glory of god

glory of god

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"Icke jag, utan Gud i mig": A sermon on new covenants, fresh starts, and God in us.

In our first reading from the Prophet Jeremiah we heard:

"The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the old covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt--a covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: 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."

As I begin my sermon this morning, I have to confess that I am a little nervous, apprehensive even. With the exception of Margaret Moore’s funeral a few weeks ago, I haven’t preached in quite a while. And after three months away, my heart and mind are so full, there’s so much that I want to share—and today’s readings, well, they don’t exactly lend themselves to romantic stories about trips to far away lands like Sweden, Finland, or Denmark—much as I would love to talk about my time there. So maybe I’ll save those stories for a later time—this Wednesday evening at our adult education, perhaps, or maybe every coffee hour until Christmas!

It’s possible, too, that you are nervous or apprehensive, as well. I remember that before I was ordained, but was active in several ministries at St. John’s Church in Jamaica Plain, at first I found it strange, weird even, when the rector returned from her sabbatical. In fact, I was nervous about her returning, even though I liked her and had missed her a lot, because things had changed, for me, for the parish, in our lives and in the way we did things. It took a while to reconnect, to re-familiarize ourselves with each other, because, of course, even in a short elapse of time people change and we establish new patterns of life. Things will never be exactly the same as they were “before”—we have all grown and evolved and had new insights into ourselves, into the church, into our life together. But, of course, that’s exactly what sabbaticals are for—for me and for you—to grow, to change, to evolve, to come to new perspectives and new conclusions about what it means to be the church, the community of disciples, friends gathered by Jesus.

It will take time to share these stories, to learn from each other, and to settle into different patterns and new ways of being together, and we shouldn’t rush that process or cut it off, assuming that things can or should go back to exactly the way they were before. For example, there might be new ministries that you’ve taken on over the past three months that you don’t want to let go of, that have become important to you as you answer Jesus’ call to discipleship. Then again, there might be things you’ve had to do over the past few months that you now know you never want to do again. It’s all part of growing and changing and being alive.

In fact, several important changes have taken place over the last three months—most significantly, probably, our beloved sexton Gus died very unexpectedly in September, as did Margaret Moore, and Wallie Cook’s daughter Debbie; many of our older youth moved away and started college; the Altar Guild elected new leaders; we have a transition plan in place for a new coffee hour coordinator; there’s a beautifully refreshed bathroom (thanks to Janet Regan); we’ve started an exciting new Sunday children’s education program and a new approach to our Wednesday evening programs, and more. 

All of these point to the fact that this place, Emmanuel Episcopal Church, is a not only a building, but a community, a living, breathing, body—the Body of Christ. And like the ancient Israelites described in our Old Testament reading, I believe that God is taking this opportunity to write a new covenant in our hearts, offering us new ways to live and be together, deeper ways, more whole ways, more real and more alive ways.

This doesn’t replace the old covenant, it doesn’t negate who we have been, or erase our wonderful history—recent or long term—but really it means we are given an opportunity to build on our past, to be thankful for it and to learn from it, while opening us to move in new directions—ever more closely bound to God and each other—and perhaps leaving behind what didn’t work before, whether that’s old programs or more personally old hurts and or maybe grudges. And, you know, as it happens, that’s exactly what the prophet Jeremiah is writing about in his context as well.

Jeremiah’s not saying that God has thrown out his promises with his beloved, the chosen people (as some Christians have interpreted this passage), but instead it’s just the opposite: God has deepened those promises. The law, which is meant to convey God’s love, is no longer written on tablets of stone, but instead on hearts of flesh. And that’s just as true for us as well. God’s law, God’s love, is written on ours hearts, and that law, that love, binds us to God and to each other, giving us always another chance, another opportunity, another day, to live and grow and thrive in faith and spirit and community, as we say here at Emmanuel.

I know I said at the outset this morning that I wasn’t going to share stories of my sabbatical travels. But I can’t resist sharing just one (for now). Among my favorite places in Sweden is the city of Uppsala, about an hour’s drive north of Stockholm. Today it’s the fourth largest city in Sweden, which doesn’t make it very big by US standards, but back 1,000 years ago in the Viking days Uppsala was a capital of Sweden, and when the country was Christianized the city was established as the center of the church’s life, as well as its educational epicenter. As a result, Sweden’s largest and most important cathedral is there (in fact it’s the largest in all of Scandinavia), as is Scandinavia’s oldest and largest university.

