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.
Written On Our Hearts: Jeremiah 31:31-34
I remember being in 3rd or 4th grade and taping music off the radio to listen to later. The tape deck didn't work in our radio. I could never get it to record. So, I had to get creative. My family had one of those clunky free-standing tape recorders... it was about the size of one of our hymnals and had really big buttons. I think my mom borrowed from my uncle Ben when she went back to college. She wanted to tape her class lectures. I wanted to use it to make mixtapes.
I'd take whatever blank, or mostly blank, tape I could find and load up the recorder. Then, I'd turn on the radio, preferably a countdown show of some kind. The songs I wanted to tape were almost always among the current hits. I could nearly guarantee that they'd be on a countdown show. I couldn't hook the recorder into the radio, so I had to hold it as close to the speakers as I could and hope the phone didn't ring or one of my little sisters didn't start talking in the background. Once I got everything set up, I'd lay down in the floor in front of the radio and wait.
If I was lucky and recording during one of the countdown shows, they'd say what the next song that was going to be. If I was just listening to the regular radio, I'd just have to pay close attention and be sitting with my finger at the ready. As soon as I heard the song I liked, I'd rush to smash down the record button. At least 67% of the time, I'd miss a little bit of the introduction of the song. Sometimes I'd stop the song, too early, too, so instead of a gentle fade out (that's when songs still had fade out at the end), there'd just be a click and nothing. Then, the next taped song would have an abrupt beginning a few words into the song. Sometimes you might even hear a phone ring or a two-year-old yell in the background. These were some super high-class recordings.
I wanted to tape these songs because I wanted to memorize them. I wanted to be able to sing along with Richard Marx's "Right Here Waiting For You" while riding in the car with my teenage cousin Larissa. I wanted to belt out the words to "Blame It On the Rain" and "Miss You Much" while dancing in my friend Ashley's basement. I needed to listen to "We Didn't Start the Fire" enough times so I could keep up with fast-paced, complicated lyrics referencing world politics that I didn't even come close to understanding. Just this last Sunday, as I turned on my car to come to church, I heard the familiar strains of "Love Shack" by the B-52's come on the radio. I sang every word. It's been almost 30 years since that song came out, and I still know every clap, breath, and bang, bang, bang on the door. Those lyrics are transposed onto some deep, dark recess of my brain. If you say to me, "Hop in my Chrysler," I'm going to know that it's as big as a whale and it's about to set sail!
My childhood wasn't all pop songs though. I learned some hymns and prayers, too. The Lord's Prayer was probably the first prayer I ever memorized. We had a small wooden plaque with of the prayer that hung on our wall. The same one had hung on my grandparents' wall when my mother was young. Later, as an adult working in hospice, I came to truly appreciate the power of this prayer. I spent much of my time with people whose memories were very poor. In some cases, their dementia was so advanced that they could no longer string together enough words to create a complete sentence. It was during these visits with people in various states of memory loss that I began be more intentional about praying the Lord's Prayer during our visits. I don't remember if another chaplain suggested I offer to pray it with people or if I just started saying it myself. Most of the people I worked with had been raised in Christian churches. Nearly all of them had learned this prayer as they were children and had repeatedly weekly, if not daily, much of their lives.
Despite some variations in version, like how some people say "sins" and others say "trespasses," nearly everyone knew the words, even if their memories were very poor. At the end of our visits, I would offer prayer. That was a word many people remembered, too. If someone I was visiting said yes, they'd like a prayer, I would begin to say the Lord's prayer. It was amazing. People who could still speak clearly would usually say the words with me. On some occasions, a person might have trouble remembering all the words but could still pick up a few of them... Maybe the "Our Father" or the "on earth as it is in heaven." They usually remembered the Amen. I visited one lady who really couldn't say any clear words any more, but she smiled and laughed a lot and hummed along with music. If I prayed the Lord's Prayer with her, she would mumble and hum along with me, matching the rhythm in which I was praying. She could almost finish with the whole word "Amen." She prayed like this with me during every one of our visits. Even as so many of her words were gone, this prayer was still inside of her... familiar and comforting. I think she was glad to pray it with me.
When I was in college, with the help of grants and student loans, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel to Brazil. Brazil has a racialized history that is similar to the US in many ways. Like with US history, it is impossible to understand Brazilian history without taking into account European colonialism, the destruction of indigenous communities, and the enslavement of millions of Africans. When I was traveling in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, I learned about some parts of West and Central African cultures that managed to survive slavery and colonization. You see, the people who had been enslaved developed a martial art called capoiera. Capoiera looks like a dance and is played like a game.
A capoiera match is played between two people who use a series of movements, including kicks and swipes of legs, flips, handstands, and spins, to try to trip each other up while also avoiding being touched by their competitor. At the time I traveled to Brazil, I learned that capoiera had developed in this way in order to practice fighting in a manner that looked like enough like dancing that it confused the slave owners. This was one way that people could prepare for a rebellion. But, this practice did more than help them prepare for fights. It helped the people maintain parts of their ancestors' culture in the face of white supremacy. It also allowed them to feel strong when the people who enslaved them needed them to feel powerless. It even helped them create a series of ritual acts that was outside of the culture that oppressed them. Capoiera, and other Western and Central African cultural practices, provided enslaved people a place to be creative and come together in fellowship, reminding one another of their shared humanity in the face of racist cruelty. Capoiera was a more than a game. It was a way to re-inscribe pride and a sense of self that slavery attempted to erase. Many of the people who were enslaved did not survive. For the ones who did, this practice of capoeira was a place where they could feel the beginnings of their liberation... it was a source of a new, and also very old, way of living.
What are the things that are inscribed on your very heart? What instructions from God have curled up around your bones and made you strong? What words and songs and rhythms are keys to the memories that are the foundations of your life? I think people keep reading these prophecies of Jeremiah thousands of years after they were written, because we know something about having words written on our hearts. We know what it means to have ideas so deeply embedded in our behavior that they might as well be the blood that pumps through our veins. The pop songs that taught us something about growing up, the ancient prayers that teach us about staying connected, the movements and dances and rhythms that help us survive unspeakable injustice... all written on the hearts of the people, carried into a new world, a new life stage, a new relationship. What are the things that are inscribed on your very heart? What are the words that shape the foundation of your very being?
Jeremiah knew the people would need help rebuilding after the exile. Jeremiah knew that one word, covenant, was written on the hearts of his people. Their covenant with God is scrawled across the promise to all creation after the flood, the promise to Sarah and Abraham's descendants, and the promises to the lost and fearful in the desert. At the core of their common lives is the God who promises, who forgives, who holds people accountable, and, most of all, who is faithful. In the midst of the desolation of exile, these words could be lost in the jumble of trauma, destruction, and suffering. In order to rebuild, Jeremiah knew that a new version of this covenant must arise. It will be in the pattern of the old: both parties will be committed. Both parties will tend to the powerless and the fearful. Both parties will be accountable. But, this covenant will also be new. The years of exile will change the people. The covenant can't look quite the same. But, the words will be there. Deep within them. Renewed and moving them to love of God and love of neighbor. These words are here for us, too. What words has God written on your heart? What new creation and liberation are they calling you to today?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Commentary from the Salt Project: http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-lent-5
Kathryn Matthews: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_18_2018
Lee H. Butler, Jr., "Fifth Sunday in Lent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Information about Capoeira: http://www.capoeirabrasil.com/the-history-of-capoeira/
Terence E. Fretheim: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3607
Mark S. Gignilliat: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1210
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.