St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The Fifth Sunday in Lent (March 18, 2018)
Jeremiah 31:31-34 – Relational, Radical, Relentless
The time is coming, declares the [Sovereign One] 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 [spouse], declares [the Sovereign One]. No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the [Sovereign One]. I will put my Instructions [Law/Torah] 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 [God]!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the [Sovereign One]; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.
It’s hard to make it through the forty days of Lent without broaching the topic of forgiveness. It’s one of those unavoidable Lenten themes. And it’s unavoidable if we’re paying attention to the words of the prophet, especially that last verse: “for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins.” Jeremiah can teach us three things about the kind of forgiveness God offers Israel and Judah. And we can learn something about the nature of forgiveness itself, the forgiveness we’re called to practice.
God’s forgiveness is relational, radical, and relentless.
1. God’s forgiveness is relational.
I heard a story recently of a parochial school. The priest at the school felt the boys weren’t being sincere when they went to confession. So he went from class to class to teach them about the Sacrament of Penance. The priest asked the students to make lists of their specific sins and bring the lists with them to confession so they’d be better prepared.
One boy was in the confessional and started to catalogue his sins with sincere contrition. “I pulled my sisters hair,” he began, remorsefully. “I cheated on my last science quiz. I lied to my dad about the… Wait a minute! This isn’t my list.”
We’re used to thinking of forgiveness in transactional terms because we think of sin as a heavenly rap sheet of sorts: “I’m guilty of this,” or “I’m not guilty of that.” We think of specific wrongdoings, certain acts as being in a state of either forgiven or unforgiven. But I think it’s helpful to think of sin in terms of the brokenness inherent in the web of relationships we’re all a part of. Whether we admit it or not, we are inextricably tied together with God and neighbor and there are things we do or don’t do that tear at those relationships.
Did you catch the marriage reference in the Jeremiah reading? “They broke that covenant with me even though I was their [spouse], declares the [Sovereign One].” The Bible employs the metaphor of husband and wife for God’s relationship with Israel a lot. It uses other family images, too: mother of the children, or father of the house, or in some pretty unseemly verses, adulterous wife and husband.[I translated it as “spouse” in the version I just read because that language functions in some problematic ways for women, but I won’t go down that road today… ]
Some verses in the Hebrew Bible speak of God’s relationship with Israel in terms of divorce, too. When you have some time, read the prophet Hosea. The language in that book is extreme! And here in Jeremiah, this language the prophet uses of knowing, as in “Know God,” has marital undertones. It’s like that expression, “to know in the Biblical sense.”
I think the reason the Biblical writers speak about God in this way is because God is intimately, passionately invested in and affected by how we live together in human community. And our Creator is in relationship with all that she has made, so when we are in this state of brokenness with others and within ourselves, God seeks to forgive in order to repair those bonds. Forgiveness isn’t abstract, it’s relational.
2. God’s forgiveness is radical.
Forgiveness isn’t ordinary, by any stretch of the imagination, although it may occur in ordinary life.
Have you heard that old saying, “To err is human, to forgive divine”? It’s true. Forgiveness doesn’t come naturally to us; that’s why we have to practice it and cultivate an attitude of it. And that’s why, when it’s really hard to forgive, we have to draw upon a strength far outside ourselves. Think of stories you’ve heard of individual people or entire communities who forgive when something awful and tragic has happened, how astonishing it to hear that someone has forgiven a great evil. The first examples that come my mind are the Amish village in Pennsylvania and the families of the victims of the Mother Emanuel church massacre in Charleston who forgave the attackers. It strikes us as unbelievable and uncommon because it is. That’s the nature of forgiveness.
Ever since the Exodus days, God’s people have broken God’s heart. They worshipped other gods, making cheap idols in place of the Holy One. They refused to practice justice and righteousness among themselves. They trampled on the backs of the vulnerable. If God and Israel were indeed in a relationship, as a friend, I would advise God to break it off! But God won’t abandon God’s people after hundreds and hundreds of year of disappointment.
A minister in Austin, Jim Rigby, posted this story the other day:
You may not remember Hugh Thompson from history classes. Thompson was the helicopter pilot who stopped the My Lai Massacre exactly fifty years ago yesterday.
While the slaughter of an estimated 350-500 civilians was taking place, the young soldier looked down on the “battle” from his helicopter and realized something was terribly wrong. All of the casualties he could see were children, infants and the elderly. After trying everything else, Thompson and his crew blocked the American troops from the civilians. Eventually Thompson even threatened to open fire on the American troops if they did not end the atrocity.
After testifying against Lt. Calley and 26 other officers, Thompson was ostracized. He remained in the army, but suffered major trauma. He suffered nightmares, his marriage fell apart and he fell into addiction.
On January 2006 the brave soldier passed away, but not before the army came to its senses and gave he and his crew medals for their bravery… Some years later, Thompson went back to Viet Nam to apologize to the people there. He remembered:
“One of the ladies that we had helped out that day came up to me and asked, ‘Why didn’t the people who committed these acts come back with you?’ And I was just devastated. And then she finished her sentence: she said, ‘So we could forgive them.'”
Forgiveness is radical. It’s supposed to be.
3. God’s forgiveness is relentless.
As I said, God just won’t give up on Israel and Judah. According to Jeremiah, the old covenants didn’t stick. They were external. Among others he’s thinking of the covenant God made with all the earth in Noah; the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah’s descendants, as numerous as the stars; and the covenant God made with Moses, with the Instructions for how God’s liberated people were supposed to live etched on tablets of stone. Now this new covenant will be internal, written on human hearts instead. It’s almost as if God had tried all these other ways to reach the people and nothing would work. But God keeps trying.
That’s probably the aspect of forgiveness that makes the least since to me, honestly. Speaking personally, I am sucker for an apology. Apologies go a long way with me. I can usually find it in me to forgive all sorts of things. When it’s hard to forgive, I pray, I think of what it means to follow Jesus in my life. But then when someone just keeps doing something. God’s grace and mercy sound nice… to a point. The “three strikes and you’re out” rule is more sensible.
And there are certain harmful things that people do to one another, repeatedly, that I would never tell a victim, “You have to forgive.” As with that old saying, “To err is human, to forgive divine,” some things only God can forgive.
In his book Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle, who works with a gang-recovery ministry called Homeboy Industries, in Los Angeles, tells this story:
At… a county detention facility… I was getting to know fifteen-year-old Rigo, who was about to make his first communion. The Catholic volunteers had found him a white shirt and black tie. We still had some fifteen minutes before the incarcerated youth would join us for Mass in the gym, and I’m asking Rigo the basic stuff about his family and hife life. I ask about his father.
“Oh,” he says, “he’s a heroin addict and never really been in my life. Used to always beat my [rear]. Fact, he’s in prison right now. Barely ever lived with us.”
[Rigo goes on to describe in gruesome detail his father’s abuse. He breaks down crying.]
When Rigo composes himself, I ask, “And your mom?” He points some distance from where we are to a tiny woman standing by the gym’s entrance.
“That’s her over there.” He pauses for a beat. “There’s no one like her…
“I’ve been locked up for more than a year and a half. She comes to see me every Sunday. You know how many buses she takes every Sunday– to see my sorry [rear]?”
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, [Boyle writes] to imagine, the expansive heart of this God–greater than God–who takes seven buses, just to arrive at us.
The love of God… relentless!
The forgiveness of God: relational, radical, and relentless.
May it be so with us, as well.
Featured image: Cover of Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Greg Boyle