October 21, 2007 21 Pentecost (RCL Proper 24C) Jeremiah 31: 27-34; Psalm 119: 97-104; Luke 18: 1-8
The chapters of Jeremiah we’ve been reading the last couple of weeks are grounded in the belief, the absolute and unshakable conviction, that despite every available bit of evidence and beyond any possible conclusion of common sense or historical precedent, good things are still possible for the vanquished and the defeated, the ruined and the devastated.
The city may be put to the torch and even the ruins torn down brick by brick and stone by stone. Their sons killed on the battlefield. Their farms and orchards and vineyards parceled out as payment to the soldiers of the victorious armies of Babylon. They may be left with nothing more than the shirts on their back, huddled in desert refugee camps or urban ghetto, cut off from everything of their past, tormented in the night by dreams and bitter memories and agonizing loss. But God isn’t finished with them yet. “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.” And then this vision, this wonderful image. The royal palace of David is gone. The glorious Temple on Zion, nothing left of it. “But 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.” I will write my Torah upon their hearts.
Some scholars would take these words, and the great discovery they represent, as being one of the great turning points of the history of the religions of the world, as the faith of ancient Israel is transformed, and as what we would today called modern Judaism is born. From Temple to Synagogue. Not that the memories of the Holy Mountain are ever forgotten, as we know well even in the pages of this week’s newspapers. But now the Temple of the Lord is in that moment and place of intersection, where his word, his sacred Torah, is inscribed in the heart. That temple, that sacred ground, is now anywhere, and everywhere: Jerusalem or Persepolis, Amman or Damascus, Paris or New York or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Where his faithful people live, where his word is upon their hearts.
And they are in some profound way, in this moment, liberated from their exile. The great Persian Shah Cyrus may let them return to Jerusalem in a generation, but right now and actually forever, that doesn’t matter in all the ways that it would have mattered before. Not that the longing for the City and the Land doesn’t continue, profoundly, in so many ways. But the Holy of Holies has now been rediscovered. No army could destroy it, no enemy could profane it.
Where God’s word, God’s self revelation, touches our heart, enters, a seed planted in the deep soil of our soul, our mind, our imagination. And in a few generations a poet of the Second Temple would write this extravagant psalm, Psalm 119, this long, elaborate, elegant hymn—we have just a snippet of it here in this morning’s psalm—this hymn to the Torah, to the word. “Oh, how I love your Torah! All the day long it is in my mind.” This is a love song. “How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.” This is just such a beautiful text. If I were going to recommend that you read it, I’d say get your King James Bible—or even better, an old Prayer Book if you have it, 1928, to read in the translation of Myles Coverdale. But even in the contemporary translation of this Prayer Book, the depths of the riches of this language echo down the centuries. “How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.”
I want to take just a moment to step back from this, and to tell you that I think one of the greatest and really tragic losses that have come about as a result of the conflicts in the Church over recent years is the loss of this appreciation of Holy Scripture. On one side the Bible is turned into a blunt instrument, a kind of hammer, even a weapon. On the other side, it is ignored, minimized, marginalized, turned into some kind of interesting ancient text. “The literature of Ancient Israel and early Christianity.” Helpful to historians, but of limited use in this time except as aesthetically pleasing literary decoration in the worship service or as the source of occasional nuggets of spiritual insight.
And I would just say that in my personal view, both of these approaches have been catastrophic, spiritually, morally, intellectually, in the life of the Church. The loss of the knowledge of this Holy Word as God’s self-revelation, as his inspired, breathed-out presence in our midst, as the way in which he takes the initiative to inscribe himself upon our hearts.
It’s not about finding new ways to hit you over the head. And it’s not about finding some new critical technique to unpack editorial redactions. It’s about opening the door of our hearts and of our lives to receive the gift of his presence. Getting past the walls, the political agendas, the defenses, the disguises, the layers of denial. It’s about letting him love us. It is about the daily renewal of his covenant promises.
“Lamp of our feet, whereby we trace our path when wont to stray; stream from the fount of heavenly grace, brook by the traveler’s way; bread of our souls, whereon we feed, true manna from on high; our guide and chart, wherein we read of realms beyond the sky. Word of the everliving God, will of his glorious Son; without thee how could earth be trod, or heaven itself be won?” [English poet Bernard Barton, Hymn #627 in Hymnal 1982].
Honestly, it’s my opinion that the absolute source of the conflicts of the church of our day can be found on both sides in just this very sad disconnect, this loss of openness to the transforming presence and power and love of God in the expression of the Word, in Holy Scripture. This modern tendency, as people might say, “to use the Bible” to promote my point of view. To argue from proof-texts. To enlist this word in an effort to support my pre-existing social/political agenda. Left or right. So-called Progressive, So-called Orthodox.
What the Rector’s sermon was about? I hope, something about how we should stop trying to get something out of the Bible, or find more effective ways to use the Bible to promote our cause, and instead open ourselves up to the possibility that the Bible will get something out of us. Read it more, for sure, but use it less. That as we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, if we will loosen our grip, if we will open ourselves to a new and living relationship with him, he will begin to make something new out of us. We might even say, to learn how to let the Bible read us. Not to make changes out there, but first to be changed. To reorder our disordered hearts and minds and lives, and perhaps in ways that we never dreamed possible. In us, in who we are, in our lives, a new Zion, a new Temple, a new Jerusalem.
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.