A New Heart

Sermon preached for the Fifth Sunday in Lent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the Lord. No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the Lord!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.

***

Growing up, I spent a lot of time watching Star Trek reruns on summer vacation. The great thing about Star Trek, and about a lot of similar television, is that you can tell when a plan is or isn’t going to work by how much time you have left in the broadcast. If Geordi has a plan to fix the warp core, but there’s still half an hour left to go, you can be pretty sure it’s not going to work. There’s going to have to be a plan B, and quite possibly C and D, before you get to the end.

This morning’s scripture is a classic exercise in Plan B. Or, honestly, we’re probably further along than that… maybe Plan K or M or something. During Lent, we’ve read about many of the covenants God made with God’s people—with Noah after the flood, with Abraham and his descendants, with Moses on Mt. Sinai. Over and over and over again God has told the Israelite people that God will guard and guide them, and over and over and over again they have—you guessed it—thrown it all away.

A few weeks back I preached on the Ten Commandments, and you will remember that they are not unreasonable demands—and yet the Israelite people decided to ignore God and to exploit their neighbors, crushing the poor and cheating their brothers and sisters. The community fell apart, and Babylon swept in. Now the people are in exile in Babylon, wondering how it all went wrong.

The prophet Jeremiah is one of our angstier prophets, and that’s saying something. But even Jeremiah knows that the last word with God is always one of hope, and in the scripture we read this morning he dispenses with the fancy poetry and says straight out:

God is not through with you yet. God has a plan B.

Before, God’s covenant with the people was external. Chiseled on to stone tablets, things that could be broken, passed around, lost. This time, God is going in.

God is going in for a bit of open-heart surgery on the people of Israel. They have gotten so lost—first in cruelty to each other, and later in wondering if God has abandoned them to Babylon—the externals no longer hold any power. What good are God’s words on some stone tablets if those stone tablets are half a world away?

The people of Israel need to know that God is with them right where they are, that God’s rules still apply even once they’ve left the country. They need to know that they are still God’s people even when there is no temple to worship at, no national flag to wave. That it’s not about looking like God’s people. It’s about loving like God’s people.

This is a covenant of forgiveness, of restoration and renewal, of starting over. This is a story about just how far God will go to reclaim the people God has chosen. God has every reason to walk away now, but God doesn’t. God never does. God’s heart is determined to connect with our own, no matter how much we might feel we don’t deserve it. God’s heart longs for us. I can’t tell you why. I can simply tell you that it is so.

You might recognize the name Father Greg Boyle. Reverend Boyle has found his life’s calling in working with gang members in Los Angeles. His work is that of cooperating with God’s restoration—both restoring them to healthy and meaningful lives, but also restoring their own sense of self-worth, of God’s love for them.

One day, Reverend Boyle was in a gymnasium of a detention center, to celebrate Mass for the teenage boys locked away there. He was talking with Rigo, who was preparing to take his First Communion. Rigo is fifteen. His father is abusive, but his mother is visiting the jail, glad to watch her son take the bread and cup for the first time. Reverend Boyle recalls their conversation as Rigo points out his mother:

“That’s her over there.” He pauses for a beat, “There’s no one like her.” Again, some slide appears in his mind, and a thought occurs.

“I’ve been locked up for more than a year and a half,” [Rigo says. “Mom] comes to see me every Sunday. You know how many buses she takes every Sunday—to see my sorry [self]?”

Then quite unexpectedly he sobs with the same ferocity as before. Again, it takes him some time to reclaim breath and an ability to speak. Then he does, gasping through his tears. “Seven buses. She takes … seven … buses. Imagine.”

How, then, to imagine, the expansive heart of this God […] who takes seven buses, just to arrive at us. We settle sometimes for less than intimacy with God when all God longs for is this solidarity with us.

The desire of God’s heart, [Father Boyle concludes,] is immeasurably larger than our imaginations can conjure. This longing of God’s to give us peace and assurance and a sense of well-being only awaits our willingness to cooperate with God’s limitless magnanimity. [1]

The stories of scripture are the stories of a God who takes seven buses, seven times seventy buses, just to arrive at us. Just to see us and rejoice in us, even when we have failed, even when we have fallen away. A God who still loves us, works to restore us, works to renew us, no matter how badly we have broken God’s own heart.

Father Boyle’s work sprang to mind this week because his memoir is called Tattoos on the Heart. One of the first ministries Father Boyle established in his work with gang members was a tattoo removal ministry, realizing that even trained and willing men and women would struggle to find jobs with evidence of their worst and angriest days marking their skin. Those tattoos, daily reminders that they had once considered themselves worth nothing more than the violence they could wreak, had to go, in order to uncover the worthy and recreated people underneath.

One day, Father Boyle was struggling with a young man who had left hi gang but was still generally being a pain in the neck every way else. He’d bartered and bargained and threatened and tried everything to get this kid to play ball. Nothing worked, until Father Boyle told him how much he admired his courage in leaving the gang. Told him he already saw so much good in him. Not just potentially, but right now.

The boy paused, struck. Finally he responded, “I’m gonna tattoo that on my heart.”

It is one of science’s best known wacky facts that the average human body is around 60% water. Within the heart, that percentage is even higher; a human heart is around 73% water. This morning, I poured water onto Vincent and Holden; three handfuls each, not even enough to wash their hair with. That water will dry, if it hasn’t already. As a sign of God’s grace, it is a temporary, invisible thing. Tomorrow, when they head to school, they won’t look any different.

But there is water in their hearts.

They will carry the waters of baptism inside them their whole lives. Water to remind them of God’s grace, of God’s love. Water to remind them who they belong to. Those waters are woven into the very material of their bodies, part of what keeps them alive, what keeps those precious hearts beating.

God has promised to write God’s law on our hearts, to inscribe it, engrave it, perhaps even tattoo it. And God’s law is one of love—love God, love neighbor.

On our hearts we wear God’s law, and we carry God’s grace. And it doesn’t matter if they get broken, or grow cold, or weary, or rusty—God will always come again. God is always working on that next plan, that next way to reach us, to mark us one more time as beloved, and forgiven, so that we can feel it, feel it to the very core of our being.

I want to close with the words from one of the hymns in our hymnal, a poem that takes its images from Jeremiah’s prophesy. I have taken to using it as a personal prayer, and I offer it now to you:

Spirit open my heart
To the joy and pain of living
As you love may I love
In receiving and in giving
Spirit, open my heart

God, replace my stony heart
with a heart that’s kind and tender.
All my coldness and fear
to your grace I now surrender.

Write your love upon my heart
as my law, my goal, my story.
In each thought, word, and deed,
may my living bring you glory.

May I weep with those who weep,
share the joy of sister, brother.
In the welcome of Christ,
may we welcome one another.

Spirit open my heart
To the joy and pain of living
As you love may I love
In receiving and in giving
Spirit, open my heart [2]

Amen.

[1] Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, Ch. 1.

[2] Ruth Duck, Spirit, Open My Heart.

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