Imagine… An Open Heart

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter: 

Come and stay at my home… (Acts 16:9-15)
We will come to them and make our home with them. (John 14:23-29)

In the late 1970s, New Jersey rock legend Bruce Springsteen met Joey Ramone, the lead singer of the punk rock group The Ramones. Joey asked Bruce to write a song for his group. Bruce had already written hit songs for other people, including “Fire” for the Pointer Sisters. Springsteen wrote today’s song just hours after that meeting — and decided to keep it for himself. That was a wise choice, because “Hungry Heart” went to No. 5 on the pop charts in 1980.

Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack,
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that know where it’s flowing,
I took a wrong turn and I just kept going

[Chorus] Everybody’s got a hungry heart,
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody’s got a hungry heart

As the youngest child of a Southern Baptist minister, I spent a lot of time at church. We went twice on Sunday for morning and evening services, and were there on Wednesday nights. Mom had choir practice and my brother and I spent time in youth groups. I never thought Wednesday night was very fair — especially if you were a girl. The Southern Baptist girl group was called “GAs,” or “Girls in Action.” The boys group was called the “RAs,” or “Royal Ambassadors.”

The GAs however, weren’t in action an awful lot; instead, we sat in a classroom doing Bible study or “sword drills” — looking up Bible verses as quickly as we could. The RAs? They were down in the gym playing basketball. Don’t ask me how that helped them become better Christians, but I could never convince our teacher that we girls might be happier if we could shoot some hoops too. So I hated Wednesday nights — and I wasn’t all that fond of Sundays either, since the morning service at the very least required the wearing of a dress.

There was only one time when we were granted a reprieve from compulsory church attendance. One time a year, we were allowed to stay home on Sunday night. That was the one time of the year when they showed “The Wizard of Oz.” For my brother and I it was like a national holiday, counting down the days to when we could watch the wicked witch and the flying monkeys instead of my dad.

As someone who was forced since birth to go to church, I’ve often wondered what brings other people in the door who were raised with a choice about whether or not to go to church. I truly don’t understand what brings people together in a community like this one. There are plenty of other things to be doing, but here you are — staring at me — instead of doing any of those things. Why?

Everyone has a hungry heart

I suspect that everyone here has a hungry heart. You’re seeking something — and you may not even know what it is, exactly — but you’ll know it when you see it, or when you hear it, or when you feel it. I suspect that many of you hunger for community — a place where you feel like you belong, a place where you can feel safe to be who God has made you to be, a place to take refuge from the harshness of the world. I suspect that many of you hunger for a closer connection to the holy — through song, through prayer, through the spoken word, through the presence of other hungry hearts.

Whatever you hunger for, you hope to find it here — to be able to fill up your spirit — to fill your life, your mind, and your heart with the holy. You’ve found your way to this place on this day, hoping to relieve some gnawing hunger to hear a word from God — to feel the companionship and love of another group of people. Rest assured, you’re not alone — everybody’s got a hungry heart — everyone here is hoping to be fed in some way.

In Jesus’ last appearance to the apostles he told them that people were hungry, and he told Peter, “Feed my sheep.” While it’s true that Jesus told Peter, the historic head of the church, to feed the followers, Jesus’ command extends down the line. It’s not just those of us behind the pulpit that are charged with feeding others — we are all tasked with the job of feeding the flock. We must feed one another, because we all have hungry hearts.

I met her in a Kingstown bar
We fell in love I knew it had to end
We took what we had and we ripped it apart
Now here I am down in Kingstown again

[Chorus] Everybody’s got a hungry heart,
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody’s got a hungry heart

In our reading from Acts today, we find Paul and some of the apostles on a journey. Paul has had a vision of a man in Macedonia — a man with a hungry heart — asking him to come and help them, so they set sail. They spent a few days in Macedonia, and on the Sabbath they did something unusual. Instead of getting up and putting on their Sabbath best and heading down to the temple, they went down to a gate by the riverside — a place where people, mainly women — had gathered to pray.

