Ezekiel 36:22-36 I will replace your heart of stone with a heart of flesh
I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)
I remember, from my growing up days, an expression that was used when somebody said something particularly dreamy or impractical. "Get real!" a friend would say. And the bubble was burst. . . . Get back to reality, was the message. Back to the practical, the solid, the here-and-now.
I wonder how many of us have encountered this sort of reaction when we have made a remark to a less religious friend about God or the spiritual world, or even the Golden Rule. "Get real!" they might say, "Don't bother me with that impractical, airy-fairy spiritual stuff. I'm only interested in what is real. . . what I can see with my eyes and touch with my hands." Or at least, that's what people might say if they told us what was really on their minds. Usually all we get is a funny look or some vaguely dismissive remark--and we know that our friend thinks we are just a little bit dreamy to believe in all that gawd stuff.
"Get real!" What does that mean? To the person making such a shoot-from-the-hip remark, the answer seems obvious. Reality is what is solid. Reality is what I can see and touch. The best kind of reality is the green stuff that I can put in my pocket and buy all sorts of good things with. Now that's reality.
The people who have a firm grasp on reality are the ones who always seem in control of the situation; the ones who are successful in business and have fat wallets and purses; the ones who live in nice houses and drive fancy cars--and, of course, the ones who have a good looking husband or wife.
The "obvious" answer to the question "What is reality?" is that reality consists of the solid objects that make up the material world. From a personal perspective, it is the things we can possess; the things we can take physical pleasure in. Especially, it is our bodies. There are many people in this world who, if pressed to say what is real, would eventually give an answer such as this.
I suspect that even those of us who consider ourselves to be religious often have a sneaking feeling that the things we can see and touch here on earth are somehow more real than all of those spiritual things that the church teaches us about. We may "believe" in the spiritual world, but would we bet our lives on it? Or would we feel more comfortable betting our lives that this world is real. . . and we'll just have to find out about that other world once we die?
It is a very natural thing for us to start out feeling that the material world is the realest thing, while the spiritual world is a bit vague and impractical. We are born with no knowledge of the spiritual world at all. As infants, our minds are entirely taken up with our physical comfort or discomfort. When our little Caleb is hungry or otherwise uncomfortable, he cries--and keeps on crying until he is fed and made comfortable again. When he has a full stomach; when is warm and dry; and especially when he is being (physically) held, he is content.
Chris is a year and a half old now, and he is still mostly concerned with his physical comfort and with physical pleasures. He doesn't seem to think about love--as much as he needs to have love from us--but he certainly does think about the toy that he wants and Heidi has! And if he is hungry or cold or tired, he can cry a lot louder than Caleb!
As we grow up, we do begin to value other things besides physical pleasure and material possessions. We form friendships and relationships, and we come to realize that these are important to us--even if we can't always express why. We know it has something to do with love and trust, but we don't have a very clear idea of what love and trust are. Most of our experience as we have grown up has been with our physical bodies and with our material environment. We are at a bit of a loss when we start delving into the world of our minds and our relationships--what Swedenborg would call the spiritual realm. Love and trust seem compelling to us, but not as consistently real as the material things that we are so familiar with.
Still, our earlier sense that reality equals our body and our physical environment does get weakened by our first conscious movements into the realm of love and friendship. As teenagers--and as adults also--we still cling to many of our treasured possessions. But most of us, if asked to choose between some favorite possession and our circle of friends, would not hesitate long before giving up the possession in favor of keeping our friends. We will even give away treasured possessions to especially close friends as a sign and seal of our friendship. This is part of our path away from reality-as-material toward reality-as-spiritual.
Of course, that path is usually interrupted by the reality of getting out of school and having to get a job and support ourselves. Before that time, having money was nice but not essential, since our parents provided the essentials. But now we have to do that for ourselves--and not very strangely, money seems even more real than it did before. It is all too easy to get caught up in that version of reality, and all too difficult to break out of the cycle that continually drums into our heads this message: "What is real is what puts food on the table and a roof over our heads."
Rather than thinking of the necessity of supporting ourselves as a spiritual setback, though, I prefer to think of it as a challenge. Life in this world is not going to automatically shepherd us into spiritual ways of living. We can spend our entire lives focused only on our material circumstances. In fact, unless we make a conscious decision to have it otherwise, that is exactly how our lives will go. So life in this material world provides us with a challenge: Will we simply accept life as it comes to us, and remain focused on this physically compelling "reality"? Or will we make a choice to look beyond the surface to a deeper reality that lies within?
One of my most memorable sessions at the Swedenborg School of Religion was when the Rev. Horand Gutfeldt came to one of our classes as a guest speaker. He spoke of many things out of his long years of experience in ministry. The one that struck me most was his description of how our sense of reality changes as we grow spiritually. He said that as we go through the process of regeneration, or spiritual growth, we experience an "inversion of reality." In other words, our sense of reality gets turned upside-down! What seemed most real to us at the beginning of our spiritual growth seems least real at the end, and what seemed least real at the beginning ends out feeling the most real.
Specifically, Dr. Gutfeldt said that whereas physical things seem most real to us when we start out, the farther we progress on our spiritual journey, the more real God and spirit seem to us, and the less real material things seem compared to spiritual things. When we start out, having nice clothes and a nice house may seem very important. But after some years on our spiritual quest, love and caring and mutual understanding begin to feel much more real to us than mere physical possessions.
The Bible, as usual, doesn't spend a lot of time theorizing about these sorts of things. Swedenborg does--and our reading from Divine Love and Wisdom provides us with a very direct statement that what is real and solid is love together with wisdom. Yet I suspect that when you leave church today, you will be more likely to remember the words I used in my text, from the prophet Ezekiel: "I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."
This is a very memorable image. It begs us to look beyond the literal imagery to the spirit within. But for a moment we will resist that urge and focus on the literal image. Imagine a heart of stone. Oh, it is "real" all right! What could be more real than a big, fist-sized hunk of rock? If we get hit in the head with it, we are not likely to question its reality right away. We will leave that sort of speculation until after the stitches come out.
However, we are not talking about getting beat over the head with a fist-sized hunk of rock. We are talking about having that fist sized hunk of rock as our heart, beating in our chest. The words cannot even come out of my mouth before we realize that a heart of stone does not beat. It cannot beat, because it is inert and lifeless. The prophet used a very apt image in speaking of a heart of stone, because when we have a heart of stone, we are dead--without the lifeblood that keeps our bodies warm and nourished and alive!
That heart of stone is our conviction that our own bodies and our material possessions are the most important things in life. When we put ourselves and our physical pleasures at the center of our lives, then we truly have a stony heart. We completely miss the deeper realities of love and concern for other people, because our heart is made of the stone of materialism and self-centeredness. Even if we expand our sense of self to include our families and friends, but draw a line that excludes people outside of that circle, we still are putting stone instead of flesh at the heart of our lives.
Is that real? Is that what we really want from life?
What is more real? A rock? Or a warm and beating heart? What is more real? A nice house? Or the warm and pulsing love that can exist among human beings if we will commit our hearts to the way of the Lord?
Jesus also had a memorable way of pointing out what is real in life. He said:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19, 20)
As real as the things of this earth seem, even from a material perspective we know that they have not been here forever, nor do they last forever. Moths will eventually eat those beautiful clothes, and that fancy car will eventually rust away. The physical body that we give so much care to will also return to dust before many years have gone by.
But what of love? What of caring? What of the trust and mutual understanding that we can build up within us and among us if we choose the Lord's path?
Ah! These things do not become moth-eaten or rusty. They are the center and source of the universe. These things come straight from God--and they last forever.
My message for you this morning is: Let's get real!