Lent 5 March 21, 2021 Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
When is the last time you made a promise? “I promise I’ll have that work done by tomorrow.” “I promise I’ll clean my room.” “I promise I’ll love you forever.”
When’s the last time you broke a promise? One of my pet peeves is when a character on TV or in a movie says, “I promise I you I will catch the guy who did this” or “I promise you are not going to die.” I want to scream, “Don’t make promises you don’t know you’ll be able to keep.” Because even though we don’t set out with the intention of breaking a promise, unfortunately it does happen. And it causes disappointment, pain, heartache, and sometimes even anger. There are consequences.
Now let’s get a little more legalistic. When’s the last time you entered into a contract? That’s a kind of promise, too, right? Two parties make a binding agreement, such as an employer promises to pay a certain amount to the employee for specified work. Or a church signs a contract for the installation of new carpet. There are consequences there too if one side or the other doesn’t fulfill their part of the deal.
Now let me ask a different way – when’s the last time you made or broke a covenant? We’ve been spending the Sundays in Lent on a tour of the covenants that the Bible tells us were made between God and God’s people. Still ‘covenant’ isn’t a word we use very often in everyday conversation. I know it’s a legal term used in finance and real estate. And the United Nations has an International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Maybe where we’re used to hearing it most is in reference to marriage. A covenant is a pledge, a formal and serious promise or agreement. But it’s not a word we hear or use a lot – except in the Bible, where there are covenants all over the place.
So, to review. First, there was the covenant with Noah, with the rainbow as the sign of the promise made to all of creation to never again flood the whole earth.
The second covenant was with Abraham and Sarah, with the beautiful, poetic promise that their offspring would be as innumerable as the stars in the sky and grains of sand on the seashore.
Then came the covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai. This contract, often known as “the Law” and included the Ten Commandments, was more fully developed than ever before as the way to live both in covenantal relationship with God (I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me. Don’t take the name of God in vain. Honor your father and your mother) and with our neighbors (You shall not kill, etc., etc). This was the way to live in right relationship, in covenant relationship with God and with one another.
So how are we doing with these promises? If we go by Martin Luther’s explanations of the 10 Commandments, we have to admit that we fall far short of keeping up our end of the deal. For example, for the 5th Commandment Luther says that not only should we not kill our neighbors, we should also help them with all their physical needs.
And concerning the 8th Commandment, not only should we not bear false witness or lie about our neighbors, we should defend them, speak well of them, and always put the best construction on what they say and do. On those two alone, we have a lot of work to do. If we’re honest – and Lent is the season of honesty – we’ll admit that we continually play a part in breaking covenant with God. We do it in our personal lives in the choices and mistakes we make as individuals – those things for which we offer our confession and our intention to repent and do better.
We also have to admit that we participate corporately in breaking covenant with God. This is what Jeremiah was talking about in his day. He was writing his prophetic proclamations in the midst of colossal failure in ancient Israel. The city of Jerusalem had been conquered and burned, the temple destroyed, the monarchy terminated, the leading citizens deported into exile. This all came about, said Jeremiah, because Israel had broken the covenant, disobeyed the commandments of Sinai, did not take justice seriously, and did not ground its life in the God of the Exodus. And so, he said, came the judgment of God.
Now we would not say that it’s God sending punishment. Covenant is not a quid pro quo deal: you scratch God’s back and God scratches yours. No, it’s about living in harmony in the body of God. But there are consequences when we don’t.
In 2014, Old Testament scholar, author and prophet Walter Brueggemann brought the brokenness of ancient Israel into our present day:
We see that in our society the fabric of human community is almost totally broken and one glaring evidence of such brokenness is the current unrelieved tension between police and citizens in Ferguson, Missouri (after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer). That tension is rooted in very old racism . . .
This is one frontal manifestation of ‘the covenant that they broke, as referred to in the Jeremiah text: a refusal of neighborly solidarity that leads, with seeming certitude, to disastrous social consequences. Of course the issue is not limited to Ferguson but is massively systemic in US society. We have, like ancient Israel, been on a binge of narcissistic self-indulgence.
Of course it was not limited to Ferguson. It boggles the mind to consider all the ways since 2014 that our corporate life – as neighbors, communities, as a country – has been broken. Brueggemann again:
. . . we know that a sustainable social life requires attentiveness to neighbor. Torah obedience is not a narrow moralism. It is rather realism and readiness about what is required for society to work in life-flourishing ways.
