If you want to listen to the sermon, click the play button below. (I forgot to hit ‘record’ before I started so the first paragraphs aren’t there)
Jeremiah is one of my favorite books of the Bible. The word “jeremiad” is a term that has come to mean “a long, mournful complaint; a list of woes.” Jeremiah is known as the weepy prophet – a woe-is-me kinda guy who complains throughout this collection of verses and poems and proclamations… about how no one likes him and people want to kill him.
There is good reason. As a prophet of God, Jeremiah has been called to be the one to lament the actions and choices made by the leadership of Israel. It can definitely be a bit of a downer to read because Jeremiah offers us a full picture of the story of Israel and it’s not a pretty story:
In approximately 1025 BCE, the people of Israel, which consisted of a loose confederation of tribes, decided to name a sovereign king, despite God’s urging otherwise, because they felt threatened by the regular military invasions into their lands by neighboring nations. They decided a central leader would be a kind of messiah, a savior of sorts, to raise an army and defend the tribal lands.
This king, as you may recall, was Saul (Book of Samuel II). Now, at some point during Saul’s reign, David gained power within the society and become an internal enemy of Saul. When Saul died and his heir and son was assassinated, David, who was, at best, morally questionable, did what he needed to do to take power in 1005 BCE.
David established the dynasty of kingship in Israel and established Jerusalem as the nation’s capital – centralizing everything. The nation of Israel was now identified with Jerusalem, and with a king.
David is known in the Judeo-Christian tradition as the great king because humans have a need to identify with powerful institutions and greatness. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke go out of their way to has connect Jesus with the line of David (not the line of Saul) to demonstrate Jesus’ place as the inheritor of greatness. The Son of David.
But it’s this very need to be a part of greatness that is at the heart of bigotry and prejudice because in order to see ourselves in the winner’s circle, someone has to be the loser. Someone has to be an “other” so that our identity of greatness remains intact.
So David is a perplexing character in the history of Israel. We laud King David but we fail to see the shadow side of that kind of power, which is that David unilaterally eliminated the self-governance of the tribes and mercilessly conquered the weaker, nearby city-states. And he did so with a lot of bloodshed and by creating alliances with the leaders of other nations to keep his internal enemies at bay. But hey, he’s a great king… who cares at what cost as long as I’m not the collateral damage.
When David died after being in power for about 40 years, and his son Solomon took over, the nation of Israel knew peace, finally, for the first time since the monarchy had begun. Well, a time without rebellion or war or conquest, anyway.
Solomon focused inwardly, using the wealth gathered from conquest and power to rebuild many of the cities that had been demolished in local rebellions and scuffles. And he solidified Jerusalem as, not only the political capital, but the religious capital as well by ensconcing the Ark of the Covenant in the newly built Temple.
The Ark of the Covenant carried the stone tablets of the 10 Commandments and was the mercy seat, where God sat. It followed the Israelites through their journeys. It was looked after by the priestly families but always remained an autonomous seat of power. So, when Solomon moved it into the temple, it changed the nature of how Israel knew God – from a God who was everywhere and anywhere, to a God that was inherently connected to the political center of the nation.
The construction of what came to be known as Solomon’s Temple changed what it meant to be God’s chosen people. Worship was centralized and religious practices took on a very legalistic nature – rules, uniformity, and a hierarchical power.
But rivalries were broiling under the surface all throughout Solomon’s reign. And when he died 40 years later, the race to grab the power of the throne ended up splitting the kingdom into 2 – The Northern Kingdom took the name Israel and the Southern Kingdom became known as Judah. Jerusalem and its Temple – the seats of power, were located in Judah.
Over the next 200 years, Israel (the Northern Kingdom) was broken apart piece by piece by invading nations. And after another 200 years, Judah fell to Babylon. The Babylonians razed Jerusalem to the ground and destroyed the Temple. And, in a typical act of war – sent many of the Judeans into exile in the city of Babylon so that they couldn’t re-establish a base of power at home.
This is where Jeremiah comes in. Jeremiah is the prophet in exile as a Judeans in Babylon along the rest who have been taken from their homeland. The overarching theme of Jeremiah is the pain associated with the destruction of a way of life and how that way of life was idolized over and above God’s covenant: The desperate request for a king despite God’s urging them not to name one in Saul. The rampant bloodshed, debauchery, and quest for glory of King David. And the arrogance in claiming possession of the very seat of God by Solomon. None of this was in service to God, but was about the glory of a nation.
Jeremiah proclaims the end of Judah’s social system and venerable institutions, the end of their worship life and the end of their entitlement to the land of Canaan – or the Promised Land, the end of kingship, the end of glory.
