Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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            Being an Old Testament prophet was not an easy job for anybody. Most, if not all of them were tough, passionate, confrontational, and abrasive. The kings of Israel and Judah, for the most part, hated them, because they almost never told those kings anything they wanted to hear. But of all the prophets, Jeremiah probably had it the hardest. When called to be a prophet as a young man, he tried to beg off. God put his words in Jeremiah’s mouth. Whatever positive he had to say always seemed to result in disappointment. In favor of a reform early on in his career, he discovered how shallow it went with the king, the priests, and the people. He learned, he said, that the “heart is deceitful above all things.” He told the people that just because the Temple was in the midst of Jerusalem, they should not count on God saving them unless there was some genuine inner side to their piety. Outraged, they ignored him and made fun of him. A plot was hatched to assassinate him. When he warned the king that Judah would be defeated and would be sent into exile, and then, later, that the exiles needed to get used to their situation, there was no repentance on the king’s part. He threw Jeremiah in a well to die. As a result, much of what Jeremiah wrote was bitter. He knew what the result would be from Judah’s deaf ear to what God was saying. “I looked on the earth and it was waste and void, and to the heavens, and there was no light,” going on in terms that were as close as the ancients could come to describing a nuclear holocaust. He wrote several personal lamentations that pretty much said that he wished he had never been born.

            Yet, Jeremiah wrote some of the most profound prophecies of hope that we have in the Bible. Only Isaiah was more important in prophesying what God intended to do to fulfill his covenant with Israel and how God intended to do it. Isaiah talked about the suffering servant, the savior who was the man of sorrows, whose sacrifice would redeem those who had wandered in darkness. Jeremiah, for his part, described what that would mean. The old covenant, Jeremiah prophesied, would be transformed into a new covenant, a new testament – and it is from him that we get that term. Unlike the old one, which was broken on a regular basis, and that seemed to yield a merely external piety, never what God’s Law really was supposed to yield—namely, righteousness—this new covenant would be different.  It would aim at righteousness, but it would not be external. Jeremiah declared that God said, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” It would be a matter of the heart. That is what had been lacking before.

            That is precisely what Jesus, subsequently, told everybody that he had come to bring. That is what the result of his atoning sacrifice would mean; it would mean a bonding of God’s heart and the human heart. When talking to the Samaritan woman at the well who wanted to know whether the Samaritans or the Jews had it right, Jesus, in hearkening back to Jeremiah’s prophecy, told her, “the time is coming and now is when worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit; and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.” That is what Jeremiah prophesied God meant; that is what Jesus claimed to bring to fruition. That is what the new testament is all about: the worship of God in spirit and in truth, the worship of the heart, worship that comes from inside.

            That is absolutely essential to understanding what the Christian faith is about. It is what is behind so much of the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said to men of old that you shall not kill. Truly, I tell you that you shall not even be angry with your brother.” Outer show and conformity were no good without the inner side, without our relations to God and others being a matter of the heart. But as we celebrate the principle, we also need to pay attention to the fact that it is no easy matter to get from being stuck in the outer to living from the heart. For Christianity is not spiritual and a matter of the heart just by being Christianity. What Christian faith is, on Jeremiah’s promise and Christ’s sacrifice, is a way of freeing the heart and a way of living from the inside. It is a matter of the heart by being a matter of the heart, not just talk about the heart.

            But the heart freed from what? Well, in the first place, and most clearly, it means being freed from what Jeremiah and all the Old Testament prophets complained about had gone wrong in Israel and goes wrong even today: thinking that mere ritual and cultic observance is good enough; fetishizing the Temple, thinking that its mere presence will suffice to guarantee God’s protection. It means being freed from nationalistic or ecclesiastical pride in being God’s chosen people, thinking it an entitlement and not a world-shattering gift that changes us forever. It means being freed from keeping the Law without really being concerned about righteousness, from grinding the poor and gaining self-advantage through legal maneuvering. It also means being freed from all that Jesus complained about – keeping the Law but remaining angry, resentful, covetous, jealous, and lustful inside. It means non-violence. It means no longer making the Temple into a den of robbers and a place of commerce. Freeing the heart means all of these things. To live the Christian faith is to free oneself from all that, for all the matters of the heart.

            But there is something more, something deeper, and it is the key in any meaningful sense to freeing oneself from everything that I just listed. For freeing the heart is more than just doing the right thing. It means acting from the heart. That is hard for there is always a problem with acting so simply and so openly. The problem has to do with the way we think of ourselves solely on the basis of external things, of thinking of ourselves according to the image we present to each other, but also, the image we present to ourselves.