This is exactly what Jeremiah is addressing in his stunning oracle that we read today. The admission of the brokenness of his society allows him to anticipate a “new covenant,” a new beginning, a new possibility. He imagines a time when all of us will naturally “know” God. We’ll instinctively know how to be a good neighbor to all people. Our relationship with God will automatically define attitudes, actions, and policies.
That sounds really good, doesn’t it? This text is so beautifully hopeful; we love to read it and believe that we are recipients of such a covenant. Make no mistake, though, and think that Jeremiah is talking about a covenant that will replace or surpasses the previous ones. All the covenants we’ve read throughout Lent are still in place. Jeremiah isn’t speaking of a new law, but rather of an upcoming era in which God enables human beings to follow the existing law by way of a transformation of the heart: “I will put my Law in their minds and on their hearts.” This is a Jewish idea picked up by Jesus and the early Jewish-Christian communities that followed him. It is an extension of the longing for intimacy and Divine guidance already present in earlier covenants.
We can relate to that longing today. Like our Jewish siblings, we yearn for an inner transformation that would render sin obsolete and teaching unnecessary. Of course, even though the prophet says the day is “surely coming,” we’re quite aware that, to put it mildly, it’s not yet here. As a people, we are broken in so many ways. My taxes support our state of perpetual war. My fuel consumption poisons the planet. My government is gridlocked. My relationships with people who think differently from the way I do have been strained or broken. I don’t think I’m alone in this condition. We have much truth telling and repenting to do in Lent.
The pandemic has exacerbated societal inequities that have been festering for a long time. The killings of eight people in Atlanta has put a spotlight on yet another way that racism rears its ugly head – not only in the actions of the shooter, but in the ways our national attitude has long been one of closing our eyes and turning our backs. Even the discussion of whether or not this was a hate crime is telling. Even if (and it’s a big if) the shooter did not target those of Asian descent, he definitely primarily targeted women. The controversy shows us how poorly we see the interconnections of race, gender, class, sexual identity, orientation and expression, and other communities that are often oppressed or marginalized.
I’m part of a group in our synod that is dedicated to promoting awareness of intersectionality. Now let me explain that – because this is a big part of our mission. These days, it is very easy to become embroiled in a battle over who is more oppressed, like there’s a hierarchy of oppression. In fact, when we recognize that oppressed groups are not in competition but are all part of an overarching system of domination, we are in a better place to stand with and support one another, not just in our own silo, but across the board.
It can also get carried into our own considerations of oppressed groups. In a conversation with a good friend a few years ago, she expressed her frustration with the Black Lives Matter movement. Her struggle came from the fact that she herself had been marginalized and her career as a pastor had been threatened because she is a Lesbian. But it’s not an either/or matter. And the fact is that many people belong to two or more groups, like the Asian-American women who were killed, like gay African-American men, like a disabled white man.
This is how it’s explained in the latest ELCA social statement, Faith, Sexism, and Justice:
The experiences of individuals and groups are shaped and complicated by intersecting factors. These include race, ethnicity, national origin, nationality, religious identity, immigration status, sexuality, marital status, economic means, age, ability, embodied experiences, and education.
Unfortunately, many people on the conservative side of the divide have come to understand intersectionality as a new hierarchy of oppression, one in which minorities are now at the top and white people at the bottom. This could not be more false, at least from everything I’ve read and from the standpoint of living out our faith. It is all about bringing the un-hierarchical nature of the realm of God a little closer to fruition. It is recognizing the brokenness of our society and bringing covenant living to bear in whatever way we can.
When we live mindfully of our covenant with God, we know we’re not yet living in the fullness of the Divine will for us. But this magnificent oracle from Jeremiah is a vision of what can be, what God desires it to be. It’s the vision that was written on Jesus’ heart. Coming, as he did, out of the history and tradition of covenant of his study of the Hebrew scriptures, he longed to bring that vision to fruition in our own hearts.
But as we well know, that beautiful vision, that Divine-infused heart would not prevent him from being killed by those who had a vested interest in thwarting the fulfilment of that vision. There’s no way to sugar coat the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Roman empire. There’s no way to sugar coat the reality of the ongoing crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of empire today. This far into Lent, it is hard to see Easter light at the end of the journey.
