Sermon Delivered on October 20, 2013
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
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. 32It 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. 33But 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. 34No 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. -Book of Jeremiah 34:31-34
I feel like I need to make a confession. I need to get something off of my chest; get it out in the open. I think I need to tell you the truth.
It all started with last week’s installment of WGBH’s On Being with Krista Tippet. Well it didn’t all start there, but as I was listening to that podcast it all seemed to come to light. Krista’s guest was philosopher Alain de Botton . As the promo for her show says, de Botton “ likes the best of religion, but does not believe in God.” He has created a community in London, called the “School of Life.” Catchy, huh? And not that creative; if you Google it, you will find that deBotton is not the only one to claim this catchy title for his enterprise. But, it sounds a bit more hopeful than the “School of Hard Knocks.” Nonetheless, it sounds like a school that does…not really sound like a school, as much as a state of….existence. And if it is a school, it sounds like a school in which the headmaster might naturally be thought to be……the Author of Life, right? God. The School of Life, brought to you by the Creator of Life.
But no. Just the opposite. The “School of Life,” founded by Alain de Botton, is a secular school, a secular community. And Alain de Botton is not only a secular citizen, he is an avowed atheist. An atheist, however, who seems to very much like the art and music and ritual of the mainline world religions, especially Christianity, even though he just can’t quite get his arms around the subject; the concept of an Almighty God; a Creator of all of Creation who is and was and always will be the energy behind all of that art and music and beauty, the wisdom behind every one of the world’s wonderments…..which de Botton quite enjoys, but apparently attributes to the poetry of some science….which he believes, created itself.
And so, when asked about his purported “crisis of faithlessness” that apparently befell and confounded him in his twenties, de Botton answered:
…I grew up with this idea that religion was not only wrong, but also stupid, silly, ridiculous, something for other people. Then as I left home and started making my way in the world, I started discovering — and this was slightly a worrying discovery — that there were lots of things tangentially associated with religion that were quite nice. I rather liked religious architecture, [and there was] something very beautiful about religious music. Many great works of art were religious in tone, and yet that didn’t seem to stop me getting a lot from them. So that’s where my, as I say, crisis of faithlessness came about. I began to realize that religion, for all its flaws and for all its faults and all its excesses, had some high points that were incredibly interesting, fascinating, beautiful, inspiring. It took me a while to square this with, you know, my atheism, the fact that I’m not a believer.
And here is where my confession comes in. My dear friends, I fear, I think, I need to tell you that I am…..I humbly confess…..I think that I am not a “believer”, either. I don’t think I ever have been a “believer.” And, I don’t think I ever will be. I am not a “believer.” There I said it. Hi my name is Gretchen…… Grimshaw…… Reverend Grimshaw, oddly enough, and….um….I am not a “believer.”
Actually, I do not even know what that means, to be a believer. I mean, I do believe in….many things. And not just quantifiable things. I believe in justice…I understand how and why it works, and how and why it is necessary, and how and why we must work for its reality. I believe in the power of love…because I have seen it in action, in living color, many times. I even believe in miracles…..because who doesn’t believe in miracles? I definitely believe in extra-terrestrial life because, com’on, we can’t be all that there is!!!!! Also, I believe that my horse knows how I will react to certain things before and better than do I. I believe that. And I believe that Ben and Diva love me with hearts bigger than anything I can imagine. I believe that too. I believe that each leaf on each tree is a modicum of the grandest cycle of life that embraces each one of us each day. How cool is that?!…and totally believable! I believe in all of these unquantifiable, un-empirical miracles, all these unprovable things; mostly because I have first-hand, eye-witness evidence that they exist. I believe because I have personal proof.
But God? I’m not sure I do “believe” in God. The power of love is one thing. The immensity of God Almighty is quite another. I could be convinced that science explains every “how” in the universe. It’s hard for a thinking person to argue with the primacy of science. And although I have preached on more than one occasion about the etymology of the word belief, as grounded in the German word for belove, making belief an emotion, not of the brain, but of the heart……..well, it’s a good argument, but a poor persuader. As a child of this culture and this vernacular, when I say I am a “believer” in something, I really do mean that I have assented to the tenets of that concept with my brain. And so on the face of the ……facts of the matter, I’m not sure I can call myself a true “believer.”
Which is where this morning’s reading from the Book of Jeremiah comes in. It is hands down my favorite passage in the Bible; you know that book that tells the stories of generations of believing non-believers and non-believing believers, alike. And Jeremiah lived and wrote in a period of time that was not unlike our own, in many ways. It was an extremely tumultuous and critical time of change and complexity in the Ancient Near East. The Book begins sometime before the exile, which may indeed be an unfortunate parallel to our own situation with the degradation of this fragile planet. In today’s passage, the Temple has likely just been destroyed. The people of Judah are in despair. Their roots and their everyday practices and their hope for a future in the land promised them by the God of their ancestors are all in flux and jeopardy at best, and shambles and total destruction, at worst. Having been badly beaten and repeatedly oppressed by the Babylonian heathens, Yahweh offers a shocking and sweeping new sprout of hope that is inextricably grounded in the covenantal tradition of the community. This passage offers the fifth and final covenant cut by our so-called Creator with the beloved community of Israel. It addresses the helplessness of their situation, and it offers what the Creator says is an almost foolproof guarantee of their future fidelity, and thus prosperity. This is an outrageously hopeful passage of scripture; a statistical rarity in the prophetic literature of our tradition. But here it is.
I love this passage! The first reason I love this passage is its hopefulness. This is the fifth covenant offered by God to God’s seemingly perpetually unruly people. Five covenants God has offered. Five times the Almighty God has gone back to the well with human beings. And not to re-design, but to re-vision our relationship. Next to the all inclusive rainbow covenant (made with all of creation), this last of God’s five covenants in the Hebrew Bible is undoubtedly the most inclusive. It is directed specifically to human beings, but not just men or members of the community who are of an age and reason to read and follow laws, it includes everyone. And in its inclusivity alone, this truly is a new covenant.