Who knows why these women gathered at the gate to pray instead of in the temple. Perhaps these were the outcasts — those who were not welcome at the temple, those who had been asked to leave the temple and not come back, or those who just knew that their hungry hearts could never be fed inside of such a place. Whatever their reason, they continued to hunger. So instead of gathering at the temple on the Sabbath, they met to pray at the gate by the riverside.

Lydia’s invitation

While worshipping with these outcasts, they met a woman named Lydia who is described as a “seller of purple goods.” This means that Lydia was a woman of means — someone who knew the rich and famous because purple clothing was bought exclusively by the royalty and the rich of the Roman world. In other words, Lydia had it all as far as the world was concerned. Even in this time when women were regarded as third- or fourth-class citizens, she had gained some prominence — and some wealth. She knew all the movers and the shakers and probably got invited to all the best parties.

Still, even given the riches of the world, Lydia needed more — even with a full bank account and undoubtedly a full belly, Lydia still had a hungry heart. She still yearned for something more — for something the world could not give her. So she gathered with the outcasts on the Sabbath, seeking something more. When she heard Paul talk about how he had been fed by the Holy — how his heart had been filled by the spirit of Christ — the text tells us that “the Lord opened her heart.”

This is the key to satisfying a hungry heart. Just like when our bellies are hungry, the only way to satisfy our hunger is to open our mouths so that food can get in, the only way to satisfy a hungry heart is to open it wide — so that the love and grace of the Holy can feed us until we are full — until we are so stuffed we can’t take one more morsel.

We only satisfy our hungry heart by opening it — by practicing an open heart policy, and opening our hearts to everyone around us — not just those we like or those we feel comfortable around. We must open our hearts to everyone — to friends, to foes, to strangers, to anyone who comes to us. This is the root of radical hospitality.

Lydia’s response to her newly opened heart is a model for how we are to live. When she felt her heart open and her hungry heart starting to be filled she said to the apostles, “Come to my house and stay.”

“Come to my house and stay.” This is the slogan of an open and filled heart. When our hearts are filled with the goodness of the Holy we cannot help but share it — we cannot help but spread the wealth. “Come to my house and stay.” These are the words that other hungry hearts long to hear — the invitation to come, to stay, to make ourselves at home.

There’s one more important lesson from the apostles’ journey to the gate that day. To practice this open-heart policy, we can’t just sit in this building, open the doors, and wait for all those hungry hearts to show up. No, we have to leave the building — we have to go into our communities and find those other hungry hearts. We have to go into the places where people are hurting , where people are longing for more, where people are about to give up because they can’t take the gnawing of their hungry hearts anymore.

We have to be willing to say to all that we meet, “Come to my house and stay, come to where I am being fed and eat your fill. Come and join me in this community that fills my heart.” We have to be willing to invite anyone and everyone to come to this place, this house, where we have an open heart policy — where every hungry heart is welcomed and fed.

Breathe deeply.

Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody says
Ain’t nobody like to be alone

[Chorus] Everybody’s got a hungry heart,
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody’s got a hungry heart

Our next song comes off of Bon Jovi’s 2005 album, Have a Nice Day. The song never caught on in the U.S. but was a minor hit in the U.K. Bon Jovi wrote the song during the 2004 presidential campaign as he supported Democratic candidate John Kerry. He told Larry King that he had high hopes for the song. He said: “I thought for sure this was going to be a universal, timeless theme song of unity, diversity. Not a hit, not even close. Swing and a miss.”

The song, “Welcome to Wherever You Are,” deserved to be a hit, and we’ll give it new life tonight.

