Widen Your Hearts



2 CORINTHIANS 5:20-6:13

Ash Wednesday March, 6, 2019

Listen to Widen Your Hearts

Widen Your Hearts

 The number of people that show up to a person’s funeral doesn’t always indicate the impact of that person’s life. The Lord gives us different gifts and different areas of influences. We could have a very small area of influence and have a small funeral at the end of our lives and yet the presence of the Lord still can be powerful in that service. I have officiated funeral services like that in my career. Or we could have a very large funeral where people show up because they feel like they are expected to, or the person was a well known celebrity who they admired but never really new. But sometimes a life is both deep and wide. Sometimes a person comes along who uses their gifts for others and has a wide area of influence.

Such was the case for my friend Amy Cornell, who’s funeral I went to on Saturday. It was held in the Honeywell Center for the Arts, which is a large theater in Wabash built by the Honeywell foundation, the same people who make electronic Honeywell thermostats. The service was held in the historic Ford Theater, which can hold up to 1,500 people. I know many of you have never heard of Amy Cornell. Her name isn’t in the national news. And her name wasn’t mentioned all that much in local news in Wabash either. But she was well known in her community for being an ambassador for Christ. At her funeral I was one of the first to arrive. And I marveled as the Ford theater filled up. It wasn’t completely full but there had to be close to a thousand people there.  A dozen or so officers from the Wabash police department came in uniform. As well as another dozen or so officers from the sheriff’s department. There were folks from the Indiana Supreme Court, where Amy had been a law clerk, who were there. There were folks from White’s Foster Care, Wabash Presbyterian Church, Princeton Theological Seminary, and a myriad of other people from the community, there to show the Cornell and Conner family how much this woman meant to them. There was weeping, there was laughing, there was a moving message by Amy’s youth minister.  At the end of the service her Amy’s son Christian, stood on stage to lead us in a family lullaby she and my friend Jonathan sang to her children every night. We came in mourning. We left with a measure of peace.

I was closer to Amy’s husband Jonathan, than I was to Amy herself. Before, I attended her funeral, I didn’t have a full sense of the impact of Amy’s life. “Simply, one of the best people I’ve ever met.” Was a common refrain I heard from Amy’s friends and family. Amy had a host of talents and gifts. She had a powerful persona. She could be intimidating as a Superior District Court Judge. But she always had the ability to make complete strangers feel valued, to make complete strangers feel they were worthy of love. While she had no problems making friends, from grade school she would often seek out those who did have problems making friends, and befriend them. Despite her impressive accomplishments she would lift people up in her presence not put them down. People would leave her presence feeling greater than they had been before not less than they had been before.

Out of the many scriptures mentioned in Amy’s two hour memorial service one scripture stick out in my mind. It is  2 Corinthians 2:14 which reads, “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere.” Those who knew Amy best described a fragrance, an aroma around her life, which left a lasting impression, even if you only met her once. As I was thinking about our text tonight I could think of no better example of an Ambassador of Christ than Amy Cornell. She didn’t preach on a street corner. She didn’t argue with people till she was blue in the face. Instead, she presented to them the warm home cooked meal of her life. Amy widened her heart to the world. And her warm heart baked the bread of God’s word in her life so that it released a fragrance of warm bread to a starving world. And I think in my friend Amy’s life and in this text there is good news tonight.

The Good News: When we widen our hearts the Lord will release the fragrance of the warm bread of his word to a starving world.

As an ambassador of Christ Paul is preparing a meal of warm bread in this passage. He does so by widening his heart. And he encourages the Corinthians to widen their hearts as well. This term for widen is used elsewhere in the scriptures in Matthew 23. But there the scriptures present us with the negative example of the Pharisees. Paul himself was a converted Pharisee and if you study his letters you can see his struggle to reconcile his legalistic background with the Gospel of Grace that the Lord Jesus revealed to him.  It is interesting that Jesus chose a Pharisee to be his ambassador to the world. Because Jesus is very critical of the Pharisees before he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.  In Matthew 23. To quote Jesus, “ The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi.”

Now I know that phylacteries have fallen out of fashion with kids these days, and for that matter with everyone else. So let me explain what they were. They were basically little boxes that you would strap around your head. In those boxes observant Jews would place little scrolls that usually had the first five books of the Bible or the Torah as the Jewish people call it. It was meant to be an outward sign of one’s inward devotion to God. It would be a lot like wearing a cross around your neck today or getting a religious tattoo. The Pharisees were trying to respond to what they saw as a lack of devotion in their society. And their solution was basically bigger is better. If people are falling away from God have bigger crosses, bigger buildings, more laws, more monuments, more prayer in schools,  better arguments for how the society has gone wrong and how only we the religious can fix it.

But Jesus described this strategy of countering a decadent culture with outward signs of religion and strict laws as a burden that not even the teachers of the law could bear. The Pharisees didn’t win the culture wars of their day. But the followers of Jesus did. Paul planted more churches than any church planter in human history. He did so by widening his heart. He won over the culture by preaching the truth in love. He won over the culture by presenting a warmer word, a warmer teaching, a warmer bread, than the bread the culture around him offered.

You may have the best bread in the world but if your competition’s bread is warmer, people might just decide to eat an inferior product. Take for example Little Caesar’s hot and ready Pizza versus the Pizza you might buy at the Azalea Inn, a local Greek establishment, that serves pretty great Pizza. Clearly Azalea Inn takes more time and care crafting their Pizza, and it is a legitimately better Pizza than Little Caesar’s.  I think most of us who have been to Azalea would agree on that point. But if you are given the choice between an Azalea Pizza that has been in the fridge for three days or a little Caesar’s Pizza that is straight out of the warmer, you might just choose the Little Caesar’s Pizza. You may regret that decision later. But in a fast paced culture often we choose convenience over quality. We choose Little Caesar’s over Azalea because it is cheap, it is fast, and it is hot and ready. But with an Azalea Pizza it takes a little more time to put the ingredients together. It takes a little more time to get the oven to the correct temperature to produce a warm meal which is also a quality meal.

In our passage tonight we see that Paul really has been through the school of hard knocks. Afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger.  We can tell from this summary and other stories in the Bible that there were points in Paul’s life where his health and his wealth in this world were reduced to little more than ashes. But in the midst of the ashes the coals of his love burned ever brighter.  Paul rose from the ashes to love those around him. He tells us how,

“by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left.” We see that Paul rose from the ashes not by widening his phylactery, not by buying a bigger cross, but by widening his heart.

Perhaps tonight you can relate to some of the trials that Paul describes. Perhaps you too have been through the school of hard knocks. The world’s solution for getting through the school of hard knocks is to grow thicker skin.  To build up protective armor so others can’t get to us. But the problem with that is eventually someone is going to get under our skin. And when they do because of our thick skin the hurt gets trapped within us. Fewer things may get to us when we grow thicker skin. But the things that do get under our skin tend to get trapped inside and weigh us down for a long time.

Paul’s solution to the trials of life is not to grow thicker skin but to grow bigger hearts. It is not to protect ourselves from outside threats but to encompass those threats in Divine love so that they are disarmed by the weapons of righteousness in our right hand and in our left. This sounds like a tall order. And it would be if Paul had not abandoned his phylactery and his place at the front of the table to get down in the trenches with those he loved. Paul tells his people to widen their hearts as he has widened his. And he put his money where his mouth was.  And thus tonight I tell you all to widen your hearts. But only as much as I am willing to widen mine.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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