Promises Made, Promises Kept

Jeremiah 36: 1-8, 21-23, 27-28, then 31: 31-34

November 20, 2016  |  The Rev. Lynne M. Dolan, Senior Minister

Kathleen Norris is a poet and a Presbyterian, but not a Presbyterian poet. She is also an oblate at a Benedictine Abbey located on the remote South Dakota plains. The monks at St. John’s hear the entire Old Testament each year by listening to each book read during morning and evening prayer. Kathleen spent several weeks at St. John’s one fall while the monks were reading the prophet, Jeremiah. She writes, “Listening to Jeremiah is a heck of a way to get your blood going in the morning; it puts caffeine to shame.”

One day, after reading particularly heavy, depressing verses from Jeremiah, a monk told Kathleen he was glad they were reading Jeremiah in the morning, and not at evening prayer, when there are more people likely to be guests. “The monks can take it,” he said, “but most people have no idea what’s in the Bible, and they come unglued.”

Isn’t that the truth?  Even those of us who have studied the Bible sometimes feel as though we know so little about it.  If you have studied the scriptures, there are many times when a story surprises you or leaves you thinking “that’s in the Bible?”  We enter Jeremiah’s story 200 years from where we left Isaiah last week, to find that Israel has turned its back on God’s covenant, but by the time Israel realized what was coming, it was too late. The invading armies of Babylon breached the walls of Jerusalem. Their beloved temple was reduced to rubble. People not killed in the onslaught were deported to Babylon.

Coming undone describes Israel in 587 B.C., and perhaps much of our world in 2016 A.D. I don’t have to name all the ways the world seems to be coming undone at this moment. When things seem particularly bleak I remember we are people grounded in hope.  We are people who trust in the power and presence of God to transform us and our world.  Jeremiah was also such a man.  He looked to God and answered God’s precarious and dangerous call when his world was on the verge of chaos. He knew God was with him when he needed to share a challenging word with the king, a word the king chose to tear up and throw into the fire. Jeremiah was not a popular man.  He was a truth teller of the highest order. When Israel believed the tide would turn in their favor and they would not be captured and sent into exile in Babylon, Jeremiah warned them this was not so.  They were destined for exile in Babylon and would likely be there for a long time.  This couldn’t have made him very popular.   He spoke the truth to a people who were not willing to read the signs of the time as clearly as Jeremiah did.  The prophet was banned from the Temple, but that did not stop him.  He continued undaunted spreading the word God had placed upon his heart, holding his people accountable and speaking the truth that all too often fell on deaf ears.

Jeremiah is not a man ignored and scorned by his own people.  He writes down all the terrible things he predicts will happen.  Because he cannot enter the temple he sends Baruch to share this with the king.  He finds King Jehoiakim decidedly uninterested in hearing what Jeremiah has to say.  The king takes the scroll upon which the prophesy was written and rips off a slice of it with his knife and throws it in the fire, a decidedly graphic negation of the prophecy Jeremiah sends to the king. (rip paper in half and drop off pulpit)  Destroying the prophecy does not make it go away.

God steps into the chaos, Jeremiah’s chaos and our chaos, and promises to be with us amid the most painful and difficult change.  God promises to be faithful despite our transgressions, to establish the covenant with God’s people in a way it cannot so easily be broken. At worst, we are unable, and at best, we are simply unwilling, to abide by God’s expectations for good and righteous living. The root of the problem is the same as it has always been.  We sin deeply whether it be out of pride, gluttony, greed, envy, lust, or our never ending desire to fashion idols out of that which we should not.

In Scripture, our relationship with God is defined in terms of covenants. God is so determined to have us, love us and enjoy our love in return that God establishes covenants. In ancient Israel as well as in other cultures of that period, blood sacrifice was the way covenants with God were often expressed.

When negotiating a purchase, we sometimes hear the expression, “I’ll cut you a deal.” This may go back thousands of years to something called, “cutting a covenant.” Sacrificial animals were cut in two and the covenant-makers walked between the two halves. The seriousness of the act was attested to by the words spoken after walking between the severed parts: “May this happen to me if I violate this covenant.”

God’s deepest desire is to be in relationship with God’s people.  That is why God forgives us.  That is why God not only forgives our sins, but forgets them as well.  That is why God chooses and anoints and sends prophets to tell it like it is, whether or not we want to abide by the message. God desires our obedience not for obedience sake, but because God loves all creation fiercely and tenderly.  Should not, cannot, and must not isn’t the language of love. “If you love me,” Jesus said, “you will keep my commandments.” Love compels us to do right, to abide by the word of the prophets, not because we should or must, but because it is our deepest desire.

The second part of our reading returns us back to Jeremiah chapter 31. These words are familiar to most of us, the command to write the covenant not on something that can be easily destroyed, but on one’s heart. Frustrated by our sin and our inability to keep God’s commandments, God adopts a new strategy.  “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and Judah… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Forget rainbows and tablets of stone. Forget external laws that aren’t kept. I will put my law within you and write it on your hearts.

