Sunday Sermon: Written in Our Hearts

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By Laura Pennock

See, a time is coming – declares 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 I made with their fathers, when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, a covenant which they broke, though I espoused them – declared the Lord. But such is the covenant I will make with the House of Israel after these days – declares the Lord: I will put My Teaching into their inmost being and inscribe it upon their hearts. Then I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, “Heed the Lord”; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall heed Me – declares the Lord. - Jeremiah 31:31-34, Jewish Study Bible 

Jeremiah’s hair was on fire. Everything was amplified. Wikipedia offers a definition of a jeremiad, a term taken from the writings of Jeremiah, “a term that refers to a long literary work in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.”

There Is No Shortcut

This is the third time I have preached from a passage in Jeremiah, and I find there an endless well of writings about grief, about gritty hope that will not die, about encouragement in the face of complete disaster, and all in the most magnificent language.

Today is St. Patrick’s Day – a holiday that is more American than Irish and is rooted in the mass migration of the Irish from Ireland to America in the 19th century. In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, leprechauns have been inserted into my sermon brief. People have, from time immemorial, used stories and characters to illustrate communal values. Leprechauns, playful but very tricky little sprites, supposedly have pots of gold that they store at the ends of rainbows. The legend goes that if you catch a leprechaun, he will have to lead you to the end of a rainbow and surrender a pot of gold to you. The catch is that rainbows have no ends. The stories around leprechauns and the way they behave warn us that it is foolish to attempt shortcuts to wealth and wellbeing.

Jeremiah is more complicated than the simple moral warnings offered by stories of these playful if very tricky little sprites, but the underlying message is the same. There is no shortcut to wellbeing personally or communally.

Jeremiah was crying his message to his people who had experienced a terrible undoing.

The Babylonians had invaded Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and taken much of the population into exile. The Ark of the Covenant and the Tablet of Moses were lost. A terrible and disorienting disaster. The center of their lives and worship had been swept away at the hands of an enemy and everyone had either been carried away or had close family who had been. Destruction lay everywhere. The temple was their center; it was the repository of their spiritual lives; it was where God lived in their midst. Every year, a high priest would enter the holy of holies to commune with God on behalf of the people and that direct connection was a central ritual to staying right with God. With that physical place gone along with the sacred artifacts, how were they going to retain that connection?

When we are in the grip of a crisis – a personal crisis, a natural disaster, something that sweeps away everything that underpinned and stabilized our lives. In times like this, we grasp for any possible thing that will allow us feel like we actually have some control over our lives.

If I had done fill in the blank, then fill in the blank would not have happened. Jeremiah is doing this. If only Israel had been more obedient, if the people had only more consistently and faithfully conformed to the law, God would not have brought down this punishment. He is trying to make enough sense of the disaster unfolding before him to get back some control.

Jeremiah struggles with how to right this disaster, how to bring his people back to safety and wellbeing; he rails at God for forcing him to speak such judgment against his beloved nation; he blames the people for their insufficient observation of God’s laws; he tries to bargain them back into favor. Always, Jeremiah insists, Israel will return and rebuild Jerusalem once the period of punishment was over.

For Jeremiah, regaining control over his community’s wellbeing was centered in the teachings and the strictures of the Torah. He believed that the only way to win God’s favor was for Israel to turn to the Torah and live strictly by its teachings. He believed that if the people would discipline themselves to allowing God to write the teachings of the Torah in their inmost being, they could not ever stray from God and thus would ensure that they would never face such terrifying events again.

Hair On Fire

Jeremiah has my heart, as my hair is also on fire.

Politically, it seems to me as if the enemy is at the gates in a way that I have never experienced. We are facing an election cycle in which a man who fomented an insurrection is one of the two candidates. Someone who tried to overthrow the legitimately elected government; someone who refused to cooperate in the peaceful transfer of power for the first time in our history is one the candidates up for serious consideration for president – the highest office in our country and one of the most powerful positions in the world. It is an existential crisis because there are a significant number of people who are eligible to vote who think that what this person did was reasonable, right, and acceptable. The consequences of reinstalling this person into the presidency would be to end the way the U.S. exists in the world and I, as an individual, have nothing but my vote.

