The Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 21, 2021

The Rev. Jeff H. Roper, Deacon

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and Our Redeemer. Amen.

In today’s scripture readings, we see that God searches our hearts to make sure our hearts have the right priority. In this Lenten season leading up to Easter, have we been doing some self-examination and looking into our own hearts? I entitle this homily as “Chair and Wheelchair: God sees our Hearts.”

Back in the days of doing research while pursuing my Masters in English, I was encouraged to do some etymology on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. In this assignment, I was asked to select ten key words from Prince Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” speech and learn the history of those words. One word I selected was “heartache.” I looked up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary. I learned that Shakespeare had actually created that word by combining the word “hart” spelled HART and the word “ake.” He hyphenated those two words. The word hart going all the way back to 1200 AD did not mean the organ that pumps blood to the rest of the body. Instead, it meant that place in you where decisions of the will are made. It is where your conscience resides. In short, it is the interior throne of decision-making. The word “ake”, which also dated back to the Middle Ages, meant a general pain which occurs in the body.

        By the time William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in 1602 he had just experienced a life tragedy. One of his twin children, at age seven, named Hamnet died unexpectedly. His son’s death devastated him. William Shakespeare personally experienced a “thousand natural heartaches.” He knew that pain so well that he could write about it himself.  God loves us. God constantly searches our hearts to understand what we are treasuring. We remember the words of Isaiah and then repeated by Jesus, “These Pharisees honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

In today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah, Jeremiah acknowledges that God is creating a new covenant. Instead of simply knowing the Hebrew Old Covenant of the Hebrews being God’s chose people and God being their one true God, God says: “I will write the Law on their hearts. I am establishing a new covenant. I will remember their sin no more.”

We recognize as Christians that God did establish a New Covenant with the advent of the Messiah–which this Savior Jesus Christ would suffer and die for our sins once and for all. Our sins will no longer be remembered because Jesus atoned for those sins on the cross, and we have the free gracious gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

When we sit down in our pews or in our prayer chairs at home or in front of the computer or tv to watch a worship service, God is with us. We approach God in prayer. We seek a relationship with God. I love our Morning Prayer Rite II service. It is the service I have used once per month when going down to the chapel at the Winfield Correctional Facility. We begin our prayer service with a confession of sin: “Most merciful God we confess that we have sinned against you in thought word, and deed.” We acknowledge in this prayer that we are truly sorry for those sins and we humbly repent. We self-examine while we pray those words in our chairs. The psalmist today in Psalm 51 also repents humbly and asks God to create a clean heart within him: “For I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” The psalm continues in verse 11: “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” That is a great place for all of us to begin today. Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

I believe that God wants to move us beyond sitting in our prayer chair and for us to consider the wheelchair. We see and know others we care about that have disabilities, who may not be able to walk. They may be confined to a wheelchair or it could be their body has limitations due to disability. I think about my nephew-in-law, a young 33 year old man who was running with a few others over the lunch hour at his job in Kansas City. His heart stopped. No one running with him knew CPR. After six minutes a police officer came on the scene and begin administering CPR until the paramedics arrived. My nephew now lives with that brain damage. I have a mother-in-law that just broke her femur bone and is now in a skilled nursing facility using a walker to get around. Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes. I am a high school teacher. Every day I work with students who have either physical or academic disabilities. As I work with those students, where is my heart? Where is your heart with those around you with disabilities? God searches our hearts.

In today’s gospel from John, Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and wherever I am, there will my servant be also.” In this Christian life of ours, we are called to love and serve. Jesus makes it very clear in other teachings in the gospels that we are to serve the most vulnerable in society: the orphans and the widows. Bring the children to me that I may bless them. Jesus served those and ministered to those with disabilities—to the sick, the dying, a paralyzed man by the road, a blind man from birth, a man on a pallet being lowered from a roof, the lame, the lepers, the strangers, the homeless, and those possessed with evil spirits. Jesus says in today’s gospel, “Whoever serves me, must follow me.” One of the clearest messages of Jesus from the New Testament is Matthew 25: 35-40: when Jesus says if you follow me, you will serve the most vulnerable in society: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Before I could truly ever help one of the least of these, I needed to learn first that I was disabled as well. I may not be in a wheelchair, but I am getting older. I walk funny. My knees need to be replaced. It took me being a chaplain intern in Wesley Hospital to learn that I needed to see my own woundedness in order to be pastorally present for another person in a hospital who desperately needed someone to show them empathy. A book that really transformed me in that process was The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen. I highly recommend it. It transformed my ability to be emotionally present for another human being.

Look around in this world that has been inflicted with Covid 19. There is a world of hurt. The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Our task is to search our own hearts and find that empathy for those who are the most vulnerable in society. We have pledged in our baptismal covenant that we will respect the dignity of every human being. May we all have that empathetic care for the vulnerable of society so that we can truly transform this world by love through Jesus Christ. Amen.