Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Days Are Coming”
Rev. Art Ritter
March 18, 2018
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, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: 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.
In a sermon on this morning’s Scripture passage, the Rev. Dr. Bennett Guess tells of a conversation he had with his sister many years ago. They were in the car together, on the way to Bennett’s first year of seminary classes at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Somewhere in that journey, perhaps on a side road in rural Kentucky, his sister turned to him and said, “Now, when you go to seminary, I want you to figure out all of this God stuff and then tell me what you believe. Then I will believe that too.” It didn’t quite work out that way but perhaps that is how many ministers feel or perhaps that is how many of us feel about religion. If we can make it rational, if we can construct tangible rules and practices and measurements, then we can know how to do it and we can get others to learn it just as we have learned it.
I am beginning to get excited about the appearance of Diana Butler Bass here at Meadowbrook in just a couple of weeks. In her book Grounded, that I knew some of you have read, Diana relates a conversation she had with a successful executive seated next to her on a flight. The woman first inquired about Diana’s vocation and Diana replied that she wrote about religion and spirituality. “Religion isn’t a very popular word, is it? I used to be religious. I grew up Catholic, but left the church over the sex-abuse scandal. The church doesn’t make much sense in the world as it is now. But I still believe in God. I’d say that I am a spiritual person.”
Diana answered back, perhaps as we might answer, “Lots of people tell me that they are ‘spiritual but not religious.’ What do you mean by that? Who is God to you?” The woman went on to speak about how she found God in nature, in her relationships with friends and family and neighbors, and in the work she does in the world. She found God in her service feeding the hungry at a local shelter, in a jazz service at the local Episcopal church, and in offering hospitality to those who are ill or grieving. The woman went on to say that she sometimes felt guilty about not attending church anymore. But joining an organization seemed a strange way for her to relate to God. She said the institutional church was so broken, so hypocritical. She finished saying, “But these other things- the Spirit all around, caring and praying for people, working for a better world, they ground me.”
Those of us who grew up within the church and those of us who participate in the church with our time and money and energy may find a story like this to be quite frustrating. The woman’s experience of the church is not like ours. There are many things in within the church- worship and fellowship; music and prayer; learning and service- things in which we readily find the presence of the divine. Yet we look around us and know that things aren’t going so well. We see that the ranks in the pews are thinning. Worship attendance overall is significantly down, especially among the young. It is logical for us to blame a world that is increasing secular. We can point out people who are uncommitted or whose priorities are out of whack. We know that we live in a world in which the sacred space of Sunday morning is now wide open to sports and shopping and sleeping in.
Diana Butler Bass’ theory is that people have not lost their spiritual appetite at all. They simply are finding ways to feed that appetite in places outside of organized religion. For them, church has become a place where there is too wide of a distance between practice and structure and the experience of God. More people today are finding God not in the high mountain sanctuaries of organized faith but in the more meaningful heart-felt interaction of everyday life.
Diana writes about the conventional God who existed outside time and space, a being beyond imagining, who lived in distant heaven, unaffected by human life. This God was all-powerful, all knowing and was in all places. This is the God worshipped in organized religion. She then writes that the grounded God is speaking today, a “God in relationship with space and time as the love which connects and creates all things, known in and with the world.” This God is not above or beyond us, rather “entwined with the sacred ecology of the universe.”
Now we may want to argue this theory, saying it is a generalization of the practices of organized faith. Perhaps the image of an all-powerful God isn’t the motivation of our faith and service. Yet deep down inside there is a part of us that thinks that what brought us to faith should also work for others. We want to believe that there has to be somebody out there who finds value in what we do and how we do it. It stings when I consider that future generations may find that what is sacred and important to me to be of little value to the nurture of their own spirits. I know that sometimes this change in our religious culture overwhelms me. It scares me. I wasn’t trained for it. I don’t completely understand it. I often feel like a dinosaur, the same way I feel when I use the Oxford comma or leave two spaces between sentences in my typing. Sometimes it feels as if I am in exile, carried away against my will by the tides of change, to a land away from the comfort of tradition and security.
