“Written on our Hearts” by Deborah Sokolove

Recommitment Sunday, October 20, 2013

The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

As I encountered the last three verses in today’s reading from Jeremiah, I was reminded of an ongoing conversation among Stewards about spiritual disciplines. The conversation started with tithing, but soon grew to encompass other practices, as well. As it turns out, most of us confessed that we often fall short of the standards set out in the “Disciplines of Stewards” section of The Guide to Seekers Church. So the question started to sound something like this: are the spiritual disciplines qualifications for becoming a Steward, barriers or hurdles that are hard to pass? Or are they aspirational, a mark or target at which to aim? Are they laws, branding us as sinners when we fail to live up to their exacting criteria; or are they external guides, helping us to become more sensitive to the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit as we move towards an ever-deepening love of God, our neighbors, and ourselves?

Let’s look again at what Jeremiah says:

The days are surely coming, says the Holy One, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the 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 that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Holy One. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Holy One: 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. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Holy One,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Holy One; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. [Jer 31:31-34]

The prophet Jeremiah lived about six hundred years before the birth of Jesus. As we have been reading in the lectionary for the past few weeks, he lamented that his people persisted in worshipping false gods. Jeremiah understood the approaching Babylonian army as God’s judgment against the Israelites for breaking the covenant of justice and mercy, for forgetting God’s repeated instruction to care for and protect single mothers, fatherless children, foreigners living in their midst, and all others who are in need. As certain defeat and exile neared, he offered hope to the people of Judah and Jerusalem, buying his cousin’s field as a sign that God would, one day, allow them to return to their own country. Following the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, Jeremiah went with the exiles to Babylon, to comfort and remind them that God would be with them even in a foreign land. God’s word to those who were taken to Babylon was, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Holy One on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”[Jer 29:7]

About fifty years later, Babylon fell to Persia, and the Persian king, Cyrus, sent the captive Israelites back to their homeland. In today’s reading, Jeremiah tells the people that God wants to have a new kind of relationship with them when they return. This new relationship, he says, is not one of rules and regulations, of overbearing authority, but rather a reciprocal relationship of love and mutual forgiveness. In this new covenant, each person will come to know God in a natural way, without being told what to believe or how to act.

What saves this new covenant from being individualistic, or, worse, sheer anarchy, is God’s transcendent, transpersonal reality. God’s promise to write the same thing on every heart means that God’s own self is the true heart of the communal body, whose purpose is to show forth God’s compassionate justice and love.

The word that Jeremiah uses when he talks about what God will inscribe on our hearts is torah (תורה), the same word that is used most often to refer to the first five books of the Bible. The usual English translation for this word is “law,” but scholars tell us that it is actually derived from a root that was used in the realm of archery, yareh (ירה), meaning to shoot an arrow in order to hit a target. While it is tempting to give a long explanation of how Hebrew develops a variety of words from a relatively limited number of 3-letter roots, I will simply tell you that the familiar word, torah, is one of the nouns derived from this root, yareh. So, the original meaning of torah is something like “an arrow that is aimed at a target.” Once the arrow is loosed from the bow, it flies in the direction that it is aimed, gradually releasing the potential energy that guides its path towards the target. If we understand the target as love of God, self, and neighbor, then the arrow that aims at the target is not so much a law as a teaching, an instruction, a direction.

So when Jeremiah tells us that God will write the torah within us, inscribing it on our hearts, it is not that we will have strict rules and regulations that we must obey or live up to, but rather that we will be led by an inner sense of direction, a true aim, guiding us towards the target. And what is that target? It is an ever-deepening spiritual life of loving God, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

A little while ago, most of us stood to affirm our commitment to pursue our spiritual lives in Seekers Church for the coming year. For some of us, it was the first time we have said, “I am a Seeker. I come today to affirm my relationship with this Christian community in the tradition of the Church of the Saviour, linked with the people of God through the ages.” Others have been saying these words, or something like them, for many years. Being a member of Seekers Church, especially if one is in a mission group or taking classes in the School of Christian Living, can be deeply challenging as well as satisfying, inviting us into an ever-deeper exploration of what it means to belong to a community that takes both the inward journey of self-discovery and the outward journey of service to others seriously.

Some of us made another statement, one that affirms that we are not only Members of this congregation, but Stewards, charged to take responsibility for the organizational health of Seekers Church. Although anyone who wants to can become a Steward, the path to get there can be daunting. It involves taking at least one course in each of Hebrew Scriptures, New Testament, Christian Teachings, and Christian Growth in the School of Christian Living; participation in a mission group for at least six months; and working with a sponsor who is already a Steward in reflecting on the commitments and spiritual disciplines of Stewards as well as preparing a spiritual autobiography that will be shared with the mission group and with all current Stewards. All of this preparation takes at least a year, and often much longer, as being a Steward requires a certain spiritual maturity and understanding of Seekers workings that cannot be rushed. It is a serious responsibility. As the Guide to Seekers Church puts it,

the commitment to membership as a Steward is an ordination to ministry that carries a commitment to support the faith journey of the community. Stewards are responsible for establishing policies for how Seekers Church uses its time, talent and financial resources. The Stewards serve many of the functions expected of trustees, elders, wardens or deacons in other Christian churches. In addition to participating in the life of the community, Stewards meet monthly to address organizational issues and the spiritual health of the community. These extended evening meetings include worship, prayer, sharing and decision making. Most questions are resolved through discussion, prayer and consensus, although there is an occasional vote.

