Sermon for September 10, 2017

 September 10, 2017

 Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC



Proverbs 4:20-27

The first in a series of five.


I have a friend named Mark who has been through a harrowing experience.  He was enjoying his lunch one day when he started feeling this very unusual, very intense pain in his chest.  He did what a lot of men are too stubborn to do.  He went straight to the hospital.

They ran a few tests and concluded it wasn’t a heart attack.  But it was something.  They needed get this figured out.

So the next morning he was on a treadmill for a stress test.  He failed that test miserably.  The doctor told him that meant that very likely he had a blockage in one or more of his arteries.  So they did a procedure called a heart catheterization.

What they do is they make a small incision in the inner thigh and run a narrow tube up an artery all the way into the heart.  Then they shoot dye through that tube.  That makes it possible for them to see what is going on in the heart.

In my friend’s case, they could see immediately that two of the arteries leading into his heart were partially blocked.  They used a balloon to open these arteries, and then they implanted a wire mesh device called a stent to keep those arteries open.

Problem solved, right?  Well, in my friend’s case it got a little more complicated.  His chest pain returned a few weeks later and they found that his arteries were not cooperating.  They were re-narrowing around the stents.  So they went up that little tube again and performed a roto-rooter kind of procedure to open things back up.  A few weeks later the pain was back and they did the roto-rooter thing again.

It was getting discouraging but he was starting to think they finally had the problem licked when he had a full blown heart attack.  He was sitting at his desk when suddenly he felt the sensation of a ton of bricks falling on his chest.  He could barely breathe.  There was no one around to help.  He should have called 911.  Instead he drove himself to the hospital.

He was getting dizzy and confused as he drove.  He somehow got to the hospital but his driving in the parking lot was erratic enough someone tapped on his window and asked if he was OK.  He said, “I think I’m having a heart attack.”

This Good Samaritan said, “OK, I want you to get out of your car, get in the back seat, and I will drive.”  And he drove him right into the hospital’s emergency entrance.

This time it was a heart attack and this time open heart surgery was the only option.  He had bypass surgery.  A blood vessel from another part of his body was used to bypass the blocked arteries.  He did have some complications after surgery.  Nothing was ever easy for him.  But the good news is that was 17 years ago and my friend’s surgically repaired heart is still working just fine.  And one valuable, life-saving lesson Mark has learned from all this is the awareness of when something is not quite right with his heart.

We’re starting a series of sermons today on the heart.  But not the heart in our chest that pumps blood and keeps us alive.  We’re going to be talking about our other heart – that invisible thing that is such an important part of who we are.

This is the heart that got broken back when you were 15 and the girl you loved said she just wanted to be friends.  This is the heart that swells with pride when one of your children does something amazing.  This is the heart that feels so good when you hear a song on the radio that meant something to you way back when.  This is the heart that skips a beat when I see Helen, just like it did when I saw her the first time, nearly 40 years ago.  And this is also the heart that sometimes makes me say things and do things that I so wish I could rewind the tape and un-say or un-do.

A lot of good things come from this heart, and a lot of not so good things.  Jesus said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19).   It’s interesting how Jesus chose his words.  “Out of the heart come evil thoughts.”  I thought thoughts came out of our brains, not out of our hearts.  But Jesus meant exactly what he said.

Sometimes we’ll excuse somebody by saying, “Oh, but he has a good heart!”  We’re saying that deep down this really is a good person.  His actions in this one particular instance might be showing us something else, but after all, everyone is entitled to a bad day now and then.

Jesus wouldn’t say that.  Jesus would say that if this guy had a good heart he wouldn’t be acting like such a jerk.  (Maybe Jesus wouldn’t say it in quite those same words . . .)   Jesus would say that real change begins in the heart, because “out of the heart” come the thoughts, words, and the actions that reveal who we really are.

So let’s look at our hearts.  Let’s give ourselves a heart examination.  Let’s run that tube up that artery and see where we have a blockage.  And let’s not let ourselves off easily.  Let’s not excuse our bad behavior by saying “that wasn’t me”.  Or “I don’t know where that came from”.  Because Jesus told us exactly where that came from, whether it was bad or it was good.  It came from the heart.

That verse we read in Proverbs says the same thing.  “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (4:23).

Other translations say that from the heart flow “the springs of life”.

You follow a mighty river upstream far enough and eventually you come to its source.  The Metolius River for example, near where I grew up.  This is one river where there is a road that takes you to a short, paved walking trail that goes right to its source.  It really is quite amazing.  A spring comes out of the side of a mountain.  The water there is cold and clear and pure.  But if it wasn’t, if it was polluted at the source, the whole river would be polluted.

Our hearts are like that.  Everything we do, everything we say, everything we are, it all flows from our hearts.  So, as it says in that same verse, “guard your heart”.  In fact it says it more emphatically than that.  It says, “Above all else, guard your heart.”

They literally do guard the sources of water that come into our cities.  They would be tempting targets for terrorists.  “Above all else” you do everything you can do to keep that water pure at its source.

In the same way, we do everything we can do to guard our hearts from the kind of pollution that will ruin our lives.

The Proverbs passage begins by telling us to pay attention.

My son, pay attention to what I say; listen closely to my words.  Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart, for they are life to those who find them and health to a man’s whole body (4:20-22).

“Pay attention.”  In other words, “be aware.”  Awareness is

the key, whether we are talking about taking care of our physical hearts and recognizing those warning signs that something isn’t quite right, or whether we are talking about that other heart, making sure it’s as healthy as it can be, and recognizing the warning signs that something isn’t quite right with the heart that makes you who you are.

