Christians sometimes say that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath and the God of the New Testament is a God of compassion. But the passage from Jeremiah which Tom read for us this morning should make us think twice before making such a simplistic statement–
“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 Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband. But this is the covenant that I will make [with them]. ..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.”
It is a promise of deep compassion and of incredible grace and hope for a people broken-hearted and in exile. We Christians have the custom of tracing the history of the covenant God has made with God’s people as starting with the promise to Abraham and Sarah, then the covenant God made with Noah after the flood, symbolized by the rainbow, not to destroy the earth by flood again, then through this passage in Jeremiah, where God promises to write the covenant on our hearts, and finally through Jesus, the “new covenant.” These various renewals of the covenant were necessary, of course, because the people broke it, as God puts it so bluntly here in this passage in Jeremiah. And, I must confess, I often wonder if we Christians have not also broken the covenant God made with us through Jesus. Have we been faithful covenant partners?
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this week about what it means to know something by heart, to live from the heart. My friend Joe Schaaf has a long and distinguished career teaching at various progressive schools and institutions. At one of our Sunday evening Bible conversations, he told us that “the rule” at at least one of those institutions was, “There are no rules. You’ll only know what the rules are when you break one.” My husband Bruce uses a similar philosophy in his classes at the Career Development Center. On that first day of class when you’re supposed to talk about classroom rules, he says, “There are no rules until you break them. You’ll know what the rules are when you break one.” The new students protest, thinking it’s not fair or just a trap, but the students who have had him as a teacher before nod knowingly. “You’ll figure it out,” they say.
Such a no-rules “rule” is based on the belief that there is a fundamental, innate wisdom within each of us, that, if lived within a community that encourages and nurtures that innate wisdom, will emerge and order the life of that community. Indeed, in a recent daily devotional I received from the Church of the Savior in Washington, DC, I read this from author Elizabeth Canham–
True education consists in the drawing out and validation of the wisdom deep within each person…When we allow for the innate capacity to make connections, when we share insight instead of locating wisdom in a few experts to whom we give power and authority, then community building can begin and we will hear the liberating gospel in our time and place.”
Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas–When you give rise to that which is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not give rise to it, what you do not have will destroy you. (70) (Trans. Stevan Davies) “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts,” God says through Jeremiah.
On the other hand, I happened to be visiting one of our members this week in the care facility where she is currently living, and the aide who was caring for her had the television on to one of the daytime shows on MTV. While I only watched maybe 10 minutes of the show, it was clear to me that the organ governing the action of the young people in the show was considerably south of their hearts, though they would have thought it was a show about “love.” No rules, really? Is that a good idea?
“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’” [says God through Jeremiah], “for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord…” The thought occurred to me that perhaps, maybe, could it be, that this is what God is doing through the growing number of people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” ? That the sense of knowing God is indeed written on our hearts, which means, of course, not the organ that pumps blood through our bodies, but is the center of will and intention, the core of who we are, our “selves,” if you will? It is indeed innate, but religious institutions have too often merely become external, rule-enforcing agents, and that clearly doesn’t work.
But institutions–especially living ones, do serve a purpose. I read a baby boomer dad’s reflection on what he assumed his children knew–in this particular case, it was the words to a Beatles’ song–but when they asked who was singing, he realized that they didn’t know it and he wondered what else in their education, what other things that were important to him, that he knew by heart, he had failed to pass along. He thought of the Christian story. “One does not learn the story by osmosis,” he said. “It has to be told. After all, the Christian faith is always just one generation away from extinction.” (Martin Copenhaver, StillSpeaking Daily Devotional, 3/21/12)
What do you know by heart? The law or Torah which God promised to write upon the hearts of the people of Israel and Judah was not simply a list of do’s and don’ts, “not a laborious burden to be borne,” as one commentator puts it, “but [it] creates delight and joy.” (Texts for Preaching, Year B, p. 230) What is the deep, innate wisdom that is at the core of your being? Most of us don’t take the time to find out. Most of us, as one wise woman said, are just phoning our lives in. What do you know by heart? It may not be a list of statements you “believe in.” It may be a deep trust, an intimacy with a Wisdom and Love that you simply know you are part of, which is more like “knowing” in the biblical sense. It may be a melody or an image.
“Connection is why we’re here,” says University of Houston Professor of Sociology Brene Brown. In a TED Talk a couple years ago, she told about her research into the nature of connection–why it’s easier for some of us and almost impossible for others. Dr. Brown is, by her own admission, a researcher story-teller. “If it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist,” her dissertation advisor told her at the beginning of her doctorate, and she felt that she had come home. She’s a hard-nosed, data-seeking, don’t-bother-me-with-fuzzy-ideas kind of woman, but her research necessarily involves people’s stories.
