Text: Acts 8
Back in the mid 1970’s I went to two different high schools due to my Dad’s call to a new ministry during my sophomore year.
The high schools could not have been more different. One was located in the Midwest in a large thriving college town, East Lansing, Michigan, home to Michigan State University and family station wagons. And the other high school was located on the west coast in the small rural town of Fortuna, California, in a region known for lumber mills and pick-up trucks.
My experience in Fortuna opened my eyes to the kind of unique community one can experience in small towns in America.
We lived in the lumber town of Scotia which was even smaller than Fortuna and owned by the Pacific Lumber Company. Our high school in Fortuna had students bused to it from the small towns in the region like Scotia hence the name Fortuna Union High School.
I knew things would be different in our new home in Humboldt County in terms of school, football and social life when I went down to catch the bus and a guy said to me:
“Hey, new kid, your picture’s up at the grocery store.” What’s he talking about? My picture? I thought he was pulling my leg.
I walked over to the store, just behind the bus stop, and there I was on a poster in my football uniform next to our team’s schedule for the new season. Not a team picture mind you—it was just a blown up picture of me! I’m sure I thought something to myself like, “Wow, Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!”
And that’s how it was all over Humboldt County—Posters of my teammates at grocery and hardware stores, movie theatres, the post offices. In fact here is the exact picture which was on that poster in front of Scotia grocery store 42 years ago! I also discovered the night of our first game at Fortuna High that almost the entire town shut down on Friday night between 7 and 9 p.m. cause everybody was at the game! Now that’s a little exaggeration but not much! And there were hundreds more people at the Fortuna game than there had been at my games in East Lansing.
Small towns take great pride in their hometown football team. This is true in California but even more so in the state of Texas. In Texas, where my brother Peter lives, football is a religion. The field is holy ground. And the fans in the stands are the devout followers.
In October of 2006 a new series premiered on television called: Friday Night Lights that told the story of a fictional high school football team in a small Texas town. The show would go on to receive critical acclaim.
One reviewer wrote: “The show, “Friday Night Lights” uses a small-town backdrop to address many issues facing contemporary American culture, including family values, school funding, racism, drugs, abortion and lack of economic opportunities.” The creator and writer of the TV series, Jason Katims, in an interview years after the show aired said: “To me, the thing about Friday Night Lights was you didn’t have to like football to care about the show. You didn’t have to have any kind of knowledge of football or Texas or any of those things. It was so much just about these people and their lives, and it was so deeply felt.”
Friends, the show which aired for five seasons, reminded me a lot of my years in Fortuna playing for the Fortuna Huskies. No, we didn’t have all the drama that show had—but the relationships, that sense of community, the feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself, was the same.
Now, whether a boy or girl plays football, basketball, baseball, soccer, volleyball, or any other team sport, a good coach takes individual players and creates a unified team.
He or she nurtures a bond that will serve them in good times and hard times. Winning as well as losing deepens that bond. On the show, Friday Night Lights, there is a line which the coach says to the team in the locker room before they run out onto the field to play the game: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” And the players in unison say it back to him: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
That line came back to me this week when I read our Scripture lesson from the Book of Acts and Psalm 84. For both of those scripture passages use the word, heart, as a metaphor for something which is indispensable to a life which honors God. In Psalm 84, the psalmist declares: “My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” And later in the same Psalm, the word heart appears again, as the Psalmist says: “Blessed are the men whose strength is in thee, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.”
Friends, in order to live a life pleasing to God, in order to take on challenges without being overwhelmed or paralyzed or defeated by them, as the old song says: “Ya gotta have heart!”
Indeed, you could say you need “clear eyes and a full heart.”
Now, that phrase, “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose” affects people in different ways and to me it suggests that if we bring focus, determination, courage, and love to any endeavor we pursue, or any challenge we encounter, we can, no matter the final score, walk off the field of football, or the field of life, with our heads held high knowing we gave our best. Truly, one important, if not the most important thing in success in sports or life is to get your heart right!
The truth of that phrase and what it means can also be seen in our second lesson from the Book of Acts. For as we heard in our reading of the lesson, Simon the magician, also known as Simon Magus, has a heart problem. No, not the heart in his chest it presumably was beating just fine. Simon’s lack of heart has to do with his misguided priorities and values; his arrogance, self-centeredness and greed.
Simon has enjoyed the admiration of men and women due to his power to perform feats of magic—he tricks people into thinking he can harness the power of God to defy the laws of nature using magic or sorcery. Simon knows deep down his power is a fraud. We don’t know exactly what feats he performed but we do know that people in Samaria were impressed enough to refer to him as “God’s great power.”
Yet, Simon can’t do the things that Peter and John can do and he is determined to get that power for himself. Not primarily because he wants to help people—but because Simon wants to continue to be admired and enriched by them. Simon, who took advantage of people’s desperation and their tendency to be gullible, to his credit, knew real power when he saw it. Because of what we can call his “lack of heart” he gets scolded by none other than the Apostle Peter himself.
