…We know about things being written on people’s hearts in everyday experience. If I have to host a dinner for 20 people, I can do that – I was trained by a mother whose vocation in life was hospitality, and she thought that this kind of thing was something everyone ought to be able to do. So I’ll do it, and it will probably be OK – and it will be an enormous struggle, and I’ll come out of it completely wasted. If you ask Debby or Deb or Bethia to put on a dinner for 20, they will just do it – all the moving parts will be perfectly evident to them beforehand and they will run the operation like a well-oiled machine and it will be great, and they will hardly break a sweat. They don’t have to be told how to do it; it seems as if they hardly have to think about it (though I know they do) – they just know how to make people welcome and well-fed. It’s written on their hearts. I could say the same things about Charlie and David on a construction project, about Anne in front of a balance sheet; I could say the same things about most of you – the ways you just know how to do your jobs, keep your lives in order, do good for other people, knowledge that just seems to have grown in you, to have been always there– written on your heart.

That’s what Jeremiah is hoping for. When Israel came out of Egypt God had to tell them how to do everything. They had been slaves – and if you want to see what happens when you let slaves design a society, we have a perfect example in the modern world: Haiti. The slaves there rebelled against their masters, and won, and took over without changing a single thing about the society except the names of the people in charge – and Haiti has been a disaster for its entire history and will go on being a disaster forever, no matter how much money or effort is poured into it, as long as it’s still a slave-society. Until its people’s ideas and expectations and skills – its entire culture – change drastically, from top to bottom, trying to help Haiti is just throwing good money after bad – there’s no hope of anything getting better until the society itself gets better.

That’s what God is trying to forestall in Israel by making them wander around for 40 years until the slave-generation is gone, starting them out from scratch with the rules and regulations that can create a real society where justice, community, truth, might have a chance. The covenant was rules and regs, all right, but it was based on love, not legalism. It had to be about obeying laws written in books (scrolls, to be exact) because you have to spell everything out for people who are starting from scratch. So it was all spelled out – but somehow it didn’t take. Between the remembering and the forgetting and the obeying and the disobeying, it was all too much for human beings. There were too many gaps, too many pits to fall into. Israel fell away from its side of the covenant, couldn’t keep up their end of the deal. God was faithful; they weren’t; the covenant was broken. The nation was destroyed and taken into exile, where they had ample opportunity to reflect on their failures and the punishment God had let them in for.

But God doesn’t give up on his people. Out there in the land of exile, God gives Jeremiah a vision of a better way, a new covenant. Not in books this time; no rules and regs. The aim of those things had been to teach people about the Lord – but now they’ll know without the intermediaries. No more rabbis, no more Bible studies, no more catechisms, no more theology books – the whole apparatus for studying God’s will is just dismantled, out of date. How will people know how to act, what God wants them to do? They’ll just know. They don’t have to read it, learn it, be taught it; they’ll just know, the way we know a friend, the way kids know their parents, the way we know each other, the way we know how to eat, how to breathe. When you’re in a spot like that, you find that you can dispense with many of the formalities that people often think are necessary to make things go all right.

My most vivid experience of being in a group of people trying to know the Lord is with this parish’s Bishop’s Committee. We have no formalities at all – we don’t vote; we don’t have ‘motions’ and ‘seconds’ and all that; we make all our decisions by consensus after everybody has had a chance to put in their two cents on a subject. We’ve entirely abandoned Roberts’ Rules of Order – we figure the Holy Spirit can keep order among us pretty well on her own. It’s a lot more efficient way of doing the church’s business; we get a lot more done than in the old days, faster and with a lot more fun. It’s about the development of one mind, one heart, and that one the mind and heart of Christ. And the funny thing is that as we trust God to speak to us from within our unity of spirit and efforts to listen patiently both to God and each other, we feel as if God speaks to us more. It’s like a ‘virtuous circle’, in which our obedience makes possible more of the ‘knowing’ we are seeking to achieve.

Jesus assures us that if we enter this circle with confidence and persistence, God will answer our prayer and grant us what we need. For example we have another of Luke’s wonderful crooks, the horrible judge who won’t do anything just because it’s right – but even he gets worn down by the widow’s persistence in asking for what she wants. Jesus says, if even creepy human beings can be coerced into granting petitions, how much more will not the gracious God do readily what the judge has to be beaten into doing? ‘Faith’, which seems to be the main issue in this part of Luke’s Gospel, here once again comes down to simple obedience: Just do it. God is ready to hear us; Jesus asks, Are you ready to ask? Are you ready to shape your prayer in trusting constancy to the one who is more ready to answer than we to address?

Many of us in this church have put this matter to the test. Many of us are people new to a church, or to this church, working with a way of being church that is quite new to all of us. We don’t always find it easy. But we have been obedient, keeping on keeping on, even when it’s rough going – and our prayers for unity, for guidance, for growth in trust and unity, have been abundantly answered. We have to learn how to talk about that experience to those who haven’t been part of it, and no one who hasn’t been part of us will know about it unless we talk about it. At our annual meeting in 2 weeks we need to focus on these experiences and try to plan out ways of doing that sharing with others.

God knows, the occasion for doing so is certainly here. The present situation in our nation is crying out for voices that will counter the appalling energies of hatred that seem to be loose in our land. I’ve never heard a political campaign so violent, so vitriolic, so vicious. The way for this has been prepared by exactly what the letter to Timothy is talking about: people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires. ‘Teachers to suit their own desires’ – research shows that the polarisation in our nation is now so extreme because people have complete control over what they hear and see; and can listen to only those voices on radio, TV, internet, that agree with what they already think, and never face any challenges to that at all.

So, naturally, they turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. They’ve never been taught how to tell the difference between truth and lies, and they no longer care about that difference. They’re ignorant and they’re desperate – a combination which, for any of you who remember the history of the 20th century, will remind you of Germany in the 1930’s, another nation obsessed with being ‘great’, and willing to sell its soul to anyone who would promise to make that happen. Even the churches went along with Hitler’s program of hatred, scapegoating, torture, murder. That’s what happens when what is written on people’s hearts is fear, hatred, deceit, hopelessness.

Who is going to offer them an alternative, if not us? Who can speak of love in the face of hate, hope in the face of despair, truth in the face of lies, if not us? Who can teach a violent and furious world the patience to wait upon God and seek out the complex and subtle answers our complex problems require, if not us? Our job description is right in front of us: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience… be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully. Need I say more? So we need to talk to each other, and to those who are outside our fellowship, to talk, to encourage, to tell the truth about our own experience and the hope that is in us, to open our hearts to each other, so that our hearts become more open to God as well, the God who is longing to write his covenant upon them and draw us all more and more into his loving presence.

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