Sermon for Oct. 20, 2019, Pentecost 19C. Audio will be available here for several weeks.
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.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
As if we have not heard it often enough already, the Times Record, Friday, published an AP article about the decline in religious participation in America. What is most remarkable is this trend: “the portion [of the US population] that describes their religious identity as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” now stands at 26%, up from17% in 2009” according to recent Pew Research polling. The younger a person is, the less likely it is that they regularly, if ever, attend religious services. And this holds true across denominations, Protestant and Catholic.
But that is not the end of the story. Author Dr. Dianna Butler Bass has taken a deep dive into that Pew research and found a counter-narrative. Although participation in organized religion is in steep decline, nevertheless, Pew research found that 6 in 10 adults report feeling a deep sense of spiritual peace and wellbeing, at least once a week — not just psychological, but “spiritual peace and wellbeing.” They are finding the Divine “in nature and in neighbor,” as Butler Bass puts it. So the acronym “SBNR” is being used for people who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”
Is this, then, good news or bad news? I think it is mixed. There have been times in which people have stood up and looked around and asked, “What is going on here? How did we get here? Are we on the right track anymore? Things need to change.”
We are close to the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation which we celebrate on October 31. Martin Luther was one of those people who asked those questions and decided that things needed to change, back in 1517. Now, 502 years later, many scholars believe we are in another time of massive change in the religious landscape, as the Pew Research reveals.
Luther, Calvin and the other major figures of the Reformation came by their call for change honestly. We are going to look at two texts today, both of which call for sea-changes in the religious landscape. Both Jeremiah and Jesus called for change. Now, perhaps, we are ready to listen.
Jeremiah Imagines a New Covenant
So, first to Jeremiah. If you have been here for the past couple of weeks you have heard that Jeremiah was the prophet who told his people that the Babylonian army was coming, unstoppably. Today, we pick up his story before the Babylonians got to the door.
We are going to see that Jeremiah imagined a radically new way of thinking about God, and what God wanted. But he was also stuck in some old ways of thinking too. We are going to see how Jesus both picked up on Jeremiah’s innovations, and pushed them even further.
Jeremiah analyzed his country’s situation; how did they get to that point with the Babylonian invasion looming on the near horizon. What did Jeremiah think? That God was bringing the Babylonians as punishment for the unfaithfulness and injustice his people had been perpetrating. This is called the doctrine of divine retribution: like karma, you get what you deserve. The Hebrew Bible is full of this idea, so Jeremiah was not alone in his belief. But Jesus dismantled this on numerous occasions. Famously he said that God;
“makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous,” which is the opposite of getting what you deserve. (Matt. 5:45)
But anyway, this is the important contribution Jeremiah made: even though he believed in retribution, he believed that punishment was not the last word. He believed that there could be a new chapter for his people with God.
Long ago, God had made a covenant with Israel, according to the story in the Hebrew Bible. Moses had received the covenant in tablets of stone, written by the “finger of God” on Mount Sinai, according to the story (Ex. 31:18). That covenant included the Ten Commandments, the Law of Moses, and all the other commandments. People back then, as well as today, find keeping all ten challenging, to say the least.
But Jeremiah did what prophets do: he imagined a new day when things could be different. He imagined a time when there could be a new covenant. Now, that is a radical thing to imagine. How do you erase laws that have been written in stone? And what would God be like, who would, at one time, write divine commands on stone, and then want to erase them?
But Jeremiah imagined a new covenant without any laws chiseled into stone. He wrote:
“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant …It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors… But this is the covenant that I will make…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.”
So the new covenant would be written on the heart, not on stone. The new covenant would include forgiveness. Jeremiah, imagined God saying:
“I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
The point is that Jeremiah could imagine a total re-thinking of what was important to God. The people had gotten off track. It was time to re-think who God was and what God wanted. It went way beyond the 10 Commandments. What would it look like to have the law written on the heart under that new covenant? He got political, addressing the king saying:
“Hear the word of the LORD, O King of Judah sitting on the throne of David…Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness,… do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow.…”(Jer. 22)
Jesus’ Re-Imagining God
Now let us turn to Jesus. We can see that Jesus was standing in that same Jewish tradition of re-imagining God. That is exactly what he was doing, notably in the parables he told. Jesus’ parables were often both subtle and provocative. Provocation is what is happening in the parable of the widow and the “judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.”
In this parable, we are supposed to identify with the widow. She has a problem, so she goes to the judge. Her appeal is similar to what we do when we pray. So who does that awful judge represent? God. I can just hear the people in the crowd as they listened to this story saying to each other, “Hey, you can’t compare God to a horrible judge who is both irreligious and unjust! God is not like that!
And that is just the point; to provoke people to ask, “Well if not like that, then what is God like?” Most people would scoff at the absurdity of God being un-religious. But they would probably also say God is not apathetic to our concerns like that judge was to the widow. Furthermore, God does not respond to us just to get us off his (male) back, as that judge did. God does not get worn out by anything, especially by our prayers. “How can you even imagine God that way,” some might ask?
Jesus is being subtle, as well as provocative. Haven’t we all had prayers that seem to have been ignored? Have you ever prayed for healing for someone who died? I have. Have you prayed for a relationship that did not heal? I have.
Judges are like Superman. They have the power to make things happen. They can grant justice to a widow or deny her claim. So if God is like that, wouldn’t that make God like Superman? He can “leap tall buildings in a single bound,” if he (male language again) wanted to, right? So why does God stand their like Superman with his hands in his pockets, instead of flying to the rescue, “faster than a speeding bullet?” Why do even children get cancer? Why let the Holocaust happen? Why allow evil of any kind if you could stop it?
Jesus’ parable of the widow and the judge provokes us to re-imagine how we are thinking of God. The existence of evil and suffering in the world makes it necessary to re-imagine God.
Finite Imaginations of the Infinite
But what can limited, finite creatures like us imagine? Some have said that anything we could imagine would be wrong, so perhaps we should not try. But we must try. “God is love,” the scriptures tell us. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells the woman at the well that “God is spirit.” In Acts, Paul affirms the Greek philosopher who said that it is in God that “we live and move and have our being.” Theologians like Paul Tillich call God, not a being, like a Superman, but the “ground of being” — the basis for the existence of everything, its source, and sustainer.
Here is the best that I can do: I believe that God is always and everywhere present to us; as Jesus said, “God is spirit.” Because I believe also, that “God is love,” I do not believe God is coercive. I believe God’s power is not the power of coercion, but of persuasion. God is at work in every moment, offering the possibility of the next right thing. God is active by luring us towards the good; coaxing us to what is right and true.
So, perhaps a better analogy for prayer than a widow and a judge would be a child and a loving parent in conversation. I have sat beside my little son’s bed as he lay sick. I have watched him feeling horrible, with a fever. I have fed him the liquid baby Tylenol with the dropper. I talked to him; told him I loved him, told him I was with him. I suffered when he was suffering. When Jesus taught us to pray he said, say, “Our Father,” — prayer is a conversation with a loving parent.
So, God is not Superman. God is not an apathetic Judge. God is not a concierge service. And prayer is not begging for things we want. God is the Spirit, with us, much like a loving parent, loving us, forgiving us, providing for us opportunities for the next good thing in each moment. Prayer is not begging a reluctant Superman; prayer is a conversation with the God of love, about our deepest longings.
We began by talking about the decline in religious participation in America, especially among the young. I think that at least part of what is going on is an awakening. People are waking up to the inadequate and even intolerable ways of imagining God that they have been raised with. The image of the big, old judge in the sky, handing out punishments, ham-handedly, as in storms, floods, and wildfires on the wicked, and sending sinners to hell is both wrong and misleading.
That image was false, and people aren’t buying it anymore. But they are spiritual; they have an awareness of the goodness and love that surrounds them, even if they are not religious in the traditional sense. Many of them have a longing that they know is spiritual in nature. They respond to the impulse to pray, even if they don’t pretend to understand who or what they are praying to. All they know is that the God they grew up with hast to be re-imagined.
We can say that they are on a trail that Jesus himself blazed as he re-imagined the Divine and provoked his followers to do so also. We, in church, are religious. We have embraced this religious tradition which has evolved, over the centuries, into the form we have today. We do not claim any ultimacy or superiority to this form. It works for us, but it is not the only way. In the future, it may need to evolve into a different form. But the form is not and never has been the important point. The point is that we have a connection with a God beyond our understanding, who is present for the conversation about our deepest longings.