Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The next right thing

Jeremiah 31: 31-34
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
March 18, 2018

The Prophet Jeremiah, Marc Chagall, 1968

         “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.” Let’s be clear about one thing in regard to this passage and the Hebrew scriptures in general: The new covenant or the suffering servant of Isaiah or any of the hopeful writings about the long-awaited Messiah are not prophecies about Jesus. Christians may prayerfully read these scriptures with hindsight, but these hopes and promises must be allowed to stand on their own, because our Jewish friends and neighbors still harbor these hopes, still look to these promises as yet to be fulfilled.


         And to a certain extent, so do we. Though we may look to Jesus as the new covenant, the fulfillment of this covenant is not yet realized. On the whole, we human beings do not behave as though God’s law of love is written on our hearts. We do not act as though we live in a state of grace and forgiveness. We do not live our lives as one people nor do we seem to be getting closer to that hope. In this age of global communication and information it appears we have fed our fears and anxieties and hate more than we have nourished our hopes and dreams and loves. We seem more divided and conflicted than ever.

         Yet I believe nothing is inevitable, because we always have a choice, and it does indeed make a difference what we choose.  These times are only as dark as when we forget we are the light of the world and brighter still when we shine together. Even when we are powerless over other people, situations, and events, we can still choose how to meet those challenges. And it is through our choices whether we will move closer to this new covenant of radical forgiveness, unconditional love, restorative justice, and fearless compassion or not. 


         And yet God is already there waiting for us. In every covenant story God initiates the promise, the hope, the dream, and with these comes a code of behavior, not just for individuals or a community but for a people. We keep looking to God to see if God will keep these promises, fulfill our hopes, manifest our dreams. But it’s not God who hedges a bet or seeks their own way or finds loopholes in that code of behavior. Can you hear your heart in God’s broken heart? “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 Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord.” Or “though I was married to them” since God is beyond gender.

         We’re the ones who divorce ourselves from what is sacred, from the Ground of All Being, even from the earth itself. I say ‘we’ because this is the human story as much as it is a story unique to Israel and Judah. And even though we human beings break our promises, the old story tells us that God reaches out again and again, forgiving our sins and remembering them no more.

         But now this new covenant will not exist on stone tablets or in circumcised flesh or as a bow set in the sky—though God still upholds all the promises set forth in these previous covenants: promises of peace, descendants, and God’s abiding presence. “The days are surely coming” for this new covenant, when exile will end and God’s people will be one. This time God will put this law of love within and write it on human hearts. It will become a part of the people, their identity, how they will know who they are and how to be with others. This is our fervent hope as well.


         Now as then we have to choose. None of this is coerced but offered freely. When I read “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts”, when I understand it as identity, as part of who we are, I think of our DNA, that this law of love will become written into our DNA; that we can flip a compassion switch in our genetic code; that we can still evolve, change, and grow as a human race. We can choose compassion, forgiveness, unconditional love, and restorative justice. We can imprint God’s law of love into our very being.

         So in dealing with this passage I’m going to call forth one of my first loves which is psychology and specifically human development. Because all along in these stories of God and God’s people, God has been trying to develop a better relationship with human beings so that human beings will be better. This passage in Jeremiah reminds me of one development theory called object relations. When we are small we treat everything and everyone around us as an object, and we manipulate these objects to get what we need and want. We learn what happens when we cry, how the objects called parents respond to us, and we learn how to manipulate that response. Ideally, as we grow and hopefully mature, we internalize what our parents and other caregivers did for us: we mother ourselves, father ourselves, parent, care for ourselves. We no longer have to manipulate the world around us to get what we need and want. We realize our interdependence and our ability to care for others as well as ourselves.

         I see the same relationship between human beings and our parental God. Throughout Judeo-Christian history human beings have treated God as an object external to us to be manipulated to get what we need and want. We entreat God with prayers, make promises, “if you do this, I will…”, compete with our siblings in faith, throw tantrums (cause conflict) when we don’t get our way. But when we choose God’s ways of love and forgiveness, we evolve. We internalize unconditional love, radical forgiveness, restorative justice, fearless compassion. They become part of who we are, our identity, how we see ourselves and how we have relationships with others.

         We are at a unique stage in our evolution as human beings. I don’t think we’re done yet; I certainly hope not. We’re at a point where we can choose who we will be as a human race. Will we be fearful, obeying our fight or flight response without a second thought, or will we be thoughtful, consider the choices before us, taking into account who will be affected by our behavior besides us? Will we dominate and control, compete for everything—power, resources, what we need to live—or will we embrace our interdependence and learn to trust each other? Will we continue externalize God as something apart from us or will we realize that God, what is good and holy and true, is within each of us, within this living universe? Will we despair the future or live passionately for it? Will we allow this law of love to be tattooed on our hearts or will our descendants read something else there?

         Evolution takes an enormously long time, baby step by baby step, but instead of survival of the fittest, it’s going to be survival of the kindest, for it is only by taking on what does not always come naturally to us—compassion, forgiveness—that we will not only survive but thrive. So what do we do? We do the next right thing, one thing at a time. We let go of the agenda to get it right, to be right, and instead we move into the mystery of trusting the stillspeaking God. We listen. We pay attention, especially to those parts of the gospel that we don’t like because they aren’t easy, like love your enemy and pray for them, forgive seven times seventy, if you got two coats, give one away, lose your life to find it, take up your cross and follow me.


         Someone I know quoted a line from a song: “Sometimes the hard thing and the right thing are the same.” That’s how we grow. It’s how we end up asking for help. It’s how we become brave. It’s how we end up at the cross. And it’s how we get to the other side. Amen.

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