Heart Matters 03/18/18 (Lent 5)

Heart Matters
Text: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
March 18, 2018 ~ Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year B)


Dolores Umbridge has launched a hostile takeover of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on behalf of the corrupt government of the wizarding world – a government that vehemently denies the return of the evil Lord Voldemort. She rules through unmitigated cruelty, harsh and unreasonable rules, and the liberal incitement of fear.

It’s Harry Potter’s fifth year at Hogwarts, and it’s no surprise to anyone who has followed Harry’s story since the beginning that he immediately gets on the wrong side of Umbridge. He is the only living person who witnessed Voldemort’s return to corporeal form, other than a handful of the Dark Lord’s loyal followers, the Death Eaters. But no matter how hard Harry tries, no matter how loudly and widely he tries to get the urgency of his message across, the Ministry and the general public call him egotistical, delusional, hysterical.

Umbridge, puppet of the Ministry that she is, is determined to silence Harry before he can convince anyone that Voldemort has returned. He mouths off to her one too many times, and she slaps him with detention. When he arrives at her office, Umbridge tells him in her saccharine (and utterly fabricated) voice that he will be writing lines for her using one of her special quills. She does not give any ink to Harry, but when he points that out she tells him – with the merest suggestion of a laugh in her voice – that he will not be needing any. “You will write, ‘I must not tell lies,’ Mr. Potter,” she says. “How many times?” asks Harry. “Oh, until the lesson sinks in,” she says. The irony of this colossal liar forcing the only truth-teller around to write “I must not tell lies” is does not escape the alert reader.

Harry places the point of the quill on the paper and writes: I must not tell lies. He lets out a gasp of pain. The words have appeared on the parchment in what appears to be shining red ink. At the same times, the words have appeared on the back of Harry’s right hand, cut into the skin as though traced there by a scalpel – yet even as he stares at the shining cut, the skin heals over again, leaving the place where it had been slightly redder than before but quite smooth. [1]

And so it goes, hour after hour. Finally Umbridge examines his hand and says, “Tut, tut, I don’t seem to have made much of an impression yet. Well, we’ll just have to try again tomorrow evening, won’t we? You may go.” [2]

The next night Harry writes that same line over and over again, I must not tell lies, until the words no longer fully disappear. That scar will stay with him forever, just as the lightning scar on his forehead – the result of a curse cast by Voldemort when Harry was only two years old – will stay with him: a reminder of the evil and perversion that exist in the world.

This morning I wonder: what harmful, painful, damaging messages have been carved into our hearts as surely as those words were cut so deeply into Harry’s hand?

Were they:

I’m not good enough.
I’m not smart enough.
I’m not thin enough, good-looking enough, tall enough, busty enough, muscular enough.
My worth is measured by how successful I am.
If my faith were stronger bad things would stop happening in my life.
I’m an impostor – I’m not nearly as good at my job/my family/my life as people think I am, and if they knew the real me, they wouldn’t like me.

Those are the personal messages that may have been carved into your soul. What about the ones that tell us about others?

There isn’t enough – money, security, love, possessions – in the world and I’d better grab mine with both hands before it’s too late.
People who are poor should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. After all, I’m a self-made man/woman.
Those who are not members of my political party must not be very smart or in touch with the real world.
Immigrants are taking our jobs.
Violence in certain communities shows how derelict those communities – and the people in them – have become. The violence is of their own making.
People who don’t learn English are disrespecting this country and shouldn’t be here.
People whose sexual orientation or gender identity are different than mine should just be quiet, so we can live and let live.
Racism isn’t as big a problem as people say it is.
Neither is discrimination against women.
Women who say they’ve been harassed are making a big deal about nothing.
And maybe they shouldn’t speak up, dress provocatively, or really display themselves – their bodies, their minds, their opinions – at all, if it makes men uncomfortable, titillated, or angry.
People who are poor, or victims of violence, or otherwise on the margins might actually deserve it.

What are the messages about God that have been burned into your soul?

God will only really love me if I’m perfect – or at least better than I am.
God wants me to be prosperous and happy, no matter what.
God answers prayers exactly how we want them answered – and if they aren’t answered, we didn’t pray right, because God answers proper prayers.
God is a puppet-master, task-master, drill-master.
God punishes the wicked with eternal hell-fires and damnation.
God only loves Christians – or Americans – or white people – or men – or straight people.
I have to earn God ‘s love.