            Human beings are reflective. Our thought is not only directed outwardly to things around us, it means that we also can, and do, observe ourselves. We observe ourselves observing. As we think of things around us, we are almost always conscious of ourselves interacting with those things. In doing so, however, the self that we observe and that we put into play in the world is an image of what we think we are, or what we imagine others to think us to be, or what we would like to have them think of us. That image comes from many sources: our delusions and our best efforts to be good people, from the reactions of others to what we do, from projections of what we would like to be. As we go through the world we not only see the world, but we see the world with us in it, and we act accordingly. We fit what we do with our image.

            For much of the time this is something that we probably can’t get away from. Self-observation is the field of our day-to-day moral deliberations. So, if we are people of conscience, we should choose between a good image and ones that are not so good. If we choose to be good, we try to tailor that image continually according to the best examples we can find, we need to listen to good advice, and we need to think each day about how we have lived up to the best. That is an ancient exercise called the “examination of conscience.” The alternative is watching television several hours a day to find out how often you are mentioned and what people are saying about you; that, or something like it.

            But all that will still not free the heart. The image, good or bad, helpful or selfish, still stands between the heart and God, and between the heart and other people. We remain in service to our self-image, even if it is a good one and one that is relatively accurate. The problem is that we can’t make ourselves, by ourselves, much better than we already are. It is like trying to give yourself a loan from your own wallet. You won’t come out money ahead. So, what is needed is to give up the image, and let the heart stand open to the grace that will then feed and love the heart until it starts to love openly and directly.

            That is what I think Jeremiah and Jesus both wanted to effect in us, an open heart that would be receptive to God’s grace, and that would grow, not from its own self-observing efforts, but from the forgetting of our self-images so that we might be remade in Christ’s image. But, I also believe that something like this is at the heart of some other religions, too, and they may have something to teach us about what freeing the heart may mean.

            Consider Buddhism. Buddhist meditative practice has become somewhat well-known in these parts under the name of “mindfulness.” In such meditative practice, one sits silently, usually concentrating on one’s breath. If a thought comes into one’s mind, and it always does, one names it, and focuses on breathing again until it leaves. The practice, as far as that goes, is wonderfully helpful for a person to become aware of what he or she is thinking or feeling and dealing with it. Many people are out of touch with their own feelings and thinking. So, this is really good for becoming aware of your own mind. It is particularly helpful for impulse control. But if you only take it that far, it is just another method of self-control – control of the self by the self for the self.  Genuine Buddhist practice is different, for there, as you identify and observe any thought that arises, you are to watch it until it disappears and, in its disappearing, it shows itself for what it really is – that is, not much of anything, not anything worth chasing or dwelling on. That is the point of the meditation. Over the course of time, the ultimate point of such practice is to realize that the self itself, and all the images of the self which go to make up the self, and all its desires and needs which also make it up are really nothing. So, such meditation is a practice of making the self and its images disappear. Then what? Well, then there is the possibility of another power arising, one that is not us and that cannot and will not go away, one that will make us, for once, compassionate, and not self-advancing or self-regarding.

            Shortly before his Passion, Jesus told his disciples this: “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” What he intended by that surely was meant to point to his coming crucifixion. By his sacrifice, life abundant, life eternal, would become possible for many. Much fruit would come from his sacrifice. That is underlined in his going on to say: “Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Clearly, there is what might be called a service component here. It is a key to Jesus’s ministry, and it is something to which he calls his disciples. But what makes it possible in the first place is a matter of the free heart, which is a matter of giving up reflecting on one’s self, including one’s good works and good projects. It is a matter of letting the heart be fed by a source outside. Plants do not grow, at least not for very long, simply by the energy that they have stored within themselves. It is by the seed cracking open its shell and taking in water and the nutrients of the soil, and, most of all, sunlight from above, that a plant will grow into something fruitful. It is the same with us. Our hearts will love and we will be compassionate, and we will be truly just not by picking the right causes, or by our own efforts. Our hearts will love and we will be compassionate when we die to self and let God’s own love fill our being, and be our being.

            John Calvin once defined the process of sanctification, the growth of holiness, as a matter “of dying more and more unto self, and living more and more unto Christ.” In saying so, he echoed Jeremiah. He echoed Christ. He may even have echoed the Buddha. For, as St. Francis said, adding his voice to this great chorus, “it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”