One of my clergy friends says that these verses from Jeremiah are like his elevator speech of what it means to be a Christian. If he were in an elevator and someone asked him what it means to him to be a Christian, he could draw from these verses to sketch it out in the time it took them to ride the elevator. (In our church elevator, that could be several minutes.)
This is one of the hardest things for progressive Christians to talk about: what our faith means and what it looks like. What is that covenant that God writes on our hearts? Imagine you are being asked to give your elevator speech about what it means to you to be a Christian. What are some of the things you would want to mention in that speech? Turn to someone near you and share what you might say. [A minute for this conversation.]
What are some of the things that came up? [Input.]
Here are some of the things Jeremiah mentions:
I’m going to spend some time on what it might mean for God’s covenant to be written on our hearts—what that implies for our spiritual journey as individuals, and how that turns into an issue of love and justice in the broader world. And then I’ll talk about an example of how that covenant can get twisted out of shape if we’re not listening deeply.
Written on our hearts—not on our elbows, or our brains, or our big toe. Our hearts, where we feel love, passion, compassion, empathy. And it is a new covenant—the old one being the Ten Commandments, which we talked about a few weeks ago. God sees that people were still breaking those ten basic rules. God doesn’t give up on this relationship but keeps showing up for us, keeps loving us, keeps trying to bring us into relationship in ways that we can manage. We will always make mistakes—that’s built into the equation. It’s how we learn, how we grow, how we find ways to do better.
God’s covenant is written on our hearts so that our hearts may learn to sing. What love in your life has made your heart leap for joy? We may have relationships throughout our lives that feed us, heart and soul: with parents and grandparents, friends, people whom we marry, our children, and others. These relationships can grow and deepen over time. When they are healthy, they make us whole and give our lives shape and meaning.
So God’s covenant may express itself in our hearts through love of the people in our lives. It may also come through finding the work that is our true calling, the work that—no matter what happens, no matter how many things become difficult and challenging—we keep showing up for because it gives our lives meaning. Maybe it is being a parent, or writing, or building things, or teaching, or healing people, or any of a million other things that the world needs. God calls us, and we recognize this calling not just in our brains, with logic and rational thinking, but deep in our hearts.
God keeps calling us to this covenant that is written on our hearts. The calling is different when we are eight, 18, 30, 50, 80. God keeps showing up, keeps calling us to become our best selves, whatever that may be for us. God never abandons us. No matter what happens, God is our God, and we are God’s people. Always.
In the passage from John, we have Jesus, the perfect example of one who lives with God in his heart. Jesus has followed his calling even though it leads to his personal fate on a cross. Jesus is God’s attempt, yet again, to awaken us to God’s presence and love within and among us, to help us understand what it means to live with God at our very core.
And Jesus reminds us that our calling is not just about ourselves but about spending ourselves for the greater good. We are like seeds, with all that potential, but if we stay in the seed bag and refuse to be planted, we are nothing; we can never bear fruit. If we love our life so much that we refuse to share it—refuse to step out and answer God’s call because it might mean sacrifice or change or risk or even death—then we lose the opportunity to live into our full potential to be agents for love and justice in the wider world. We have to put ourselves out there, live into God’s love and justice, even sometimes at great cost to ourselves personally, in order to bear fruit for the greater good.
How did I get from God on our hearts to love and justice? Because God’s covenant on our hearts, God’s love showing up for us nonstop, is all about love and justice for the whole world. Cornel West says, “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” Justice is what love looks like in public. Sometimes living into our call is a matter of privilege. What if Itzhak Perlman had been told, “Sorry, there’s no money for music lessons”? What a loss to him and to us all. On the other hand, what if Mozart’s sister, Nannerl, had been told, “Yes, you can be a great composer and musician too, even though you’re a girl”? What great music might have been brought into being for us all? But society in her day said that girls were called only to be wives and mothers, not concert musicians or composers. So Nannerl was not given the same opportunities as her brother Wolfgang.
And of course that sort of thing continues today. People are denied the opportunities to develop their full potential because of their race or immigrant status or poverty or gender or education level or any number of other ways in which people can get shut down and oppressed. So us getting to listen for God on our hearts and answer that call as fully as possible is a great thing. And it’s even greater when it leads to enabling everyone else to have that same opportunity.
What happens when we let society twist our understanding of God’s covenant on our hearts? We may have to go to great lengths to tune out that voice of God in our hearts, that call to love and justice. Chris Ladd recently wrote an op-ed for Forbes magazine called “Why White Evangelicalism Is so Cruel.” In this article, he stated that generations ago white evangelicals in the South had to twist their theology in order to justify slavery. They had to ignore everything the Bible says about social justice issues, because that would shine a light on the social injustice required to keep people enslaved and oppressed. He writes:
If all you knew about Christianity came from a close reading of the New Testament, you’d expect that Christians would be hostile to wealth, emphatic in protection of justice, sympathetic to the point of personal pain toward the sick, persecuted and the migrant, and almost socialist in their economic practices. None of these consistent Christian themes served the interests of slave owners, so pastors could either abandon them, obscure them, or flee….
In the forge of slavery and Jim Crow, a Christian message of courage, love, compassion, and service to others was burned away.
Stripped of its compassion and integrity, little remained of the Christian message. What survived was a perverse emphasis on sexual purity as the sole expression of righteousness, along with a creepy obsession with the unquestionable sexual authority of white men. (Originally posted and later removed from the Forbes website: https://www.forbes.com/sites/chrisladd/2018/03/11/why-white-evangelicalism-is-so-cruel/; reposted here: https://www.politicalorphans.com/the-article-removed-from-forbes-why-white-evangelicalism-is-so-cruel/.)
Chris Ladd is painting evangelicals with a broad brush. My intent in lifting up this example is not to blast other Christians but to bring forward one example of how hard it can be to listen to God’s covenant on our hearts and live into it. How much easier—how much more convenient—to twist God’s voice into something that is more palatable to one’s society, even if that society is based on injustice. Pastors who preached about social justice in the South were taking their lives in their hands, and sometimes paid with their lives, or had to flee to the North. You may recall that Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” asked where the white pastors were who had pledged to support the Civil Rights Movement? A few came. But many were understandably afraid—for their jobs, their careers, their lives. Never mind that the black people in the Civil Rights Movement were risking those exact same things.
We no doubt find our own ways to twist that covenant on our hearts to make it more comfortable, more palatable, less challenging to the ways we live in society. So God calls us to really listen hard, to center ourselves in God first and deeply, to dare to see what we may not want to see, and to work to make the world more loving and more just for everybody.
The risks can be substantial. Jesus found that listening for God’s covenant on his heart led to death in service to greater life—in service to love and justice. Jesus certainly found that to be true. That’s pretty daunting. But Jesus’ story doesn’t end there. We will celebrate his story on Easter Sunday in just a few weeks. Because despite the risks, following God’s covenant written on our hearts makes our hearts sing. So now, during the remaining days of Lent, we are invited to get in touch with that presence of God on our hearts, to listen hard for what that voice calls us to do in the name of love and justice in the broader world, and to let our hearts sing.
You remember way back at the beginning of the sermon when you talked with your neighbor about what it means to you to be a Christian? Keep practicing that conversation. Keep listening for God’s covenant, God’s song, written on your heart. People are dying to hear you sing that song. Amen.