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.
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.
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.