Covenants of the Heart

Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, March 22, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34    

There is an old, old myth that has circulated within Christian circles for centuries that I would like us to debunk today. It goes something like this: the Old Testament God is a God of wrath and judgement but the New Testament God is a God of love and forgiveness. Is this statement familiar to anyone? No matter how you interpret the Bible, it does not support this belief. It ignores the fact that there are numerous passages in the New Testament, including the gospel teachings of Jesus, which talk about the punishing hell fires. It also ignores the many, beautiful passages of God’s forgiving love in the Old Testament. I think that the concept of an Old Testament God of wrath comes more from anti-semitism than from the Bible. Today’s passage from Jeremiah is one of those beautiful passages that challenges this mistaken belief.

Listen again to these words: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors…a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband. I will write [this new covenant] 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.”

The people of Israel were not at their best. They did not follow God’s laws and forgot how to live as a people of God. They were conquered and broken; their leaders were exiled. The prophet Jeremiah had spoken harsh words of woe to them because of their sin. These words were so harsh that the leaders locked him up to silence him, but the woe still happened. In today’s passage, Jeremiah is now placating a broken people, turning his words of woe into words that woo the people back to God. Jeremiah refers to God’s covenant with Israel as that of a husband with his spouse. Perhaps Jeremiah realized that prophecies of doom frighten, but aren’t nearly as effective in long-lasting change as are words of love and forgiveness, as tender and as intimate as spousal love.

This passage from Jeremiah made me wonder what keeps tender, forgiving love alive. Jeremiah might be on to something. If we can identify what keeps spousal relationships healthy, we might be able to identify key ingredients to the success of other types of relationships with God, with friends, with communities, with the earth, even between nations. I therefore decided last week to conduct a very informal survey with a few long-term couples in our church. I asked each of them, “What is the most important value in your relationship that has kept you together?” I spoke with 4 couples, 3 of whom had each been together for about 60 years. One couple told me the most important value for them is the ability to forgive and to ask God for help to overcome hurt. They told me that a rabbi once said to them, “Forgiveness is so difficult when feelings are hurt that humans can’t do it alone—they need divine help.” Another couple that has dealt with a number of challenges named love and laughter. For them, it was important to go the extra mile in their caring for one another. It was also important to be able to lighten up and laugh together. Yet another couple named honesty and said that their most important value was the assurance that, no matter what happened, they could count on the other to be committed for the long haul to the health of the relationship—not just to the relationship, but to the health of the relationship. The last couple named respect and the sharing of common values.

Stats Canada tells us that about 40% of marriages end in divorce and that about 50% of 2nd or 3rd marriages end in divorce. Those are pretty high odds. So what helps us reduce the odds of divorce and separation? These couples I interviewed give us some clues. They named forgiveness, love, laughter, caring, honesty, commitment and respect. These are all values that come from covenants of the heart. I think that spousal relationships that continuously recommit themselves to these values of heart covenants have a good chance of lasting.

These values also give us clues as to what is required for the success of other types of relationships. Respect may be the foundational value.

At a conference last year that addressed the land and covenant, a First Nations elder suggested that legally-binding settlements, agreements to disagree and truces are all examples of forced relations that cannot sustain peace. Why? Because they lack respect. A covenant, on the other hand, begins with respect for the other and a commitment to share the land in peace. It respects each nation’s autonomy while at the same time recognizes that no one stands alone.

The new words in Mohawk on our United Church crest read, “all my relations.” This means that we are all related to this land and to one another. We have a responsibility to look after one another, not in a paternalistic relation but as equals affording each other friendship and mutual respect. Recognition of this teaching can lead to lasting peace.[1]

These words, from this conference on land and covenant, are contained in a paper that is going to General Council this summer. I believe that they hold the key to lasting peace amongst diverse communities in Canada and, dare I humbly suggest, might offer a key to peace in other lands. Call me a naïve dreamer, but that is my prayer. We have a lot to learn about how to live together in all of our diversity on this land we call Canada, but when you travel to other countries, you realize how much we already have learned here and how much Canada has to offer the world. In turn, we still have much to learn from other countries.

In Costa Rica, there is a popular education centre that travels to rural towns that are enmeshed in conflict. They introduce to the different factions the idea of co-creating a huge mural on a wall in the town that portrays their dreams for the town. As the different sides come together and begin, tentatively, to share and then paint their dreams for the town, they begin to respect the opinions of each other. The centre has found that these mural projects have actually helped to heal the conflicts and bring lasting peace to the communities.

Respect has been a key ingredient to these relationships. It can lead to forgiveness—even love, as sworn enemies have the courage to sit in the fire and open their hearts to each other. It can lead to Jeremiah’s vision of a lasting covenant written upon their hearts.

I was part of a United Church delegation to Israel and Palestine in 2011. We met with the Parents Circle-Families Forum, which is an organization of Palestinian and Israeli families who are grieving family members killed in the conflict. We met two Forum members, one whose sister had been killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber, and one whose brother had been killed by Israeli soldiers when he was only seventeen. These two both went to a weekend meeting of the Parents Circle-Families Forum intending only to listen, not to talk. By the end of the weekend they had become friends and agreed to speak to others about their transformative experience. They told us, “If we, the bereaved, can listen and befriend each other, surely our governments can.” They found the miraculous, healing power of a covenant of friendship formed from two broken hearts.

T. E. Kalem, a drama critic for the New York Times, wrote, “The heart is the only broken instrument that works.” Perhaps that’s why a covenant of the heart is the only hope for relationships in o

[1] “Land and Covenant,” Report to the 2015 meeting of General Council from the Theology and Interchurch and Interfaith Committee.