October 16, 2016 ~ Proper 24 ~ Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost ~ Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8 VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/761489113
An Old Concept: Forgiveness
“No longer shall they need to teach one another or remind one another to listen to Yahweh or to know Yahweh. All of them— high and low alike— from the least of them to the greatest shall all listen to me, says Yahweh; for I will forgive their misdeeds, their iniquity, and remember their transgressions no more.” — Jeremiah 31:34.
There are several points to be made about this reading. As you heard, it is a mistake is to give these words a preemptive Christian reading. That is what happens when the Prophet Jeremiah is interpreted as saying there is a difference between the Testaments and thereby a pointing toward a future Testament, something commonly done.
So this passage is not prophetic about the Christian era but is, rather, a call to renewal for the time in which it was written, right then, and for the people to whom it was written. Now, that presents an obvious question. Why does attaching the concept of this being a foretelling of the future, fail to be an accurate assessment?
The answer has several parts I’m afraid. First, anything we can rightfully label as prophecy in Scripture simply does not reference the future. That is not the purpose of true prophecy in Scripture. The purpose of prophecy is to address what God might be saying in a given and specific context— right then.
Biblical prophecy, by definition, speaks about God’s eternal truths, principles God holds dear, not the future. That means because prophecy is about truths, the words may speak to another era, may speak to another era with truth, but in no way foretell the events in another era. I know that’s going to be a shock to some of you but I’m addressing Biblical prophecy, not secular prophecy.
If that’s the case, this poses an obvious question. Why might people interpret Biblical Prophecy as a foretelling, a prediction? (Slight pause.)
Let me offer a story which could help explain why the idea that prophecy is a foretelling of the future is appealing. My story involves my father and one name you might know, especially if you are of a certain age, and another name you probably do not know or maybe do not know. So let me identify these folks who you may or may not know.
First: the name you might know— the comedian Jack Benny. Even though he died back in the 1970s Benny was and to a certain extent still is famous— a figure revered in the history of comedy and of broadcasting. If you do not know that name, please Google it. Benny, a master of comedic timing, had a radio program in the 1930s and 40s and a television program in the 50s and into the early the 60s.
His programs were described as a variety show that blended in sketch comedy. Among the troupe of players who participated in both the variety and the sketch comedy was a name you probably don’t know, or at least maybe don’t know, a singer/actor, an Irish tenor, who went by the name of Dennis Day.
Both my Father and Dennis Day were proud graduates of Manhattan College in the Bronx. And whenever Dennis appeared on the screen of our black and white television in the 1950s, my Dad would point at the TV and proudly say, “He’s a Manhattan graduate.”
As a kid I remember thinking, “Why does he say that every time he sees Dennis Day? And what does it mean?” All these years later I think I can tell you what it means, or at least I think I can tell you what I think my father was trying to say.
Dennis Day— he’s a member of my tribe. I’m a member of Dennis Day’s tribe. We have a real connection. We belong to the same tribe. (Slight pause.)
Tribal connections do not need to make any logical sense. Tribal connections, this wanting to be connected with others, with those who you think might be in the same tribe as you are, tribalism is a visceral, emotional response.
And I think some people who do make this kind of connection between the Testaments do so because they see these words in Jeremiah as to make that tribal connection with the New. So the claim is made that the words foretell events in the future.
This tribal, visceral, emotional connection, a connection combined with the foretelling concept says, “Look! The Prophet is pointing to the future and to my tribe! Of course, the downside of insisting on this type of tribal connection is, by implication, it claims that the old is not a part of your tribe. It says, by the way, therefore, that the old is of lesser value.
But the God of the Jeremiah and the Hebrew Scriptures is the God to whom Jesus prayed. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a part of the tribe of Jesus. So even implying this separation between the Testaments, no matter how visceral, how emotional that claim might feel, is an assertion which rests on quicksand.
To be clear, I do not doubt there might be hundreds of reasons one could connect the words of Jeremiah with the New Testament other than tribalism. I might even be getting to some of those reasons. But what I am saying is a sense of tribal connection is probably high on that list of reasons the connections are made. Why?
Most of the time we don’t even consider tribal connections, don’t think about it. But it’s there, hidden. And we rarely or never think through visceral, emotional responses. It’s that cut and dry. (Slight pause.)
I need to make another point about this reading, as thick with meanings as it is. So let’s explore these words in a different way.
At one point it was a standard that a Seminary student would write a Master’s thesis. However, by the time I arrived on that scene, writing a thesis had become a rarity. But write one I did.
The topic of my thesis was about a sub-set of a topic within the Hebrew Scriptures and concerned an area called midrash, an ancient form of Jewish story telling. Midrash story telling is evident inside the Scripture. Midrash story telling is also seen outside Scripture in ancient Jewish literature.
Well, in the introduction of that thesis I felt it was important to address my justification for having the audacity to write about this topic. I explained I had grown up in New York City, a city which has the largest population of Jewish people in the world, larger than even Jerusalem. I also had many good friends who were Jewish and had even attended worship services at synagogues.
I suggested I was, as much as a Christian could be, at least familiar with Jewish culture, had some understanding of Jewish culture. And midrash— this story telling trait— was and is a part of Jewish culture. To add one other thing— I also studied Hebrew while I was in Seminary.
That background brings me to what we commonly call the Ten Commandments. These words should in no way be taken as commands. Both in the Hebrew language and in Jewish tradition, in Jewish culture, these are not known as the Ten Commandments. These are known as the Ten Words. In fact, in Hebrew there is no imperative tense, no command tense. Hard to give a commandment when you don’t have a tense in the language to do that.
Now as you know, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Pentateuch, are commonly called the Law. But that label— the Law— implies a strict set of rules. In Jewish tradition, in Jewish culture, the Law, is not thought of as rules or commands. The Pentateuch is thought of as teaching, instruction, a way to learn, a way of learning.
So the Law is not a set of rules but instruction. And in this reading, you have the Prophet Jeremiah recording Yahweh, God, as saying (quote:) “I will put my Law within them, in their minds, and I will write it on their hearts.”
So, what is the instruction heard here? What is it we need to learn? (Slight pause.)
(Quote:) “I will forgive their misdeeds, their iniquity, and remember their transgressions no more.” I will forgive their misdeeds, their iniquity, and remember their transgressions no more. Now that’s not law. That’s teaching. (Slight pause.)
Let me suggest the teaching here, what we need to learn, is forgiveness— especially forgiving one another. Why? (Quote:) “I will be their God; they shall be my people.”
And Who is God? God is a God who invites us to learn. God invites us to learn about peace— the real presence of God— about freedom, about joy, about liberty, about hope, about equity, about opportunity, about love. Who is this God? This is a forgiving God.
My take? That is a true prophecy. That is a principle God holds dear, an everlasting truth which can speak to us today. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor wrote this in her book Bread of Angels (quote:) ‘But…’ I love that word— ‘but.’ Sometimes I think the whole gospel swings on that word— ‘I was lost but now I’m found, was lost but now I see.’ It means things can change. It means we do not always know everything there is to know. It means God can still teach us something.’ And that actually reflects what John Robinson, the pastor who sent the Pilgrims to these shores, said: God ‘hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of the holy Word.’”
BENEDICTION: God has made us partners in covenant. Let us truly be God’s people. Let us be guided by prayer, by study, by love, by justice. Let us continually praise the God of the universe who loves us. May our trust grow as we are empowered to do God’s work in this, God’s dominion. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one and nothing else. Amen.