“Heart Transplants Done Here”
A Sermon on Ezekiel 36:24-28 & Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 for the 7th Sunday of Easter, Year C; preached May 8, 2016, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. … I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you.” The Bible is full of wondrous proclamations of promise like we hear this morning—in words like these from the prophet Ezekiel, in visions of Christ in the fulfillment of all things like we hear in Revelation. A new heart. Blessed. New spirit. Surely I am coming soon. You shall live. Grace be with all.
What do we make of such words of promise, though? And in asking that, I don’t even so much mean whether or not we trust such words of promise… that in itself is a good question, but then again, we who are here this morning have made a choice to be among the less than 15% of New Englanders who will attend a worship service of any religion or faith tradition this weekend, and we’ve done so taking the traffic risk of being here in Storrs on UConn’s graduation weekend (not to mention the rainy weather this morning). In other words, for the most part, we here this morning are not among the uncommitted. Even if you are someone among us today checking out this whole Christianity thing out for the very first time today, you are at least willing to entertain the idea that the promise can be trusted—even amidst all the questions and doubts and even skepticisms that you have. But if that’s you, I’ll let you in on a little secret: all the rest of us have many of those same questions and doubts still too, and that’s o.k.
So anyway, as I said, I don’t really want to dwell this morning in the question of whether the promises can be trusted. Let’s for the moment presume the can be. After all, who knows… perhaps we can trust our way to faith, rather than having to believe our way into trusting.
What I’m thinking about this morning is just how it is that we come to experience the promise. We hear words like we’ve heard from Ezekiel and in the visions of Revelation—words of transformation, redemption, hope, grace—but what do we make of such promise now, here today, in our own lives and in the life of the world we’re in. Really, it’s much the same question as how it is we experience resurrection.
We are still this Sunday in the season of Easter; our great fifty days of celebrating the Easter victory, they are not quite over yet. But what does ‘resurrection’ actually mean to us? Is resurrection just something that happened to Jesus some 2,000 years ago? Is it just something that scripture and Christian theology has said awaits us and all of creation at some point down the road in eternity, in the fullness of God’s time? Is it only a reality of past and future, but not of the present? Or is there something of the Easter mystery to be experienced here and now—something of the victory of Christ over the powers of death that is a reality that began on that first Easter so long ago, but still unfolds for us today? After all, let’s be honest here: central to Christianity—to both Christian theology and Christian spirituality—is, in fact, Christ… and central to Christ is, in fact, his “dying and rising to new life to send us a new spirit.” But does this central thing of Christian faith, does it have relevance to us, here-and-now, in our own daily journeys of life and spirituality? Or is it just about the past and (perhaps) the future… but not about what you and I experience today?
In his novel The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, novelist Brian Moore spun out the story of the title character, Judith, a very gifted woman living in Dublin. She’s healthy, bright, attractive, a respected teacher, solidly connected to family and friends. As she approaches midlife, however, unmarried and childless, her biological and psychological clocks keep chiming with the alarm, “it’s not good to be alone!” Judith becomes desperate, and in a desperate restlessness meets and falls in love with an American man who only wants her for the money he presumed she had. One night after a date when Judith proposes marriage, he rejects it, and tells her the truth behind his intentions. This rejection is the final straw for Judith, and she snaps—alcoholic binge, nervous breakdown, the works. She ends up in a church, cursing God and trying to tug the reserved Communion sacrament out of the tabernacle where it is kept. From there, she’s taken to a hospital and eventually recovers.
Shortly before being released, though, Judith receives a visit from the American man who rejected her marriage proposal. He arrives contrite, roses in hand, apology on his lips, and a marriage proposal of his own to offer.
Judith does not accept, though. She hands the roses back, saying: “Thank you, but no thank you. I am not interested in marrying you and, to tell you why, I need to tell you a story. When you are a little girl you dream of the perfect life you will have. You will grow up to have a beautiful body, meet the perfect man, marry him, have wonderful children, live in a wonderful home in a wonderful neighborhood, and have wonderful friends. But… as you get holder and that dream doesn’t happen, you begin to revise it, downward. You scale down your expectations and begin to look for someone to marry who doesn’t have to be so perfect… until you get to be like I was, where unconsciously you get so desperate that you would marry anyone, even if he’s common as dirt! Well, I learned something by losing myself and then refinding myself; I learned that if I receive the spirit for who I am, it doesn’t matter whether I am married or unmarried, I can be happy either way. My happiness doesn’t depend on somebody outside of me, but upon being at peace with what’s inside of me.”
The story then ends with Judith leaving the hospital, strong and happy again, making a paper airplane out of the man’s business card and floating it out the taxicab window.
