St. Paul’s Congregational Church
October 20, 2019 – Proper 24C
The New Covenant
Jeremiah 31:27-34; Luke 18:1-8
Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and redeemer. Amen.
The people, the nation of Israel had been devastated, sent into exile far from home. Cities had been destroyed, the Temple was in ruins, their whole lives had been shattered. Jeremiah has been writing about this – profoundly sad, very discouraging, and downright grim. Yet in the midst of this Jeremiah promises a day when life would be restored, cities rebuilt, farms replanted – a new covenant.
We’re familiar with this passage – this is a vision of hope in the midst of chaos, disaster, sadness during Jeremiah’s time but don’t we yearn for this hope in our own time right here and now as well. It’s been another tough week as we deal with terrible violence in the Middle East, hasn’t it.
This is a passage about the promise of new life from God: after a period of breaking down and total destruction, God will now build and plant. It’s a passage that addresses a people feeling abandoned by God, a promise that something new is going to come to pass. The days are surely coming, says the Lord. Not maybe. Not if. But surely. Good news ahead. A new covenant.
The old covenant – Israel was liberated from slavery in Egypt. Liberated not to do their own thing, but to be a light to all nations, a witness to all the world that God rules. As they settled in the promised land, Moses went up on the mountain to receive the 10 commandments, the rules for Israel’s covenant with God. God gives the people the way to life. But that covenant was on stone tablets – you may remember the detail of the story that the first set was actually physically smashed after Moses found his people worshipping the Golden Calf. The covenant was broken, physically and symbolically, already.
But Jeremiah is talking about a new covenant – one that will be part of us, part of our character, a covenant not written on stone but on our hearts. What a vision of hope for people plagued by devastation as were the ancients and for all of us too – who live in a time perhaps not so very distant from that of Jeremiah. We too have a yearning for renewal, good news, yearning for hope as we see violence, signs of moral and ethical decay. We too worship our own set of idols. We yearn for something deeper, for meaning, to make sense, and maybe some kind of order in the chaos of our lives. But I’m also afraid that we too want this all on our own terms, at our own convenience, in a way that doesn’t disrupt or make us too uncomfortable.
So while Jeremiah’s image of the new covenant brings hope, it also brings a deep and difficult challenge: that new covenant that will enable us to obey God because we want to, not because we’re supposed to. To obey God naturally because it’s who we are – both individually and as a people, a church. Not so easy, is it.
For 10 years I worked with first time juvenile offenders – kids from the age of 6 to 16 who were involved in shoplifting, vandalism, burglary, larceny. We’d talk about their incidents and I’d invariably come around to the question of how they felt after the fact. Many were ashamed, sorry, embarrassed, scared – but about what? You’re right – for too many the problem was being caught, not that they’d committed a crime. But that’s the point of the new covenant: it’s a whole different way of thinking, of being, of doing. Of doing the right thing naturally just because it is the right thing! Don’t we wish we saw more of that today!
Jeremiah’s vision still hasn’t been achieved yet, but it’s a vision of hope, of new possibility, and don’t we all look forward to that. Imagine: God’s guidance will be so much a part of us that it will be part of the definition of who we are. God’s law within us, inside of us, written on our hearts. God initiates. We respond. We’re part of this new covenant – if we so choose.
Back to the Israelites: their faith had become a matter of ritual and busyness inside the Temple. Outside of the temple they lived as though there were no God at all! Then here come the Babylonians and they not only destroyed the city but also more importantly they destroyed the Temple. Gone. Set on fire. Beams crashing to the floor. The holiest place. Destroyed. And now they’re on their own. The Israelites are lost and alone again.
Maybe the danger for us is the same as for those ancient people. That our faith can also become a matter of ritual and busyness inside the Temple, inside the building, and we live our lives outside as though there is little or no connection between these 2 arenas. The Temple and the “real world” – parallel – not running together, not intersecting.
Maybe we put our faith in a box too – a faith maybe expressed in ritual, busyness but centered where? Is our faith a warm fuzzy, a tool, something we look to in crisis, or worse, only on Sunday morning? Does our faith enter our decision making, the ethical dilemmas we all face somehow, someway, somewhere?
Or is our faith a response – a response to a message that claims us, totally claims us, and moves us to trust, to commit ourselves, to allow ourselves to be shaped, to allow our very selves to be reconfigured, to allow that new covenant to touch our hearts. We most likely all consider ourselves to be Christians here – but we become Christians by believing a message, by allowing ourselves to be touched in the totality of our lives. We don’t become Christians by being faithful to inherited religious beliefs, customs, rituals, the work of the church, the Temple. We are Christian by responding to God’s initiative. By opening our hearts to the new covenant. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will be their God and they will be my people.
We can respond to God’s initiative. Or not. It is our choice. Both individually and collectively as a church.
The Great Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. But God wasn’t. But God’s initiative wasn’t. The shell, the symbol, was destroyed. But not the heart. What will it take for us to open our hearts, to be transformed? We sit here today and hopefully for many years to come in this beautiful and safe and secure space. The church. Our version of the temple. But God doesn’t live here. We don’t come each week to visit God at home. We know that.
