Written On Our Hearts – Jeremiah 31.31-34

October 20, 2013 – 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts.”
    Write it on their hearts. It’s an evocative image.
    What do you think of when you hear “written on your heart” or “written on my heart”?

    It sounds to me like something dear, something tender, something cherished, something never to be forgotten.
    Have you ever had someone say to you, “I hold you in my heart” or seen someone put their hands over their heart? It’s an expression of reverence and care, an expression of tenderness and love.
    We hear in Jeremiah: God’s law is written on our hearts.
    If you’ve seen lawyer shows on tv–with the book shelves filled with legal books–this verse from Jeremiah is not about an encyclopedic list of rules tattooed in tiny script on the muscle of our hearts. God’s law is not a long list of rules. God’s law is a way of life.
    “What is the greatest commandment?” a lawyer asked Jesus. And Jesus, who was steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, replied, “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s God’s law.
    Think of it as: how we are to be God’s people is imprinted on our hearts. You could think of it as a “muscle memory.” A characteristic, a practice, a habit that becomes so ingrained we don’t have to ask someone else what to do, we just live it out.
    Just as for Jesus, the greatest commandment was not a new idea, so in Jeremiah, the new covenant is not really new. It is the old covenant “reasserted, reaffirmed, re-inaugurated”1 after a time of disaster. It is the same covenant God made with the people back in Exodus after God liberated them from enslavement to the Pharaoh: “I will be their God and they shall be my people.”
    Scholar Kathleen O’Connor writes, “From the time of Moses onward, the covenant always marked the community as God’s chosen people, always set out the law for the practice of just relationships, always named God’s life among them.”2
    In Jeremiah, this renewal of the covenant comes with words that are intimate and close. The word “know” in this passage is not just an intellectual knowledge but also a physical and emotional and spiritual knowledge. “It is the knowing of lovers”3 says Kathleen O’Connor. The covenant will not be found just on tablets of stone. “The law will be something they live and breathe, it will take up residence within their very beings.”4

    What asks to take up residence in our beings is love for God and love for others. What Jeremiah seems to say is that love can live within us because of forgiveness. Because of God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness sets us free from a past we cannot change and opens a future before us in which we can be changed. A future in which God’s law of love will take up residence in our very being. It will be written on our hearts.

    One of the aspects of God’s love that we’re talking about today in our stewardship witness is hospitality and welcome. Physician Victoria Sweet in her remarkable book God’s Hotel reminds us that “the root of hospitality is hospes, which can mean either ‘guest’ or ‘host.’”5 It’s a funny thing: there’s no distinction between whether you are a guest or a host. “The essence of hospitality” writes Victoria Sweet, “is that guest and host are identical, if not in the moment, then at some moment…With time and the seasons, a host goes traveling and becomes a guest; a guest returns home and becomes a host.”
    As we have been the recipients of God’s hospitality and welcome, so are we also the dispensers of the same. We receive hospitality and welcome from God and others receive it from us. Sometimes we are the guest and sometimes the host.

    Now think with me about the parable Jesus tells in Luke 18. It’s often called the parable of the persistent widow. Jesus frames the parable by saying it was about the need to pray always and not lose heart.
    In this parable there is not much evidence of hospitality. In fact it looks like the opposite of hospitality. A widow comes to a judge in search of justice. The judge isn’t interested. He doesn’t care about God and he doesn’t care about people. He’s a politician who’s only in it for himself. But the widow is not deterred and she keeps asking him for justice. Finally, annoyed and perturbed at being bothered again and again, the judge grants the widow the justice she seeks. The widow’s persistence, not any goodness or insight on the part of the judge, is what finally makes a difference.
    Friday’s Courier-Journal had an article about Louisvillian Suzy Post who was toasted and roasted for her 80th birthday. Representative John Yarmuth had this to say about Suzy Post: “Whether she is fighting against discriminatory housing policies and racism in our schools or unjust wars and social intolerance, Suzy Post is someone who has dedicated her life to ensuring that every Kentuckian is treated fairly and equally under the law.”6 Tracy K’Meyer, at the University of Louisville said, Suzy is “willing to call people and not let them off the phone until they say yes. She’s extremely organized…and extremely persistent.”7
    As I read the article, I thought, here’s a current day example of the persistent woman in the parable. Someone who keeps going back, undeterred, day after day, year after year, to the unjust system and asks for justice.

