One Nation, under God or over God?

27 Someday, Israel and Judah will be my field where my people and their livestock will grow. 28 In the past, I took care to uproot them, to tear them down, and to destroy them. But when that day comes, I will take care to plant them and help them grow. 29 No longer will anyone go around saying,

“Sour grapes eaten by parents
leave a sour taste in the mouths
of their children.”

30 When that day comes, only those who eat sour grapes will get the sour taste, and only those who sin will be put to death.

The New Agreement with Israel and Judah

31 The Lord said:

The time will surely come when I will make a new agreement with the people of Israel and Judah. 32 It will be different from the agreement I made with their ancestors when I led them out of Egypt. Although I was their God, they broke that agreement.

33 Here is the new agreement that I, the Lord, will make with the people of Israel:

“I will write my laws
on their hearts and minds.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people.

34 “No longer will they have to teach one another to obey me. I, the Lord, promise that all of them will obey me, ordinary people and rulers alike. I will forgive their sins and forget the evil things they have done.”

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Do you live in a broken nation?  Is the world too dangerous for ordinary people like you and me? Do you fear for your future?  Have you lost hope for the future of humanity?

Welcome to the club.  The Israelites were in the same boat.  They were worse off than you and I are.  They had been kicked out of their homes and their nation.  They had lost all material and political and sociological evidence of their citizenship.  They had the clothes on their back, no more.  They were living among strangers without property, without power, without any national identity. 

  We have a national identity, a country, a system of government. We are Americans. With all  of that comes a fair amount of social and economic stability.  I can safely say that about the people gathered in this place today. It’s not true of everyone who lives within our borders. Some residents, some workers, some families, are considered aliens, just as the Israelites were. Some Americans do not enjoy social or economic stability. But those of us sitting here, right now, can claim, be thankful for and even proud of our American citizenship.  I don’t think we should take our citizenship for granted.  I think we should celebrate it.  But there is a danger in too much celebration.

Sometimes we cling to our nationality as if it were the most important label we own. Sometimes we worship our nation. Sometimes we look to our nation as the root of our moral sensibility.  In other words, we put our nation before God.  People can get really touchy about the Pledge of Allegiance.  Is it one nation, under God? Or is it one nation as God?  Do we worship this flag and its symbolism?  And, only then, invite God to bless the whole mess?

Jeremiah is preaching to a nation that had a covenant with God, a covenant that they repeatedly broke, that led them away from God, and finally, physically, away from what they thought was the center of their existence.  They lost their temple, their land, and their government. Without a temple, they felt that they had lost their God and their faith, that they had been abandoned.

Jeremiah says, now that they’ve finally realized what they lost, that, surprisingly, they are not abandoned.  Jeremiah, after decades of delivering scoldings and warnings, now brings good news.  31 The Lord said: The time will surely come when I will make a new agreement with the people of Israel and Judah.

What does this mean for us, hundreds of years later?  It means the same thing as it did for the Israelites: “I will write my laws on their hearts and minds. I will be their God, and they will be my people. 34 “No longer will they have to teach one another to obey me. I, the Lord, promise that all of them will obey me, ordinary people and rulers alike. I will forgive their sins and forget the evil things they have done.”

This covenant is important because it reestablishes the relationship between God and God’s people. Just as the Israelites needed to be reeducated and reconnected, so do we from time to time.

Walter Brueggemann says this covenant has three important points.

First of all, the law of God, the Word of God, will become a natural part of each person’s heart and mind.  It will be more personal, more intimate than a law imposed on and enforced by an agent of authority.  It will be as natural as  breathing. 

Second, a personal relationship with God is key to the new covenant. It does not mean being an expert on theology and scripture. It does not mean an “emotional intimacy” with God It means, rather, a readiness to treasure this relationship with God that is defining for attitudes, actions, and policies. A recognition that our life pivots on this defining relationship is a drastic alternative to a life lived in pursuit of commodities.

  

Brueggemann says that  our culture has reduced every component of life to a commodity, something that can be bought and sold. Our culture tries to sell us happiness, satisfaction, success.  How do you judge yourself? By how much you own? Let me give you some examples: I love the pictures I hang on my walls.  I love the plates in my cupboard.  I love the bushes and trees I have planted in my yard. I compare all of those to the plates and plants and pictures my friends have to my plates and plants and pictures and mine are the best and they make me happy.  I have set my standards, my worth, my reputation on things I can buy. Spending money and showing off can be absolutely delightful.  On the other hand, when spending becomes a source of status, then I have  sold myself to false prophets, to false hopes.  Where do I go from there?