Maybe we’re all different, but we’re still the same
We all got the blood of Eden, running through our veins
I know sometimes it’s hard for you to see
You’re caught between just who you are and who you wanna be
If you feel alone, and lost and need a friend
Remember every new beginning, is some beginning’s end

[Chorus] Welcome to wherever you are,
This is your life, you made it this far
Welcome, you gotta believe that right here right now,
you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be,
Welcome, to wherever you are

A home in the heart

My mother has always been my champion. No matter what situation I might find myself in, my mom has always been there to support me — to be on my side. I remember one year, when I was in drama class, the teacher decided we would put on a production of “Dogpatch USA” — a play based on the comic strip L’il Abner. That strip featured a character called Daisy Mae who wore those Daisy Duke short-shorts and a halter top that left very little to the imagination. I wasn’t interested in being in the play, so I didn’t audition.

It was only after auditions that the teacher announced that anyone who had not auditioned for a part would be extras, or “Dogpatchers.” I was horrified, because the costume for female “dogpatchers” was Daisy Duke short-shorts and a halter top. Imagine it for a moment. Not a pretty sight, right?

I refused, and all hell broke loose. My teacher sent me to the principal, a meeting that turned into a long therapy session about what it could be in my background that would not want me to put on short-shorts and a halter top and parade around on stage. Finally, the principal said, “Either you agree to be a dogpatcher, or I’m calling your mother.”

“Call my mother,” I said. I knew what would happen — because my mom is my champion.

She showed up at the school and listened to the principal tell her what an awful child I was for not wanting to wear short-shorts and a halter top and parade around a stage. When he was done he waited for my mother to lay into me for being so stubborn. Instead, my mother wagged her finger at the principal and said, “If my daughter doesn’t want to be a dogpatcher, she doesn’t have to be a dogpatcher.”

The principal was shocked; he was certain that my mother would back him up. Instead, she took my side — and I can still say that to this day I have never appeared, in public or in private, in Daisy Dukes and halter top.

Even though my mom lives in another state, she’s still the source of a lot of my strength. I know she’ll always be on my side — even if she doesn’t agree with me, she’ll still love me and be there for me when I need her. I can count on my mother — she has made a home in my heart.

My mother is so close to me in fact, that when I sing a hymn I can hear her singing right next to me in her wonderful alto voice. I told her that when I’m in the choir it’s her voice I hear when I sing the alto notes. She laughed a little bit and said, “Well then, you’re singing flat.”

The true nature of invitation

In our Jesus story today, we find our guy talking about home. He tells us that if you have an open heart, you’ll always be home, no matter where you are.

Those who love me will keep my word, and my Abba will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

This is Jesus’ open heart policy: Love, do as God commands us — to love God, to love ourselves and to love one another — and God will make her home with us. This is the ultimate in radical hospitality — no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, if you have love, you have a home — you have the Holy living in, through and around you at all times.

Pull up a chair and make yourself at home.

Breathe deeply.

When everybody’s in, and you’re left out
And you feel you’re drowning, in a shadow of a doubt
Everyone’s a miracle in their own way
Just listen to yourself, not what other people say
When it seems you’re lost, alone and feeling down
Remember everybody’s different,
Just take a look around

[Chorus] Welcome to wherever you are,
This is your life, you made it this far
Welcome, you gotta believe that right here right now,
you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be,

An open-heart policy, that satisfies hungry hearts and welcomes people to wherever they are, begins with an invitation. Unless we are actively going out and meeting people, how can we ever expect to bring them into the room with us? But extending invitations is often intimidating. Often, we don’t want to take that first step — we want others to do that for us, to invite us out of our isolation, out of our loneliness, out of our despair.

But as the apostles show us, we are obligated to take that first step — to go out to the gate by the river where the outcasts gather, and make that invitation.

As Peter Block writes in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, an invitation must be open and genuine, “without promising incentives or rewards.”

He writes that:

Genuine invitation changes our relationship with others, for we come to them as an equal. I must be willing to take no for an answer, without resorting to various forms of persuasion. To sell or induce is not operating by invitation. It is using the language of invitation as a subtle form of control.

