Sweet Surrender

Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
March 17, 2024, Fifth Sunday in Lent

Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31–34

Behold, the days are coming, says God, when I will establish 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 spouse, says God. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days: 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 will they need to teach one another or remind one another to listen to God. For they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, and they will listen to me, for I will forgive their misdeeds and remember their sin no more.

Exactly one year ago on this date—and at this time—I was sitting in a surgery waiting room at the University of MN hospital while my beloved, Mark, was enduring what would be a ten hour procedure to repair and restore his beautiful albeit complicated and severely damaged heart. This was the kind of experience for which one “gets their affairs in order” and makes sure end of life decisions are spoken and documents outlining hopes are signed and sealed and secured with those in authority to follow those directives. The weeks prior to the surgery were filled with conversations one never wants to have but must, relationship defining moments secured by faith and trust in the other to say out loud thoughts not yet articulated. Information was shared with family and friends as we knew immediately this was a path we did not want to walk alone. And plans were made for recovery—always the focus on recovery—even though we really had no idea what that journey would bring and that there would likely be surprises along the way. (Which there were.)

It was a teary goodbye following a necessary time of prayer during which DeWayne, one of Mark’s surgeons, a nurse and I laid hands on Mark. And then I made my way to join other families separated from their loved one as we all wondered together how the day would unfold. I did not wait alone. My sister was soon there, one who has been by my side through many of life’s arduous moments. And a family friend of Mark’s who worked at the hospital kept checking in with reassurance and care. This is an experience known to many of you—watching the minutes slowly tick by on the clock on the wall, wondering if the next moment would bring news so greatly desired. I have been with some of you through a time of waiting, and it is a holy privilege to bear witness to one holding vigil.

As time moved unbearably slow, and while consumed by worry, I also considered the meaning of community. It is something we speak of here in this place every week—what it means to be community at a time such as this, what it looks like to live together within God’s care and keeping, what is significant as we work together to live out our faith and make the world a more hospitable place. I will admit that as a pastor I haven’t always known where I fit within the spiritual community I lead… and there have been numerous times in the last 30 years when I have felt apart from rather than a part of the gathered faithful of the church where I minister. Which I understood to be necessary so as to not become the focus of ministry but rather to guide and empower others to do the work to which ministry beckons. I have always believed in the power of prayer and so I shared with you all what was to come in the weeks before this day one year ago. Because although I could not articulate it then and neither could Mark, community is what we were desperate for. And in those long hours one year ago I felt held, embraced in prayer by so many of you. It was a physical feeling, this holding, this embrace. And even though in those moments I had no idea what the future would hold, and that surviving the surgery was only the first step in a long recovery process for Mark, I could feel myself surrender into this holy encountering of being lifted, loved and supported. And it sustained me… not only on that day but in the many days, weeks and months to come.

Jeremiah 31:31-34 is part of a collection of hopeful words addressed to exiled Judeans in Babylon. This section of the prophet’s book, chapters 30-33, is sometimes called the “Little Book of Consolation”. Jeremiah is not known as a prophet of good news and typically his messages are dire and condemining. This may be why the words here seem to carry so much joy. Hear again God’s promise: “this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days,: 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…. They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.” God speaks directly to a suffering people, living with the recent trauma of exile and homelessness, promising to save, restore, and heal. But let us be clear, there is nothing new about what God is doing here. This is not the first time a covenant with God’s people has been ordained. But time and time again the people break their part of the deal, living outside of God’s law, mistreating others and their own selves, relying on their own misguided judgment rather than leaning in to the love and leading of God. And just when we might think God will rain down punishment on God’s people as a consequence, we read how God’s heart twists with pain for God’s stubborn population, and then continues to make a “new” covenant with the same old people. And now, those people are us.

Here is what I have come to deeply believe: How faithful we are in covenant depends on how we tend one another in community. Embracing an ethic of care invites us to be thoughtful about how we treat one another, how we lift one another up, how we show up and stand up for those who join us each week in the pews, those we sip coffee with on Sunday mornings, and even those we do not see as they are part of our ever broadening virtual community. We spend a lot of time at Plymouth talking about how we are called to heal a hurting world and the people who reside in it, taking our faithful intentions out THERE but that mission must begin right here—cultivating respect, reaching out with love, seeking relationship with those we know only by face because we still haven’t learned their name. A covenanted community takes great care with prayers that are offered, pays attention to those who know pain, is willing to sit in silence with one who needs the comfort of another… we become the living reminders to one another that God is good, that God’s love is invoked through our own words and actions, that God is for us and not against us, no matter how heavy the load we carry. God’s promise in our scripture text assures us that God will keep showing up for us, so therefore we must keep showing up for one another.

Poet, essayist, novelist Wendell Berry writes in his first book of essays, originally published in 1969: “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.” I appreciate this vision of community as it conflates shared responsibilities, hopes and aspirations with care and concern. Community does not cease to exist when we are removed from it… the tender knowing of being held I so palpably felt in that hospital waiting room happened when I was not present with you, but away from you. It is that covenant—that bond that we hold within the bounds of God’s love—that extends even when we aren’t physically in the space where community exists. And how do we build this kind of sustaining, caring community? Here again I agree with Berry, who writes, “How can they know each other if they have never learned each other’s stories? If they do not know each other’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust each other? People who do not trust each other do not help each other, and moreover they fear each other.” And so I will say what I have said hundreds of times before: it’s all about relationship. The covenant we have with God, and one with another, conditions our commitment to one another. We live out our covenant with God when we take precious time to know and be known, to care and be cared for, to love and be loved, all within this sacred community.

With the significance of covenant and community so prominently on my mind this week I was deeply moved by one of our Lenten Reflections which included the prose poem “Gate A-4” by Naomi Shihab Nye… here is an excerpt:

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”

Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. …I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly. The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later.

We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

And I will add—this is the church I long for, I vision, I know is possible.

Mark and I will be married in August. And we will be doing so here at Plymouth, within our community of care. Because our covenant invites us not only to stand alongside one another in sorrow and heartbreak, but to rejoice in the goodness and gifts of relationship and love. We are eager to have you share in our joy… you are all invited!

Today is a significant day for Mark and for me. Yes, the surgery was a success. Yes, the recovery was very difficult. Yes, there was a 99% chance things could not have ended so well (that was a statistic I did not learn until the surgery was complete, thank goodness). But most of all, this is a significant day because of its reminder of the power of church, the goodness of God, and the transformation that can happen when we surrender to the care and keeping of one another.

May it always be so.

Amen.

9 a.m. service

11 a.m. service

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