March 29, 2009

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Heartfelt Knowledge

Jeremiah 31:31-35

Do you remember a news story from a few years ago about Judge Roy Moore? When he was Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, the judge had the Ten Commandments carved on a gigantic granite monument. The thing weighed over 5000 pounds. He then had it installed, under cover of darkness, in the rotunda of the state judicial building.

At the press conference when he unveiled his monument, he had this to say: "May this day mark the restoration of the moral foundation of law to our people and the return to the knowledge of God in our land."

Now I’m sure that Roy Moore holds to the conviction of his beliefs. I’m sure he was sincere in what he was doing. And I’m sure that, as a judge, he had seen plenty of evidence of the wicked sinfulness of humankind. But I am also sure that he got it wrong because the knowledge of God is not something to be gained from a slab of granite. And, if by some miracle, Judge Moore and the prophet Jeremiah could have a conversation, I think the judge might be quite surprised.

Jeremiah had seen some pretty bad behavior himself. And worse than that, he had witnessed what seemed to be the people’s punishment for their unfaithfulness. They had been taken into exile, the Temple lay in ruins, Jerusalem was on the verge of destruction. The great promise of God to give the people a land of their own seemed to have been abandoned. Like the broken tablets on the mountain, laws written in stone with God’s own finger, God’s covenant with Moses was also irretrievably broken. And maybe God’s heart was broken, too. It began to seem that God might have just given up on the people, finally letting them have their own way and suffer the consequences of a life lived apart from love. Things were so bad that Jeremiah cursed the day that he was born. He accused God of seducing him and then turning him into a laughingstock, making him out to be a fool. He tried to give up his role as prophet, as the one who called the people over and over again to return to God and God’s ways.

But God would not leave Jeremiah alone. And God would not abandon the people either. In the midst of what seemed to be a monumental failure on the part of the people and the prophet, God issued one of the most radical pledges in all of human history:“…I will make a new covenant with Israel and Judah,” God said. “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts; …I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

No ifs, ands, or buts. No conditions. Nothing for the people to agree to. Just God’s unilateral action, the action of love.

This new covenant, these words on the heart, would mean that each person would have full knowledge of God. There would be no second-hand witness, no hearsay account, no privileged few with insider information. They would all know God, all of them, “from least of them to the greatest,” and they would all be forgiven. Just like that. No call to repentance, no instruction to put on sackcloth and prepare burnt offerings, no rules and regulations for the priests to enforce. Just the first-hand, heartfelt knowledge of God, for everyone.

It was an extraordinary gift. Think about it. This new covenant is the ultimate in inclusively. It embraces the least to greatest and all in between; the rich and the poor; the PhD and the grade school dropout; young and old; male and female; the wise and the foolish. Everyone is included.

And no one has an exclusive claim on the knowledge of God. No one can pretend to be an expert in the law, to know more than anyone else about what the covenant means, or who it applies to. Because the covenant is given equally to all. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” These are words meant for everyone, all of God’s people, even for us.

But how shall we read them, these words that God promises to write on our hearts? What happens when God’s law, God’s way of doing things, gets internalized in us, when it is in our very bodies? There is a church word for this embodiment, you know. It is “incarnation.” The perfect example of God entering human form, of course, is Jesus, but maybe it is not too far-fetched to think that we are all somehow a tiny bit of incarnation.

To have God’s law written on our hearts, to have this heartfelt knowledge, is to see ourselves as holy and to see each other as holy, too. It is to see the face of God when we look in the mirror in the morning, and then act accordingly. It is to see the face of God when we look in each other’s eyes, too, and then love them as we love ourselves and as we say we love God. It is to live as though we really believe the words of Genesis – that we are all made in the image of God. Maybe at the heart of it, that is what the law is all about, understanding that God’s intention for us is godly living – and that the God that gives us life in the first place also gives us the way to live that life.

Godly life is always lived in relationship. To know the heart of God, to know God in our own hearts, is to understand the hearts of each other, too. Faith is not a solitary activity. Love is only understood in community, whether that community is a relationship between friends or spouses or partners, in a family or a church, or embracing the whole wider world.

We need each other in order to understand God’s new covenant with us. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said it like this: “A Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself. . . .. The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s heart is sure” (Life Together).

We need each other, no question, and we need God. But maybe God also needs us. God’s new covenant is unilateral in that God does not depend on us to keep the covenant with faithfulness or to ensure its endurance. But neither does God compel us to participate in it. God’s finger does not touch our hearts until – unless – we say yes. When God speaks of the days that are surely coming, the days of this new covenant, maybe that means the time when we finally allow God in.

I wonder if we have really been able to do that. I mean, look at the world, even at the church, and it seems pretty clear that God’s radical promise of love and inclusivity, of relationship and forgiveness, is still to be realized.

And yet, we who claim the name of Christian know that in Christ this is also a present reality. And it is in this place of tension between the “already” and the “not yet” where we are called to say yes to God. It sounds so easy. Why then is it so hard? It takes a lot of heavy equipment to move a 2 1/2 ton rock into an Alabama courthouse in the middle of the night, but sometimes it seems no less a project to get God on our hearts – and maybe no less controversial an action.

We close ourselves off from the indwelling presence of the holy one – usually not by evil intent or even willfulness, or anything like that, but we are busy, you know, and worried and distracted, and maybe a little (more than a little) afraid of what would happen if we really were to give our hearts to God. Because after all, if God’s word was at the heart of everything we are and everything we do, we would be changed completely, wouldn’t we? That can be a scary thought.

To say a whole-hearted yes to God is to see the world as God does, to see it and respond in godly love. To say yes to God is to let our hearts be broken by the woundedness of the world, just as surely as God’s heart must be broken by what we have done to each other and God’s good creation. It is to see the pain of the other and feel it so deeply within that it becomes our own.
It is to be able to take what one holy man has called a “long loving look at the real.” And when we see the world that way, with the eyes of our heart, through the eyes of God, then we are compelled to act to bring peace, healing, hope, comfort, love. And those actions can take as many forms as there are human hearts: praying, engaging in acts of service, promoting justice, working toward inclusivity and acceptance, giving of our time and treasure, building houses and serving soup and tutoring ten-year-olds.

And these labors of love, like God’s new covenant, must be unilateral and unconditional. They do not depend on reciprocity. They do not even have to be successful, at least not in the world’s terms – they only have to be faithful.

This is what means to know God. Having this heartfelt knowledge of God is to live a godly life, to live from the heart where God dwells. And when we let our own hears break, as maybe God’s heart also breaks, as Jesus’ heart broke, then we come to know God fully.

The rabbis note that God writes the word, the law, on our heart, not in it. Then, they say, when our heart breaks, the word falls in. Absent the heartbreak, the word is never internalized as completely. But no matter what, we are always loved, we are always held in God’s heart. And we come to the heartfelt knowledge of God, when we allow God to enter our hearts as fully as we have entered God’s.

This is the new covenant – not a contract, not the result of our negotiation with God, not even our decision to participate – but rather God’s unilateral unconditional action to love us, no matter what. You can know this for yourself. You can know God, in your own heart. Just say yes. And God will be our God and we will be God’s people.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith

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