(Homily for Gayton Road Christian Church's Worship on March 18, 2018, Lent V)
I grew up on the cusp of a revolution. By the time I was graduating from Godwin High School, every student had a laptop. We had the internet at the tips of our fingers. Old excuses, like “the dog ate my homework,” were no longer in circulation. Instead I was accustomed to hearing more electronic explanations: “The program crashed just before I finished,” or much more commonly, “I forgot to save my work.”
But it was only a few years before then that my classes were taught primarily on the chalkboard. Most of you lived in the dark ages too, so you remember the chalkboard. Even though I haven’t touched a chalkboard in over a decade, I remember it well. I remember how in math the teacher would call us forward individually to solve equations on the board. And I remember how sometimes as a prank, a mischievous student would squeeze a few pieces of chalk into the eraser. And I remember how in elementary school, cleaning the chalkboard was one of our many responsibilities: line-leader, door-holder, and chalkboard-cleaner.
Cleaning the chalkboard was crucial. It was the only way we could move from one lesson to the next.
Israel’s Cheatin’ Heart
The story of Israel is a little bit like a chalkboard.
As Jeremiah reminds us today, when God heard the cries and heartache of the Israelites in the land of Egypt, God took them by the hand and brought them out of Egypt. In the process, God fell in love with Israel. Today’s scripture refers to their relationship as a marriage.
The problem is, Israel forgot its marriage vows. Well, sort of. On the outside, things looked alright. Priests were performing the sacrifices. Prophets who knew the scriptures said many things in the name of God. People were following the letter of the law. Technically they were honoring their vows. But they had what Hank Williams would have called a “cheatin’ heart.” For they had forgotten the love of God. God had come to them when they were oppressed, weak, and needful. But now, they were neglecting the oppressed, weak, and needful, and instead hoarding power and possessions at their expense.
Here’s how Jeremiah puts it: “From the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (6:13-14). And Isaiah, who came before Jeremiah and was perhaps a prophetic role model, puts it like this: “Bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination. New moons and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity….Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa 1:13, 17).
In other words, while the Israelites were busy carrying out the vows of their relationship with God, a completely different law was being written on their hearts: entitlement, prestige, profit, and all at the expense of the needful.
Cleaning the Chalkboard
Which brings us to today’s scripture, where God is heart-broken. God desires more than the Israelites’ holy habits; God desires their hearts. So God declares, “I will put my law within them, and I will write in on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:33).
In other words, God has the chalk in hand and wants to write something new on the chalkboard of the Israelites’ hearts.
What does that mean for the law of greed currently written on their heart? Jeremiah never spells this out, but I think it means that, first, the chalkboard will need to be erased. As I learned in elementary school, cleaning the chalkboard is crucial. It’s the only way to get from one lesson to the next. Or as David says in our psalm today: “Purge me with hyssop, and I will be clean” (51:7). The desert fathers and mothers, who pioneered our faith in the first few centuries after Christ, stressed that this was the first step of faith: purging. We must unlearn what we have learned. We must shed our old thoughts and feelings, before we can put on Christ.
Our Chalkboard Hearts
Our story, I think, is little different than Jeremiah and the Israelites. Because you or I or anyone who lives in this world, has a chalkboard heart full of writing. Our family, our friends, and our society write upon our hearts a host of expectations and assumptions, fears and desires. The funny thing is, I normally think of myself as having thoughts and feelings. But when I step back and look at myself, I can see that in fact thoughts and feelings have me! I am very often following a script written upon my chalkboard heart by the rest of the world.
I remember the first time that I flew to England. At the gate to my plane, there were several men with long beards who were prostrating themselves repeatedly in prayer. At that time, the news media were showing similar images whenever they talked about terrorism. And so written on my heart was the suggestion that these men were dangerous. I was fearful. I’m ashamed to share this, but I also understand now that I was being shaped by forces beyond my comprehension. As Paul says, we wrestle not with flesh and blood but with unseen powers and principalities (Eph 6:12). Later I would share a flat with Reza, a business doctoral student and practicing Muslim from Iran, and I would meet many more Muslims who were scraping out a new life in England, despite daily being misunderstood and mistreated. And over time something—perhaps the grace of God—slowly erased that fear on the chalkboard of my heart, and in its place wrote love. For what else is the image of men and women prostrating themselves, than an image of faith? It happens round the world billions and billions of times everyday, not as a prelude to terrorism but as submission to the will of God.