And in that grand Uppsala Cathedral, in addition to the high ceilings and massive expanse of the main church, you find several little chapels along the sidewalls—some dedicated to kings, including a large one to Sweden’s first Protestant king Gustav Vasa, some to saints, and one is dedicated to peace, a concept very important to Swedes who are known for their commitment to neutrality and conflict resolution. There’s a beautiful large tapestry on the wall of the peace chapel, I think it was formerly an altar frontal, featuring a large red, orange, and gold sunburst, with a cross in the center, and figures that look like the outlines of people above and below. The people above the sunburst are sewn in gold and below they are darker red and orange. Above the tapestry is a large stained glass window, and below, on the ancient stone floor, you find a tile carved with a simple sentence: “Icke jag, utan Gud i mig.” That’s old fashioned Swedish (kind of like Rite I language) that means “Not I, without God in me.” Also carved in the tile are the name and birth and death dates of the Swedish diplomat, Dag Hammarskjöld, who you may recall, was the General Secretary of the United Nations who worked tirelessly for peace around the world, until he was killed in an airplane crash in Africa in 1961 during the Congo crisis. After the crash President John F. Kennedy called Hammarskjöld “the greatest statesman of our century.”

“Not I, without God in me.” This sentence is taken from Hammarskjöld’s diary, found among his papers and published after he died, translated into English as Markings. In the diary he doesn’t reflect on his extraordinary career as a diplomat and peacemaker, but instead on largely on his spiritual life and his sense of himself as a person in whom God lives and works. In many ways Hammarskjöld was a mystic, profoundly aware of his own smallness and finitude, but also of the deep interconnectedness of life in communion with the divine, which I think is what compelled him into his work as a peacemaker. On the page following “Not I, without God in me” he continued: “To be, in faith, both humble and proud: that is, to live, to know that in God I am nothing, but that God is in me.” 

What a profound statement of faith that is, I believe: a faith that believes that without and in comparison with God we humans are so small, nothing really, but then again, we know that we are never without God, and we are never separated from God, because God’s law, God’s love, God’s life, is written on our hearts and in our hearts. Elsewhere in his diary Hammarskjöld calls this “God’s marriage to the soul,” a marriage in which God is one with us, and God is wholly in us. And I think this marriage to the soul is precisely the same thing as the “new covenant” that Jeremiah writes about so beautifully. The covenant of love. The covenant that frees us from bondage, sin, death, pain, and whatever it is that may hold us back, and allows us to live—fully, freely, and wholly now and into the future.

And, you know, as I think about our life together here at Emmanuel and as Emmanuel, our new covenant, the fresh start that we begin today, in this new post-sabbatical time, I think that this idea from Dag Hammarskjöld can be tremendously helpful: “Not I, without God in me.”  And perhaps even “Not I, without God in us,” all of us, together, a blessed community, freed to let go of sins, and hurts, and unfulfilled expectations, whatever it was that may have held us back in the past, just as Jeremiah urged the ancient Israelites to do thousands of years ago, so that we can have a fresh start, to live and grow and thrive, in God’s grace, in God’s love, in God’s promise, together, God with us and in us.

I thought I’d close this morning with a poem and prayer composed by Hammarskjöld, which can both inspire and challenge us as we begin this new chapter together, this next season of ministry, and embrace the new covenant that Jeremiah tells us God is writing on our hearts. He prays:

Thou who art over us,
Thou who art one of us,
Thou who art—
Also within us,
May all see Thee—in me also,
May I prepare the way for Thee,
May I thank Thee for all that shall fall to my lot,
May I also not forget the needs of others,
Keep me in Thy love
As Thou wouldest that all should be kept in mine.
May everything in this my being be directed to Thy glory
And may I never despair.
For I am under Thy hand,
And in Thee all power and goodness.

Just as this was Dag Hammarskjöld’s prayer and hope, it can be ours as well.  “Icke jag, utan Gud i mig.” Not I, without God in me. Or maybe “Icke jag, utan Gud i oss.” Not I, without God in us. The new covenant, God’s law, God’s love, written forever on our hearts.

It’s good to be back.

To God be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell