A New Heart: A Sermon

Here's what I preached on Sunday. It is inadequate for the occasion, but it is something.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana Idylwood Presbyterian Church March 25, 2012 Fifth Sunday of Lent

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.

My girls came bounding off the bus Tuesday afternoon, full of news. A sixth grade boy had been walking to school and had been stopped by a man driving a white van. The man had tried to get the boy to get into the van. The boy had refused, and run all the way to school. Police were called; procedures put into motion. “We’re going to have a lockdown drill on Thursday!” the girls clapped. They were concerned for the boy and a little wary, but mainly they were excited about a break in the monotony of the school day.

I was so grateful for their innocence -- that they say something so potentially serious as a festive occasion and not one for fear.

But the other side of me, the side of me who’s seen too much, who had that innocence taken away long ago simply by living in the world for four decades, sucked in her breath.

My oh my, we live in a fallen creation.

We live in what our Presbyterian Statement of Faith calls a “broken and fearful world.”

One of my disciplines this Lent—in addition to fasting from dessert, fourteen more days but who’s counting—is to look around me to try to find just one scene of beauty: each day, to find one thing that takes my breath away that I might have missed if I hadn’t been looking, really looking for it.

I need that discipline right now. I need to look at the world in that way. I need to be a detective for beauty, a sleuth for grace. Because right now the world is a dead black boy in Florida and mean Internet comments and a law student from Georgetown who was called a prostitute for having an opinion. The world is protesters slaughtered in Syria and dead Jewish children in Paris and a soldier gone mad in Afghanistan.

I think Jeremiah would understand the need for some beauty. Jeremiah's prophetic words were uttered in a time of crisis: Jerusalem has been destroyed by a foreign power; the people of Israel have been deported. Most of the book contains a harsh judgment on the leadership, who have not been faithful to God by maintaining justice and obedience. Exile is seen as a punishment for this failure.

The world is a mess, says Jeremiah. But let me be more specific: we have made it so.

And then comes chapters 30 and 31, right in the middle of the book, two luminous chapters called the Book of Comfort. That’s where we are today, nestled in that comfort, and it comes just in the nick of time.

The days are surely coming… I will make a new covenant. 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 forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Just one chapter later, we are told that Jeremiah responds to these words, personally and powerfully, by buying a field at Anathoth. This field, it should be said, was occupied by a foreign power; it had fallen to the Babylonians. And yet Jeremiah stakes his claim on that land. The time will come when this land will be God's again, and I will plant and build here, he says, and in so doing, he claims that covenant hope that God expresses in today's passage. Jeremiah's purchase of the land is more than a prophetic move; it is an act of daring, reckless hope.


Friday I took a trip downtown to see the cherry blossoms at their peak. As I walked around the Tidal Basin, I happened upon the Martin Luther King memorial. Amid the beauty of cherry blossoms floating down from the trees like pink snowflakes, and branches dipping into the water, the King memorial offered a different kind of beauty, a stark, stony beauty.

King of course was a prophet, as surely as Jeremiah was a prophet. He described the world that is not yet ours, but could be. Should be. Will be. And as I read the various quotes etched in stone on the inscription wall, I couldn’t help but see the sweet face of Trayvon Martin.

“If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class…”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The fate of Trayvon Martin affects us. Whatever investigation takes place—and an investigation is sorely needed—whatever truth comes out, whatever happens next—his death diminishes us.

We will never know what a grown-up Trayvon Martin might have contributed to his family and his community and the world. He was an A and B student who according to his teachers “majored in cheerfulness,” who had no criminal record and was studying to be an aviation engineer. He wanted to fly.

He is gone. And it falls to us then, the living, to say a reckless YES to the covenant God describes and promises, here in the Book of Comfort. Even if the world God describes seems so far from our own, we are called to step out in faith. The new covenant God promises Jeremiah hasn’t happened yet. The restoration has yet to occur, and God is speaking in the future tense. Here is what I will do, God says.

The when is not clear. But God’s intention certainly is.

There have been many versions of the covenant before this in scripture: covenants to Noah and Abraham, and covenants handed down to Moses in the Ten Commandments. But here there is a shift. The covenant will not be spoken to patriarchs, nor will it etched on stone tablets. It will be written on human hearts. Our hearts. Hearts that don’t just weep at the death of an unarmed black boy, but who work for a world where such a tragedy is a thing of the past.

In a moment, we will hear from John Dearie, a board member of the Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness.

That sounds impossible. End homelessness? It seems laughable in its audacity. Surely the problem is too big, the problem is too complicated, the problem is too expensive. If there were a way to end homelessness, we’d have done it by now.

But I invite you to listen with the ear of Jeremiah:

Jeremiah, who in the midst of the exile of his people said, “God is not finished with us yet.”

Jeremiah who saw the despair and the destruction all around him and dared to announce that there is still hope.

Jeremiah, who wrote 50 chapters of prophetic judgment but had the good sense to include 2 chapters of comfort. But the comfort doesn’t say everything’s going to be OK, that God’s going to swoop in and fix everything. The comfort comes in the form of a new heart beating in our chests, a heart that beats for justice and hope and abundant life for everyone. Everyone.

“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.”