Introduction: Open Heart Surgery
We’ve been focusing on our mission as a church this year by paying attention to living the Christian life fearlessly and by allowing hope to well up in our lives making ourselves more open to God’s power at work in us. And what has struck me again and again over this past year of readings and sermons and conversations with many of you is how much of this fearless life is really a matter of the heart; of having an open heart to God, a heart restored by God, and a heart willing to let God make a home in our lives and take away our fears.
I had the opportunity a while back of visiting one of our parishioners the morning after he had undergone open heart surgery. I came into his room in the Intensive Care Unit expecting him to be barely awake, and instead found him sitting up and finishing some very bland eggs getting ready to be moved into a regular room. The timing of my visit matched his move and so I followed him in his wheel chair as he talked about how good he felt, and how blessed and lucky he was that things had gone so well. I waited outside his room as the new set of nurses got him situated, took his vital signs and made him comfortable and upright in bed.
When the nurses left, I came in and sat down beside him to talk more and to pray together, he took my hand, drew me close, smiled into my face, and whispered again, “How blessed I am. How thankful that God has been there with me, is with me now. From the time I came into the hospital,” he said, “to the moment I woke up, I was confident and at peace.” And then he squeezed my hand as tears formed in the corner of his eyes, and he whispered, “I feel God’s grace and was never afraid.”
We thanked God together and prayed for his speedy recovery and for everyone in that hospital, and for a mutual friend who was battling cancer. I left to come back to St. David’s, thankful to God for His goodness and mercy and presence in our lives, and I was reminded of another’s experience of God’s presence facing open-heart surgery some years ago. I was freshly out of seminary with my new collar and black shirts, and was visiting a man I had never met the day after his open-heart surgery. He too was deeply thankful that all had gone well, but his fears before the surgery had been overpowering. He told me “I was crying and shaking in fear in my room, all alone, but somehow, I got the nerve to pray and ask God for help. And that’s when a young nurse came into my room. She took hold of my hand and told me to feel it, to hold it.”
“ ‘Now’, she said, ‘during surgery tomorrow you will be disconnected from your heart and will be kept alive by machines as they work to repair your heart, and when the operation is over and you’ll wake up in recovery, you may be unable to move or speak or even open your eyes, but you’ll be perfectly conscious and you’ll hear and know everything going on around you. During all those hours, I’ll be at your side and I’ll hold your hand exactly as I’m holding it now. I’ll stay with you until you’re fully recovered and although you’ll feel helpless, when you feel my hand, you’ll know that I’m there and won’t leave you.’ ”
He chuckled and said, “It happened exactly as the nurse told me, I felt her hand as they put me into sleep and I awoke and could do nothing but I could feel the nurse’s hand in mine. I could feel it first in my mind and then in my hand Her promise and her presence made all the difference and I was no longer afraid.”
Open hearts, literally open hearts in these cases, are all God needs to calm our fears and lift us up into a life that’s really life.
God Looking For Us
In all the Gospel stories about Jesus healing people and bringing new hope, there is one common thread that links them all. The people have open hearts and come to Jesus. He doesn’t go to them uninvited. Their hearts are open to Jesus, but they have to come to Him.
The leader of the synagogue, Jairus, comes to Jesus to beg Jesus to heal his daughter and by the time Jesus arrived, the girl has sickened and died, but Jesus prays and restores her to life.
The woman who had been bleeding for twelve years and is an outcast as a result spproaches Jesus to merely touch the hem of His robe to be healed, snd the power comes forth from Jesus to heal her.
The ten lepers by the side of the road beg Jesus to save them, to heal them and Jesus does.
Blind Bartimaeus cries out, Jesus Son of David, have mercy on me, and Jesus does.
The Centurion sends one of his men for Jesus to bring healing to his servant, without actually coming to heal the servant and at that moment the servant is made well.
In all of the healing stories in the Gospels, people come to Jesus in the hope of healing, in the hope of being restored and lifted into a new life. In all of them they come to Jesus, except in the Gospel today, when Jesus breaks the pattern of healing and comes to this man first. And so you and I need to understand that there is a very important purpose for John to include this story of all the healing stories John knew about Jesus. There is an important purpose because there is something in this story that is important for us to understand about open hearts and the power of hope, so that we, too, may be healed and be changed by the presence of God.
In Jesus’ day, the pool of Beth-Zatha, or Bethesda, was known for its healing powers. The legend was that once each day and angel would stir the waters and if you were the first person to enter the waters, you would be healed. So, if you had a disease of a condition that couldn’t be cured by human hands or by time, you hung out by the pool in the hope that you might get lucky and be the first one in.
On this day and every day apparently, the pool is surrounded by hurting people – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed all hoping that today they would be the person to be healed, that they would be restored to the life they hoped to live. And in this crowd of trouble, and uncertainty, and sorrow, and pain, there’s a man lying near the pool who had been there for thirty-eight years, hoping that today he would be the first one in.
Now that’s a long time to wait to be healed, a long time to be facing his troubles alone, and I suspect that his hope was pretty thin by this time. Because when Jesus asks him is he wants to be healed (and note Jesus does ask), he doesn’t say, “Yes, please, thank you very much,” but rather gives Jesus all the reasons why he won’t be the lucky one: he doesn’t have a friend to lift him in, he’s not fast enough, he’s not near enough.
But he does have some hope in his heart, otherwise he wouldn’t even be by the pool, and Jesus takes this poor man, with so little hope and commands the man to stand up, take your mat and walk, and he does just that. And that man’s miniscule, tiny, barely existent sense of hope is what allows Jesus to heal the man and restore him to life. Hope is the one quality required for God to act and when there is hope, God will act in your life and in mine. Because the power of hope, however small, opens the way for God, and when you and I have hope in our hearts, we open the way for God to calm our fears, to change the direction of our lives and to restore us to the life God wants us to live.
Open Hearts of a Different Kind
The Friday morning men’s Bible study has been doing some work with Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits and a spiritual guide to all kinds of Christians for centuries. Ignatius once said, “The most powerful force in the world is the love of God, at work in the heart of a believer; And the weakest force in the world, is the love of God seeking entry into the human heart.”
Thus our Lord’s pattern of healing people who come to him rather than going to anyone and everyone, he will not force His way in, but waits to be invited. God will not coerce or force any of us into a living relationship of love with Him, but He will come alongside and wait for us to allow Him in and when we do, God makes His home with us and does a kind of spiritual surgery on our hearts and lives. To give us peace and fill us more and more with hope, so that God can live in us and work through us.
The Christian life, the fearless life lived with God, is all a matter of the heart; amatter of having a heart that hopes in God. It doesn’t have to be a lot of hope, apparently, but any hope is the doorway to more life with God. So, as you look at your life today and the lives of the people you love who are in some need because of sickness or job problems or family problems; or if you’re feeling a little burned out and would like some refreshment, then let me remind you to hope, even though it may seem very feint. Hope so that God may come into your life and the lives of those you love in a new way.
Today is a good day to open your heart in hope for the first time or to open it again. And if you will, then you will be drawn into the life that is really life and the Risen One will come to you and touch your life. And your hope and the hope of those around you will grow, and your fears and mine will be no more; because, it’s all a matter of the heart.