And yet, Lent is preparation for Easter. It’s planting the seeds of radical, inexplicable new beginnings. In this oracle, the admission of his people’s brokenness permits Jeremiah to anticipate a “new covenant.” It allows Jesus to go to death in expectation that the vision can still be true. It hopefully enables us to live, as Martin Luther called it, in the “now and the not yet” realm of God, in which we can operate “as if” the new covenant is already in place, “as if” it’s written on our hearts and embedded in our minds. It enables us to take seriously the promises of our baptisms, to serve all people following the example of Jesus; and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. If Good Friday is to have any meaning, there has to be the promise that God can take what is broken and make it whole – that applies to us, it applies to our world.
But a covenant is never just one-sided. Are we willing to seriously live in covenant relationship with God, with God’s people and all of creation? Because it means commitment, accountability, neighborliness, community, hospitality – not good descriptors of our society today. It means taking action, operating out of the covenant in our hearts – not because it’s been programmed in us against our will, but because we have chosen to live in relationship with the Divine Presence, which can make broken things new. Why would we not want to abide in the heart of God?
Yesterday, taking a break from writing, I turned on the news. MSNBC weekend host Joshua Johnson had a commentary called “Losing loved ones to ‘the culture war.’ It was a moving call to acknowledgement of the loss that so many of us feel these days due to the political divide – loss of relationship with a family member, with friends; he even acknowledged splits in churches. And far from stoking the fires of our differences, he encouraged recognition of our losses and offered some ideas for beginning to get beyond our current gridlocked divisiveness. It seems that there is some movement from some quarters in reclaiming our covenantal bonds with those from whom we’ve been estranged. And I think Johnson had it right – by appealing to our universal feelings of loss, our common humanity, we might be able to find a way forward out of the wilderness.
Imagine how our world would be different if we really did take seriously Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment: to defend our neighbors (which means everybody), speak well of them, and always put the best construction on what they say and do. I’ll be honest, I need help. I need a new heart, a renewed heart, an infusion of Divine Presence within me to be able to do the work that is required of us in these trying times. And I believe we are coming into a time of new imagination, new creativity. New pathways are being opened through the wilderness and our broken hearts are being infused with Divine Love – much too much to be kept inside and in need of spilling out into the world.
Next week is Palm Sunday, then it’s Holy Week. The cross looms large. Jesus tells us that unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. Yes, he’s talking about his own death and resurrection. But he’s talking about us, too. “If you love your life, you will lose it; if you hate your life in this world you will keep it for eternal life.” Or as Matthew and Mark have it: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
To die to our self-centered ego-driven ways and live into the heart of the covenant into which we’ve been baptized, is to find those places where we can take an active part in the commitment, accountability, neighborliness, community, hospitality, compassion of the realm of God. The way is already written on our hearts – not because it’s been programmed in us against our will, but because it speaks to our deepest longings.
Some days, many days lately, the brokenness of our world seems intractable. As I’m sure it did in Jeremiah’s day. Yet he tells us to look up, to look ahead. Because God loves making and keeping covenants.
As I’m sure it did in Jesus’ day, too, especially when the powers of the Roman empire and the religious establishment conspired to quench the flame of love in that Divine heart. Except they couldn’t do it. Jesus also tells us to look up, the cross looms ahead. Jesus also tells us to look ahead, not in denial of the pain and suffering of the world, but in trust that to follow in the way of Jesus is to enter eternal life – now. That’s the promise. Cross my heart.
Behold, the days are coming, says Yahweh, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them up out of the land of Egypt—a covenant they broke, though I was their spouse, says Yahweh. But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my Law in their minds and on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they need to teach one another or remind one another to listen to Yahweh. All of them, high and low alike, will listen to me, for I will forgive their misdeeds and will remember their sins no more
Among those who had come up to worship at the Passover festival were some Greeks. They approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and put forth this request: “Please, we would like to see Jesus.”
Philip went to tell Andrew, and together the two went to tell Jesus. Jesus replied, “Now the hour has come for the Chosen One to be glorified. The truth of the matter is, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. If you love your life, you will lose it; if you hate your life in this world you will keep it for eternal life. Anyone who serves me must follow in my footsteps, and wherever I am, my servant will be there too. Anyone who serves me will be honored by Abba God. Now my soul is troubled. What will I say: ‘Abba, save me from this hour?’ But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour. Abba, glorify your name!” A voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowds that stood nearby heard this and said it was a clap of thunder; others said, “It was an angel speaking.” Jesus answered, “It was not for my sake that this voice came, but for yours. Sentence is now being passed on this world; now the ruler of this world will be overthrown. And when I am lifted up from this earth, I will draw all people to myself.” By these words Jesus indicated the kind of death he would die.