Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
March 21, 2021
“What’s on Your Heart Today?”
Jeremiah 31: 31-34 – New Revised Standard Version
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. 32 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 spouse, says the Lord. 33 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. 34 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.
Senator Rev. Raphael Warnock gave his first speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday. In it, he spoke of his father. A World War II veteran told by a white teenager to give up his seat on the bus – while wearing his uniform. His father made the world safe for democracy. Except his own. You may not know that one of the worst periods of lynching in this country was of Black veterans coming home from World War I. But somehow, Rev. Warnock said, his father maintained his faith in God and in his family and in the American promise. And handed it down to his children.
He spoke of his mother who spent her teenage years picking somebody else’s tobacco and somebody else’s cotton to make money. But, Rev. Warnock said, because this is America, that 82-year-old woman whose hands used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator. That’s why he loves America.
But, as we are all aware, that right to vote is under attack. Some 250 voter suppression bills have been introduced by state legislatures all across the country. And so in response, Congress is back to debating whether one person/one vote should still be at the heart of what Rev. Warnock called the “American covenant.”
I was struck by his use of the word covenant. It’s not surprising that a preacher would use such a scriptural concept, but he appealed to the American covenant – which, he said, found in our charter documents and Jeffersonian ideals, bends toward freedom.
He spoke of the preacher and patriot named King, Warnock’s predecessor in the pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church. King, as well as John Lewis, a member of Ebenezer, along with Americans of all races who followed their hearts and gave their lives pushing us closer to our ideals, “to lengthen and strengthen the cords of democracy.” That is, the fundamental right to vote. He said, “The right to vote is preservative of all other rights. It is not just another issue alongside other issues. It is foundational.” I found that helpful. Voting preserves all other rights.
The American covenant. There is something both beautiful and dangerous about using a scriptural concept like covenant to describe a nation as diverse as ours. The United States is not a Christian nation.
• If it were a Christian nation, we would not have stolen the land from its inhabitants, nor time after time attempted to exterminate Indigenous people.
• If it were a Christian nation, it never would have enslaved, lynched, segregated, or mass incarcerated a race of people.
• If it were a Christian nation, it wouldn’t have turned away ships with Jews fleeing the Nazis,
• put Japanese American citizens in concentration camps,
• passed laws to specifically exclude immigration by all Chinese people,
• decreed Muslim bans,
• or allowed kids to be ripped from their parent’s arms and placed into cages on the border.
Sadly, it may have been done by Christians, but all these actions were to declare and defend America as a white nation. Or at the very least, a nation with whites wielding the power to demean, diminish, and degrade those of any other race, color, or creed. And one way to ensure and enforce this power, when racial gerrymandering and dark money are insufficient, is to suppress the votes of non-white people.
It could be dangerous to appropriate the word covenant in the service of a national goal. To claim a religious justification. But it is also beautiful. Rev. Warnock said, “democracy is a political enactment of a spiritual idea. The sacred worth of all human beings, the notion that we all have within us a spark of the divine, to participate in the shaping of our own destiny.” He quoted Reinhold Niebuhr, one of our UCC ancestors. “Humanity’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but humanity’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Makes the right to vote necessary.
Despite my warning about appropriating the word covenant, there is actually good reason to consider using this word for a collective purpose, such as a nation. The prophet Jeremiah was not talking about individuals when he spoke the beautiful line: I will write a new covenant on their hearts.
What’s the context? It was a dismal time in the life of God’s people. Walter Brueggemann describes it this way: “The capital city was in ruins. The temple had been violated. The assault on Jerusalem had put faith into a free fall, with endless acrimony about who caused the destruction, who failed, and who was at fault. The economic and political crisis evoked hard theological questions. Was God dead or absent or just fickle? Was Israel rejected, no longer chosen?” Was any future possible? …because they couldn’t see any way forward.
And then, right in the middle of their despair comes Jeremiah. Oh no… He’s not a stranger, a wandering prophet from out of town, but a longstanding thorn in their side. He had been a fierce critic who matched his scandalous imagination with offensive poetic images, preaching dire consequences for their behavior. Surely, they expected Jeremiah would deliver yet another verbal whack at them when he started to speak. But he did not.
He said: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant. Not like the covenant with their ancestors when I delivered them from Egypt, a covenant they broke. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel (the nation/the collective people): 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.”
These folks were frightened and weary. To hear such words of hope and comfort must have soothed a lot of wounded souls. This promise of a new covenant means that God has not abandoned us. God has not rejected us. God is not dead. In fact, Jeremiah’s vision is even more inclusive. A house of prayer for all people.
I love this text. But I have a big question. If God has written this new covenant on our hearts, then, why don’t we act like it? Words etched into our hearts should make following basic, fundamental commandments like love and loving your neighbor easier, right? More natural. It’s not in a book. It’s in our heart.
So, my big question is, then why do we still go to war? Why are refugees turned away at the border? Why would the powerful filibuster to stop non-white citizens from voting? You can’t tell me that comes from the mouth of Jesus or certainly not the heart of God.
I mean, why do we even need to worry about a filibuster? How could any of 100 senators vote to strip people of the right to vote? How could any of the 435 members of the house of representatives support any voter suppression tactic? How could any of the 50 state legislatures go along with assaulting our fundamental basic American covenant? Why do they? Well, one answer is that whiteness has a more powerful claim on the hearts of some Christians than Jesus.
If God has written this new covenant on our hearts, then, why don’t we act like it? I asked this question of our Lunch and Lectionary group on Thursday. They reminded me, of course, of free will. And to strip away our right to choose, to surrender free will, even for a good cause, means we would not be free people.
And as Brueggemann said, “God’s power to make new is not like the power of a bulldozer that pushes things aside, nor like a tyrant who signs an executive order. God’s power to make new is rather like the painful love of a parent who suffers the hurt of her child, in order that the child may be restored to hope and joy.”
The good thing is that as individuals within the collective, our relationship with God is imprinted upon our hearts. What’s on your heart today? God is. We don’t have to go searching in books, take a class to understand, or rely on some complicated formula. God is in the simple impulse to generosity. God is in the heartfelt inclination to compassion. God is in the fierce passion for justice.
This assault on the American covenant is on my heart today – having to fight again despite the blood that so many humans have shed to enact and protect fundamental rights for all citizens. Of course, also on all our hearts today is the suffering of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans whose cries for justice have long been neglected and ignored.
The love of God is in the flesh of human life – ours and our neighbors. And when we collect together all that capacity for generosity and justice and compassion, we can love a new world into being. Together, we can love a new world into being.
Rev. Warnock told his Senate colleagues that he is the flesh and blood embodiment of what happens when the experiences of his parents meet the American promise. A living example of America’s “history and hope, pain and promise, brutality and possibility.” He said, “I love America because we always have a path to make it better.” Of course, we have to choose it.
In Jeremiah’s time, the capital city was in ruins. There was endless acrimony about who caused the destruction, who failed, and who was at fault. The economic and political crisis evoked hard theological questions. They couldn’t see any way forward. When we look at our own nation, or at our own lives, we can be grateful for the prophet’s words.
Thanks to God’s imprint on our hearts, the right thing, the next right step, is always right there. (pointing to heart)
 Walter Brueggemann, The Collected Sermons Volume 3, WJK, 2020
I love being the