Sermon for Sunday, June 24, 2018 || Proper 7B || 2 Corinthians 6:1-13
When I was a brand new priest, one of the biggest mistakes I made was comparing my vocation to other “professional” occupations. I made this mistake because I went to the same number of years of graduate school as a lawyer, and mine was a helping profession like a doctor. Your pastor is right up there with your surgeon or your litigator, I reasoned, and here are my credentials. It took a couple of years for me to learn this was a really foolish approach to pastoring. A mentor of mine pointed out the error in my thinking like this. He said, “People only go to surgeons when they need surgery or to lawyers when they’re in trouble. Don’t you want to walk with people every step of the way?”
By aligning myself with these other “credentialed” professions like doctors and lawyers, I missed the essential ingredients of the call to ministry. I allowed my presumed expertise in all things spiritual to convince people that they weren’t up to the task of following Jesus. I stoked my annoyance when people asked my advice and then didn’t take it; after all (I’d tell myself) they’d listen to their surgeon who wanted to remove their gallbladder. And more to the point for this sermon, I cultivated a sense of professional detachment, since I believed it to be a necessary component for working as a “professional.”
Now, for a surgeon, the concept of professional detachment is a boon. If I go under the knife, I want the doctor to see my body as a complex machine in need of repair; any personal closeness that might distract the surgeon from a successful procedure should be discouraged.
But in my case, such detachment proved only to immunize me from the emotions I needed to feel in order to do my job. When I was ordained ten years ago, my father told me my primary purpose was to love the people in my parish. This advice simply didn’t square with my desire to stay professionally detached. It wasn’t until the conversation with my mentor that I realized I had never made myself available to the kind of loving my father was talking about. This was love made known in commitment, in walking the way together, and in opening one’s heart to the vulnerable spaces within, those spaces which touch on the things that really, truly matter.
For the first few years of my ordained life, I missed all of that. When I finally let go my need to be seen as a “professional” like the surgeon, I also let go my professional detachment. And a new world suddenly opened up to me, a world of deep relationships built on mutual trust. Now, I still maintain boundaries, but the notion of detachment is long gone.
In today’s lesson from Paul’s Second Letter to the Church in Corinth, Paul jettisons this same idea of professional detachment: “We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians,” he says. “Our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return…open wide your hearts also.”
Open wide your hearts. Of all the invitations Paul gives throughout his letters, this is the most important and the most difficult. Open wide your hearts. Just before saying this, Paul provides an exhaustive list as to what has happened to him due to his opening of his heart: “afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.” And we can include, in Paul’s case, death at the hands of a brutal regime.
With such a list to commend his advice, it’s no wonder that most of us walk through the world with our hearts closed so much of the time. There is way too much pain out there for our hearts to bear. So we practice an unconscious form of detachment. We have the privilege to turn off the news or stop reading an article halfway in. The defense mechanism known as “out of sight, out of mind” kicks in, and we proceed with our regularly scheduled lives.
I don’t know about you, but for me this unconscious detachment is crumbling just as surely as my professional detachment did years ago. Every time I close my eyes right now, I see a baby pulled from her mother’s breast, children separated from their parents at the border, stacked atop of one another in a converted Wal-Mart that should be called a prison but isn’t. I hear the incessant crinkling of foil emergency blankets, which serves only to drown out the cries of sobbing kids. My kneejerk reaction is to squeeze my eyes and ears shut tighter and will away these stories. But I can’t because they aren’t just stories; they are lives being torn apart.
God has opened the door of my heart, and (praise Jesus) God will not let me shut that door again. The stone from Jesus’ own tomb is wedged in the gap, reminding me that the truth of the Resurrection affirms Christ’s promise to be with us forever. In other words, the Resurrection is God’s most powerful evidence that God is not and never has been and never will be in the business of detachment.
When we truly believe this, when we claim our identity as people of the Resurrection, we no longer have the luxury to keep our hearts closed. Instead, we choose to walk through life with our hearts wide open; we choose the pain and the joy that come from such ragged vulnerability. But we never choose them alone, for God is there bearing every pain and birthing every joy alongside us. And we are there for each other.
I am overwhelmed and sickened by the reality of these children torn from their parents and by so many other broken elements in this world. But my heart is open. I am awake to their suffering. And awareness is a step on the right road. When you become aware of suffering in our midst, I implore you, don’t turn away. Lend those who suffer your voice, your witness, your heart. And no matter what, never stop praying. Now, we’ve become so inoculated by the trite phrase “thoughts and prayers” that even to suggest such a course now feels so flimsy. But I don’t mean it in the dismissive way, in which it is so often employed. When I say “prayer,” I mean lifting all who suffer from our hearts into the very heart of God, thus connecting us in a way that none of understand but all of us feel. Such connection will keep our hearts open so that the forces of detachment cannot shut the door.
There is so much brokenness in the world that the very act of opening our hearts wide is itself an act of defiance and faith. So thanks be to God that our just and merciful and gracious Lord is a God whose heart is and always will be open wide.