    Now this parable is not a guide for how to get what you want from God or a promise that all our prayers will be answered in the way we expect. Writing on this passage, professor Kim Long takes the long view that our prayers “are our participation in the coming reign of God. By praying continually, and not giving up hope, we live in the surety that God has not abandoned this world. Living in hope, we work, in whatever ways we can, for the justice and peace that is coming.”8
    When we pray as Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” we hold on to faith that is “actively hoping [and] eagerly anticipating the coming reign of God, never ceasing in our prayers for others, for the world, [and] even for ourselves.”9
    
    While there’s no overt hospitality in this parable, the connection I make is the persistence for justice is part of what it is to extend hospitality in the world. Because justice makes the world a more welcome place, a more hospitable place for all of us. Jesus’s call to pray always and not lose heart is a call for persistence in seeking justice so that the wide welcome and hospitality of God can be made known, will be manifest, on earth, as it is in heaven.
    That kind of persistence takes encouragement and inspiration because there are so many unjust judges out there who have no interest in granting justice.
    In addition to the article about Suzy Post in the paper, I was  encouraged by the witness of Representative John Lewis who was in Louisville earlier this week and spoke about his faith and his long commitment to justice, from the time he was a young man, and how he kept knocking on the unjust judge’s door asking for justice, even when the unjust system kept knocking him down. He kept getting up and kept knocking on the door.
    I was also inspired by the performance at Actors Theatre of “The Mountaintop”–an imaginative and moving play about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the night before he was assassinated in Memphis. It was a reminder that our prayers “are our participation in the coming reign of God. By praying continually, and not giving up hope, we live in the surety that God has not abandoned this world. Living in hope, we work, in whatever ways we can, for the justice and peace that is coming.”10
    And I thought about Rabbi Abraham Heschel who marched with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Years later Rabbi Heschel wrote, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
    We pray with our lips and we pray with our hearts; we pray with our hands and we pray with our feet. All put into motion by the covenant of love God has written on our hearts.

* * *
1 Kathleen M. O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011) 111.
2 Ibid., p112.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Victoria Sweet, God’s Hotel – A Doctor, a Hospital, and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012) 175.
6 “Suzy Post honored as ‘conscience for the city,’” Courier-Journal, 18 October 2013, A4.
7 Ibid.
8 Kimberly Bracken Long, “Pastoral Perspective – Luke 18.1-8,” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, eds., David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 190.
9 Ibid., 192.
10 Ibid., 190.

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What Kind of World? – Jeremiah 31.10-14 & Mark 4.30-32

Resilience has become a big topic in the last few years. We’re hearing about the importance of helping our children develop resilience in order to weather disappointments and failures in life. Scientists talk about the ways some plants develop resilience to changing climate conditions.1 (Which is not necessarily good news–but you’ll have to read the article to hear that full discussion.) Resilience is a characteristic noted in the discussion of why some people survive horrendous experiences pretty much intact and why others disintegrate under the same circumstances.
    There’s even a line of cosmetic lotions called “Resilience Lift.” And I guess that’s because one definition of resilience is the ability to return to the original form–which is what people with sagging middle-aged skin may be seeking. But that’s a different kind of resilience than what gets people and communities through hard times.
    This morning I want to think more about resilience as “the capacity to withstand stress and catastrophe [and] to adapt successfully in the face of threats or disaster.”2

    Last weekend, I heard an interview with Garrison Keillor about a book of his poetry that’s just been published. He read a poem he wrote for an address to the Harvard University chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, the nation’s oldest academic honor society. He said the Phi Beta Kappa’s were a little shocked by what he wrote. Here’s an excerpt:
“Without failure we have a poor sense of reality.

One should not be a person whose memoirs consist
of notes from the classes you never missed.
Would the prodigal son’s dad have killed the fatted calf
if the boy had graduated with an average of 3.99-1/2?
No. Nor would Job have grown so wise in the Lord’s ways,
if his only tribulation been one or two Bs
among a whole long string of As.”3
    His humorous poem got me thinking about how so much of the bible is written by or for people in distress. The Old Testament has a great deal of material written about being in exile (or the threat of exile or the recovery after exile). The gospels and epistles are set in the context of the oppression of the Roman empire and the cultural rejection of the followers of Jesus.
    As we’ve been wending our way through parts of Jeremiah since the end of August, we’ve become acquainted with the troubled, disastrous, chaotic world of Jeremiah. For more than a decade Judah and its capitol city, Jerusalem, had been invaded by the empire of Babylon. While scholars don’t agree on the details of the invasions or the magnitude of the deportation of people as prisoners of war, most of them agree the nation of Judah “experienced a major disaster…and the collapse of the nation brought with it unspeakable suffering. The invasions left major devastation in their wake, vastly interrupted ordinary life, and left the survival of the Judean people in serious doubt.”4

    Throughout Jeremiah’s 52 chapters little bits of hope are scattered here and there. Like bread crumbs so you don’t starve but you’re not going to survive very well on them. But, beginning in chapter 30, a new window opens up in the book. God tells Jeremiah to write about the days that are coming when the people will return to the land God gave them; a time when their wounds will be healed and their lives restored. It is in this four-chapter section of Jeremiah, often called “the little book of consolation,” where the Jeremiah reading this morning is lodged.
    These are, it seems to me, words of resilience. There will be a future. Those who have been scattered will be gathered together again. A flourishing life will return. Sorrow will be replaced with joy.
    Those aren’t pie in the sky words. They aren’t said with no regard to the present circumstances. Most of the book of Jeremiah is about acknowledging the terrible circumstances, the chaos, the disaster, the despair. But those aren’t the only words. And it’s not the end of the story.
    Resilience isn’t about jumping up and dusting off and pretending like nothing bad happened. “People feel grief, sadness, and a range of other emotions after adversity and loss. The road to resilience lies in working through the emotions and effects of stress and painful events.”

