Opening the Heart – Br. David Vryhof

Genesis 6:5-8 and 7:1-5,10;
Mark 8:14-21

Christianity – contrary to popular opinion – is a religion of the heart. It engages us at the deepest levels of our being.

I say “contrary to popular opinion” because the most common perception of Christian faith in modern western minds is that Christian faith is about accepting a certain set of “beliefs” to be true.

Christians, in the minds of most people, are people who “believe” certain statements or propositions about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, about the human condition, and so on.

I would say that this notion of Christian faith as giving mental assent to a set of beliefs is the prevalent understanding today for Christians and non-Christians alike.

For most people, Christian faith means believing certain things to be true: believing, for example, that there is a God, that the Bible is the revelation of God, and that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for our sins. Certain Christian groups have their own criteria for believing.  To be considered authentically Christian in some groups, members may be expected to believe in creationism rather than evolution, or to believe that Christians will be raptured from the earth before Christ comes to destroy the whole world, or to believe that speaking in tongues is the primary indicator of the Spirit’s presence in our lives.

What one believes becomes the chief criteria by which one is recognized as a Christian or not.  This kind of thinking makes Christianity a religion of the mind, rather than of the heart.  Salvation depends on what one thinks or believes.

What we believe is no doubt important – communities are formed on the basis of similar values and beliefs – but this kind of believing – asserting that various statements about God or Jesus or the Bible or the world are true – does not accurately reflect the fullness of what Christian faith is all about.  The emphasis on this kind of believing is a modern development.  The understanding of faith expressed in the Bible and in the tradition of the Church is much broader and deeper.

Christian faith has more to do with the heart than with the head.  Again, this is not to deny the importance of right thinking, of theological study, or of sound scholarship, but to recognize that Christian faith deals not just with the mind, but with the deepest levels of the self.  Christian faith operates at a level below our thinking, feeling, and willing; it engages our hearts.

We can sense Jesus’ frustration in the gospel reading for tonight when, following the miracle of the feeding of the 4,000, the disciples fail to see and understand what he has been teaching them about faith.

They are still operating on the most superficial level.  They are following him, but only in the most literal sense. They have not yet begun to see as Jesus sees, or to understand what Jesus understands, or to live as Jesus lives.  Their faith is weak, faltering, unformed.

In exasperation Jesus says to them, “Do you still not perceive or understand?  Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see?  Do you have ears, and fail to hear?”

We don’t often speak of “hardened hearts, although the expression is common in the Bible. We might say instead that their hearts were closed – closed to the real meaning of Jesus’ words and actions, oblivious to the presence and activity of God in and among them, detached from the invisible realm of the Spirit.

They see and understand what is happening all around them at the most concrete and superficial level. They are self-preoccupied, turned in on themselves, cut off from the larger reality that surrounds them. They cannot see God or recognize the presence and activity of God in their daily lives, even in the company of Jesus! Their hearts are closed.

We recognize this condition, don’t we? We recognize that we too can be blind to God’s presence and activity in and among us. We too can be turned away from God, our hearts closed in on themselves, focused only on ourselves and our desires. We too can find our hearts closed toward God and toward one another – when we get lost and entangled in jealousy or greed, in anger or resentment, in misplaced ambitions or in a preoccupation with possessions.

The light within us dims.  We forget who we are.  We forget whose we are.  We lose touch with the spiritual world in which we live and move and have our being.  Our hearts are cut off from God.

The ancient Israelites told a story of a time when there was great wickedness on the earth.  Human beings, having been created in the image and likeness of God, turned away from God and closed their hearts, so that “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen 6:5,6)  God destroyed the earth in that day, the story tells us, except for one man and his family, whose hearts were open to God and who had “found favor in the sight of the Lord.” (Gen 6:8)

Sometimes our hearts are closed by our own choice.  We have chosen to turn away from God, to reject the ways of God, to focus on what we want or think we want.

Sometimes our hearts are closed in response to something external that has happened to us.  We may have experienced rejection, or some deep suffering or pain, a life-changing loss – and our hearts close down in grief or disappointment or despair.

Sometimes our hearts are closed in response to something internal.  Feelings of fear, anxiety, self-doubt, anger and resentment, can all affect the closing of the heart.


We recognize this condition, this blindness, this inability to open ourselves to God or to others or even to ourselves.  When we inhabit this darkness, it eats away at our souls. Opening our hearts is like flinging open the windows on a spring day, allowing the fresh air to sweep away all that is stale and arid.

When our hearts are open, we awaken to the wonder and mystery of life, and of God, and of each other, and of ourselves..

We become aware of God’s presence and activity all around us. We experience what it is to see with new eyes and hear with new ears.We are sensitive to the breath of the Spirit, lifting and carrying us forward.

The heaviness and darkness begin to lift, and light pours in.

Opening our hearts makes a way for forgiveness and healing to enter. The bitterness, resentment, anger, and discontent that were the expression of our closed heart give way to compassion, understanding, and love.  We need open hearts to be made whole.

Opening our hearts brings gratitude into our lives. A closed heart sees no reason to be grateful; it is aware only of its own unmet desires, its own sufferings and disappointments.  But an open heart is full of gratitude for all that is.  It sees goodness and beauty in ourselves, the world and others; it senses hope and possibility.

Opening our hearts prompts within us a concern for others. It fosters empathy and compassion, and sparks within us a passion for justice.  It urges us to reach out, to stand up, to speak out, to act.

In what state is your heart today?  Can it best be described open or closed?  If it is closed, why is it closed?  Is there some pain or disappointment or loss that has caused it to shut itself?  Towards whom is it closed?  Towards God, or towards some person or group of people?