She found that when she asked people about their experiences with connection, that along with the heart-warming, inspiring stories of connection were others that told of the most excruciating experiences of disconnection. When she asked about love, at least some of the stories were of heartbreak. When she asked about belonging, she’d also hear of painful experiences of not belonging. And what ran through all these other stories–these other stories of disconnection and heartbreak and disconnection– was a sense of shame, which she defines as the fear of disconnection–Is there something about me that makes me unable to be connected? We all experience shame, she says, and if you don’t think you do, you’re lying to yourself or you’re incapable of human connection. What came with this sense of shame, she found, was an excruciating feeling of vulnerability. So, she set out to research it, find it out, deconstruct it, and outsmart it. [Bear with me, now, because this actually does connect with both our scriptures this morning!]
In thousands of pieces of data collected over 6 years of research, Dr. Brown found that the difference between those who felt connected and those who struggled with connection was a sense of worthiness. Those who felt connected thought they were worthy of connection, worthy of love and belonging. So she decided just to look at those who felt worthy. She gave the file of those people the title, “Whole-hearted people.” She went into intensive data analysis mode for 4 days (“My husband took the kids and left the house, she said, because I get into this Jackson Pollock frenzy and just spread out all over.”) And what she found these “whole-hearted” people had in common was a sense of courage–courage, as distinct from bravery. Courage comes from the Latin word cor which originally meant To tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. These people had the courage to be who they were; they had compassion toward themselves. They experienced connection because of their authenticity, they let go of who they thought they should be and embraced who they actually were. And the surprising, amazing thing she discovered is that these whole-hearted people embraced their vulnerability. “They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.” They saw vulnerability not as comfortable, but as necessary. They were willing to breathe through their vulnerability– while waiting for their mammogram results, or after their pink slip had arrived, or in telling someone that they loved them–and that willingness to breathe through their vulnerability was fundamental, as opposed to clinging to control or predictability.
Dr. Brown says that this finding blew her out of the water. Her usual modes of controlling and predicting were useless. It caused a breakdown, she said, which her therapist renamed as “a spiritual awakening.” She did go into therapy for a year, researching herself, if you will, but really doing battle with this vulnerability, this vulnerability that’s involved with our fear and shame, but which is also the birthplace of connection and creativity. It was a year-long street fight, a slugfest, she said, “which I lost, but I won my life.”
“Why do we struggle so much with vulnerability? Here’s what I learned,” says Dr. Brown. “We numb vulnerability. But the thing is, we can’t selectively numb an emotion. We end up numbing everything. What’s the evidence for this? We are the most addicted, most in debt, most obese, most medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. When we try to numb our vulnerability, we also end up numbing joy, gratitude, happiness. So we’re miserable, and we try to numb that. It’s a vicious cycle.
In this battle against vulnerability, she concludes, we try to make every uncertainty certain. Look at religion these days. Not much room for mystery or uncertainty there. What does the billboard on Rt. 7 in Hoosick, NY say now? “The Holy Bible–Inspired. Absolute. Final.”(in contrast to the signboard out in front of the Unitarian church in Burlington I read this week, which said, “Unanswered questions are much less dangerous than unquestioned answers.”) Make every uncertainty certain. Look at politics. Absolutes. Unchanging. Fundamental. We also strive for perfection, Dr. Brown says, in our bodies, our houses, our children (Hear all those tiger mothers roar!) “Our children are hard-wired for struggle when they come to us,” Dr. Brown says, not for perfection. We shouldn’t comment about how perfect they are or should be, but how worthy of love and belonging they are. And finally, we pretend, she says, we pretend that what we do doesn’t affect others, either as individuals or as corporations or as nations.
What we need to do, Dr. Brown urges us, is to “let ourselves be seen, love with our whole hearts and with no guarantees, practice gratitude and joy in the midst of our vulnerability, and believe we are enough.” (TED x Houston, June 2010, youtube)
OK. What does this have to do with Jeremiah’s covenant written on our hearts by God or Jesus’ saying that his hour has finally come, when he is to be lifted up, that is, crucified? Can you think of a more powerful image for vulnerability than crucifixion? the ultimate experience of heartbreak? It turns out that the key to our connectedness with others is our willingness to be vulnerable and to have the courage, the whole-heartedness, to live that way. It is written on our hearts, if you will, hearts that we know are too easily broken.
“Who needs a heart, when a heart can be broken?” Tina Turner sang. You might even remember the King, Elvis Presley, singing about Heartbreak Hotel, “at the end of lonely street.” We all know what it’s like to have a broken heart.
If and when you find yourself on the road from heartache and loss to who knows where,
[asks John Bennison], what do you do and where do you go? Where is that place to experience, acknowledge, and accept things for what they are? Where’s that place one might come to truly know, with the assurance that we’re not alone in our heartbreak? A place with a sense of some abiding presence and caring fellowship, that can even carve out of heartache and heartbreak a hallowed space to dwell, if only for a while? (Words and Ways, 3/25/12)
I hope Second Congregational Church is such a place and will continue to be even more of a place for us and for all the whole-hearted and broken-hearted. God is still speaking, still writing on hearts and creating new ways to connect with the people and world God loved and loves through vulnerability and self-giving power. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will put the law within them and write it on their hears; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, [Jesus said] it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Let us “let ourselves be seen, love with our whole hearts and with no guarantees, practice gratitude and joy in the midst of our vulnerability, and believe we are enough.” May it be so.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark