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Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Focus Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34Weekly Theme: Deep in our Hearts In Sunday's lesson the prophet Jeremiah speaks of a covenant not of 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. Their city has been destroyed and their conqueror Babylon has carried away their leaders to the far-off capital of its powerful empire. By this 31st chapter, Jeremiah is no longer scolding the people for their sin and their lack of faithfulness to God. Instead, Jeremiah brings the people a new message from God. God is trying to tell them something, Jeremiah says, and it's 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. Even though they have broken the covenant God made with them back there in the desert, at Sinai with the Ten Commandments, even though things are perhaps the worst they've ever been, 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 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. 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. 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. The overall feeling of this part of the Book of Jeremiah, the Book of Consolation as these chapters are 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 exquisitely beautiful 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). Too often we try to 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 God has great love and compassion for the people of Israel. The mystery, however, is much richer, much more complex than that. Here we are, deep in Lent, approaching Holy Week. Remember that "core testimony" in the Old Testament about God's love and faithfulness? Brueggemann says 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 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 tend to base this claim on the crucifixion of Jesus, when, as he puts it, "God's own life embraces the abandonment of broken covenant." So, 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 its 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." What Brueggemann is pointing out, then, is that the core testimony, about God's love and mercy, and the counter-testimony, about abandonment and judgment, are in both the Old and the New Testaments. The faith of Israel and the Easter affirmation of the church, he says, are both grounded in the belief that the God who judges is the God who brings home to wellbeing. We do love to say that we're an Easter people, but 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. 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. And 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, waiting...and we understand a little more why faith is best described as trust. Brueggemann thinks about all of this and finds the unresolved in the New Testament just as much as in the Old. As the Old Testament ends with the words, "Let us go up," our New Testament ends with the prayer, "Come, Lord Jesus!" When we remember, as Jesus commanded us to, we say, "Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again." Here we are, in that in-between, Holy Saturday-feeling time, the longest day indeed. 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 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, too, as people of a covenant written 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. If this text addresses the broken spirits, the "lost-ness" of exile, the lost vision and lost hope of a people who feel abandoned by God, it addresses such suffering with words of comfort and hope, and a vision for the people not only long ago but today, lost again in a very different world, with very different but even more powerful empires, the empires of militarism, materialism, and greed. 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"? And yet, in every age, God's word offers hope to the people. What is the hope that your church longs for? What would its transformation look like? What has that transformation looked like already? God offers the people of Israel a new covenant. Of the many things that have been said about covenant, perhaps one of the best is that it's 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? Do we do anything purely for God's own sake? If this covenant is not with individuals but with the people as a community, how does our private faith need to be experienced in the life of a community of faith? Are we often tempted to keep faith a private thing, a "personal relationship with Jesus" that seems to have little to do with this covenant, even a new one, so long ago? Parker Palmer writes aboutthe "true" covenant that "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 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" (In the Company of Strangers). How does this vision bring the idea of covenant to life for our congregation? In what ways has the church been faithful to this covenant, and in what ways have we failed? How would "an outsider" experience, and measure, our faithfulness to it?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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