The German theologian Paul Tillich said there are three forms of law. The first is HETERONOMY where the law is outside of you. The second is AUTONOMY, the law of self-rule. “I will decide what I will do, not you!” The third is THEONOMY — the law implanted in our hearts that becomes part of us. God didn’t ask Israel if it wanted a new covenant. No one said, “Lord, we’re doing a pitiful job keeping your laws. Lend us a hand.”  God saw where things were headed and took a bold step.  God forgave.  God even forgot the sins of God’s people and God took a new approach to covenant making.  This time it will stick. This time it will be permanent. What could be more permanent than writing the covenant on one’s heart?

God chooses the prophet Jeremiah and this moment to change the life of God’s people.  Things were not going well.  Chaos was ensuing. Our ancestors had not kept the covenant that had been written externally on tables and paper. The world was coming undone. One preacher says, “ We don’t sign consent forms before God performs heart surgery….As preachers,” she says, “we are under no illusion that our words will change anyone. You won’t become better, obedient, giving people because I tell you to do it. The best preachers can do is pray that God will use our feeble sermons to stir what God has already implanted in your heart. It is reassuring to know that the God we seek is not in some parallel universe, but resides deep within us.”

That can be a frighteningly, sobering thought. That is how God intends it. It is easy to tear a scroll in half and throw it into the fire in an attempt to destroy the word and will of God. That cannot happen when that word is written on the hearts of God’s people.  God writes God’s love on our hearts.  God’s love is written on our heart, like a sacred tattoo. What does that mean to you? You know when someone is a deeply spiritual person.  You can tell when God’s love has been written upon their heart.  It goes beyond having knowledge about God or quoting chapter and verse of Scripture. You can tell it by the way they live their lives. When someone is in need, they are the first to answer the call. When someone is grieving, they know just what to do.  When we need to hear a word of truth amid the chaos, that is the person who will speak up. God’s love, God’s covenant is written on their heart.

When truth is imbedded in the soul of God’s people, when it is written on our hearts, it cannot be destroyed. There is a Mexican proverb that says, “They tried to bury us.  They didn’t know we were seeds.”  They did not know the covenant that God made with God’s people was written on our hearts. They didn’t know that we were strong enough and wise enough and committed enough to standup to evil, to do the tough, sobering personal work within ourselves to combat whatever behavior threatens to destroy the fabric of our communities. They did not know that we would rise up and speak out and challenge that which is not life giving in the name of this very God that has written the covenant of God’s love on our hearts.

You can never destroy the truth.  It will find a voice.  It will find a person brave enough and strong enough and faithful enough to keep speaking. That is what God promises. This is disarming, and disturbing and disquieting and perhaps even a bit sobering. We have seen this to be true so many times. You can tell me to be silent, but still “I Rise” says the poet Maya Angelou.

Jeremiah tells the people God has made a covenant with us that is more than good or just, it is sacred. Having this commitment, this covenant written on our hearts means we cannot keep silent.  Being saved by the blood of Jesus means we cannot refuse to act in the face of injustice.  The world may feel as though it is crumbling around us, it may feel more precarious by the moment, but this is when people of faith must step forward to stake our claim.

We have heard many stories this week of people doing hurtful things in many communities both close by and throughout the country. This is not the first time people have behaved hatefully,  however people seem to be particularly emboldened in expressing their anger recently.  If you watch the news or listen to NPR you have heard it too. It is hard to avoid unless you simply turn off the television or radio and don’t interact with other human beings. This week, my daughter’s friend discovered anti-gay graffiti written in a women’s bathroom at Clark University.  In her 4 years there she has not encountered this.  She was sad and disappointed and angry to have this happen.  I understand 60 people gathered at Mt. Tom in Western MA yesterday.  Earlier in the week hateful graffiti was discovered on the side of the mountain.  People worked hard to erase what had been written.  An interfaith group gathered to offer blessings and reclaim it as sacred space. These are people of the covenant, taking a stand to remind people that love wins every time! Love will always win in the face of evil and hatred and bigotry as long as we remember whose we are and to whom we belong.

Elie Wiesel, writer and Holocaust survivor wrote, “we must always take sides.  Neutrality helps the oppressor never the victim.  Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” This is what it means to have God’s covenant written on our hearts. It means we have to take a side.  It means we cannot be silent. We cannot ignore what is happening around us. When our hearts are breaking, when the world seems to be on the brink of chaos, God’s love spills into the gap laid open by this breach. God’s love fills the brokenness and reminds us that we have the power to act compassionately and lovingly.  God forgives our transgressions, forgets our iniquities and empowers us to do what is right and just and true. This is the very essence of God’s covenant.  This is the promise God makes. We are partners in this sacred trust. May we honor the prophet Jeremiah, brother in faith, speaker of truth, lover of our souls by living fully into this sacred covenant?  Amen.

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