    New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler wrote a piece on strengths in families a few months ago. In research for a book he was writing he discovered “the single most important thing you can do” to cultivate a happy, resilient family is to “develop a strong family narrative.” 5 Researchers have noticed that children who know a lot about their families–who know stories about where their grandparents grew up, how their parents met, a time there was a crisis in the family and how they survived–children who know stories about their family tend to do better when they face challenges than children who don’t know those sorts of things. Children who know these stores are more resilient. Why? Researchers point to the significance of being part of a larger family–“they know they belong to something bigger than themselves.”6 Feiler says “leaders in other fields have found similar results. Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making, the building of a narrative[–a story–]that explains what the group is about.”7
    We do that together as a family of faith. One of our sense-making narratives is of course, the stories in the Bible: We were called by God to be God’s people. Our ancestors have gone through good times and bad times. They had everything. They lost everything. They were redeemed and restored, brought back to life. And always, God was with them and always God’s desire for them was for good and not for ill–even when that was hard to see. It’s the story told in Jeremiah, including the part where God says, “Surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”8
    It’s the story of the mustard seed–an illustration of what the realm of God if like. You look at a mustard seed and you don’t expect much but its roots grow into the soil and its branches spread up to the sun and invite a whole host of life to flourish in its midst. Tiny little things become a source of life and well-being. That’s the economy of the realm of God.

    I’ve taken comfort in these two stories the last couple weeks as the craziness in our country increases. Here’s my list of crazy: the “my way or the highway” attitude of elected leaders; members of Congress who will hurt everyone because they didn’t get their way; the House of Representatives slashing billions of dollars from food stamps–one of the most effective tools against hunger in this country9; increasing poverty in Kentucky10 and our two senators who seem to care nothing about this reality; the continuing deaths of children from guns11 and still we have no moral will to do anything about it; the lies and half-truths and what seems to me to be racism around the lack of implementation of the Affordable Care Act.12
    I could go on but that’s enough of a list for one sermon.

    Maybe you’ve got a related sort of time as well? Now we have the choice, do we pull the covers over our heads in despair or do we keep living a life as best as we can in concert with the will of God, as best as we know it, even in the face of overwhelming odds?
    
    On this World Communion Sunday when we celebrate our oneness in Christ with sisters and brothers all around the world, I wonder about the kind of world we live in and the kind of world we are creating.
    The stories in the Bible and the stories of our own parents and grandparents in faith give us resilience to keep living as God’s people, working with God to create a world of justice and joy; a world of peace and compassion even when it seems so far off.
    A friend shared this quote recently: “Prayer is the ability to listen to the music of the future. Faith is the courage to dance to it today.”13 (Prayer is the ability to listen to the music of the future. Faith is the courage to dance to it today.) That reminds me of the kind of resilience we need to keep living as God’s people and working with God to create the realm of God here on earth; to live at the Beloved Community.
    On this World Communion Sunday, when we remember people near and far, who are the people whose stories you know who have filled their lives with that kind of prayer and faith? Who are the people who inspire you to fill your life with that kind of prayer and faith?
    May the Spirit give us the hope and strength we need to make a world where all are welcome, where love can live and where peace and justice fill every corner of creation.

* * *
1 http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/11/resilience-seen-in-norther-and-tropical-flora-in-a-warming-climate/, accessed 3 October 2013.
2 http://www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife/topic/resilience/what-resilience, accessed 3 October 2013.
3 An excerpt from the “Address to the Harvard Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, Sanders Theatre, June 2008” http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=225380984&m=227121567, accessed 3 October 2013.
4 Kathleen M. O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011) 15.
5 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html?pagewanted=all, accessed 5 October 2013.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Jeremiah 29.11
9 http://officeofpublicwitness.blogspot.com/2013/09/j-herbert-nelson-writes-congress-oppose.html, accessed 5 October 2013.
10 Chris Kenning, “Poverty is Rising in KY” The Courier-Journal, September 19, 2013, A1.
11 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/29/us/children-and-guns-the-hidden-toll.html?pagewanted=all, accessed 5 October 2013; not to mention the deaths in Newtown, CT.
12 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/03/health/millions-of-poor-are-left-uncovered-by-health-law.html?pagewanted=all, accessed 5 October 2013.
13 Thanks for Harry Pickens who posted this quote (author unknown?) on his facebook page.