It’s a State of the Heart, per Jesus (and Rick Springfield)

Proper 17, Year B: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Rick Springfield is a musician and actor who came into popularity in the 1980s and apparently still has quite a following — I presume of women about my age! I never imagined I would use one of his song lyrics in a sermon, yet all week the song “State of the Heart” has been rolling around in my head…

“It’s just a state of the heart / I’m waiting here for you in the state I’m in”

In spiritual direction, romantic songs are sometimes employed to reframe and rediscover our deep longing for God. I think “State of the Heart” is one of those songs. And it connects with what today’s gospel passage is about. 

On the surface, today’s gospel may seem to be about following customs, washing hands, washing pots. But don’t be distracted by the shiny bronze kettles. This gospel is about the heart. The state of the heart — to quote Rick!

Our ancient ancestors regarded the heart as the “seat of moral and religious conduct.”[1] This is where Jesus draws our attention. This is where we need to focus.

By the end of the passage, Jesus has “blurred the lines between defilement and sin.”[2] They are not the same thing. Defilement is expected as you go through everyday life. “Defilement is putting your body into a state in which it is not fit to encounter God” and in the Old Testament texts are provided to priests working in the Temple.[3] By the 1st c., many of the commands and cleansing rituals created for priests to allow them to stand before God and serve in the temple had “extended to govern daily life”[4] for ordinary people. Though, it was not uniformly so (Mark overstates the case with “all the Jews” in 7:4) and this is what the disagreement is about. 

Jesus says: we can argue about purity rituals, but there are bigger things at stake here. The human heart — this is where sin happens and how defilement occurs.        

And so, in today’s gospel, Jesus — in his love for us, grabs us by the shoulders, like a dramatic Rick Springfield in a music video and says: Evil is not out there but in here! “It is from within the human heart that evil intentions come.”

Those evil intentions can make us both victims and perpetrators.

Here’s an example from scripture … and Confirmation class! During one of our class sessions this spring, we began our time together with Evening Prayer. The appointed psalm for that evening was Psalm 137.

Psalm 137 is a lament. It is a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem. And it ends with, well — language we’re not accustomed to hearing in church.

“Remember the day of Jerusalem, O LORD,

Against the people of Edom,

Who said, “Down with it! Down with it! 

Even to the ground!”

              O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,

Happy the one who pays you back

For what you have done to us!

              (But here’s the shocking verse) Happy shall he be who takes your little ones,

And dashes them against the rock!”[5]

Ugh — I thought to myself. I’m going to need to address the psalmist’s strong words, expressing strong feelings before we get started on the Confirmation material!

So I shared this thought with them: To have feelings is to be human. And feelings are information. Partial information, but information.[6]

The murderous rage expressed in the psalm reveals a deep wound. A deep loss caused by an offending party, the Babylonian Empire. The root of anger is often hurt. Self-awareness is important for us, and then the turn to God can be transformative and a step toward healing. And away from sin. For, to follow through on those feelings would be a sin.

There’s a helpful saying: If it is human, it can be discussed. If it can be discussed, it can be managed.

As believers, we can also say: If it is human, it can be discussed with God. If it can be discussed with God, God can help us manage.

All that is needed is a heart open to God. And, sometimes that’s the only state of the heart we can do anything about.

And in turning to God, we invite God to disrupt the cycle. 

I want to repeat that: If it is human, it can be discussed with God. If it can be discussed with God, God will help us manage.

For here’s the thing: God doesn’t only correct and heal and our hearts. God also inspires all kinds of goodness, courage, and love from the center of us if we allow it.

An apt example of this from our tradition is John Wesley, Anglican priest whose followers founded the Methodist Church. He and his brother Charles ministered to people during the Industrial Revolution. As you know, it was a time of harsh and cruel conditions for workers — creating broken and wounded hearts in all kinds of ways: spiritual, physical, emotional.  

Individuals and families were suffering, and he and Charles devoted themselves to serving them. Their ministry was marked by strict adherence to the prayers (the Daily Office) and required meetings in small groups. These and other expectations, such as avoiding the consumption of alcohol, led fellow Anglicans to nick-named them Methodists, because of their method.

But John’s fruitful and healing ministry flowed from a spiritual experience, recorded in his personal journal: 

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading [Martin] Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”[7]

The state of the heart — it is a process. It’s not a one and done event, not even for John Wesley. But it is an ongoing relationship with the Divine: our Loving God who longs to draw us near, warm our hearts, and empower goodness — not evil — to flow from the center of our being. With resurrection power, Christ disrupts the cycles of evil and death-dealing we are drawn to because of our inner woundedness. 

When we step back to view the gospel in its entirety, the core of our faith is to have a loving heart. Loving God, loving neighbor. This loving state of the heart is what God desires for us. A loving state of the heart is where we are called to be. It’s what Jesus makes possible in his saving life and work. 

I’ll close with a writing by Howard Thurman called the Inward Sea from his book Meditations of the Heart. It describes our interior lives and link to the Divine.

“There is in every person an inward sea, 

and in that sea there is an island 

and on that island there is an altar 

and standing guard before that altar 

is the ‘angel with the flaming sword.’  

Nothing can get by that angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the mark of your inner authority.  

Nothing passes ‘the angel with the flaming sword’ to be placed upon your altar unless it be a part of 

‘the fluid area of your consent.’

This is your crucial link with the Eternal.”[8]

Indeed, this is the crucial link with the Eternal God, the Holy One. 

In whatever state of the heart you find yourself, call upon the LORD, “whose property is to always have mercy.”[9] Christ is present to disrupt all that corrupts.

May the Holy Spirit fill and warm your heart so that you — and the world around you — can know and experience the state of the heart meant for us: a state of grace.


[1] Harper-Collins Study Bible, NRSV, p. 1931.

[2] Matthew Skinner, Luther Seminary, Sermon Brainwave #799.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Book of Common Prayer, p. 792.

[6] It is a helpful exercise to ask oneself: “Is this a feeling or a fact?”

[7] https://www.umc.org/en/content/holy-spirit-moments-learning-from-wesley-at-aldersgate

[8] Thurman, Howard. Meditations of the Heart. Beacon Press: Boston, 1953, 1981, p. 15.

[9] Prayer of Humble Access, Book of Common Prayer, p. 337.

John R. Donahue, S.J. and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Mark.

Shae, John. Mark Year B: Eating with the Bridegroom.

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