter, through which heart speaks to heart. So he writes of his work as a theologian
‘We (theologians) can only gesture in what we believe is the right direction and hope our hand waving will entice you close enough to get splashed, indeed immersed yourself.’
I suppose that’s the same hope of a preacher, to point the listener in the right direction, to get you to engage that God given imagination and think……and thinking of getting splashed seems appropriate today, for water is on our minds because of our Gospel reading.
Peter when he steps out from the boat has Jesus’ words ringing in his ear ‘take heart’. There’s that word again. In some ways it’s a troubling tale, ridiculous really, walking on water!
The nearest we might get to walking on water is a trick of the eye when we walk on the stepping stones at Bolton Abbey. When just a little bit of water is covering the top of the stepping stones, seen from the right angle it looks as though we could be walking on water.
So what is Jesus doing? Why ask Peter to do something when he knows he will fail? Why make him the fall guy? Why make him step out of the boat, his place of safety?
I don’t know, but I do know it gives us a vivid picture of the life of faith each one of us strives to live. And I suppose the question to be asked is whether there is anything wrong with stepping out into a place of risk and unknown territory, again and again.
That’s my second point, the idea that sometimes we need to ‘take heart’ and not be afraid of stepping out from where we feel safe and secure, even if we don’t really know that mean and knowing that we might even sink.
So it is our ‘duty and joy’ to sometimes step out, and that leads to my last point, that it is precisely through our taking risks, that each one of our hearts (to return to that word again) has time and again, to use McIntosh’s words, been splashed and captivated by God’s love.
There’s something about when we do take risks we align ourselves to something of the nature of our risk taking God and when we do, something changes for again heart speaks to heart.
And if we think about our experience of life for just a moment, we can likely see that our hearts have been shaped, enlarged and made new time and again by the love of God. In fact we wouldn’t be here if that wasn’t true.
And though Peter’s sinking before Christ seems a failure as he hears those heart-breaking words ‘O ye of little faith’ Peter takes our place on the Lake and reminds us that even the doubt, worry and fear we sometimes can be the means through which we can learn and grow.
Peter, as we all do, knew how true Oscar Wilde’s words ‘Hearts live by being wounded.’ But as we remembered last week, it’s often through wounding that we reconnect with hearts of compassion.
So that’s my third point, that each of our hearts, fashioned by the heart of God is a compelling story that speaks of the love of God.
So to draw things together. For me, Newman’s words are right, faith is ultimately about heart speaking to heart. Secondly that in that life giving dialogue we’re invited to follow Peter’s example and not be afraid of taking a risk, even though we know we might sometimes sink. And finally life teaches us that through those risks and our experience of life we become in ourselves compelling stories of the love of God.
So this day we give thanks for how heart speaks to heart and carry with us a prayer of St. Augustine;
Our hearts are cold; Lord, warm them with your selfless love.
Our hearts are sinful; cleanse them with your precious blood. Our hearts are weak; strengthen them with your joyous Spirit.
Our hearts are empty; fill them with your divine presence.
Lord Jesus, our hearts are yours; possess them always and only for yourself. Amen.