June 26, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 17: 20-23
There’s a cartoon in which Linus is walking with Charlie Brown and says very seriously, “When I grow up, I think I’ll be a great prophet.” Charlie says nothing and Linus continues, “I’ll speak profound truths, but no one will listen to me.” I suspect that all prophets have felt that way at times, as perhaps we have as well – having what we think is an important insight or view, and yet not having a forum of influence.
What is a religious prophet? A prophet is one who first of all has an experience of God – one to whom some view of the holiness and/or the will of God has been shown. Second a prophet receives that awareness or insight not for himself or herself, but for a people. A prophet is called to proclaim, to share that vision or perception with others. And third, prophets don’t only speak for the present but move a people to closer Union with God; help bring about the reign of God; help creation arrive closer to God’s vision.
Prophets are not super-human. Like us, they make sense of something based on what they already know. New things are often described in relation to what people already know; like calling an early automobile a horseless carriage. And when we are asked the question, “What was it like to…? We try to explain using experiences with which the listener is acquainted.
Today we heard the words of a great prophet, Jeremiah. Poor Jeremiah lived in troubled times. As a young man he saw the fall of Jerusalem. He was a holy man. He practiced an inward and heartfelt religion, and from this he gained important insights that moved the people of God in their faith. His was a warm religion that talked about friendship with God.
In today’s reading the writer of Jeremiah talks about a new covenant. In what way is it new? In Israel’s world there were two kinds of king-subject covenants that were regularly made. The most usual was known as the Suzerain-Vassal Treaty or Suzerain covenant. This was a two-way agreement, with both parties giving and expecting much. The Holy Land in Old Testament times was peopled with many small tribes. These tribes might be approached by a king who offers both protection and provisions, for example, food in hard times, in exchange for a pledge of allegiance, taxes and troops when called upon. Through this Suzerain covenant he king became more powerful, and the tribe still remained autonomous and yet more secure. The prophets in the Old Testament were very familiar with Suzerain covenants and this certainly influenced their understanding of their relationship with God. The authors of many of the books of the Old Testament tell stories of God making a covenant with the people. I will be your God and you will be my people, but these covenants that the prophets describe have an expectation that the people will behave in a particular way. The prophets understand God’s relationship with his people as a Suzerain covenant. For example, in Genesis, God promised blessings and land and descendants to Abram, but God also required that he respond with faith and fealty. God declared name changes for Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah, a sign that they belonged to him; and God also required the act of circumcision which would publicly mark all the males of the family as “owned” by Him. The same is true with the covenant between God and Moses. The covenant at Sinai shows God initiating an intimate relationship with his people, but at a cost; “If you will indeed obey my voice,” God said, “and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples.”
A second type of treaty or covenant common in ancient times and not only in ancient times is the royal grant. Usually the king or queen noticed an act of bravery in battle, a contribution to the kingdom, or uncommon goodness or beauty, and gave a gift in public recognition.Unlike the Suzerain-Vassal agreements a Royal Grant requires no action on the part of the beneficiary. It is an unconditional promise given from one party to another. This is the new covenant that Jeremiah understood as he meditated about a good and gracious God who invites us into relationship yet keeps us free. Jeremiah recognizes through his prayer life that even though the people have not always kept God’s law, God has remained faithful. The point is that God’s character remains constant and trustworthy; what changes is humanity’s understanding about this God. Jeremiah realizes that God’s love and tending does not need to be earned. That change is represented in the words, “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.”
The covenant at Sinai had been written on tablets of stone. The stipulations of that covenant were quite literally spelled out and were to be memorized, studied and obeyed. What was meant to be a living relationship all too easily became legalistic. In the Hebraic thought system the heart was the center of intellect and will and for making decisions. So, for Jeremiah to say, “written on the heart”, meant that the new covenant would be one that the people responded to out of free will, gratitude, love and not be based on obligation from a reciprocal contract. Jeremiah understood our relationship with God in a new way and proclaimed that insight, moving God’s people into a deeper, richer experience of God.
There’s one more important point, I think, in the Old Testament passage read this morning, “They will not need to teach their neighbors or relatives about me, because everyone, from the least to the greatest will know me.” We each have a unique and valid relationship with God. We all have something precious that we can share about our understanding of the divine. Though none of us holds the whole truth, no one has full understanding of God, we all have the potential to be prophetic.
Sometimes, however, these prophetic insights that enrich a faith community can be the cause of division. In the nineteenth century, most American denominations felt pretty smug that theirs was the real faith. Some might have grudgingly admitted that not everyone would be cast into outer darkness for the sin of worshiping in the wrong building. But overall it was a time when theological differences as well as ways of practice separated people. This was the case even between some denominations that had a lot in common.
