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A Heart/Spirit Transplant

Sermon - 3/29/09
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 51:1-12

Our scripture for this 5th Sunday of Lent is from the 51st Psalm:

1Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
   blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
   and cleanse me from my sin.

3For I know my transgressions,
   and my sin is ever before me.
4Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
   and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
   and blameless when you pass judgment.
5Indeed, I was born guilty,
   a sinner when my mother conceived me.

6You desire truth in the inward being;
   therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
   wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8Let me hear joy and gladness;
   let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9Hide your face from my sins,
   and blot out all my iniquities.

10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
   and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence,
   and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
   and sustain in me a willing spirit.


We have all heard of heart-lung transplants, right?  I want to introduce to you this morning the concept of a heart-spirit transplant.  And suggest to you that such a transplant is what it means to be a Christian.  That we are called to do, or perhaps better said, that we are called to have done to us precisely what the Psalmist says -- 'to put within me a clean heart, O God, a new and right spirit within me'.

Of course the Bible authors had no concept of a transplant.  If you went to a physician in biblical times with an ache in your side, and the physician said to you "Well, I think you need a kidney transplant", you'd say "what?!".  What's that?  Well, we're going to take a kidney out of someone else, and we're going to put it in you.  Yeah, right!

They wouldn't have any concept of that.  There's a bizarre scene in the movie "The Last Temptation of Christ", Willem Defoe portrayed a rather strange Jesus.  But there's this one scene in which Jesus literally takes his heart out of his chest and offers it to the people. This bloody, bleeding heart.  Very literal.  And it's a grotesque portrayal of a concept -- that we are invited to take the heart of Jesus.

Indeed, do we not speak of devout, good Christians as people who have the heart of Jesus within them?  So before I develop this idea of Christ giving us his heart, of God planting in us the spirit of God, I want to spend a little bit of time dealing with one idea in the scripture that I think is probably problematic for some.

Verse 5:  "Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me".  What does that remind you of?  What does that call to mind?  Original sin.  Yes, you got it right away.  The problem here isn't what the text says, the problem is the lens through which we read it.  If you're looking for a scriptural description of original sin, well, here it is.  And the problem is the way we understand it in light of that doctrine.

The idea of original sin is not just that we are born guilty (because I think that's profoundly true in one sense, and I'm going to come back to that in just a bit) but original sin of course says that we are conceived in sin.  That the sin of Adam and Eve is passed on through the generations through the act of sexual procreation.  And hence only one who is born of a virgin can be without sin.

Now while that is a common belief, a common teaching in traditional Christianity in many churches, it's not something we teach.  It's not a doctrine of our church. In the Christian Church Disciples of Christ you are free to take it or leave it.  I choose to leave it.  And I'm not going to go into all of that, the reasons why, but I am convinced by the argument of Matthew Fox (theologian) in his book "Original Blessing", in which he says we are born not in original sin but with original blessing.  That is, that fundamentally as human beings we are good.  We are created in the image of God.

And you see, there's a long list of psychological problems which are created precisely when children are raised in such an environment where they are told constantly how bad they are.  And not told how good they are.  And a theology which teaches that you are a 'sinner', such as Amazing Grace -- "how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me".  When that is reinforced and you are beat up with that sin, then it reinforces that unhealthy psychological development that creates all kinds of emotional problems.  And it has no place in the church.

Now, you may have sensed that I have strong feelings about this doctrine J.

The message that we want to convey is about how good we are as children of God.  How every person deserves to be loved, to be valued, to be treated with respect as a child of God.

Now I believe that to be fundamentally true, and it is central to our message of transforming lives, transforming Christianity, and transforming our world.

And still, in spite of all that, still, we cannot avoid the problem of sin.  It is a reality in our lives and in our world.  So even though we are born with original blessing, not original sin, there is a true sense in which we can also say 'yeah, we are born guilty'.  Not because of some sexual act in which we were conceived, but simply because we are human.  We are fallible.  We make mistakes.  We even willfully choose to do things we may know are wrong.

We do not always choose the path that God desires, wills, for us.  And in that sense of choosing something less than God's desire, we are all sinners.  And like the Psalmist, we know our transgressions.  We know our failures.  We know our shortcomings.  But does that mean that we are literally born guilty?  Literally conceived in sin?  Is the Psalmist making some claim about an ontological reality, that is the notion that by virtue of the very fact of us being human that this is our fundamental nature, to sin?