Now granted Simon was recently baptized into Christianity due to Philips’ preaching. But this newly baptized convert shows his true colors when he asks Peter a question which greatly upsets the Apostle. Simon Magus asks Peter if he can buy the power to convey the Holy Spirit and heal people like Peter does by praying and placing his hands upon them. Simon will pay any price to have such power.
Peter shakes his head with disgust and says to Simon: "Your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.”
Friends, Peter has essentially said to Simon: Get your heart right! For if his heart had been right Simon would have understood that the power to convey the Holy Spirit and heal people is not a magic trick—it is a gift. A gift from God.
Friends, when your heart is right, you too can be an instrument of God’s grace, you too can be filled with the Holy Spirit and help bring healing to a hurting world through your prayers—your hands—your words and deeds. Sadly, there are a lot of people today, rich and poor today, who need to get their hearts right—get their values and priorities in line with God’s.
In my view, people who pursue political victories over the well-being of families, need to get their hearts right.
- People who use their religion—Muslims, Jews, or Christians—in order to justify the murder of innocents—need to get their hearts right.
- People who value access to guns over public safety—need to get their hearts right.
- People who think they can use money to purchase the power of God, the power of Christ, need to get their hearts right.
- People who, like Simon the magician, pursue their own selfish agenda rather than praying to God: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done” they need to get their hearts right. And trust me—God knows our hearts.
People can fool human beings—they cannot fool God. God knows what’s in your heart. I believe we all fall short of the quality of heart that God expects from his people. That’s one reason we have a prayer of confession each week in worship in the reformed tradition—to get our hearts right.
16th century reformer, John Calvin, believed that getting your heart right is not a one-time thing—it’s a journey. Having a heart fully devoted to doing God’s will in our lives is something we must always pray for no matter our age, our race, our politics.The good news is that we have opportunities daily to open our hearts to God and allow God’s grace to deepen our faith, our courage, our commitment, our love. And God’s grace, as communicated through this Lord’s Supper, enables each of us to have clear eyes and full hearts.
I close with a true story told by Anne Lamott, about a woman whose heart was transformed one Sunday morning in church by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. A woman who you could say was gifted with clear eyes and a full heart. Anne Lamott, in her book, Small Victories, writes: “One of our newer members, a man named Ken, is dying of AIDS, disintegrating before our very eyes. He came in a year ago with a Jewish woman who is with us every week, although she does not believe in Jesus.
“Shortly after Ken started coming, his partner, Brandon, died of AIDS. A few weeks later Ken told us that right after Brandon died, Jesus had slipped into the hole in his heart left by Brandon’s loss, and had been there ever since.
“Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant. Ken says that he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus and us.”
Anne continues: “There’s [an African-American] woman in the choir named Ranola, who is large and beautiful and jovial and as devout as can be, who has been a little standoffish toward Ken. She has always looked at [Ken] with confusion, when she looks at him at all. Or she looks at him sideways, as if she wouldn’t have to quite see him if she didn’t look at him head-on. [You could say her eyes are not clear and her heart is not full]
“[Ranola] was raised in the South by Baptists who taught her that [Ken’s] way of life—that he [as a gay man]—was an abomination. It is hard for [Ranola] to break through this. I think she and a few other women at church are, on the most visceral level, a little afraid of catching the disease.
“But Ken has come to church most Sundays for the past year and won over almost everyone [well, except Ranola and a couple others] [Ken] missed a couple Sundays when he got too weak, and then a month ago he was back [in church], weighing almost no pounds, his face even more lopsided, as if he’d had a stroke.
“Still…[his mind clear, his heart full, Ken] talked joyously of his life and his decline, of grace and redemption, of how safe and happy he feels these days. Ann Lamotte continues: "On one particular Sunday, for the first hymn, the so-called Morning Hymn, we sang ‘Jacob’s ladder’ which says, ‘Every rung goes higher, higher,’ while ironically, Ken couldn’t even stand up. But Ken sang away sitting down, with the hymnal in his lap.
“And when it came time for the second hymn [what we call] the Fellowship Hymn, we were to sing ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow.’ The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen—only Ken remain seated, holding the hymnal in his lap—and we [all, including Ken] began to sing,
‘Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should the shadow come?’
“Ranola [from her place up front in the choir] watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face started to melt and contort like his, and she [suddenly] went to his side and bent down to lift him—lifted this white rag doll, this scarecrow [took him into her arms] Ranola held Ken next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang. And it pierced me.”
Anne Lamott concludes: “I can’t imagine anything but music that could have brought this about. Maybe it’s because music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound your breath. We’re talking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.”
Friends, her arms gently holding his body close, Ranola and Ken sang together, with the congregation:
“Why should I feel discouraged,
why should the shadows come,
why should my heart be lonely,
and long for heaven and home.
“When Jesus is my portion
my constant friend is he;
Oh, his eye is on the sparrow.
and I know he watches me.
“His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.”
Friends, as we receive the bread and the cup this morning, the music of divinity in the air, I pray that God gives us for the living of our days the faith to proclaim: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”