For example there were the Mennonites and the Dunkers, otherwise known as the German Baptist Brethren. The two groups were almost identical in their beliefs and in their religious practices. Both dressed in plain garb. The men had long beards without any mustaches; the women wore a prayer covering and bonnet. Their worship and music styles were very similar. They spoke German in the home and in church, though they spoke English in the wider community. As the Civil War approached, both Dunkers and Mennonites who lived in the Shenandoah Valley found themselves the object of scorn and persecution because they stood strongly against slavery.
However, Mennonites practiced baptism by pouring. Dunkers dunked new members three times forward in the river. To them the differences, not the similarities, were what mattered.
Heated and bitter debates between each sect, went on for years; primarily through books published by Elders Kline and Funk. Eventually reconciliation occurred. In his diary dated October 8, 1862, Kline wrote, “Got to see my old friend, Joseph Funk, and succeeded in bringing about a better state of feeling on his part toward me. He became reconciled. He had been somewhat ruffled in his feelings by my [response] to his published writings on baptism and feet washing. Dined with him, then home.” Somewhere in there they had reconciled; and thankfully so, because two months later, Funk died. Luckily, some wider reconciliation was also reached, because as the Civil War raged, both Dunkers and Mennonites found themselves in common danger. Their crops and animals were stolen, they were often imprisoned together, and some were murdered. Though the Mennonites and German Baptist Brethren remained separate denominations, they came to respect each other and supported each other.
This disunion within Christianity was anything but new. One of the scripture passages that Lamar read last week, was from a letter Paul wrote to the Corinthians. When he wrote to that church, Paul was not writing to a group of believers who gathered in one building and praised God together. He was writing to a confederation of house churches, at least four, who were divided in witness and purpose. There was the Paul church, the Peter church, the Apollos church, and the Christ church, each one claiming to be better than the others. That’s a story for another day. The point is, that right from the beginning of Christendom, we have had prophets, great prophets, whose personal experience of God moved them to share their insights to the benefit of many, but which also led to painful division.
Next year we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation that led to many beneficial changes and also to years of brutal conflict. In more recent times many Christians have begun to take seriously the prayer of Jesus that we all be one. Jesus prayed, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one”.
We are a diverse church. Some who come here have had no past religious affiliation, but most have come from other faith traditions. We left those churches and came here because we experienced something special here, something that moved us; something that nurtured us. We likely still hold some beliefs from our pasts that are still very important to us. We may value certain religious practices that have particular meaning for us. In addition, we all have a treasured relationship with God from which we hold our own understanding about the sacred. Still we find more here that unites us than that divides us.
During this time of transition, and especially as the search for a settled pastor begins, there will likely be heightened anxiety from not knowing what the future will be like. As a result, we may be tempted to hold on, protect, or defend aspects of our personal faith or preferences in worship that we don’t necessarily all hold in common. This could lead to tension, if not outright division. It will be important during this transitory time to consciously celebrate what unites us.
We are not held together by creed or dogma. We publicly present ourselves as, “an interdenominational Christian church that welcomes those who wish to journey with us as we seek to receive and follow God’s sacred spirit and the ethical teachings of Jesus Christ. On our website we describe ourselves as an evolving community of faith that seeks to reflect the love and compassion of God through our conduct. We state that we follow the teaching of Jesus to love God, neighbor, and self. We say that we have reverence for Earth and all living creatures, and that we are a worshiping community that gathers to give thanks and to celebrate the Holy Presence of God in all things. This is what binds us.
- We are inclusive and non-judgmental
- We are accepting of a diverse set of ideas and approaches, building upon the strong foundation of Jesus’s teachings and His loving actions
- We are Spirit-led; open to changing and improving our lives; we are flexible as a community, and embrace the challenge of growing in consciousness
- We are a lively, generous family of faith with a loving network, and strong lay leadership
This is what unifies us. This is what we need to protect. This is the unity for which we need to pray. Walter Royal Jones, a long time charismatic leader in the Unitarian church states, “It is the promises we make to each other about how to be together that keep us together.”
When we joined this church, we all made a covenant with each other. Rev. Roberta Finkelstein has a definition of covenant that I like. She says, “Covenant is the central unifying promise or commitment that binds a religious community together in voluntary loyalty. It grows from an affirmation of shared needs, values, purposes and principles . . . It is a promise made in the present, with implications for the future.”
I love football, and from it have learned many life lessons. One is that the best defense is having a good offense. Perhaps the best way to defend ourselves from protectionism is to celebrate our diversity in an intentional way. We all have a prophetic voice. We are spirit led and have each gained insights. Beginning in July, and for a three month trial to see if it’s something that you want to continue, I suggest that we have a Life Lessons Sunday. Basically I’m inviting you to contribute to the content of the service and the sermon. I’ve written up my idea in today’s insert, including the themes for each of the three Sundays. I welcome you as prophets in our church.
If, like Jesus, we pray to God for unity, we must take our union on God’s terms. Let’s practice what we say we do and “embrace the challenge of growing in consciousness” by listening to the prophets within our community. Let’s focus on what matters. Let’s experience God’s perfect unity. And let’s remember what is most important; that God loves us all.