Sunday, March 18, 2018
Fifth Sunday in Lent Year B
God's Love Is on Our Hearts
God of suffering and glory, in Jesus Christ you reveal the way of life through the path of obedience. Inscribe your law in our hearts, that in life we may not stray from you, but may be your people. Amen.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egyptó-a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: 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.
All readings for this Sunday:
Psalm 51:1-12 or Psalm 119:9-16
1. What is your favorite image for God?
2. Have you ever done anything purely "for God's sake"?
3. In what ways has the church been faithful to God's covenant? In what ways have we failed?
4. Have you ever experienced "deep, wounded love" that somehow gets past anger and disappointment?
5. What does Holy Saturday mean to you? Do you feel as if you live in an "in-between time"?
by Kate Matthews
There are many stories in the Old Testament about covenant, from Noah and the rainbow through Abraham and Sarah and their many descendants (including us) to Moses and the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai. In this week's beautiful reading, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a covenant written not in rainbow or stone, not external, but written deep inside, on the very hearts of the people.
Rescue and release...restoration and return...Jeremiah speaks of God's promises to the people of Israel while they are still in captivity, still in exile, steeped in loss and grief that have broken their hearts and their spirits, too. Jerusalem, their great city, has been destroyed and their conqueror Babylon has carried away their leaders to the far-off capital of its powerful empire.
Time for hope
By this 31st chapter, Jeremiah is no longer scolding the people for their sin and their lack of faithfulness to God. Instead, he brings the people a new message from God, good news, a word of comfort and hope. God has had compassion on the people; God's heart has been touched by their suffering, and God forgives them.
In this time of exile God makes sweeping promises to the people of Israel, promises of restoration and return and, most importantly, of relationship, too. Once again, as in so many covenant stories before this one, God promises to be in relationship with the people--like God's promises to Noah, to Abraham and Sarah, and to Moses and the people at Sinai--God promises to be a presence with the people, abiding with them, and promises that they will even belong to each other: God says, I will be your God, and you...you will be my people.
Writing on the heart
Even though they have broken the covenant God made with them back there in the desert, at Sinai with the Ten Commandments, God is using words like "new" and "heart" and "covenant" once again. The great scholar of the Old Testament, Walter Brueggemann, calls this the "core memory" of Israel about God: that God will do today, in this bad circumstance, what God has done in the past. God will give a new covenant, a new relationship, a new creation.
God doesn't do these things merely out of some kind of stubborn faithfulness, Brueggemann says, but out of deep, wounded love and profound grief that have moved God beyond anger to tender caring. It's a thing of the heart, really: God decides this time that the law will be written not on stones, on something external, but inside, deep inside the people, written on their hearts.
Who is God?
Jeremiah's words invite us to think about who God is. None of our words, or anyone else's--and that means none of the words in the Bible, either--no human words can adequately describe God. We fall short every time, but we give it a try anyway. That's what theology is really about, in every age and every setting.
Who is God? There's a thought-provoking translation question in verse 32, when either "husband" or "master" could be used, as in "a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband" or "though I was their master." There have been many times in human history where the distinction between the two has not been great, but most of us resist equating the two. In any case, neither word defines or adequately describes God.
God as a loving but frustrated parent
It seems to me that the feeling of this part of the Book of Jeremiah, the Book of Consolation as it's called, reminds us much more of God as a parent. As a parent (and former child/teenager) myself, I can really relate to how frustrated God must have felt when the people kept messing up. I also understand the whole thing about God being really mad and then being moved suddenly and deeply to love and compassion when God remembers how much God loves the people.
For example, in this same 31st chapter of Jeremiah, there are exquisite lines that remind us of a mother's love: "Is Ephraim [another name for Israel] my dear son? Is he the child I delight in? As often as I speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him" (v. 21).
Isn't it interesting how often we contrast the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New, with the former being harsh and punishing and angry, and the latter being a much "kinder and gentler" God? And yet, we've just established in this text (as in many others) that in the Old Testament, God has great love and compassion for the people of Israel. The mystery, however, is much richer, much more complex than that.
"Core testimony" v. "counter-testimony"
Here we are, deep in Lent, approaching Holy Week. Remember that "core testimony" in the Old Testament about God's love and faithfulness? Brueggemann writes that the core testimony is in tension with a "counter-testimony" of Israel's abandonment, exile, loss, and suffering, suffering that they attribute to God's judgment on them. Core testimony, counter-testimony. Brueggemann also says that many people think that Christianity has moved "beyond this tension to affirm a complete identification of God's power with God's love"; in other words, we're all about the kinder, gentler God who is all love and not so angry and unpleasant.
