Lift up your hearts A Sermon at the Chrism Eucharist 15th April, 2014. 1 Samuel 3.1-10; Luke 7.36-50

The Lord be with you And also with you

Lift up your hearts We lift them to the Lord

About two years ago, this particular phrase in the service of Holy Communion began to strike me afresh.

It’s a feature of all good Christian ministry that we get to know one another better over time.  When a priest first comes to a parish or a bishop first comes to a diocese, when a lay minister is licensed or authorized, we do not know each other well.  We are strangers called by God to walk together and serve together in our different ministries.

But, with time, of course, strangers become friends.  This is one of the great mysteries and privileges of Christian ministry. Through listening and shared experiences, through dialogue and sometimes disagreement, through mistakes made and forgiven, bonds of love are forged.  We see the world, a little more through one another’s eyes.  We learn to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

The longer we are in a place, the better we know it. Because of that knowledge it has become more and more meaningful for me to say in many different congregations and contexts, “Lift up your hearts” and to hear the response back: “We lift them to the Lord”.

Lift up your hearts We lift them to the Lord

The focus of my sermon this evening is what it means to say those words and what it is to set those words at the heart of ministry.

Some of us have the immense privilege as priests of summoning a whole community to lift up their hearts in the Eucharist.  But others are called no less to invite God’s people to lift up their hearts in different ways: in the ministry of the word and in the prayers, in pastoral care, in evangelism, as we lead worship or work with children or young people.  This call and invitation goes right to the heart of our understanding of every kind of ministry.  So what does it mean?

The words have a long and wide pedigree.  They go back to the earliest descriptions of the Eucharist in the third century.  They are present in the rites of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and all the churches of the Reformation as well as our own Church of England.  What does it mean to say “Lift up your hearts”?

The words are biblical, like so much of our liturgy, but they are not an exact quotation. In Lamentations we read: “Let us lift up our hearts as well as our hands to God in heaven” (3.41).  In the Psalms: “To you O Lord I lift up my soul” (25.1 see also 86.4 and 143.8).  There is perhaps an echo of Psalm 24: “Lift up your heads, O gates and be lifted up, O ancient doors” (24.7,9).  Colossians 3 says this: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth for your life is hidden with Christ in God” (3.2).

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the heart is much more than the physical organ which pumps blood round the body.  The idea of the heart is a big idea.  In contemporary culture, the heart is the seat of the emotions and especially the place of romantic love.   In the Bible it is much more.  The heart is the very centre of our inner life, our spiritual life, our emotions, our character and our will.  The heart is the whole of who we are and how we are.

What is that we are lifting up?  When I invite a congregation to lift up their hearts, I’m asking you to lift your very selves to God.  And what is a priest, what is an evangelist, what is a Reader, what is a pastor except someone who is called to make that invitation in everything we do: in the structuring of worship, in prayers at the bedside, in teaching the faith to enquirers, in the ministry of welcome, in our care of little children.  What are we saying except: “Lift up your hearts”?

There are many layers of meaning woven through those scriptures but let me explore three of them this evening.

First and foremost we lift our hearts to a God of compassion, who loves us, who stands with us, who cares for us in ways we cannot understand, whose Son died for us. It is no accident that these words stand at the head of the Eucharistic prayer.  We make the memorial of Christ and especially of his death and resurrection: his one full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.  We lift up our broken, wounded and hurting hearts and place them into the gentle hands of our creator.

Bishop Peter and I have just finished a series of five residential clergy conferences at Whirlow Grange.  Those conferences were an immense privilege to lead.  It was a particular and moving experience for both of us to preside, in turns, at the Eucharist at each conference, to look around the room at those with whom we are called to share this ministry, and to be able to say: “Lift up your hearts”.

Today as you will know is the 25th Anniversary of the Hillsborough tragedy. I went with others to the short service at Hillsborough this afternoon, led by David Jeans who was involved in ministry to the bereaved and injured.  David did not use these exact words, but his message to those who are grieving today is the same: “Lift up your hearts”.

It is likewise an enormous privilege to stand before any congregation in this diocese of faithful disciples and say these same words: to those who are rejoicing, Lift up your hearts.  To those who are cast down: Lift up your hearts.  To those who are quarrelling: Lift up your hearts.  To those who are broken: Lift up your hearts.

In our gospel reading, Jesus’ long speech to Simon is a speech of such gentleness and love for the woman who has brought oil to anoint him, who has bathed his feet with her tears, who has dried them with her very hair (Luke 7.36-50).  Jesus has created safe space in the midst of a hostile room.  By her actions the woman has said to him:  “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul, O my God in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame” (Psalm 25.1-2).  Through his words Jesus has replied: “Lift up your heart”; “Your sins are forgiven, your faith has saved you, go in peace”.

