This sermon was delivered to the congregation at Saint Paul’s Church in Tortola on Sunday, March, 18, 2018
Jeremiah 31: 31-34, Psalm 51:1-13, Hebrews 5: 5-10, John 12:20-33
How many here play a musical instrument?
One of many destroyed homes by Hurricane Irma on the island of Tortola.
Musicians know that tuning is usually based on a fixed reference point. For example, when tuning a violin, one will play a note on a piano or a tuner to use as the reference point to align with, in order to accurately tighten or loosen the strings.
What if we thought of our heart as an instrument? What is the fixed reference point to which we tune our hearts?
Our readings today are filled with heart imagery. In Jeremiah we get a heart tattooed with God’s law on it; in Psalm 51 our hearts are pulverized by shame and we beg for a clean one. Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify what we mean by heart to better understand our scripture today.
We are not talking about a sentimental, Hallmark greeting card heart. Throughout scripture we understand the heart to be the seat of our connection to God.
Spiritually we understand there to be a component of will, of choosing within our hearts. We also associate the heart with love. Those of us who have been in long-term relationships, or cared for difficult people, can attest to the fact that love is not always a feeling, but it is always a choice.
Love is a verb.
St. Augustine speaks of the heart when he says, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Speaking from the truth of his own struggles, St. Augustine is reminding us that if we tune our heart to anything other than God, our hearts will be restless.
We hear this and know it to be true, and yet it is so easy to tune our hearts toward with things we WANT to be God…
we tune our hearts on a desire for affection/esteem from others,
we tune our hearts on a desire for POWER and CONTROL,
we tune our hearts on a desire for safety and security.
These are all natural things to desire, but they are not God. Even when we attain them, our hearts still ache. That is one of the reasons we fast during Lent, to create a space, an emptiness free from our cravings and allow God into that space.
In Jeremiah, God writes a new covenant on the very heart of God’s people. The people to whom Jeremiah was speaking were a people rebuilding Jerusalem after the exile to Babylon.
At the beginning of the 31st Chapter of Jeremiah we read, “The LORD appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness. I will build you up again, and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt. Again you will take up your timbrels and go out to dance with the joyful. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit….
See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Among them will be the blind and the lame, expectant mothers and women in labor; a great throng will return. They will come with weeping; they will pray as I bring them back. I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble.” (Jeremiah 31:3-9)
Over these past few days I have heard your stories of rebuilding since Irma. I have heard your yearning to be able to return home to repaired roofs and restored windows and renewed livelihoods. I have listened to mothers who long for their children to come home again.
I am struck by how you have much in common with the exiled people of Israel. You too have known great dislocation. You too have known a loss of the way things were. I do not pretend for one moment to know what you have, and are still going through. I do not pretend to imagine that simply listening for a couple of days, means I understand the complexities of your experiences.
I have however, been deeply moved by you—by your resilience, and your generosity of spirit, and your hospitality, and your love—of God and of one another.
In the ancient times of Jeremiah, the people of Israel made sense of their great loss—of temple and home and culture—as punishment from God because they had worshipped false Gods. They had tuned their hearts on the wrong fixed point.
So, that leads us to wonder, did God cause hurricane Irma to punish the people of Tortola? Did the God who created the heavens and the earth; the God who swept a wind over the face of the deep; the God who made each of us in God’s own image, cause hurricane Irma for punishment? I have heard some of you wrestle with this question.
I know enough to know there is much mystery to God and God’s ways about which I do not know.
And I do not believe we have a chess-playing God who might say oh I’m going to move this rook here and give Tortola a monster storm, or I’m move this queen here and not cure this child of cancer.
The truth is, the world God created here is temporal. Our bodies do not last forever—that becomes more apparent to me with each passing birthday.
And so we will all one day die. We can speed the process up with unhealthy diets or addictive behavior; or we can do our best to keep it at bay with exercise and other healthy habits—but we are all the same, death is the great equalizer, we ALL have a finite number of days here on earth.
And our world is created with the possibilities of storms, and earthquakes and wildfires. Some is inherent in the natural order and has always been this way. And some is specific to human behavior such as throwing a cigarette out the window onto a parched land and starting a wildfire.
I do not know what that holy equation is balancing that which God has set in motion in general by creating a temporal world, and that which is touched by the influence of God, post-creation, and that which we impact with our choices and our prayers.
What I do know is that every adult I have ever met has endured some form of tragedy in their lives. What I do know is that few in the history of the world have seen what you—individually and as a collective body, have endured. Not only endured, but survived.