Look at verse 7:  "Purge me with hyssop [a reference to a Jewish rite of cleansing] and I shall be clean, wash me and I shall be whiter than snow".

Now this should not be an unfamiliar concept to us, we talk about this -- such as baptism, when you're baptized you are cleansed.  So when a person is baptized, are they whiter than snow?  Well maybe if the preacher holds them down under the water for too long they might come out that way J.  We don't take this literally, right?  It's like Dominic Crossan loves to say:  Jesus is talking to the crowd and someone says "Wait a minute Jesus, I don't get that part about a seed, what's that have to do with anything you're teaching".  And someone else says "It's a metaphor, dummy!".

This is a metaphor, and we know that, we understand that.  Verse 5 is not a metaphor, it is hyperbole.  Exaggeration to make a point.  And I think we can all get that, we know there are times when you have this overwhelming sense of guilt and it feels like, yeah, 'I was born guilty'.  But surely one of of the heresies of scripture is when we take a poetic expression like this and absolutize it into a literal truth which we then elevate to the level of a central doctrine that is central to Christianity. That we have to believe this to be Christian.

The proper theological term for such is 'scatology'.  Loosely translated, it means "It's a bunch of baloney" J.  That's the clean translation J.

So yes we are born human, fallible, sinners, yes.  And we are also born good, holy, in the image of God.  Both are true.

And because the first is true, we are in need of forgiveness.  And because the second is true, we have the assurance of forgiveness.

How can we be so certain of that?  Because it is the nature of God.  Read again verse 1:  "Have mercy on me O God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant mercy.  Blot out my transgressions".  This is the nature of God.  To forgive.

We tell our children that even when we are angry, we love them.  In fact, especially when you are angry with them, tell them that you love them.  How important is that for child development, even in the midst of anger they are still loved?  And if that is true of us as parents, how much more is that true of God?

And so the Psalmist calls upon this character of God to resolve this inherent tension we sometimes feel within us that yeah, there is this sinful nature of us but yeah, we're also created good.  Original blessing, original sin.  Create in me a new heart, and put a new and right spirit within me.

It may seem preposterous to suggest that such is even possible, that we can replace that sinful nature with something so good and holy as the spirit of God.  But that is precisely what the Psalmist proposes.

In their new book, just came out a couple of weeks ago, "The First Paul", by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, they use this analogy of a transplant to suggest that not only is such possible -- to receive the spirit of God, the heart of Christ -- but that is what Paul means when he writes to the Galatians, for instance:  "I have been crucified in Christ, it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me".

Now, obviously, Paul had not been crucified.  He wouldn't be writing this if he had been crucified.  Tradition says perhaps he was crucified (that's how he was perhaps put to death) but he had not yet been crucified.  So he's speaking here metaphorically of the way in which we die and rise with Christ.  In Paul's case that resulted in a transformative "identity transplant" (Borg & Crossan call it).  His old identity was replaced by a new identity in Christ.

And they note, that in the 7 authentic letters considered to be written by Paul, the phrase "in Christ" appears over 100 times.  In just 7 letters, over 100 times.  So in a very real sense, for Paul, to be a follower of Jesus is to be "in Christ", we are in Christ, we have the spirit of Christ in us.  And so Paul says that if anyone is in Christ there is a 'new creation'.  A new identity.

Crossan and Borg use this analogy of a transplant to describe this new creation of Christ -- "in Christ".  They write:

"In a heart transplant, a person's old and damaged heart is totally removed and replaced by a new, undamaged one.  It's possible that the new organ may be rejected by the body, but there are medications to help prevent this.  What God did in Christ, and what God thereby offers to everyone, is an identity change.  A character replacement.  A Spirit transplant.  God's own holy spirit, the spirit of non-violent distributive justice, that is God's own self, nature, and character, is offered freely and gratuitously to all people.  It is what Paul calls 'grace'.  It is a free gift offered without any prior conditions demanded by God, or prior merits expected of us.  Indeed, how could either of those even be imagined. 

Also, to continue the analogy -- the medications against the rejection of God's spirit transplant are called prayer and meditation, worship and liturgy".

What we do here is the medication to prevent that rejection of that spirit transplant.

Paul calls this process of a spirit transplant God's "just-making", or God's justification (that's what justification means, to make 'just').