We’re at the time of year when we begin to think of stewardship – of budgets and income and expenses – all of that. And this fall we’re also dealing with our huge expense of replacing our furnace – our financial situation is more precarious than it’s ever been. I know many of us are thinking about that, concerned, worried. But this is not a plug for your pledge. That’s not the central theme.
How can we open our hearts to the new covenant? What is this thing we call church, our version of the Temple? These are the questions we should be asking.
Frederick Buechner has some insights for us:
“The churches still stand, big ones and little ones, some that are almost full every Sunday and others that are almost empty. The church is still in business, in other words, but the question is ‘What is that business; what goes on in these strange buildings scattered thick over the surface of the earth? Why do people continue to go there? What do they find when they get there? What do they fail to find? Why do people go to them no longer? Are some of them doing “it” right and others doing it wrong?”
Good questions, aren’t they. I sure don’t have all the answers and I doubt anyone here does either. But they are also questions so important that we need to ask them of God. Maybe that’s part of the business in the church, to ask what’s going on here; to ask God what do you want from us, what is the mission you have set before us. Is there anything more or less important, real, holy, going on in the church than anywhere else? I think somehow we all believe that’s true. We’re not just a business. We’re not just a club. We’re more than that, we’re different. But how?
Buechner continues, “The church is intact in many ways, and at their best most of the things the church does serve a purpose, sometimes we pray, serve even Christ’s purpose. But is it possible that something crucial is missing the way something crucial was missing in the Temple at Jerusalem in 587BC, which is why it fell like a ton of bricks.
“Paul says the church is the body of Christ. Christ on this earth was the healer of the sick, the feeder of the hungry, the hope of the hopeless, the sinner’s friend, and thank God for that because that means Christ is also our hope, our friend. Thank God for every time the church remembers that and acts that out.
“But Christ was also a tiger, the denouncer of a narrow and loveless piety, the scourge of the merely mortal, the enemy of every religious tradition of his day. Where he was, passion was. Where he was, life was. In these ways too the church is called, you and I are called, to be Christ’s body, to be the life-givers.”
But we can’t do that if the new covenant is not written on our hearts. We can‘t do any of that if our faith, our response, is in a box. We can’t be and do what Christ has called us to be and do if we stay in our box. If we separate our faith from our schoolwork, our jobs, our families, any of the arenas that claim our time and energy. That new covenant must be central. Must come first. Must be taken in and shared, given out just as naturally as breathing in and breathing out. That’s what “I will be their God and they shall be my people” means.
Buechner says, “The church often seems to be a gathering of people who, whatever they find there, take so little of it out into the world with them that if one of them were to sit down at McDonalds and say grace, or say or do anything to suggest that he or she is a Christian, the golden arches would shake with astonishment. And so, I suspect, would we.”
So, where are we, individually and collectively with all of this? That beautiful passage is not so simple, is it. It’s not so easy, is it. Not for any of us. It’s such a temptation to turn away: it’s too hard. We can’t do that today. Our lifestyle is so different, so much more difficult than back then. We have too many things, influences, people pulling at us. We can’t let go. And what does it matter anyway: there’s still pain and suffering. There’s still the loss of death. There’s still war. Kids are still in cages. There’s still hunger. There are still bills to be paid. The world can still destroy itself if it puts its mind to it. There’s still corruption, there’s still so much selfishness, just plain meanness. We can’t change the world.
You know what – we can’t. But God can. God working through us even in the smallest of ways can. Even if the Temple is destroyed, Jeremiah reminds us that God is not destroyed. Even if the Temple lies in ruins, God will find a new place to pitch his tent and that place is the human heart: the law to be put within us, the breath of life. The new covenant in our heart that brings with it simplicity, passion, and faith: our response because that’s who we are.
Again from Buechner: “Sisters and brothers, we must love one another or die. Surer than the law of gravity is sure, that is the law. And in those hearts where that law is written and kept, there the Counselor has come and God dwells, and the world itself begins to be become the Temple.”
What a wonderful and hopeful message. Out of the box and into the world. No, we can’t change the world. Not alone anyway. But God working through and in each of us can – even in the smallest ways that will blossom. Let us open our hearts and let the new covenant come in.
Let us pray: O God, there seem to be so many voices in this life. Voices that spend their energy telling us what to do. We listen and we try to stand in judgment as to which of them is right and which is wrong. We do not know enough to know within ourselves. We must depend on you, even as we depend on you for life itself. Stir up anew within us, we pray, your given gift of true discernment, that we may come to a new awareness of your closeness, that we may grow in sensitivity to your presence, that we may increase in our ability to read your living word, your guidance within for our lives and for the future of creation. O God, your will for us and for your world is loving beyond description. Help us as individuals and as a congregation to be the embodiment of Life that serves your purposes, and contributes to the accomplishment of your will. Come into our hearts, O God. Help us to be your people. Strengthen us with power through the Holy Spirit, rooted and grounded in the love of Jesus dwelling in our hearts: let us go out to live Christ’s way of life to your Glory and Honor. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.