“Energy for Life”

March 22, 2015

 

Jeremiah 31:31-34

II Corinthians 3:1-6

 

The early New England Congregationalists affirmed the whole of the Christian faith as a covenant, a relationship of mutual commitment between God and God’s people. At their best, they saw that covenant as growing out of gratitude for God’s gifts of forgiveness and power for a faithful life.

A “covenant of grace” was how they described it. It was not a matter of “Do this for life” but of “Do this from life.” [1]That is, act in certain ways—do justice, love kindness, walk humbly—not to win God’s grace but because you have received God’s grace already. Through no effort of our own we are the recipients of God’s love, we are already the sons and daughters of God—so act accordingly.

And while those Congregationalists understood that this was an everlasting covenant, they also recognized the many ways in which they broke that covenant. So from time to time congregations would engage in a period of fasting and self-reflection in order to renew their covenant with God and with one another.[2] They didn’t wait for Lent to roll around. When repentance was called for, they repented. They turned in a new direction and changed what they were doing in response to God’s love and mercy.

“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.”

I find great inspiration in the ability of people and organizations to reshape themselves, to find new energy and purpose. I find a certain strength in stories of relationships that are renewed after sinking into hatred or, worse, apathy. This often seems to happen at those times that seem least likely—when people hit bottom, when no life at all appears possible.

Religious people call it "new life in Christ," or the "power of the resurrection." It's the energy that makes new life possible. Paul writes: "There is no question of our having sufficient power in ourselves: we cannot claim anything as our own. The power we have comes from God. . ."

I want to understand and experience that power better than I do. That is in part why I am a minister and why life in a congregation is so important to me. I am convinced that in communities of faithful men and women—in a church of all places—the energy that makes new life possible, the power that comes from God might be discovered.

As is often the case, I get hints about the life of faith from what I learn about physics—in this case, “the world's general tendency toward decay.”

            Iron rusts.

                        Fallen logs rot.

                                    Bathwater cools to the temperature of its surroundings.

Physicists tell us that “Nature seems to be less interested in creating structures than in tearing structures apart and mixing things up into a kind of average.

“Nineteenth century physicists codified this as the second law of thermodynamics, which can be paraphrased as ‘You can't unscramble an egg.’ Left to themselves, says the second law, atoms will mix and randomize themselves as much as possible.

“That's why iron rusts: atoms in the iron are forever trying to mingle with oxygen in the air to form iron oxide. And that's why bathwater cools: fast-moving molecules on the surface of the water collide with slower-moving molecules in the air, and gradually transfer their energy.”

We see the tendency of things to decay all around us.

            We see it in relationships that fall apart.

            We see it in congregations that were once strong and are now struggling.

We see it in nations that resort to war to settle differences.

            We see it in the wear and tear that comes with growing older; ultimately we see it in our own death.

For thousands of years faithful people have pondered the religious meaning of this tendency toward decay. The Hebrew people reflected on their own experience with God and saw the slow erosion of that once close relationship.

That relationship was based on a covenant—an agreement of faithfulness between two parties. Their story of faith began with Abraham and Sarah, chosen by God who made a covenant with them.

Central to this story is the memory of being led out of slavery in Egypt by Moses, being taught the ways of God in the desert wilderness, declaring faithfulness to the covenant.

At one time ancient Israel was a mighty nation. But with time the leaders and the people ignored or forgot the lessons the wilderness an—as we do—broke the covenant they had made.

Do you remember the covenant, the agreement, you made in joining this congregation? We covenant with one another to seek and respond to the Word and will of God. We purpose to walk together in the ways of Jesus Christ, made known and to be made known to us.

How is your covenant agreement holding up? Do you see decay or vibrancy?

By the time the words of Jeremiah that we heard this morning were spoken, the nation of Israel was destroyed. Their place of worship was destroyed. The people were living in exile in a foreign land. The message even from prophets like Jeremiah usually was "you can't unscramble an egg." What’s done is done. A covenant broken means the deal is off.

Left to themselves, there is a general tendency for things to decay, to fall apart. Religious words like sin, breaking covenants help us to get a handle on some of this.

But there is something else going on the world.

            Fallen logs rot, but trees grow.

            You know about promises not kept. But you also know of lasting commitments.

            People betray one another, yet we find the ability to love.

So what's going on?

The Belgian physicist Ilya Prigogine finds a clue in the phrase "left to themselves. . ."[3]

In the real world atoms and molecules are never entirely left to themselves. They are almost always exposed to a certain amount of energy and material flowing in from the outside. And if that flow of energy and material is enough, then the steady decay and degradation demanded by the second law of thermodynamics can be partially reversed.

When outside energy and material enters an atom or a molecule, a life, an organization, a people, a new quality of being alive develops.

Is it possible that this insight from the world of physics can help us in our lives of faith?

Jeremiah again: "The days are coming when I shall establish a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah." What was regarded as the certain end is not seen that way by God. We are not left to ourselves and our own devices.

In the midst of a despairing and hopeless situation, Jeremiah announces that there is a power at work doing something unexpected, something undeserved. Jeremiah, who can be even gloomier than I often am, Jeremiah announces a power at work in the world that brings new life where we might expect no life.

What would it be like to experience that power, which for Jeremiah, for Paul, is nothing less than the power of the living God?

For many—often for me—such power seems unbelievable.

A strange thing about those words from Jeremiah that we heard this morning. Four times in four verses we hear the phrase "says the Lord." It's as though the prophet wants to drive home to a skeptical audience that these words are more than his own.

God says. . . God says. . . God says. . . God says. . .

Our signs say: “God is still speaking.” But for many today that voice is extremely hard to hear, if not silent. With good reason we are suspicious of people who claim to speak for God—even when—especially when—they are robed and in a pulpit.

But now the world itself seems to speak of that power that brings new life.

And somehow forgiveness is connected with this.

Could it be that forgiving another person, forgiving yourself releases a tremendous amount of energy? Everything that was being used for resentment, for anger, hatred, or self-loathing is now available for something more positive.

Could it be that accepting the forgiveness of others, the forgiveness of God creates new possibilities in your life?

God says: I will remember their sin no more.

Forgiveness is connected to this new way of life, with this renewal of the covenant.

And somehow this new life is about each of us taking individual responsibility for our relationships with God and with each other.

"No longer," Jeremiah says, "No longer shall one person teach their neighbor saying 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest."

So often in churches people want to take responsibility for others--or want others to live as they see fit. Jeremiah speaks of God's new covenant, written upon our hearts, for which each of us takes personal responsibility. No longer is it: I tell you how to live as a person of faith or you tell someone else what he or she should be doing. The covenant, written upon our hearts, calls us individual accountability before God—and that is a key insight of Congregational theology.

In the midst of change and uncertainty, God is continuing to do new and amazing things with this congregation;

In the midst of change and uncertainty, God is continuing to do new and amazing things in our individual lives.

In covenant faithfulness, God’s love and forgiveness are with us always.

We are not left to our own devices. God's power is here for us.

May we continue to discover it with joy.



[1] von Rohr, Shaping of American Congregationalism, pg. 28-29.

 

[2] op. cit. pg. 163-65.

[3] Complexity, pg. 32.