The second reason I love this passage is that it is the first time that God offers not a new law, but a new creation, and not on the heels of the destruction of the old creation, like the one in Genesis. There is no destruction here. Only a new way of being; a new creation. Many Christians insist that Jesus is THE new covenant, but no! This covenant in Jeremiah, this fifth in a long line of attempts on God’s part to be in right relationship with human beings, THIS is the original new covenant, God written in the flesh; Jesus is the full incarnation of this new creation.
I think that this passage in Jeremiah is a watershed in our relationship with God, because this is the point in our covenantal history, I think, where God stops asking human beings to be believers.
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. 32It 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…. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel…..: 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. 34No longer shall….they 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.
No longer shall they say to each other “know the Lord.” I read this as: no longer shall they say to each other, “be a believer.” For they will know me in their hearts. And this is where, I think, God trades the request for belief for the assurance of trust. This, I think, is a critical juncture in the trajectory of God’s relationship with God’s people; maybe the critical juncture; when our relationship with God moves from head to heart. And it is a juncture that opens the door for my own relationship with the living God; a God so unfathomable that I am not always sure I “believe;” but a God in whom I absolutely, with all of my heart, in every nook and cranny of my life, totally trust.
I may not “believe” in God, necessarily. But I trust in God, absolutely.
And this is the one thing that I hope our kids and youth take away from our beloved community of St. Paul’s. If they only learn one thing in our Parish School, or our Confirmation Class, or our worship; if they only take one message away from this holy place, I hope it is that they trust that we are, that they are, not just products of science and evolution, who are to try to live right and moral lives because it is the right thing to do. I hope rather that they know that they are beloved creations of a living God, who are born to reflect God’s likeness…..and that when they are true to that likeness, then right living, and moral living, and justice and compassion and kindness…..these will be their only options. I hope that they take from here a sense of their own holiness, and the holiness of all others.
Which brings me to the last and biggest reason I love this passage. It tells us quite a lot about God; a God who continues to hang in there with us; to work with us to find a way into a relationship that has been fraught with betrayal and self-centeredness and pain; a God who continues to create new ways in which we can live into God’s dream for us. Any lesser being would have quit long ago. Anything short of an Almighty lover of all of humanity would have thrown in the towel and thrown out the bums.
This “new covenant” is a sign and a witness to God’s abiding love of and for God’s people despite our deep shortcomings and incessant failures to live into the previous covenants. And it is a statement I think that God no longer necessarily “believes” in us either. Let’s face it, in this covenant God writes God’s torah on our hearts almost as a parent pins a child’s mittens to her coat sleeve. And yet, it is the assurance that God loves us, still, always, absolutely.
Even so, I don’t think this new covenant is radical in its substance. It is still grounded in the liberating event of the exodus. And, both community solidarity and God’s torah, God’s law, are yet at the center of this covenant, as they had been the center of each of God’s previous covenants. But the means by which the center is achieved is a game changer. For this covenant is predicated not on fortitude but on forgiveness. It is written on every heart and thus requires no mediator. This covenant removes the possibility of the human failure of freedom, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel would label the great human failing; a failure of freedom. But this covenant delivers new hope that is rooted in the freedom of unconditional forgiveness.
“I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Forgiveness is the new linchpin of this new covenant. And that is entirely new.
And so like Alain de Botton, I am afraid that I too may be…..not-so-much a “believer.” But unlike de Botton, I am not an atheist. Not even close. For I put my full and faithful trust not in the random order of science and a universe that spins on its own ungrounded axis, for the sake of its own ungrounded pleasure or purpose (although I have a healthy appreciation for the wonders of science); but I put my ultimate trust in an all-loving ever-living Creator whose dream of a just and peaceful world lives in…me, and it lives in you; a Creator whose likeness, whose law of love and forgiveness is etched on my very heart, and your very hearts , and on the hearts of every human face we see. I may not “believe” in God, but I trust in a Creator whose creation is filled with a creativity that draws us, pulls us, compels us along a trajectory toward an everlasting life of love and goodness and hope.
And in the end, maybe, maybe I am a bit of a believer. But only in the sense that I know there is a God because I trust my own heart. I know that my heart is capable of so much more than I can ask or imagine. I know that my heart is charged with a mission that is so much bigger than I am or could ever hope to be. I know that my heart is drawn to kindness and justice and compassion, not because doing the right thing is the right thing to do, but because kindness and justice and compassion are what I was born to do. Not just taught or inclined to do, but born to do. And that makes all of the difference.
And like the rainbow, an everlasting witness to God’s first covenant with all of creation, I believe that God has left us with tangible evidence of this last covenant in the Book of Jeremiah. In our vernacular we call it an “ah-ha moment.” That moment when we know that our actions are perfectly aligned with our Creator’s dream for us. That feeling in the pit of our being that feels like….heaven. It is God’s way of letting us know that we are bearer’s of a God in whom we would do well to trust with all of our hearts. It is God’s way of assuring us that we were created not for dust, but for ashes. Not simply to run the cycle of life from dust to dust, but to burn with God’s flame of love and forgiveness that is emblazoned on our hearts.
And so if I were writing a mission statement for our own School of Life, the School of Life that is, unlike Alain de Botton’s, grounded in the heart of God, which is written on the heart of humanity, I think it would reflect the words of our Savior from this morning’s reading in Gospel of Luke. Rather than requiring that we believe in…anything, I think the requirement would rather be that we pray always and never lose heart!
© October, 2013 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw