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Close to a Father's Heart

Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Jan 10, 2021

Jeremiah 31: 7-14
Ephesians 1: 3-14
John 1: 10-18

“And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1900-1944, French Author, Pilot; from The Little Prince

I knew a man that people said did not really have a heart. That’s not how they put it, but that’s what they meant. He’d been a member of the church I’d served for decades and had been an elder. He’d raised his children at the church. But no one really liked him. They said he was crotchety and cantankerous even as a young man. He was argumentative, condescending and resistant to change. When he was an elder, he seemed to get into conflicts with everyone. Then when his kids grew up, he dropped out of church altogether. His wife kept coming to church and she was much loved and respected. But most people felt sorry for her, because she was married to him.

By the time I was pastor there, his wife was in declining health. She had been sequestered at home and he was her only caregiver. Neither had been at church for several years. I resolved to visit them, but people warned me not to expect much. He’ll probably tell you to leave, they warned me. He won’t even let you in the door. Now by this point I was no amateur at ministry and had had the door slammed in my face more than once. I figured I ought to at least give it a try.

When I visited their home, he received me graciously. He spoke kindly and asked me about myself and how things were going at the church. He asked about particular people. He read the newsletter and kept up with news. He told me how his wife was doing, and we went into her room with her. She was deep into dementia. We had a prayer.

Afterwards he told me that it was his wife who believed in prayer, not he. He told me honestly that even with all his years in church, even as an elder, he had never really been a believer. He attended church because his wife wanted to attend church. All this was said in a frank but kind way. He was simply being honest. He was glad I’d prayed with his wife, because she believed and I believe. I appreciated his respectful attitude toward our faith.

When next I visited him, it was soon after his wife had died. He was tending his backyard and greeted me with a sad smile. The service had already happened; it had been a small service attended only by family and a handful of long-time friends. We talked in the garden. He told me how much he had loved her and how he missed her. We talked about books; he was a voracious reader. He’d been particularly interested recently in books about the black experience in America and loaned me a couple that have had a great influence on me. I still have them.

He told me that now that his wife was dead, his will to live had left him. We talked about death but he said he didn’t believe in life after death. He just wanted the pain of this life to end. We parted amiably. I was sad but had enjoyed our visit.

He died just a few weeks later.

People had told me he didn’t have a heart. But he had a great heart.

Another person’s heart is hard for any of us to see. Most people who knew this man, at least in that church, did not really credit this man with a heart. But his heart was his wife. She was his world. Her suffering brought out his heart in a deep and profound way. That is because the problem with having a heart is that hearts suffer. To have a heart means to have a fragility that most of us fear.

But not to have a heart is far worse.

In our Gospel lesson today, John tells us that “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,[c] who is close to the Father’s heart,[d] who has made him known.” If we were to judge God by what we see in the world, it would not be unreasonable to assume that if there is a God, God has no heart. There is so much suffering, meanness, sadness and misery. That was my friend the so-called heartless man’s argument against God. How could God allow his wife, who was a woman of great faith, to suffer so? It’s a good question. I didn’t try to answer it for him, and I won’t try to answer it now, because any answer is facile and inadequate. I do not really know God, at least not that way. Only Jesus knows God’s heart.

And that is how we know that God has a heart.

A heart is revealed in all its broken glory through suffering. And Jesus, who was God walking among us, suffered. Jesus, who was at once mysteriously God, and God’s Son, suffered among us as one of us, alleviated the suffering of others, called out those who cause suffering, and died at the hands of those who perceived his great heart as a threat. He suffered shame, ignominy, humiliation, horrible physical pain and death. God’s heart was broken that day.

But this suffering happened because God was more concerned about your and my suffering, about human suffering and pain, and cared so much about it that God chose to go to the extreme of becoming human and suffering in person in order to do something about it.

It is an odd thing to proclaim someone a hero because they have suffered. We think of heroes as people who take action. But the truth is we’ve always known that true heroes bear suffering so that others won’t have to. We celebrate them on occasions like Memorial Day. On those days we don’t remember the living heroes who still get to wear their medals. We do honor them, but that’s not what a day like Memorial Day is for. On those days we remember the private who was gunned down by a German machine gun as soon as the gate on his landing craft opened. He never even got to fire a shot. He suffered, and his family suffered, and his friends suffered. But you and I are here because of him and hundreds of thousands of others who didn’t win medals but have suffered on our behalf.

Suffering is heroism because it reveals the heart. Certainly all of us suffer in some way, and not all of us are heroic about it. And I don’t mean to make some kind of blanket statement that you find out who a person truly is when they suffer, because I don’t think that’s fair. Some people suffer well and that doesn’t make them good people, and some people suffer poorly and that doesn’t mean they’re bad people. But what I mean is that those who suffer willingly show you who they really are—they show you their heart.

My friend who spent nearly a decade quietly tending his declining wife showed his heart deeply. I suspect as much as anything the reason he and I had such pleasant visits and developed a rapport was because his willingness to sacrifice so much for her sake had changed him in a profound way. For whatever reason, he had hidden his true self for years behind a façade of hard-edged cynicism. But tending his wife had revealed his true heart.

We don’t have easy answers to the problem of suffering and evil in the world. I doubt that easy answers would be satisfying, anyway. But we do know that in Christ, God suffered. God suffered for our sakes.

So we know that God has a heart.