Recently I’ve been reading the work of Miguel De La Torre, a Cuban Baptist minister, whose ministry has taken him into the lives of undocumented migrants. He shares their experiences firsthand from a ground-level perspective. Before reading these stories, written on my heart was doubt and suspicion toward these folks. What I had learned in history class and in general conversation was the idea that people come to our country because of opportunity—such is the story of my family, who emigrated from Germany—and our country has laws that very sensibly regulate this incoming immigration. I was not prepared for stories like the ones that De La Torre told, like the ones about Mexican farmers who lost their farms years ago as a result of a trade policy pushed by our country. These farmers then find work for substandard wages at the maquiladoras, factories in Mexico that are owned by American companies that export products very cheaply back into our country. Unable to make ends meet with their meager wages, these farmers-turned-factory-workers finally make a perilous journey through the desert in order to look for a living wage in the country that has been profiting at their expense all the while. They risk their lives not for opportunity but for the same reason anyone risks their lives: survival. I understand that these stories are not every immigrant’s story. But they certainly have me questioning the writing on my heart. So I wonder what Jeremiah would say? Would he say what he said in chapter 22: “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages” (22:13)? And I wonder, too, what law would Jeremiah want written on my heart. The law of a powerful and self-interested nation? Or an older, untraceable law that repeatedly invites care for the weak and needful? Indeed, I am haunted by the fact that the Hebrew Bible says only once to love your neighbor (Lev 19:18), but thirty-seven times says to love the stranger.
The Only Way for Life to Grow
In our gospel text today, Jesus compares our life to a single grain of wheat. If we hold onto our life, he says, we will lose it. We will be but a single grain of wheat, clinging to the stalk, shriveled and fruitless. But if we let go, we bear much fruit.
Which is perhaps another way of saying what Jeremiah is saying. If we hold onto the script that the world has written onto our hearts, allowing ourselves to be possessed and directed by the thoughts and feelings that we have—which is to say, the thoughts and feelings that have us—then we will be little more than machines, following the same the program, the same code, day after day.
But as I learned years ago, cleaning the chalkboard is crucial. It is the only way to move from one lesson to the next. Perhaps part of Jeremiah’s message is that cleaning the chalkboard of my heart is the only way for life to go on, the only way for life to grow. For only when my chalkboard heart is clear, can God write anew God’s law in my heart.
Jeremiah doesn’t explain what God’s law looks like, when it is written on the heart. I don’t know what he had in mind, so I can speak only from my own experience. For me, God’s law written on my heart is not some unchanging word. It is a living word. It is continually written and erased and rewritten. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the law that God writes on my heart when I allow it, is a person: Jesus Christ.
I’m quite a poor student at times, and often I refuse to clear the chalkboard of my heart. But when I have done so, Christ has been written on my heart anew, looking different each time, shattering my expectations and my assumptions, driving out old fears and filling me with new, life-giving desires. So I have been led to embrace my Muslim brothers and sisters and to look with compassion upon the powerless who seek refuge in this powerful land.
I’m grateful to you today for allowing me to share some very personal thoughts and feelings. They are only my experience and perspective, and yours may be very different. What I do trust for both you and me is this: Lord only knows what will be written on our hearts next, if we have the courage to keep cleaning the chalkboard. For cleaning the chalkboard is the only way to move from one lesson to the next.
Christ of the new covenant,
Our hearts are covered
With self-interested scripts
Written by our world:
Empower us to erase
Our old expectations and assumptions
And to anticipate and welcome
The strange new script
Of your love.
 Cf. Richard Rohr, Just This (Albuquerque: CAC, 2017), 34.
 Jonathan Sacks, Faith in the Future: The Ecology of Hope and the Restoration of Family, Community, and Faith (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1997), 78.