I Give Up… What Used to Work

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

Jeremiah 31:31-34
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.

It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt–a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.

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.

No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.


Have you ever gotten hooked by a magic fix?

Magic fixes are those bright, shiny lures that promise us we can fix whatever’s broken in one or two easy steps. Marriage on the rocks? Make more eye contact! Not enough energy? Eat more kale! Angling for a promotion? Part your hair to the right. It really works!

Magic fixes promise us that it won’t take much to make whatever was working before work again. Just a little nudge, a little tweak, a quick patch, a spot of glue, and all will be well again. 

I was thinking about magic fixes this week because one of my favorite blog posts of all time resurfaced in my life. A fellow PCUSA pastor, Renee Roderer, asked her friends and colleagues to share the “magic fixes” that their various congregations had suggested they try to solve their church’s woes. Every church wants more members, more money, more volunteers, and more young people, right? So here are some of the magic fixes, from that blog and from real conversations I’ve been a part of, that people proposed to get there:

  • If we could lobby to get the Sunday Blue Laws reinstated, people would be so bored they’d have to come to church.
  • If we have the same annual car wash and hot dog sale (which loses us money every year) we’ll show the community that we have a strong youth program.
  • If we stop playing that awful old music, more people will come.
  • If we just played more of that good old music, more people will come.
  • If ushers wear suits and ties, more visitors will return.
  • If we give youth things to do instead of coming to church (like working the nursery, prepping coffee hour, or playing games in the basement), we’ll have more youth involved in our church.
  • If the pastor would just listen to the police scanner, he’d always be at the hospital when we need him.
  • If we advertise every detail of the church’s 340 years of history, and have frequent events in which we lecture about parts of that history for long spans of time, people will flock to us to learn more about it. 
  • If we got a color copier, more young people would come. (This one, to be fair, was said by a copier salesman.)
  • If the pastor’s wife would just do a bit more with Sunday School, we’d have more kids. 
  • Closely followed by its cousins, if the pastor would just get married and if we’d only hired a man…
  • If we had raffles and bingos, our mortgage would be paid.
  • If we got rid of dishwashers, more people would be involved in church.” (This is real! Someone suggested that people have less community connections these days because they don’t have to wash and dry dishes together.)

And finally, suggested in two different churches: sock hops for the young people! 

  • Two colleagues in two different places have had people suggest that their church hold sock hops, in the hopes that young people will flock to the church building and ultimately participate fully in worship and membership. These sock hop suggestions were well meaning. After all, those who made these suggestions loved sock hops during their own teenage years. But that’s hardly a magic fix for today! 

Another pastor astutely noticed that the list of weird, magic fixes had a few common themes, and one of them was “things that used to work.”

There was a time when a well-dressed usher made visitors (eager to make business connections) flock to a prosperous church. There was a time when you could fund the youth group off hot dog sales. There was a time when sock hops brought all the kids to the yard. But for reasons we can all debate later, they don’t work anymore. 

And I think that’s okay. All these things are incidentals, expressions of our faith bound to a particular place and time. The incidentals shift, as they have for millennia; the faith remains the same. The purpose of the church was never to host sock hops, after all, but to share the joy of fellowship in Christ. Churches that try to hold on too tight to what used to work have often mistaken these external expressions of faith for faith itself. And in holding on too tight, they find their hands locked in a clenched position, unable to open up to what new thing the Spirit might be doing. It’s a painful, bitter, and futile posture, clutching too tight to what used to work.

It’s easier to keep trying magic fixes, and scary to finally let go, because it means going back to the beginning, trying again, risking failure. But it’s what God does. 

