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The Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe

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How Do You Clothe Your Heart?

Speaker: The Reverend Dr. Stéphanie Burette

Tags: acceptance, heart, wedding, garment

Sunday, October 11, 2020  |  Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Saint James's Church, Florence

How do you clothe your heart? 

The heart is present in countless metaphors in Christian teaching. It is the burning hearts of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. It is the devotion to the Sacred Heart in Catholic traditions in which representations of Jesus show him pointing at his own heart, bright and often surrounded by flames as if on fire, a symbol of God’s boundless and passionate love for humankind. It is the heart of St Augustine which is restless until it finds its rest in God. It is the turning of the heart through repentance, the metanoia I talked about last week.

While the heart in popular culture is the centre of emotions, of love, especially romantic love, the heart in Christianity leans more on the side of a place of knowledge, especially the knowledge of God, the knowledge of the love of God. While the belief in God can perhaps be more located in the mind, knowing God is an experience of our whole being, especially of our hearts.

In Christianity, although we do have to acknowledge all the wrongdoings made in the name of God and which were certainly not from God, conversion – not the exceptional and sudden embrace of God, but the subtler and recurring turning of oneself to God – takes place in the heart. A good illustration of this is a  nineteenth-century painting that some of you may know which is called ‘The Light of the World’ by the pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt. The painting is rather simple. At dusk or dawn, in the woods, Jesus is holding a lamp and knocking on a door. The door does not have a handle and can therefore be opened only from the inside. This has been used as a representation of Jesus knocking at the door of our hearts. Only we can decide to open the door. Jesus will not try to break in, to force us to convert, to accept his love. But Jesus keeps on knocking, quietly, offering regular reminders of his presence in our lives.

Life can be very hard. It can be literally heart-breaking. Sometimes, we find ourselves not believing anything anymore, we may be too disappointed or hurt. We have been betrayed or we are afraid. We feel that we have lost everything and everyone. Strong is the temptation to just protect ourselves from each other and from the world. On the outside, we may look like very social beings, but on the inside, we do not want to risk anything anymore, especially the risk of being disappointed, hurt, or betrayed again.

But it can also be because we are content with ways in which we have ‘simplified’, summarized people and situations. We have come with a simplistic explanation of why people are like this and situations are like that—end of story. It is convenient although it is painful. Yet, it does not do justice to reality. But to do justice to reality requires time, and energy, and that we tap into our emotional intelligence. Today, this is what I want to do with our Gospel passage, reading it first as a parable, and then as a real-life situation.

Like you, I don’t know why the guest at the banquet did not put on a wedding garment. But I wonder. Everyone else did. Let’s imagine ourselves in this situation. Out of the blue, we are invited to the most stupendous dinner, for free, in an outstandingly beautiful place, to celebrate a wedding. Of course, we can turn down the invitation. Nobody is forcing us to come. But if we choose to come, the only request is that we put on a wedding garment, which is likely to be provided. The only thing we have to do is to change clothes.

Now, we are in Florence, a fashion centre in the world, with a priceless heritage in terms of elegance, refinement of clothing, a place of astonishing creativity of design and the dyeing of various materials, from leather to wool. And clothing is not just clothing. Back in ancient times, it was already a display of power, of money, of influence, of taste – in short, of social hierarchy. And to this day, this is true. It is not surprising that, in the Church, the minor orders – such as the one created by St Francis as we heard last week – chose, almost in rebellion, the humblest of vestments. It makes clear a renunciation of something that society highly values. But as the saying goes, the habit does not make the monk, and by this we mean that the habit does not make the heart.

If we read the parable literally, we can be shocked: so, with God, it is not ‘come as you are’? Could God’s generosity and love be conditional after all? 

No, I don’t believe that. So, there must be a way of reconciling God’s unconditional love and generosity to all with the problem of not wearing the appropriate garment. 

There is an expression in Romans 13 which is about ‘clothing oneself with the Lord Jesus Christ’. To ‘put on Christ’ is more about the transformation of our hearts than the literal action of putting on clothes to cover our bodies. It is about turning our attention, in every situation, toward what is, as the letter to the Philippians says, true, honourable, just, commendable, etc.

Likewise, in the Book of Common Prayer, the eucharistic prayer C puts it in another way: as we prepare ourselves to come to the Lord’s table and receive the sacrament, we pray that God may ‘deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.’

To come to the banquet or the table, is one thing. To be willing to have one's heart changed, renewed, is another. It is not enough to put food on the table to build community. It is not enough to gather in one place to be a community. Without the intentionality to be a community, without the willingness to be transformed by each other, to be forgiven and to forgive, the transformation does not happen. It is not magic. It is about the turning of one's heart. And, for that, we need to be willing to have one's heart changed. We need to be willing to open the door to Jesus' knocking and to welcome him in.

The guest who refuses to put on the wedding garment makes a statement that he is not participating in the festivities. He came for food, remains isolated, he will leave fed (actually, he won’t have this option!) but without having created any connection. He missed the chance of being enriched by the occasion, by an encounter, by the shared celebration of a joyful event. And yet I still ponder why he refused to put it on. He does not have anything to say to the king. Was he resenting anything? Did he want his presence to be a sort of a protest against something? Did he do this out of pride? Did he intentionally want to offend the king? For what reason? Or was he simply negligent?

            His motivations are completely hidden from us. I cannot pretend that I understand. I don’t. I can jump to conclusions and reassure myself that ‘I get it’, that I know what it is all about, but I will likely miss the opportunity of realizing that the other’s experience is actually more complex than my simplistic and convenient interpretation. I will remain unchanged by this and I will miss the opportunity of having my heart be changed, enriched, enlarged, and transformed by Christ. I will miss the opportunity to realize that the world is narrow only for the narrowness of my vision.

So, as we prepare to come to God’s table and receive the most precious gift of the sacrament of Christ’s body, I would invite you to consider something that is weighing on your heart. It may be something that you do not understand, something that you are angry about, something that you lost, something that has profoundly hurt you, something you are afraid of, something that you feel ashamed of, something that you wish had not happened. I invite you to open your heart to God, to trust God’s power to transform your heart in that particular matter; and as you receive the sacrament, to let Jesus dwell in your heart. Bring to the table that which is heavy on your heart and welcome Jesus in return.

Come for solace and for strength, come for pardon and for renewal. As the poet George Herbert puts it, it is Love that bids you welcome. Amen.