Explore your heart today.  Pray for a heart that is open.

Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat and Secretary General of the United Nations in the middle of the last century, has left us this prayer:

Give us pure hearts, that we may see you;
Humble hearts, that we may hear you;

Hearts of love, that we may serve you;
Hearts of faith, that we may abide in you.

© 2009

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  1. Pam on June 16, 2017 at 10:07

    Preached 8 years ago and still relevant today. Perhaps more than any other thought I’ve read, belief as a function of the head vs. a function of the heart explains much about the crisis Christians face today in the way that we are so divided about various issues. For example, we read that some are “pro-life,” but they may be quick to endorse a build up of the military. Everyone agrees that we should love our neighbor, but some draw the line at the refugees desperate to gain entry to the United States as a place of safety. I have wondered how to explain such disparities among people who all claim to be Christian. I think your sermon nails it.

    • SusanMarie on June 16, 2017 at 17:23

      Excellent comment, Pam!

  2. Rhode on June 16, 2017 at 09:19

    Not sure if a ‘closed heart’ works for 2017. I am part of a world whose hearts and minds are seemingly full – the internet, media, families, friends and our places of wordship; a cacophany of beliefs and interests constantly begging for attention. Jesus has to stand in line with Nordstrom’s summer sale, the antics of our elected offiicials, ancient aliens and the daily news. Our hearts and minds aren’t closed – they are stuffed.
    Listening for the ‘still small voice’ in prayer and scripture, choosing to stop each morning before the ‘narrow gate’ really helps me. These SSJE messages also help…to daily surrender to our Lord in corrected priority, my overcrowded mind and heart. (thank you)

  3. SusanMarie on June 16, 2017 at 08:17

    Beautiful, beautiful sermon! Thank you for this gift. Much to ponder here and I will be reading this again and again and sharing it as well.

  4. Anne Coke on June 2, 2015 at 10:09

    I like to switch words in the psalms and your wonderful words about the heart prompt me to pray “O Lord open Thou my heart ,and my lips will show forth Thy praise.” Praise and thanks quite naturally issue from the opened heart.

  5. Roger Williams on June 2, 2015 at 08:19

    Right on the mark! Expressed beautifully!
    Thank you so much.

  6. Sue Tidwell on June 2, 2015 at 08:02

    In Alabama strangers often ask “are you a believer?” My answer is “God doesn’t give a hoot what we believe. What you believe and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee.” Then we have an interesting conversation. Although most probably think I am going to hell, two of those strangers I met in doctors waiting rooms are now Episcopalians.

  7. Evan Lassen on May 20, 2014 at 10:41

    Anglican trails blazed by the likes of St. Augustine,
    Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, Elizabeth 1, James 1
    Thomas Cramner …….on and on display the uniting of the head and heart and allow and feel the love of God. As I have heard, to release any Demon residing in the pit of our being, we must first indentify, verify and then name it (them). We now enables one to open the heart and mind and accept the grace open to us to live in
    presence of and now.

    Thank you for your reminder.

    Evan Lassen

  8. Ruth West on April 26, 2013 at 21:36

    This brings to my memory a little song learned as a small child: “Into my heart, Into my heart; Come into my heart, Lord Jesus; Come in today, come in to stay; Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” That remains as my
    sincere desire every day. Thanks for bringing the focus where it belongs.

  9. DLa Rue on April 21, 2013 at 08:56

    Reading through this sermon, the Collect for Purity kept echoing through my mind…based on an 11th c. prayer translated into English in the 14th c.:

    God, unto Whom alle hertes ben open, and unto Whom alle wille spekith, and unto Whom no privé thing is hid: I beseche Thee so for to clense the entent of myn heart with the unspekable gift of Thi grace that I may parfiteliche love Thee, and worthilich preise Thee. Amen.

    Made a part of the (Latin) Sarum rite, a later translation was included in Cranmer’s first (1549) prayer book. It is more recently recognized, perhaps (from the American BCP ’79), as:

    “Almighty God, to You all hearts are open, all desires known, and from You no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love You, and worthily magnify Your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”

  10. Nancy Barnard Starr on February 11, 2012 at 12:40

    Lovely and full of meaning and hope. Thank you, Br David, for these words, nestling the heart so close to our souls. Blessings, Nancy

  11. Mino Sullivan on February 11, 2012 at 08:10

    Thank you, Br. David. If only we could remember and experience anamnesia.

  12. Cliff Waller on February 11, 2012 at 06:40

    This sermon comes to me at just the right time. It’s message and call inspire me to again seek that openness of heart that animates all authentic ministry. With new heart with the Psalmist I cry: O Lord open our lips and our mouth shall proclaim your praise! Many thanks for this offering!

  13. Clark on February 11, 2012 at 05:53

    As one who had open heart surgery nine months ago, terms like “open hearts,” “hardened hearts” take an extra layers of meaning and experience. And a laugh escapes as I note that I have “a new heart!” Isn’t God wonderful!

  14. Anonymous on February 11, 2012 at 05:10

    Dag Hammarskjöld was a mystic. Follow his prayer and know God.

  15. John McDargh on September 18, 2011 at 04:48

    thank you Brother David for this word.. It is a powerful and evocative expression of what theologian Marcus Borg has also been trying to communicate in works such as “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith” – for me your most moving contribution to my own prayer is your threefold meditation on what it might mean to have an “open heart”.. Gratefully… J

  16. roxane chan on February 26, 2009 at 11:34

    This was very beautiful. It gave me inspiration and confirmation of the role of the heart in Jesus’s teaching. Thank you

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