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Sunday, March 29

Featured Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

My reflection/sermon for the day:

If scholars were to rank the importance of scriptural passages, this morning’s from Jeremiah would rank right up there near the top.

“And why is that?” you might ask.

Well, it’s because this morning’s passage contains the only mention of the phrase “New Covenant” in the entire Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures.

When you work with such an important piece of Scripture, it’s often challenging to find resources that have anything new to say about the passage – as such passages have often been studied to death.

For much of the week, I discovered just how right I was about that. For I spent a good deal of time reading commentaries that made the same two or three points over, and over, and over: how different today’s material is from much of the gloomy tone that dominates the rest of the book; how unusual Jeremiah’s social location was since he was a prophet born on the outskirts of the Northern Kingdom who spent most of his time speaking to the Southern Kingdom; and the significant differences between the Greek version of the text and the Hebrew text.

While those insights are interesting, none of them provide the kind of insights that give you something to carry home with you and get you through the week. So I kept looking… and looking… and looking… until finally – just last night – I hit gold.

That gold came in the form of a sermon one of my Presbyterian colleagues by the name of Thomas Tewell gave; it was titled “The Things We Date Not Remember”.

In his sermon, Rev. Tewell told a story that did the unthinkable; he provided a new way of thinking about the passage. And the lens that he provided was through the story of a woman named Betty.

Betty and her husband were fine, upstanding members of their community. In fact, Betty’s husband was so upstanding that he was honored one year by the local Rotary Club for his outstanding service to the community. Betty couldn’t have been prouder of her husband than the night when he received his award.

The very next morning, however, Betty’s feelings for her husband changed. Betty was rummaging through one of the desk drawers at home - looking for an old picture - when she stumbled upon something else: a receipt to a local motel room. Her head started to spin. She realized it would be a good idea to ask her husband about the receipts before she jumped to any conclusions. So she did.

Guess what Betty’s husband said. “Yes,” he said,” I am having an affair with my secretary.” And if that weren’t bad enough, Betty’s husband continued. “The affair has been going on for the past 15 years.”

Sadly, before Betty and her husband could do the difficult work that needed to be done to salvage their marriage, Betty’s husband had a heart attack and died– just two weeks after his revelation to her. Not only was Betty heartbroken at the sudden loss of her husband – she was furious, for she would never have the opportunity to do the important work of healing.

Or would she?

One weekend a few years later, Betty found herself at a workshop where Rev. Tewell had preached a sermon that raised a provocative point: that forgetting is an outgrowth of true forgiveness.

“Oh, yeah,” Betty said. “That hasn’t been the case for me. You see, prior to learning of my husband’s affair I use to whistle all the time. It was my trademark, and people loved it. The day I found out about the affair, however, I quit; and I haven’t whistled since. And I probably never will again.”

“Really?” Rev. Tewell challenged Betty.

And he gave her an assignment. He asked Betty to go back to her room and write a letter to her husband expressing all of the feelings that were lingering inside. Betty failed to show up at the conference for the next two days. She was gone so long that Rev. Tewell had begun to worry that his assignment had scared off Betty. Just when he was about to write her off, Betty showed up – carrying a 35 page letter in hand.

Betty asked Rev. Tewell if he would accompany her to the cemetery where she planned to read the letter to her deceased husband. He agreed to go. Betty’s reading that day was punctuated by sobs, guttural screams, and moments of silence - as she began to let go of old feelings and arrive at a new place: both in her relationship with her departed husband and with herself.

As the conference was closing the next day, the attendees stood to sing the final hymn – Amazing Grace – when Rev. Tewell heard the last thing he expected to hear … Betty whistling along as the congregation sang the beloved hymn.

So what new insights can Betty’s story provide into this morning’s passage from Jeremiah?

Well, for me, Betty’s story can help shift where we put the emphasis. You see most of us read the passage and place the emphasis upon God and the New Covenant GOD has established. And that’s perfectly understandable – since the passage is written with God in the first person, and contains the phrase “I will” no less than a half-dozen times.

But here’s what I missed when I read the passage that way.

It doesn’t just matter the lengths God goes to write the New Covenant on our hearts. What also matters is whether or not the people will open their hearts to that New Covenant – that new way of being - for themselves.

Sure, for instance, God could claim the Israelites as God’s people in verse 33 of today’s reading. But if the Israelites were still brooding about the time their spiritual ancestors were left to wander in the desert, they would miss the power of that claim.

And sure, God could remove the onerous requirements of the law by simply placing the spirit of the law in their hearts as promised in verse 33. But if their attention was still focused backward - on those times they had fallen short and proven themselves less than - they wouldn’t notice that indwelling spirit.

God could even proclaim God’s fervent desire to wipe the slate clean and forgive them. But if the people were unwilling to forgive others (or worse yet, THEMSELVES); all of God’s intentions might fall by the wayside.

In other words, the concept of a New Covenant might sound great in theory; but in order to receive that New Covenant, folks first had to do what Betty did: let go of the old.

Friends, this morning we stand two weeks away from the greatest expression of God’s desire to relate to us in new ways – Easter. And for us to get to that Easter moment, perhaps there are things that we need to let go of as well – angers, hurts, resentments. Against others. Against ourselves.

And while we don’t have time to write 35 page letters as Betty did, we do have time to sit prayerfully lift a few words that express our desire to let go of the old so that we might embrace the new. So let’s do that. And after a few minutes of prayer, I’ll pull us back together with the first verse of Amazing Grace. That verse will serve as an expression of our desire to open ourselves to the New Covenant of which Jeremiah spoke, and of which Jesus embodies. You can either sing that verse from memory. Or better yet, in honor of Betty, you can whistle along.

Let us be in the attitude of prayer.

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