The entire first half of Jeremiah – chapters 1-25 – has the prophet declaring that it was because of the systems and the institutions themselves, that the nation collapsed. In other words, it was their own fault for focusing on their own glory, for idolizing themselves rather than keeping God’s covenant. No wonder Jeremiah was unpopular. No wonder he felt persecuted. People did want to kill him. Because no one wants to hear that kind of truth.
And so many people stop here with Jeremiah because so many people know that nostalgic impulse – that sense of identity that comes from knowing where we’ve been and who we’ve been and to mourn it when it no longer seems to be the way things are. And so most people don’t read Jeremiah as a book of hope.
This overwhelming desire humans have to stay where we are and where we’ve been, is a theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. To keep ourselves in a place, connected to an identity associated a way of life that we’ve come to know, even when that way of life is no longer in service to God.
Moses led people in the wilderness for 40 years for a reason. It didn’t take them 40 years to find Canaan. It took them 40 years to be ready to enter Canaan because that’s approximately how long it took for most of those who left Egypt to die off. It was their offspring who were ready to enter the Promised Land. It was those who barely remembered Egypt who were able to enter the Promised Land. Because they had no sense of nostalgia. They had nothing to prevent them from seeing the Promised Land for what it was – a new home, a new way of life.
But where Jeremiah really gets interesting is right about here – today’s reading. The entire second half of the Book of Jeremiah talks about a new covenant. It talks about God’s promise being found, not in a glorified way of life, but in our very hearts.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah… And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord… 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… But this is the covenant that I will make… 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 [need to teach about me… because they will know me.]
Our heart is the very seat of our identity, not a place or an institution or a way of life encoded in a list of rules or a social system. Our beating heart is who we are because God designed this center of intelligence to be the point of connection between people.
We know who we are because we are in relationship with one another – we come to know who we are in our interactions with the people in our lives. Without others, we would cease to know ourselves at all. Without a Thou, there is no I.
It’s why there are petitions tying to abolish the practice of solitary confinement in prisons. It’s why stories of feral children, who, from toddlerhood, are left alone, develop no sense of identity, no concept of self. Extreme isolation stops the connection and destroys the soul.
Our heart is where we discover that a “thou” exists. And as I connect to the Thou, I learn who I am. This is why scripture tells us that God’s covenant must be written on our hearts. Because our heart tells us who we are so it’s the location where the work of faith is most deeply engaged.
Not a blind faith in which we surrender our identity and sense of self unquestioningly. Not a faith that submits without will to lie down, taking no agency in a cruel world, taking no responsibility for the lives of others, shrugging our shoulders to say, “it must be the Will of God” without gratitude or care for the creation of which we are a part.
This faith that’s engaged in the heart acknowledges that we are God’s and we are separate from God. Moving between two points on a continuum, praising God in times of abundance and lamenting God’s absence in times of pain. And it can happen in different periods of our lives over years or it can happen in the space of a heartbeat.
It is this deep engagement with God, this wrestling with God that is required of us as the Body of Christ. Indeed, the name “Israel” means “to struggle with God, to wrestle with God.”
A covenant that is written on our hearts is one that is about identity, our whole identity – and our real identity, is that we belong to God. It’s that simple. We belong to God. We are God’s beloved, holy, children. Fully loved in all our brokenness and glory. This is Jeremiah’s hope – that we will know this and act in faith in response to it.
The Reign of God has no borders, no nations, no particular or comforting way of life, no institutions, no way of keeping score. The Reign of God is, what Martin Luther King Jr called, the Beloved Community:
In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry, and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.
King said: “the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends.… It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of [human beings].”
This is the new covenant that is written on our hearts – where we know God so intimately that loving God and loving neighbor is really just one and the same. Because in loving God so completely, we learn to see with God’s eyes, the beauty and the exquisite, luminous, vulnerable truth that is one another. And when we see that, we see ourselves and our own luminous truth more clearly. Without the Thou, there is no I.
We stop putting up borders because we hear the call to open our heart over and over and over again. Our dream is no longer one of our own glory, our own preferences and needs, but we begin to dream God’s dream and we begin to live in service to that dream.
Our identity ceases to be one that is wrapped up in a place or a way of life that no longer serves God’s purpose and so our will to act falls in line with a higher purpose, a higher calling – that of the Beloved Community and its welfare.
From today’s collect:
Preserve the works of your mercy, that your Church throughout the world may persevere with steadfast faith in the confession of your Name…that your Church may be dedicated to your dream of the Beloved Community. Amen.