Fortunately, the third part of the covenant is forgiveness.  Of the three parts of the covenant, I judge this one to be the most amazing, the most powerful.  Like so many freely-given gifts, I take forgiveness for granted.  It has been a part of my life for so long, it is so much a part of my life, that I don’t always appreciate the impact of forgiveness.  Forgiveness has become like breathing. I don’t value it until I don’t have it.  Brueggemann explains the value of forgiveness by continuing the commodity metaphor.  A world of commodity is a world in which scores are kept, books are balanced, and nothing is ever forgotten. It is a world of despair, because we are locked in forever to old behavior.

Think about a world where there is no forgiveness.  Think about a world where each of us is forever held accountable for every sin.  Relationships would be impossible.  We would be estranged from each other, alienated, and abandoned. And there would be no way that we could have a spiritual relationship with a Deity who didn’t forgive.  LIfe would be bleak indeed.

Brueggemann explains it this way: It is not easy to imagine, in our context pervaded by violence, how forgiveness and reconciliation can come about. Forgiveness clearly depends upon the more powerful taking initiatives of restoration that will assure the dignity and security of the less powerful. Such costly human initiative may take place, says the poet [Jeremiah], because God, the ultimately powerful agent, takes initiatives right in the middle of societal brokenness.

In my words: the world cannot become a better place without forgiveness.  In a world dominated by forgiveness, violence and disparity would disappear.  The frustrating part is that forgiveness has to come from those who hold the power; they are the only ones who can restore dignity and security to the less powerful. How will that ever happen? Why would anyone with power risk losing it by sharing it? Wait…what did we hear in the Gospel today? John 12: 25 If you love your life, you will lose it. If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life. 26 If you serve me, you must go with me. My servants will be with me wherever I am. If you serve me, my Father will honor you. In the midst of brokenness is a solution, if we are brave enough, faithful enough to embrace it.

Imagine a nation that really is under God and not deluded by it’s own grandiosity, it’s own power, it’s own standards of accumulation and commodity.  Imagine a world that values the power of forgiveness and that centers its actions on the Great Commandments, especially Love Your Neighbor.  Imagine a nation where each person were valued as a neighbor.  Not as a laborer.  Not as a consumer. Not as a financial or social burden or as part of a demographic.  What am I, what are you, to the policeman, to the banker, to the senator?  Am I a lawbreaker, a sum of money, a voter? Or am I a person who deserves respect and engagement and appreciation and personal attention–as a person created in the image of God?

A quote by Richard Rohr is being passed around on Facebook and email this week.  It says: We worshipped Jesus instead of following him on his same path.  We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else.  This shift made us into a religion of “belonging and believing” instead of a religions of transformation.

Think about how we practice our faith: what are we known for: filling the parking lot or filling grocery baskets?  Think about our worship: is it more “give God the glory” or more “show me how to keep up with God?”

The covenant that God set up with the Israelites, after their failure to live within the rule of God, established a relationship that required walking with God instead of sticking God into a structure that could be held at arm’s length. Jeremiah’s covenant of holding the Word in our Heart, of having an active, vibrant relationship with God was made possible for us by God sending Jesus to show us what that covenant looked like, how it is supposed to work.  When we ignore God, when we put our faith in a bill of goods designed by human imagination, we pick and chose and remodel the covenant into a human enterprise that can be bought, sold, admired, analyzed, symbolized, and marketed. And if that is not enough,we try to give God credibility by slapping the stars and stripes on God.  God doesn’t need the endorsement of a nation, of a government, of a culture.  God is above and beyond and within and at hand.

Dear God. Carve your Words in my heart, make your presence obvious, and let me live as if I am forgiven. Help me to put things in perspective. Help me to see that your Word, your Presence, and your Forgiveness are bigger and better than any commodity, any creation, any concept of my desire or imagination.  Amen.

Ferguson & Forgiveness (Jeremiah 31:31-34) Odyssey NetworksMarch 16, 2015ON Scripture – The Bible Fifth Sunday in Lent by Walter Brueggemann