We Christians, then, start with the God of the Old Testament who is compassionate and merciful and that's where we end, too, on Easter Sunday, with victory-and-new-life-and-everything-is-just-going-to-be-fine-now. The trouble is, if we emphasize Easter Sunday and forget about, or deny Good Friday, we are claiming, Brueggemann says, "an easy victory that does not look full in the face at Friday and its terrible truth."
And so, he says, we look again. We see that the Good Friday/Easter Sunday experience of reconciliation in our Christian faith is anticipated in the Old Testament in these very stories of exile and return, of captivity and rescue and release and restoration. The people of Israel knew what it was to suffer, to feel abandoned, to feel lost. And they also knew what both suffering and healing felt like, what it felt like to be forgiven, what it felt like to be lost, and then found, what it felt like to be exiled, and what it felt like to come home.
The same God in both Testaments
So the story of God's love and mercy as well as abandonment and judgment are in both the Old and the New Testaments. Yes, God loves us, and yes, God judges us, and in the end, God brings us to fullness of life, to Easter Sunday and resurrection. However, while we love to say that we're an Easter people, maybe, in light of this tension between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we ought to take another look at what lies between them, another look at Holy Saturday.
Holy Saturday is the day that gets skipped over in our Holy Week observances; it was the empty day, when I was growing up, after the sadness of Good Friday but before the joy of Easter Sunday. Holy Saturday has been called "the longest of days," a day of waiting, a not-yet, in-between time that in many ways describes our own lives.
That long day in between
We know about Good Friday and the cross, about sorrow and death. All humankind knows about suffering, brutality, and injustice, about tragic endings, about death, all of which are part of the human condition. We Christians also know about Easter Sunday and the promise, the hint of resurrection for the rest of us, because Jesus is risen from the dead. This "Sunday experience" is all about hope.
However, our lives are not all about Good Friday or all about Easter Sunday. We know suffering and abandonment, exile and loss, and we face death, our own and the deaths of those we love. We know ourselves as sinners, and our lives as broken. Yet we also taste forgiveness, we taste hope, and we taste new life, we catch sight of it here and there, get word of it, listen and wait and hope...we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, and yet we know ourselves also as bound for glory...pain and hope, dying and rising again...all humankind waiting, waiting, here in the unresolved, long waiting...and we understand a little more why faith is best described as trust. Here we are, living our lives in that in-between, Holy Saturday-feeling time, the longest day indeed.
Living in the in-between time
And so we turn again to God, the God of both the Old Testament and the New, with our broken spirits and our sins, our homesickness and loneliness, our hunger for justice for a suffering world, our lost vision and lost hope, the very fabric of our hearts torn open, and we listen for that Stillspeaking God to address us with words of comfort and consolation, words of rescue and release, of restoration and homecoming.
We too are captives, in many ways, of very different sorts of empires today, empires of materialism, militarism, and greed. And yet, paradoxically, we walk in freedom as well, as people of a covenant written deep on our hearts; we walk in freedom in this in-between time, responding to the call to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God, to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves.
Words of comfort
Jeremiah addresses the people's suffering with words of comfort and hope, not just long ago but today as well. We live in a transitional time, somewhere beyond "post-modern" but not yet called anything, and the times are "a-changing" so fast that we'll have moved on to another "new age" before this period has even been named. We live, they say, in uncertain times. But what time, we might ask, has ever been "certain"?
"Covenant" has been described as something that each party enters for the sake of the other. Not for one's own protection or rights, but for the sake of the other. We know that's true of God, but is it true of us? Parker Palmer says that the "true" covenant "means the acceptance of weighty obligations to a Lord who demands that we 'do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.'" The church's acceptance of this true covenant, he says, would "serve as a channel of reconciliation in a world in love with divisions....the church would proclaim not its mastery over the world but its servanthood--to God, to humankind, and to the vision of a peaceable kingdom." Would the world have reason to say that we are faithful partners in this covenant?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) along with reflections on the other lectionary texts, at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
"There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love."
"We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope."
Paul Pearsall, 20th century
"The heart may be where Godís intelligence or logic is expressed within us."
Henri Nouwen, 20th century
"Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thingÖ.The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God."
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, 19th century
"Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but--I hope--into a better shape."
T.E. Kalem, 20th century
"The heart is the only broken instrument that works."
Thomas Merton, 20th century
"You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope."
Aristotle, 4th century B.C.E.
"Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all."
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