As I said, I have heard your stories these last few days. I am forever changed by your stories. I am honored to be one of the keepers of your stories. Thank you.
I want to share back with you some of what I have heard these past few days.
I heard that in the middle of the storm, people who had not felt God’s presence much before, prayed fervently to a God they weren’t even sure existed. It is as if in the storm, God wrote faith on their hearts.
I heard of people walking over downed trees and dangerous power lines to check on family and to share food. It is as if in the aftermath of the storm, God wrote generosity on their hearts.
I heard you tell me, that after the storm, the island looked so brown-it was as if an atomic bomb had dropped. And that when you were dazed, and gazed upon it, you felt you had not been grateful enough for the many gifts God had given you. It is as if God wrote gratitude on your hearts.
I heard stories of lost interest in material things and greater interest in relationships. It is as if God wrote love on those hearts.
In another storm, Hurricane Sandy up in the Northeast of the United States in 2012 some friends of mine went up to help in the immediate aftermath of the storm. These men were deeply moved by one story.
Two brothers who had been estranged for more than 20 years because of some long-forgotten slight, were reunited when one of the brothers, who lived on higher ground, realized that the other brother was in the ward of New York that had been flooded by the Hudson River.
He walked down to his brother’s home, invited him to take shelter with him, and steps toward reconciliation were taken. It was as if God wrote humility and the willingness to forgive on their hearts.
Jeremiah is prophesying about a day when the people will obey God’s law not because they are supposed to, but because they WANT to. This sounds like the best impulses you have described to me since the storm. The generosity, the forgiveness, the hospitality, and the love offered out of grateful hearts.
And yet it is natural to struggle to maintain the intensity of those initial impulses toward good. It is natural struggle to always WANT to follow God. God knows this, that is why Jesus humbled himself to become human, so we could know God better. So that we could see, we could have more understandable fixed reference point to tune our hearts to God.
One thing we know about God, thanks to Jesus’ emptying himself, first to become human, and then on the cross, is that God is merciful, God is loving, and by the grace of God, God is forgiving.
It is difficult to reconcile a God who would create storms for punishment with the God we know in Jesus. Jesus teaches us that God is always drawing us toward deeper and deeper love. In the midst of even our greatest tragedy, God is with us and moving us toward new life. Sometimes, something needs to die for that new life to bloom.
Anything that gets in the way of our following the great commandment to love God with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul and all our strength; and to love our neighbor as ourselves, must die for us to experience the new life that awaits us in Jesus.
It seems to me that some of you, shaken by the winds of the storm, experienced a clarity about that which must die in your lives. I am so sorry you have gone through this tragedy. I am sorry your homes are damaged, your livelihoods are devastated, and your young children have had to leave you and go far away to attend school.
And, I admire your ability to make meaning from it. I admire your resilience and your willingness to be of good humor in the midst of it all.
And if you have not felt resilient, or of good humor ,or you struggle getting out of bed, be gentle with yourself, very few people in the world have experienced what you have. The progress can be slow and it can be difficult to remain positive. I hope you will find strength in leaning on one another and whatever resources are available. I hope you will find strength in prayer.
I promise you—you are loved, and you are not alone. God promises that God will be with us in the restoration. God will gather the people again, and walk alongside as the foliage returns, and the roofs are restored and the island beats with vibrant life once more.
Whether we are in a time of great joy or a time of great sorrow in our lives, we have the constant presence of a loving God, even when it seems not so. We worship together in community so that when my faith is failing, my brother or sister can carry me. As I said yesterday, that is one of the reasons the creed says, “WE” believe. We carry this together. When I struggle to believe, my brother or sister will carry that for me.
God wants us lift our hearts in prayer in our joys, and anguish, and even anger. I spend time with many grieving people and sometimes they are angry at God. We can feel ashamed of our anger, but I say—go ahead and express everything to God. The God who knit you in your mother’s womb, the God who knows what is in your hearts before you do, that God can take it. And the truth is, it doesn’t go away with faking it. It only shifts and moves when we acknowledge it and deal with it in healthy ways.
We can serve God by serving one another, sometimes sacrificially so.
This is how we tune our hearts to God—by taking time in prayer, coming together in worship and supporting one another, studying scripture, and serving God.
When we tune our hearts with God as our reference point, we play the music Christ taught us to play, we know that tune, it is written on our hearts. Amen.