Today, we gather in joy as we experience the sacrament of baptism. Obviously, the one experiencing it first-hand is the child being baptized, but all of us are impacted as God’s loving intention gets expressed through the water and the word. As a sacrament, Baptism is one of those times when something invisible and spiritual in nature – the loving embrace and delight of God – becomes visible and physical. That holy hope for this young life and for the life of the world, is renewed each time the sign of the cross traced on a forehead proclaims that we are Christ’s own, forever, acknowledging the way that God’s love gets imprinted or written on our lives. And this is why the words of the prophet Jeremiah, as he yearns for a day when the ways of God would be written not only on a scroll, but on our hearts, are so appropriate for our service today.
Without getting into the fine points of who was conquering whom at the time of Jeremiah, suffice it to say that it was a turbulent time. Jeremiah was not convinced that his people could recover from their difficulties without first going through a time of hard testing, as he saw that their practices were so terribly far away from what God expected of them.
From his vantage point, Jeremiah looked at his people, and saw them expending energy on the more specific and peripheral of the 613 commandments, while playing pretty fast and loose with some of the biggies, like, oh let’s say, having no other Gods before the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The “letter” of legal regulations was being emphasized, while the “spirit” of the law, God’s urgent desire for justice and love, was embraced very little. To use a rather trite example, imagine watching a sports event where the smallest, most inconsequential penalties got called over and over again, completely destroying the flow of the game, but big flagrant fouls that either endangered the players, or changed who would win or lose the game, got ignored. That’s kind of what Jeremiah was seeing: if people cared at all about the Torah, their concern was for the rule-bound little details rather than the great big justice-oriented heart of God.
Jeremiah did not see many signs of hope in the actions of his people or their leaders, but where he did see hope was in their forward-looking God. And so he spoke a message placed on his heart by God, that there would be a new day, a new covenant, a law written, not on scrolls, not even on their doorposts, but on their hearts. A day would come, when the Divine principles that gave coherence to the law would become second-nature to the people; and the heart of God, would be as close as the blood pumping through their arteries and veins. Each breath, each moment, would be infused by the gracious love of God, each choice, each action would be made with God’s own fingerprints on it. The people would be freed from the old hierarchical, xenophobic, male-dominated, rule-bound ways, those ways replaced by something that would bring hope to everyone who had previously been judged or excluded.
Many Christians, looking at Jeremiah’s words, see a prefiguring of what God would later do in Jesus Christ – that the law written on the heart was inaugurated by the words, and actions, and death & resurrection of Jesus. In Christian Tradition this gets called the new, or second, covenant. It’s not likely that Jeremiah would have imagined that, for his prophecy is pretty closely focused on a soon-ish return of the people to their beloved Jerusalem. But Jeremiah was confident that some day, God’s commandments of loving justice would move from something external to something internal, and once it was be written on our hearts, the profound love and justice of God would be lived out in all its fullness. With sorrow, we acknowledge that this day has not fully arrived, as we see the rivalries that sour relations between neighbours, the barriers erected by dominant cultures against visible minorities, and the atrocities committed by nations against nations. Yet it does give us pause, to imagine what it would mean to have the law really written upon our hearts, and how that might happen.
A professor of Christian Ethics named Stanley Hauerwas, has written extensively on this. His basic idea is that the process of making good, ethical Christian decisions is not a matter of memorizing all the rules so you don’t goof up, nor is it even having a well-defined decision-making process. For him, the key to Christian decision making is the development of good old-fashioned Christian Character. Rather than some mechanistic process of decision making, he points to something that is in the bones: you learn about the love of God, ideally when you are a child, by watching the loving actions of those around you and talking about why one would do those things. Then as you mature, you keep checking your life against the great commandment – love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself – because that simple two-fold statement of being is the essence of healthy life. For me, that’s very much what “a law written on the heart” is all about: having the love of God “in our bones” as it were, not external to us but as close as our next breath.
So today I want to encourage all of you parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and teachers and neighbours and everyone involved in the life of a child. Helping children to understand what it means to love God and be loved by God, teaching them how to love their neighbour as they practice a healthy self-love, introducing them to the amazingly inclusive words and life of Jesus, will be a gift that keeps on giving. And if you can find ways to incorporate that into your life as well, the chances of it actually finding a home in a child’s life go up exponentially. Seven years ago a landmark Canadian Church study called “Hemorrhaging Faith” reported that one of the key predictors as to whether a Church-involved teenager would continue to go to Church in their twenties, was whether their parent or parents had any visible Christian practices between Sundays. It could be Bible study or devotional prayer or helping out at the Community Food & Friends meal or having discussions as a family about how their decisions in the marketplace reflected their faith; but there had to be something between Sundays (in addition to Sunday worship) that linked faith and practice, in a meaningful, visible, healthy way. As many of us have found out, this provides no magic guarantee, but having something that demonstrates gratitude for God’s inclination to love, is more important than we know to the ongoing spiritual health of our young ones.
This language, of God’s hopes for the world, written on the heart, also applies to our life as a congregation. All people of faith – Jews, Christians, Muslims, followers of indigenous spiritual practice, people of other religious traditions, and all who seek a world where the Divine energy of peace and harmony will find a home – are called to participate in making the world a better place. Our United Church Creed, (on the back of your bulletin) which we shared earlier today, commits us to celebrate God’s presence, to live with respect in Creation, to love and serve others, to seek justice and to resist the forces that lure us to fear and selfishness. Our congregation’s Mission Statement, and the Affirming Vision we adopted a month ago, enact that mission in our local community, affirming that a congregation and a town are at their best when creating safety and openness to be experienced by all, not just some. The words of our Creed and our Mission Statement and our Affirming Vision, state what is written on our hearts, and encourage us to turn them into words and actions that will be of real benefit to others. Each community of faith, each religious traditions, will express it in their own words, but all of us are called to bring the Divine qualities of peace and harmony and sustainability into the world.
And on this eve of a federal election, we acknowledge that Christian Character goes beyond who we are in our families and who we are as a faith community – it gets expressed over and over again in who we are as citizens. And so we prayerfully consider how party platforms and candidates’ priorities align with the big story of a God whose heart is always inclined toward love. Of the candidates standing for office, who, we ask, is willing to embrace the needs of those experiencing poverty, those who are marginalized, and all of creation as it strains to sustain its own health? And having done that prayerful consideration, after seeking what God has written on your heart or planted in your character, please actually go and vote, even if your vote is different from mine.
On this day of celebration, we recall Jeremiah’s longing for a day when God’s intention for love will live, not just in words but in hearts that have been changed. We give thanks for the way that the words and teachings and ongoing presence of Jesus Christ answer these hopes, even as we acknowledge that the world we live in falls well short of this goal over and over again. And we accept the responsibility for opening our hearts to this path of love and justice, as mentors of our children, as people of faith striving for greater inclusiveness in our congregation and community, as citizens of the world concerned for a sustainable future. As we find creative, persistent ways to address the gap, between how things are, and how they could be, may we – and all people of faith – and our elected leaders – engage the hard realities of our planet and its inhabitants with courage and hope. In the name of God, Creator, Christ and Spirit, may this be so. Amen.
Hauerwas, Stanley. http://www.nlc-bnc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk1/tape10/PQDD_0026/MQ52032.pdf
James Penner & Associates. http://hemorrhagingfaith.com/
RCMUC Mission and Affirming Vision, http://ralphconnor.ca/inclusion/
United Church of Canada Creed, https://www.united-church.ca/community-faith/welcome-united-church-canada/new-creed
© 2019 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, Canmore AB Canada