Religiously, the announcement of the sale of the Kirtland Temple to an institution that has proven untrustworthy evokes much the same shock and horror the Israelites felt about the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The center of identity and the gravitational point around which the Israelites oriented and ordered their lives was erased.

As John Hamer so movingly pointed out, for many in our community, especially those who find their center of gravity primarily in the church’s institutional birthright and heritage, who are committed to stewardship of those sites, objects, and buildings left to us by our predecessors and which were to be passed on to those inheriting our story, the Kirtland Temple served this same function: as a locus of spiritual life and a center of spiritual identity. The loss of that building and other artifacts that hold deep significance is a profound loss. It will take time to mourn this loss and all of us join together to lift up those who feel that loss most sharply.

It feels appropriate to read from Psalm 137, verses 1-6, which is a lament written for the destruction of the temple and the descent into the Babylonian Exile

By the rivers of Babylon—

there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the LORD’s song

in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem

above my highest joy.

Psalm 137:1-6

How do we tell our sacred story without this center?

Centering the Sacred Story in Each Person

Jeremiah pointed to a new center that required a new way to cherish and tell and live the sacred story. He promised his people that God would make a new covenant and God would place God’s teaching into their inmost being; centering the sacred story within each person rather than in a place that was outside of themselves.

Jeremiah declared that a new covenant shall be made between the House of Judah, and the House of Israel. The previous covenant had been made when Moses led the people out of Egypt. They were like children, whose locus of authority was outside of themselves, and God was like a parent to a child in that covenant. Jeremiah is declaring here that God will make a new covenant when God ends the punishment and brings them back to their homes and restores them to wellbeing.  This new covenant will be between God and a mature people: it will live in their inmost being and no one and nothing will be able to removed it. It will become as much a part of the people as their very hearts. They will incorporate it so fully that they will simply live it as unconsciously as they breathe.

We know, from our vantage point, thousands of years after Jeremiah wrote, that the Babylonian empire has long since crumbled to dust.

We also know that the Jewish people and their ideas, their sacred story, their intangibles remain vibrant today. Ideas are harder to destroy than buildings. The destruction of the temple did not mean the end of the Jewish people, the erasure of their culture, or the death of their spirits.

We no longer have possession of the Kirtland Temple and the other artifacts and buildings that were sold, but we retain the sacred story which is all the ideas those things symbolized. Ideas which proclaim:

Worth of all persons

Continuing revelation

Sacredness of creation

Unity in diversity

Grace and generosity

All are called

Pursuit of peace

Blessings of community

Look Forward with Hope

We are a forward looking people. We are working to fully embrace our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. We are working to dismantle systems of injustice. We don’t do these things perfectly and sometimes we fail completely. But ideas prevail; ideas endure. One day those buildings and objects will crumble back to the dust from which they came but the ideas and the values they represent can live on in us.

This is the lesson of the leprechaun this St. Patrick’s day: No one is going to save us except ourselves. There are no shortcuts.

Each of us matters, no matter how ineffectual you believe you are as one person, remember that snowflakes en mass become blizzards; Storm the ballot box.

Take the ideas those sacred objects and buildings embodied fully into yourselves, continue to move forward with the things of enduring value inscribed in your inmost being, and they will endure.

They will become our north star, the fixed point around which our thoughts and our choices revolve; which will inevitably direct our actions. As these values become inscribed on the doorframes and the gateposts of our inmost beings they will guide our footsteps in all our comings and goings.

This is the covenant that God extends to us as it was extended to the people of Jeremiah’s time. Write these things in your inmost being; take God so fully into your own hearts that you live God’s will as naturally and inevitably as you breathe.