We must grasp the love and mercy of God afresh especially in this Holy Week.

But in second place, we lift our hearts, as God’s forgiven people, to a God who calls us to holiness, to sanctification, to be transformed and made new.

This is the context of the verse in Lamentations:

“Let us test and examine our ways and return to the LORD. Let us lift up our hearts as well as our hands to God in heaven. We have transgressed and rebelled and you have not forgiven” (Lamentations 3.40-42).

It is sobering to remember the first reference to human hearts in the Bible is in the preface to the story of the flood:  “The LORD saw that….every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6.5).  According to Jeremiah the human heart is devious above all things (Jeremiah 17.9).

It is sobering to remember the call of Jeremiah and Ezekiel that humanity needs a new and radical transformation.  To be in a covenant relationship with God we need a whole new heart – a complete change (Jeremiah 24.7; Ezekiel 36.26)

It is sobering to remember that, according to Jesus, “Out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15.19).  It is sobering to remember the hardness of heart which afflicts even the religious, even Simon the Pharisee, who is blind to his own corruption and so blind to the great love of God for both him and the woman he knows as a sinner (Luke 7.36-50).

Whenever we lift up our hearts to the Lord, we lift them up in the hope and prayer that these poor, small, sinful hearts will be made new and transformed and reshaped and made clean again and enlarged so that we may love God and love our neighbour more faithfully and with deeper integrity.  We are praying that our hearts of stone will become hearts of flesh again.

We come here as Christian ministers seeking to be transformed in this Eucharist and in every Eucharist including those in which we ourselves are ministers of word or sacrament.  For us and for all God’s people, the Eucharist is a converting ordinance for the transformation of our lives.  The oils we bless today are for signs of healing, for wholeness, for transformation, for the changing of the heart.

“As we recall the one perfect sacrifice of our redemption, Father, by your Holy Spirit, let these gifts of your creation be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ; form us into the likeness of Christ and make us a perfect offering in your sight”(Common Worship Order One, Eucharistic Prayer F) [1]

To lift up our hearts, to offer God our inmost lives, is to invite God to change us and through us to help transform God’s world.

We lift up our hearts to hold them in God’s love.  We lift up our hearts so that God will, through his mercy, change them, soften them and enlarge them.

Finally we lift up our hearts and we call others to lift their hearts in worship, in adoration, to the things of heaven, to the things above.  As bishops, as priests, as deacons, as lay ministers, our calling is to invite others away from the business of earth to the business of heaven: the adoration of the Trinity.   For these few moments in the week we are indeed called to be so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly use: lost in wonder, love and praise so that we might bring that vision of heaven into all we do on earth.

“Set your mind on things that are above, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3.1).

Lift up your hearts means to be caught up in the worship of heaven, in the song of the angels, to join with angels and archangels as they proclaim God’s glory without end:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are full of your glory.  Hosanna in the highest.

St. Augustine says this in one of his sermons:

The whole life of true Christians is “Lift up your hearts”, not that of Christians in name only, but of Christians in reality and truth. Their whole life is “Lift up your hearts”. What then is “Lift up your hearts”? It is hope in God, not in yourself, for you are below, God is on high. If your hope is in yourself, your heart is below, it is not on high. And so, when you have heard from the priest, “Lift up your heart”, you answer, “We lift them to the Lord”. Make sure that you make a true answer.[2]

To live well in this earth we so need the perspective of heaven.  We need to set our minds on things that are above not on things that are on earth for you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God.

In this Eucharist and in every Eucharist, lift up your hearts.  Lift up your hearts as you renew your commitment to ministry. Lift up your hearts as we dedicate these oils as signs of God’s grace.  Lift up your hearts as we remember his great offering of himself.

Let us lift up our fragile hearts to the mercy and tenderness of God who loves us with a passion beyond telling.

Let us lift up our stony and deceitful hearts and invite God once again to transform them by his gracious Spirit.

Let us lift our earthbound and fragmented hearts to the worship of heaven and the adoration of the one true and living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit:

In the words of Hebrews:

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the Living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Hebrews 12.22-24).

Lift up your hearts We lift them to the Lord.

[1] See also Prayer A: “Renew us by your Spirit, inspire us with your love and unite us in the body of your Son Jesus Christ”; Prayer C: “Grant that be his merits and death and through faith in his blood we and all your Church may receive forgiveness of our sins and all other benefits of his passion….Do not weigh our merits but pardon our offences”; Prayer G: “form us in the likeness of Christ and build us to a living temple to your glory”

[2] Augustine, Sermo 227.  I have changed the translation from “Hearts on high!”, the literal translation of “Sursum Corda” to the more familiar English, “Lift up your hearts”.