This week’s lesson from the Hebrew Scripture are the words of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah offered these words to his faith community about six hundred years before Jesus was born. His words offered a prophetic voice to that community, raising questions about the meaning of ritual and tradition and calling people to a more personal or perhaps we might say “grounded” experience with God. The people of Jeremiah’s community were probably sick of hearing from him and certainly were tired of his message. The prophet had been warning the king and the people about the danger of taking their covenant with God too lightly. He cautioned them that their practices were really designed to suit them and to make them comfortable and were not actually honoring God. He told them that ignoring God’s intention in favor of their own preferences would lead them to destruction.
However suddenly, in this reading we hear this morning, Jeremiah’s tone changes. There is a more hopeful sound to his voice. A day is coming when God will make a new covenant with God’s people. This new agreement will not be measured through the keeping of laws or traditions. It will be written onto the hearts of individuals. The people will not need to be taught the specific precepts of the Law. They will not have to learn all that has happened in the past. Rather each follower of God will now be able to know God personally.
These words fit so well with our Christian teaching and with our understanding of Jesus that we might overlook the original context and what the words might have meant to the people of Jerusalem in Jeremiah’s time. When he said them, the armies of Babylon were laying siege to the city. When he wrote them, the Temple was destroyed, left behind in smoldering ruins. When people read these words they were exiles in Babylon, waiting for a return to their holy city and their home. It was hard for them to see any kind of hope in the future.
This is why this promise of something coming in a new day was so powerful. God didn’t stay behind in the ruins of the Temple. God hadn’t abandoned them in their new and uncertain circumstance. God traveled in the heart of each believer. Nothing about God was lost. God was grounded within them.
These words are good news for us today. A day is coming, perhaps the day is here. The new covenant doesn’t require the structures of the old. The new covenant isn’t about institutional change but rather about a change of character within. We don’t respond to God because of rules or practices or obligation. We don’t need written mission statements to instruct us of what we are called to do. We respond by “second nature” in a sustained, vibrant, intimate relationship with God that mirrors God’s ways of love, grace, justice, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
I’ve shared with you before a story told by Walter Wangerin. His son Matthew as a teenager was going through a difficult time. Matthew was rebelling against everything his parents taught. On more than one occasion the boy had been caught stealing comic books from a local store. After one incident, father Walter was in deep despair. Believing he had run out of options, he resorted to something he had not done in years- spanking. He performed the action with great deliberation, almost as a ritual. But when he was finished, he was so ashamed of himself that he ran from the room crying. After pulling himself together, Walter went back into the room, grabbed his son, and hugged him long and hard. Nothing more was ever said about that night. And Matthew never stole another things. Years later, when Matthew as a grown man, he and his mother were reminiscing about the stolen comic books. Matthew said, “Do you know why I finally stopped stealing?” “Of course,” his mother replied, “It was because Dad finally spanked you.” “No,” said Matthew. “It wasn’t the spanking at all. It was because Dad cried.” The tears of his father were like a new covenant written in the heart, a relationship now grounded not in rules but in love and grace and forgiveness.
There is a power of hope in these words. There is a power of hope that speaks to me through the hopelessness that I consider when searching for answers to the problems of the church as an institution. There is a hope that comforts me when I feel overwhelmed by the weight of the darkness that is the world today. The hope comes from a God who comes to the gathered community not through following rules and planning successful programs but through the grace and mercy which flows from the hearts of the individuals who form that community. The hope is born when we gather not of our obligation but because we find that being in a community that practices love and acceptance and forgiveness bring us closer to God. The hope springs from a belief that God’s actions on our behalf are not motivated by our fidelity to tradition but by God’s love which transforms us into people who want nothing more than to love others as God loves us. God wants to be real for us. God’s love wants to be part of us. God’s grace is written in our hearts.
This covenant speaks to a people who sense the failure of old ways yet who now hear God saying that God isn’t finished with us and there is something more to be done. This covenant speaks directly to us, changes us, and makes all the difference in our lives.