Recently, someone asked me why anyone needs to be a Steward. I no longer recall exactly what I said, but as I think I said something about gratitude, about giving back what I had been so freely given, about keeping Seekers vital and alive so that each new person who comes to us will find the kind of loving, open welcome and support that I was offered so long ago, and continue to be offered as I face various challenges in my life.

When I first came to Seekers, my entire life had turned upside down. After ten years of living as a single mother struggling to keep it all together while I went to college and then graduate school, piecing together a living from an assortment of part-time jobs, student loans, and a little help from various friends and family, I finally had my shiny, new MFA degree. I also had a new husband, and my first, full-time job teaching art at a university. I was simultaneously filled with hope for a glorious future, and terrified of life in a strange city, three thousand miles away from all my friends.

With all these changes, the most important one was that I had finally accepted Christ’s invitation to follow him, thirty years after first hearing his call. I was looking for a church in which to learn how to do that, and Seekers welcomed me with open arms. Mary Carol and Alan invited us to dinner; Sonya invited me to lunch; everyone at coffee hour asked about my story, and listened to the answer as if they really cared. It was amazing! I spent a lot of time weeping with joy, wonder, and relief. After many years of wandering in exile, I had finally come home.

As it happened, Glen and I arrived in late January, just as the spring term of the School of Christian Living was about to start. Peter was leading a class called “Introduction to Seekers,” so we signed up immediately. There, I learned about mission groups and membership; about odd ideas like “authority at the point of your gift” and “shared leadership”; and about various disciplines that Seekers and other Christians practice as a way to undergird a vital spiritual life.

A little less than two years after I came to Seekers, I became a Steward, and have recommitted as a Steward every third Sunday in October since then. Some years, it has been almost automatic. “Sure, of course, I am still called to be a Steward. What else would I do?” Other years, I have had to think and pray long and hard, wondering if I really fit in, wondering if all the time and energy was worth anything to me or to anyone else. One year, shortly after we moved to this building, there was a lot of contention in the congregation and I was feeling that no one cared about me or even liked me very much. I came very close to not recommitting, but my spiritual guide and other Stewards helped me through that dark time, assuring me of their love.

All the while, I – like many other Stewards — have struggled with some of the spiritual disciplines, while finding others not only easy, but life-giving. Here are the common disciplines of Stewards:

Attending Sunday worship, usually with Seekers Church;
Observing daily quiet time—prayer, scripture reading, and reflection or journaling. Scripture reading is usually guided by the ecumenical lectionary, also used for our Sunday worship.
* Giving proportionately of income to Seekers Church, beginning at ten percent;
* Making a silent retreat once a year, if possible with Seekers;
* Participating in an ongoing mission group with two or more Stewards, for living out the person’s chosen ministry, for building the Church, and for accountability in spiritual growth;
* Being accountable for the spiritual journey in a regular written report to the spiritual guide of the group;
* Attending Stewards’ meetings regularly;
* Expressing commitment to discovery and use of gifts, to education and growth in the faith, and to the pastoring and support of the community as a whole in the ongoing life of the Seekers Church;
* Reviewing the Stewards’ commitment with one’s group or another Steward and spending an hour in meditation prior to Recommitment Sunday in October.

Some of them, like attending Sunday worship or making spiritual reports, may be what you already do, especially if you are in a mission group. Others, like tithing or even being in a mission group, might be more of a stretch. While I pray throughout each day and read scripture pretty regularly, I don’t journal as much as I used to, I have trouble setting aside a specific time in my day for quiet reflection, and I wasn’t able to clear my calendar to go on Silent Retreat at all this fall.

Which brings me back to the original question: are the spiritual disciplines we describe in the Guide to Seekers qualifications for becoming a Steward, or are they aspirational, a mark or target at which to aim? Are they laws, branding us as sinners when we fail to live up to their exacting criteria; or are they external guides, helping us to become more sensitive to the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit as we move towards an ever-deepening love of God, our neighbors, and ourselves?

I suppose some of that depends on your definition of the word “sin.” In the New Testament, the Greek word that we translate at “sin” is hamartia (ἁμαρτία). In other Greek writings, this word is generally understood as “mistake” or “error” rather than a wilful refusal to follow the rules. I was bemused to discover that, just as torah is derived from the vocabularly of archery, so, too is hamartia. It means “to miss the mark”, “to fall short of the target.” And I’m guessing that Paul would have been familiar with both of these derivations, so I don’t think it is coincidental that he uses hamartia rather than some other Greek term to talk about our inherent inability to live up to the standards of God’s torah. After all, as an educated Jew, he would have been very familiar with the puns that are so prevalent in Hebrew Scripture, yet obscured in translation. But if the torah is an arrow that is flying towards the target, what does it mean to say that I have fallen short or gone astray?

One answer is that if I have lost touch with my internal sense of God’s instruction, I need some external guidance. That is what spiritual disciplines do for us – they help to keep us moving towards our goal, to find our way when we are lost. Today’s epistle reading from 2 Timothy reminds us to continue in what we have learned, to follow the guidance found in our sacred writings. When we worship together, when we pray, reflect, and are accountable for our journey, we become open to the instruction that God wants to write on our hearts, that inner sense of direction, the true aim, that guides us ever closer to the heart of God.

… this is the covenant that I will make … says the Holy One: I will put my guidance within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people… they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest … for I will … remember that they missed the mark no more.

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