We cannot make a genuine invitation without an open heart, because it’s only with an open heart that we allow ourselves to be in relationship and to be changed by our relationship with others. Because genuine invitation isn’t a coercive invitation — or an invitation where a reward is promised — be prepared for only a few people to take you up on it.

As the apostles sat by the gate, we can only imagine that there was a throng of people there as they worshipped with these outcasts — but we’re told that only one person, Lydia, took them up on their invitation. They weren’t promising anything grand to the people as they worshipped. They weren’t preaching a prosperity gospel where if you pray right you get earthly rewards. They were telling the people the hard story of Jesus and his life — how he came and lived a life of love and commanded us to do the same — probably with the same result: Rejection, abuse, death. They probably didn’t paint a pretty picture about what it means to pursue the holy in this life that worships and pursues the profane.

They didn’t try to coerce those present at the gate — they just told their story and waited — and Lydia responded. She returned their hospitality. Lydia understood what real invitation is about. It’s not a promise of reward — instead it’s a promise to engage, a promise to get involved, to be committed.

Block says:

Real change… is a self inflicted wound. People need to self-enroll in order to experience their freedom and commitment. Let this begin in the decision to attend, knowing there is a price to be paid far beyond the cost of time and perhaps money.

Small but committed

This is why there’s not a big throng of folks waiting to eagerly accept your invitation to them to come on by Jubilee! Circle. You may promise that they’ll enjoy themselves and sing some good songs — but beyond that the only thing we truly have to offer anyone here is a chance to engage, a chance to get involved, a chance to be committed to this intentional community.

That’s an invitation many find easy to refuse, because they understand that the invitation is really one to change — to open their hearts to others — and that’s pretty scary stuff.

So, Jubilee! Circle may be a small group of people for a long time — perhaps forever — because we believe in genuine invitation, one without promised rewards, but an expectation of the self-inflicted wound of engagement in real change.

When that is the basis of our invitation, our numbers may be few, but as Block says, the real reward is that we’ll constantly find ourselves in a “room with people who want to be there.” We’ll constantly be in the presence of people who are committed to real change — people who can imagine… an open heart, people who can imagine… the possibilities and are dedicated to making tomorrow not just a little better than today, but “a future distinct from the past.”

It begins, though — just as Paul’s journey to Macedonia began — with a vision. Unless we can envision the future we want — the community that we want, the change we want to be — we’ll never reach that goal. So, I ask you tonight, what are your dreams for Jubilee! Circle? What is your vision of this place? Is it just a place to come for celebration services, or do you see us as a real force for change in this world — an intentional community of people who show up because they want to engage with each other and the world?

To achieve that vision requires us to imagine… an open heart — a heart big enough to take no for an answer, a heart big enough to reach out to those we may not have ever thought to invite — those “others” who may make us uncomfortable or who we may disagree with — but who need to be here.

Extending a genuine invitation is difficult, but Jesus promises we aren’t left on our own to do it; the Holy Spirit — the Holy that dwells in, through, and around us all — is with us. We are not left orphaned. We have a power higher than our own will.

So I invite you Jubilants, I invite you, to think about who else you want in this room with you. I invite you to imagine… an open heart, and extend those invitations to those other hungry hearts out there — invitations free of coercion, free of expectation. I invite you to say to people, “Welcome to wherever you are,” instead of seeking to change them in any way; this is how an open heart approaches others. Even if one Lydia responds by opening her heart back to you — then you will have accomplished the task of an open heart policy.

[Bridge] Be who you want to be, be who you are,
Everyone’s a hero, everyone’s a star
When you wanna give up, and your heart’s about to break
Remember that you’re perfect, God makes no mistakes

[Chorus] Welcome to wherever you are,
This is your life, you made it this far
Welcome, you gotta believe that right here right now,
you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be,
Welcome …

Oh, Yeah!