It says here in Proverbs to “listen closely to my words” and then it says “do not let them out of your sight“.  So we listen and we look.  We use our ears and we use our eyes.  That’s the essence of awareness.  Our ears are open, our eyes are open, and then what?  “Listen closely to my words.  Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart.”  There’s that word again!  It’s in our hearts that we hold onto what we see and what we hear.  Whether good or bad, it all gets stored in the heart.

Whatever it is that we see and hear consistently will enter our hearts.  So what is it that you are seeing and hearing consistently?  What are you exposed to all through the day?  Is it good for your heart, or is it poisoning your heart?  Is it helping your heart function as God intends, or is it polluting the spring that is the source of your life?

Heart disease can run in families.  That’s true of our physical heart and that’s also true of our other heart.  Sometimes children grow up in an environment where what they see and what they hear in their earliest years gives them a huge handicap to overcome.  Children who have been exposed to life at its ugliest are not likely to open their hearts to other people when they are grown.  They’ve learned it’s not safe to do that.  So they have problems with intimacy.  They have problems with trust.  They have problems with relationships.

And these problems, like viruses, have a tendency to go viral.   They spread.  They mutate.  They resist our efforts to get rid of

them.  The old saying is true:  Hurt people hurt people.  But it’s

worse than that.  Hurt people hurt people who hurt people who hurt people . . .  Round and round and round it goes and where it stops, nobody knows.

But it can stop.  Heart disease can be treated.  With the physical heart it can’t always be cured.  But with this other heart that we are going to be talking about in this series, there is both treatment and there is a cure.

With the physical heart, there are artificial hearts and heart transplants.  With the other heart, there is something better.  We read about this in the Book of Ezekiel:  “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (36:26).

I’m calling this series, “Heart Habits” but what this series is really about is the “New Heart” promised in Ezekiel.  If you are interested in a new heart, these habits are for you.

If you’re not interested in a new heart, I can think of three possible reasons.  Maybe it’s because your heart is working just fine.  It is doing already what God designed for it to do.  You might need a little fine tuning, but not a new heart.  Or maybe you aren’t interested in a new heart because you have not yet reached awareness of how badly you need one.  You are like my friend enjoying his lunch that day with no clue that his ticking heart was really a ticking time bomb.             Or could it be that the real reason you aren’t interested in a new heart is that you aren’t interested in the work it takes to unlearn old habits and to relearn new habits?  You’d rather just say a prayer or sing a hymn – maybe “Change My Heart, O God” – and just like that you are a new person.  You have a new heart.  We all wish it could be so easy.

Let’s imagine my friend Mark going to see his doctor before he has those first symptoms of heart problems.  He’s been feeling a little run down.  He doesn’t have the energy he once had.  The doctor puts him through a series of tests and tells him that he needs to take better care of himself.  He needs to cut back on the junk food.  He needs to start eating a healthy diet.  He needs to get out of his easy chair and start moving.  Walking, running, spinning, swimming, lifting weights.  The doctor has the plan for a new, healthier Mark all laid out but the doctor in explaining the plan is showing a great deal more enthusiasm than my friend.

Mark says, “I hate exercise.  I love junk food.  And how can you expect me to make all these changes while I am not healthy?  Make me healthy, then I’ll think about doing these things.”

The doctor says, “I am making you healthy.  I’ve told you what it’s going to take.  Discomfort is part of it.  It won’t be easy, but this is the only way you are going to get healthy.”

Mark says, “My wife has been after me to do these things for years.  I’ve tried it, believe me, and I don’t like it.  This is not the way for me.  You are the doctor.  You are supposed to heal people, right?  Heal me!”

I’m just making this up.  I’m making my friend, Mark sound really bad.  None of us would talk to a doctor this way, would we?  But a lot of us resist the changes we need in our lives just this stubbornly.

Awareness.  That’s where we begin.  Awareness that change is needed.  That’s where we are starting today.  The next word is courage.  Because it’s not enough to be aware.  We need the courage to make the changes we know we need to make.

This is the first in a series of five sermons.  This one is just the introduction.  This one is intended to make you want to come back for more next week, not just to listen to what I have to say but to have the courage to do something with it.  Old heart habits don’t just go away.  They have to be replaced with new heart habits.

It’s going to be kind of like a group heart catheterization.  That narrow tube moving up that artery and into our hearts.  And then the dye is injected and it becomes clear where we have blockages that are keeping our hearts from functioning the way they should.

There are four common blockages.   That is to say, four bad heart habits that cause so many problems for us and for those with whom we share life.  We’ll look at them one at a time the next four weeks.  I’m going to name them right now.  Some of you will know immediately you have a problem with one or more of these.  You have that awareness.  That’s good.  But some of you don’t have that level of awareness quite yet.  So don’t decide too quickly that you don’t need to work on these.  The four bad heart habits are:  guilt, anger, greed, and jealousy.

And for each of these bad habits, there is a good habit to replace it.  The four good habits are:  confession, forgiveness, generosity, and celebration.

Awareness and courage.  Those will be the key words throughout this series.  Either one alone and we will be caught short.  Both of them together, and God’s promise to Ezekiel will become reality for us.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you;

I will remove from you your heart of stone, and I will

give you a heart of flesh.

Dear God, we’re going to sing in a moment that beautiful prayer song, “Change My Heart, O God.”  That is our prayer today and throughout this series.  We know that what we attempt on our own, without your help, almost always fails.  But God, we also know that it’s not all up to you.  You expect us to do our part.  So we pray for awareness.  We pray for courage.  We pray for our hearts, “the well-spring of life”.  We pray for changed hearts and a changed world.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.