Our scripture today shows us what God does when faced with something that doesn’t work anymore. We read just a few verses out of Jeremiah, and honestly, they’re a few of the pleasanter verses—there is a lot of bitterness in Jeremiah. He sees and lays out the brokenness of the Israelite society, and you can hear the pain in his prophecies. Jeremiah knew the old covenant, carved into stone on Mt. Sinai, gloriously displayed in the Jerusalem temple. The stone tablets are gone now, lost or missing or destroyed by Babylon’s army. The Israelites broke that covenant, and God let them face the consequences. Now they are back, and their relationship with God needs a lot of work. Perhaps, they think, they should glue that old covenant back together, try to seal over the cracks and missing chunks. It was a good covenant. It lasted through some good times. Maybe we can just go back to our glory days and pretend none of this every happened. Maybe there’s a magic fix.

Jeremiah despairs, because how can you patch over what has been blasted to smithereens?

And so God, who handed down that holy first covenant straight to Moses, offers a word of hope:  let go. 

Let go of that old covenant. It’s broken. 

Let there be a new covenant, written on your hearts. Let there be a new covenant, one that doesn’t hurt so much, one that brings you life. 

It’s not that the old covenant was bad. It’s not that it was useless. It shaped the Hebrew community, guided their way of life for generations. Its lessons live on. But it wasn’t enough for this moment, this hard, fearful, raw moment when the Israelites limp back from exile to a Jerusalem they hardly recognize. They want everything to go back the way it was, but too much has happened. Too much haschanged. Too much has broken. 

Let go. God says. We’ll try something else. 

We are in a fascinating moment right now, as we limp towards the end of this COVID-induced exile, back to what we dream normal will be like. A friend of mine this week simply called it our “return to busy.” And it is tempting—so tempting—to want to pick up exactly where we left off last March, to pretend like nothing ever stopped us, to let the vaccine be our magic fix. 

And the vaccine does seem little short of magical. But while it can protect us from the virus, its power over other problems is vastly more limited in scope. It’s up to us to decide what lessons we carry forward from this pandemic time, and what we leave behind. It’s up to us to figure out what’s no longer working for us, and to let it go. 

Perhaps we have learned that we like spending more family time at home than in the car, driving from appointment to appointment. Perhaps we have learned not to take for granted the simple joy of meeting a friend for a cup of coffee. Perhaps we have learned that our churches were inaccessible to a lot of people who could never make it to our front doors. Perhaps we have learned that singing together is important for our spiritual health. Perhaps we have learned that our trust in God runs deeper than we thought. Perhaps we have learned that that meeting really could have been an email all along. 

Now, I am the queen of holding onto things that do not work. It generally takes me up to two years to donate or recycle a box of clothes. I once did a funeral for a bunch of my shoes, with eulogies for all the places they had taken me. I don’t let go easy. Not of physical things, not of relationships, not of my hard-won ideals and positions. 

But when those things break, I’m left with the jagged edges cutting into my skin, and it hurts. And the only way to heal is to let go. 

To trust that God will make another way for me.

I have a friend whose parents divorced when she was about 10. She’s a bit older than me, and this was still back in the days when divorce was fairly taboo, especially in the nice, middle class evangelical church she belonged to. She remembers being in Sunday School one morning a few months after the divorce and getting a little sassy with the teachers, like a lot of preteen girls are. 

But instead of getting irritated, that teacher gave her this look of syrupy sweetness and said to all the other children in her class, “We all have to be extra nice to Brittany. Remember, she comes from a broken home.”

Brittany says that something like acid reflux came up from her stomach. She hated that phrase the minute it came out of her teacher’s mouth, and she’s hated it ever since. It wasn’t till she was an adult, though, that she could say why. 

“Divorce didn’t break my home,” she says now. “It was broken while my parents were married. It wasn’t always that way, but when I was a kid it shattered, and nothing was going to fix it. The damage was too complete. So it wasn’t until the divorce that we began to heal. I didn’t have a broken home when the teacher used that phrase. I had two whole homes for the first time in my life. And I hated that she saw brokenness in my family’s healing.”

A magic fix might have kept patching over her parent’s tattered relationship. But it was only in letting go that they truly began to heal.

Friends, it’s okay to let go of what is not working, even if it once was good. Because God will outsmart, outthink, outmaneuver, and outlast our most stubborn clutching. God will make a new way. 

Are our hands open to receive it? 


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