Where do we get these messages? Sadly, these are the kinds of lines that get written into our souls by our culture, by popular American Christianity, by our families, by our schools.

We may not believe these things outright, but these pernicious messages have a way of sinking into our subconscious, influencing us in ways of which we are largely unaware.

Now, some of you may find that none of these phrases or beliefs resonate with you. Maybe you can name other untrue and harmful messages that you’ve been told and believed. Maybe you can’t identify any negative messages about yourself, others, or God – but I suspect if you look honestly for a few minutes, you just may find one or two painful teachings that you carry around with you – maybe have been carrying around with you for your entire life.

I once had a therapist who told me, “Heather, you don’t have to believe everything you think.”

In other words: sometimes our thoughts, sometimes the messages we receive from the world around us, simply aren’t true.

And we must not tell lies to ourselves, let alone anyone else.

So what then is the truth?

The prophets spoke many truths – that was, after all, their particular calling. Today we heard from the prophet Jeremiah, who lived during the final years of the seventh century BCE. The Israelites had been driven into exile and lived under the oppressive and harsh rule of the Babylonians. Time after time they failed to make God the foundation of their lives. Time after time they neglected the work of justice. Time after time they denied mercy to those around them. The suffering they endured under Babylon, Jeremiah cried, was punishment for their infidelity to God’s covenant with them.

(Now I personally don’t believe that God punishes us in this way, but we can explore that another time. For today we simply observe and try to understand the worldview and theology of Jeremiah.)

And today we get to see that even the prophets got things wrong now and then. In the middle of Jeremiah’s lamentations and rebukes of the people, God speaks a “truer truth” through the voice of the prophet: God will make a new covenant – a different kind of covenant. This new covenant will change the story of judgment that has defined their lives thus far.

Under this new covenant, the people will be reunited with God and one another. They will know God without priests or the temple; knowledge of God will be available to everyone directly. “From the poorest to the richest, the youngest to the oldest, all will enjoy access to God and be acquainted with [God’s] truth.” [3] And that knowledge of God will remind them of the salvation God reveals and offers when we live in alignment with God’s commandments for justice and peace-making.

To be sure, those promises haven’t quite come to full fruition yet. People are not united – not in this congregation, not in this state or nation, and certainly not in the world. Injustice still marks so much of our lives. We don’t always remember God. We definitely don’t remember what another prophet, the prophet Micah, told us God desires above all else: that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. (Micah 6:8)

Yet even as all of those lies I talked about a moment ago lead us down false paths, distort our perception of reality, and divide us from God, ourselves, and one another, God’s truth is still being spoken, it is still being written on our hearts.

I want to illustrate God’s truth with one more story. Yesterday I attended Super Saturday, a day of workshops, worship, inspiration, and learning with people in the UCC from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. The Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis from Middle Collegiate Church in New York City preached during opening worship, and she told this story.

She told us that when she was seven years old, her mama wrote God’s truth on Jacqui’s heart. Communion was being served in church that particular day, and children receiving communion was frowned upon. But Jacqui’s mama ignored the rules and gave Jacqui a piece of bread: a little square of sweet honey bread, freshly baked. And as Jacqui went to put the bread in her mouth, her mama leaned over and said, “This bread reminds you that God will always love you.” And as Jacqui put that sweet piece of bread on her tongue, she tasted God’s love.

And then her mama gave her that little cup of Welch’s grape juice and whispered, “This juice reminds you that God will never leave you.” As she swallowed that sweet juice, Jacqui tasted God’s lasting presence.

No body or blood. No sin or sacrifice. No: as she received communion that day (and ever since), Jacqui tasted the new covenant promised by Jeremiah and later embodied in Jesus:

God will always love you. God will never leave you.

During these final weeks of Lent, perhaps we can identify and begin – with God’s help – to erase the lies that have been etched into our hearts and souls. As we make our way towards the new life and joy of Easter, perhaps we can work on letting God write the truer truths on our hearts in big, bold letters so that we will never again forget:

God will always love you. God will never leave you.

Thanks be to God.


[1] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, p. 266-267.

[2] p. 268.

[3] Alastair Roberts, “The Politics of New Covenant Vision – Jeremiah 31:31-34.”

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