Bono, the lead singer for the Irish rock band U2, the great theologian that he is, as well as rock star, sums up this process of a spirit transplant in the song "Yahweh".  Only he sings not of a transplant, but a birth.  Now, those of you in this crowd, if you don't know U2, a very popular rock band.  Just came out with a new album.  So imagine, this is a song that has been played on the airwaves of contemporary radio (hasn't been a big hit, but one of their best songs, I think).  The last song, and I think intentionally the last song, that they put on their last album "How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb" (there's a message in and of itself).

And this is what Bono sings:

Take these shoes
Click clacking down some dead end street
Take these shoes
And make them fit
Take this shirt
Polyester white trash made in nowhere
Take this shirt
And make it clean, clean
Take this soul
Stranded in some skin and bones
Take this soul
And make it sing

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh
Still I'm waiting for the dawn

Take these hands
Teach them what to carry
Take these hands
Don't make a fist
Take this mouth
So quick to criticize
Take this mouth
Give it a kiss

Yahweh, Yahweh
Always pain before a child is born
Yahweh, Yahweh
Still I'm waiting for the dawn


Now I could spend the next 20 minutes unpacking this song, describing the metaphors, but I'd just as soon let it be what it is, and for you to meditate on it.  That's just half the song. 

Instead, what I want to do to conclude my reflection is to give you an experience of this "Yahweh", the name of God, that can be the basis of transformation and rebirth.  Or, a heart and spirit transplant.

And the experience comes from Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, very highly sought-after author, speaker, and all matters related to spirituality.  And Rohr attended a conference on the convergence of religion and science, an annual event held in Santa Fe (New Mexico).  Speakers were brought from the top of the field in science and religion, biblical scholars and theologians.

And among the latter was a Jewish scholar who spoke about the meaning of the name of God, Rabbi David Abrams.  And Rohr said what the Rabbi shared in that lecture wasn't just profound, it was life-changing.

He shared three things, two of which Rohr already knew.

First, the name of God is considered so holy in the Jewish tradition that normally you do not pronounce it.  That's the meaning of the second commandment in the Jewish tradition (third in ours) "Do not use the name of the Lord God in vain".  That's not about 'cussing', that's trivializing the commandment.  He says the name of God is so holy you cannot speak it, for to speak it is to suggest that somehow I know God in a way we cannot know God.  That I possess God by speaking the name.  And so it's an unspeakable name.  That's what it means to hold it so sacred.  Rohr said, yeah, I knew that.

Secondly, he said ancient Hebrew has no vowels in written form, only consonants.  And so, since the name of God had not been spoken for thousands of years, there has been some debate the last few centuries about just how your pronounce the name of God.  "Jehovah" in some traditions, "Yahweh" in other traditions.  We haven't known until recently, and Rohr said 'yeah, I knew that'.

Third, this was the new life-changing thing, he says this is the basis of a life of prayer and for your own personal contemplation.  Third, he said, Jewish scholars are now fairly certain two vowels in the name of Yahweh are "Yah" and "weh".  They are the only two vowels in Hebrew that are spoken without moving the mouth or the tongue, it is just the passage of air through your mouth shaped in a certain way.

He says it's as if, then, that the two syllables of the name of God are an attempt to pronounce the sound of inhalation ("Yah") and exhalation ("Weh").

Breath.  The breath of life, you see, is God. From the moment we are born, until the moment we give our last breath, we breathe in the breath of God.  We take in that breath of God every moment of our lives, even when we're not aware of it.

And then this Rabbi did an extraordinary thing.  In this room filled with scholars and academicians, PhD's, you know, all these intellectual types, he just began to breathe into the microphone:

Yah-weh. . . . yah-weh. . . yah-weh. . . yah-weh. . . . yah-weh. . .


Abrams did this about 35 times.  Rohr said he began to hear people cry.  He looked around and saw these PhD's with tears rolling down their cheeks.  In this intellectual conference suddenly they were connecting to the essence of life. 

God's power, presence, the life-affirming, the life-giving presence of God that is there and available to us in every moment of time, and they were making that connection in a powerful way that these great scientists had never made before.

This is the presence, the life of God.  Yah-weh.

It is always present and available to us.  Yah-weh.

Create in me a new heart, O Yah-weh.  Put in me a new and right spirit.



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