Now, I tell you this story because it is an example of how the promises of Easter—in fact, the whole cycle of the Easter mysteries from death through resurrection and even onward through Ascension and Pentecost—of how this reality of God’s presence and work in the world gets embodied in the here-and-now, in real, relevant, life-giving ways.
Jesus once said, according to the gospel of John, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” These words of Jesus are among the many that define this spiritual reality of life, that in order to come to fuller life and spirit we must constantly be letting go of present life and spirit. Christians of all parties and persuasions, denominations and dialects, are familiar with the concept—“For those who want to save their live will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Some, like our sisters and brothers in Christ in the Roman Catholic tradition, have even given this dynamic a special name—the “paschal mystery”, they call it—but that’s just a way to bring particular attention to the way that death and resurrection becomes more than just an event in the past, but is an ongoing reality of life with God, an ongoing sign of the presence of Christ by the Spirit, for each of us today.
The process of transformation that God lays out for us as we look at Jesus’ own Passover from death to life, it has five clear, distinct moments—moments we embody in our own Christian liturgical calendar of worship through this season. The Easter mystery begins with Good Friday, the loss of life, a real death, not just a pseudo death. Easter Sunday brings the first reception of new life. The forty days that follow—and we see this captured in the Bible’s stories of Jesus’ interactions with his disciples after the resurrection—they are a time for readjustment to the new and for grieving the old. On Ascension, that day 40 days after Easter—which was, in fact, just this past Thursday—there comes the time to let go of the old, to let the old bless you as it goes on its way, just as Jesus’ body pronounced blessing on his disciples as it ascended. All of this, finally, paves the way for Pentecost to come, with the reception of a new spirit, appropriate for the new life that one is already living.
Imagine, for example, the spiritual possibilities and spiritual realities around the death of our youth. Imagine you wake up one day, look at your calendar, and come to the unwelcome realization that it is your 70th birthday—and, yes, I know that for plenty of you, this day has already taken place for you. Anyway, whether yet-to-come or already passed, imagine that day. In terms of your youth, then, Good Friday has happened—your youth has died. But you, of course, are not dead. No, in fact, you have received a new life, the life of a seventy-year-old, and it’s different, perhaps in its own way a richer life than other life you’ve had thus far. The spiritual struggle now, at this point, is whether you will refuse to grieve and let go of your lost youth and, like Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning trying to cling to a Jesus she once knew, try to hold on to your youth. But doing that blocks Ascension and blocks Pentecost. Should you let it ascend, though, giving thanks for what is past, letting it bless you, but letting it go, then Pentecost can happen. You can receive the spirit for the live that you are already living, the life of a seventy-year-old, which is a different spirit than for someone who is twenty. After all, we all know that there are some seventy-year-olds who are the happiest people in the world, and others who are the most miserable. Might the difference have to do with whether they’ve received the spirit for the life they have now?
The same cycle and process might play out for parts of our self-concept, or for dreams we have, or for certain kinds of relationships—even for certain ideas we have about God and the church. But part of the good news is that this cycle, this dynamic, this spiritual reality, this “paschal mystery”, if you will, does, in fact, play out for us, day in and day out—and in the grace of God sometimes we even get to be aware of it happening, and marvel at the good gifts of new life and new spirit that we find to be possible.
A couple of weeks ago, when I first took us on a visit to the closing portions of the book of Revelation, which we heard from again today, I offered up to you about how important it is for us to have vision—for us to be possessed by some sense of where this whole thing is headed, of what the ultimate reality in store for us and all of creation might entail. Part of the reason for that is so that we know where we’re headed so we don’t mistakenly believe we’re headed nowhere.
But in the wonder and mystery and grace of God, having such vision is also about being able to see how past and future come to meet and mix with the present, how eternity breaks in to us now, how the veil between the finite and the infinite is, in fact, much thinner than we might imagine.
In such wonder and grace, the promise made to exiles so long ago of new hearts and spirits, it becomes our promise too. The invitation to come to the water of life, it becomes our invitation too. And the call for Christ to come again, to come quickly, it becomes our call. For it is in his light we find light, and in his life we find life—yesterday, today, and forever.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, 15th anniv. ed. (New York: Image, 2014), ___.
 Brian Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (Toronto: Little, Brown, 1964). This retelling of Moore’s story is liberally excerpted and adapted from Rolheiser, The Holy Longing, ___-143.
 Rolheiser, The Holy Longing, 143; here Rolheiser is paraphrasing liberally from Moore, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.
 John 12:24, NRSV.
 Luke 9:24, NRSV; see also Matthew 10:39.
 This schema of the paschal mystery is based extensively on Rolheiser, The Holy Longing.