The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
About 15 years ago, a member of our congregation had a problem with his heart…the rhythm of his heartbeat wasn’t quite right, and it turned out that the issue had to do with the electrical impulses that were being sent to his heart. And so, he had a process called cardiac ablation, in which his cardiologist inserted a catheter through a vein in his leg and into his heart and used laser light to create scarring on sections of his heart, which fixed the problem. The Sunday he returned to Plymouth, I happened to preach on this text, and he said, “I feel like that passage from Jeremiah was for me: as if I literally had something written on my heart, and only now do I know what the message was: that God’s love is with me wherever I go.”
Of course, the heart is also metaphor for all kinds of things, as it was in Jeremiah’s day as well. I’m quite certain that Jeremiah was not expecting cardiac ablation by God! For us, the heart is metaphorically the center of feeling and emotion. So, God is saying that she will inscribe her covenant at the core of our being – in our center of feeling and emotion – so that we don’t need to think so much about it…we just have a visceral remembrance of it, a bodily knowing of the covenant…sort of like muscle memory that becomes part of what you do.
When we speak “heartstrings,” we’re describing a tug on deepest emotions or affections. We even say, “Oh, that makes my heart ache,” even though there is probably nothing going on with the organ in your chest that is pumping oxygen-rich blood throughout your body.
I would imagine that many of us have experienced some heartache in the wake of Carla’s resignation. Clergy hold a unique relationship with our parishioners…we aren’t cardiologists going in to perform a procedure, and then we leave and maybe see you for a follow-up visit. We develop ongoing relationships, especially when we are able to be face-to-face, that can run deep. On my first day in Colorado, I was at the deathbed of one of our members; those connections sometimes build fast and deep. It is normal to feel confusion, grief, and abandonment in the wake of a pastoral departure. But one of our staff members put it well last week. She shared a story about being on the staff of a Presbyterian church whose senior minister left after being with congregation for 20 years to take a similar position at a larger church. The congregation was grief-stricken and wondered what they had done wrong to bring about their pastor’s departure. Our wise staff colleague told them, “She still loves us, and God still loves us. It was time for her to go to what’s next on her journey. And don’t worry…God will send us someone to guide us next.” I hope that you know that, too: that Carla was crazy about Plymouth and that God loves us and will send us the right person for the next step in our pilgrimage.
We’re also at a point in the church year that is emotionally intense. When was the last time you heard a story in scripture that pulled at your heartstrings or that made your heart ache? If you can’t think of anything off the top of your head, stay tuned, because Holy Week begins next Sunday. From the triumphal parade on Palm Sunday to the night of desertion and betrayal on Maundy Thursday, to the desolation of the cross on Good Friday, there will be plenty of opportunity for deep feeling. And I encourage you to tune into our Maundy Thursday service, which includes the dramatic service of Tenebrae with readings by our ministers and laypeople. On Good Friday, Mark will present a noontime organ concert, and at 7:00 we invite you to tune in for an ecumenical Good Friday service that includes Plymouth and other mainline congregations. It’s moving, not morbid, and if we don’t live through the abandonment of Maundy Thursday and the tragedy of Good Friday, the triumph of Easter loses its meaning.
Another way we speak metaphorically about this thumping muscle in our chests is to know something by heart. Most of us know the Lord’s Prayer by heart…but are there pieces of scripture or other prayers that you know by heart? Perhaps when you were young, you learned the 23rd Psalm by heart. It’s good to have memorized and to deeply know a few things by heart…to have internalized them so deeply that they are with us wherever we go.
When God tells Jeremiah that he will write the law on their hearts, I imagine it means that they will know it by heart, not just through memorization, but by internalizing the new covenant in the core of their being…that it becomes something not just to know, but to feel deeply.
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Many times, when I am celebrating communion and am serving the wine, I will offer the words “the cup of the new covenant,” which reiterate the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “This is the cup of the new covenant in my blood.” That language is covenantal and visceral…the lifeblood is pumped by the heart carrying oxygen to all parts of the body.
The prophet Jeremiah talks about this upcoming new covenant with the Hebrew people, but it doesn’t get mentioned again at all in the Hebrew Bible, but we do find the theme getting picked up by the writer of Luke’s gospel and by Paul.
You no doubt recall the covenant God made with Noah, the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, the Sinai Covenant (or the Ten Commandments), and now we have the promise of a new covenant.
But this one is less well defined: it’s not a clear mandate from God that she won’t flood the earth and wipe out humanity again, or that he is going to make great nations from one family, or even a set of codes etched on stone tablets. God is saying, through Jeremiah, that this new covenant is going to be an internal agreement: written on the hearts of God’s people. This new covenant is going to be “an inside job.”
Another really important idea we can derive from Jeremiah’s prophecy is that God can continue to write new things on the hearts of people. And what if God wants to write different teachings on the hearts of different people?
We hem God in and imagine a very small deity when we think that God stopped operating in human history with Noah or Abraham and Sarah or Moses or Jeremiah or even Jesus. Our God is not a small God. You and I are integral parts of God’s unfolding story; we are a continuation of the stories of faith we read about in scripture.
So, what has God written on your heart? And how do you know that it’s God’s handwriting, not the calligraphy of your superego or a message from the culture in which you’ve been raised? I would ask whether there is also deep congruence between what is written on your heart and the life and teachings of Jesus.
You may find that God is calling you to go places you’d rather not be – pushing you beyond the limits of your comfort zone. I am not an activist by nature, but for many years, I have felt obliged to speak out against gun violence. And I will continue to do so, even though it undoubtedly offends some people, and causes others to struggle with what I say.
The way I perceive speaking for peace and justice is as something God has written on my heart. It isn’t an action I always want to take; it’s something I am called to do. And it’s what I think Jesus would be doing – and maybe is doing through us. And I will keep on praying for wisdom and discernment as I try to detect the loops and ligatures of God’s handwriting. And I will continue to voice what I perceive as the way God is leading us as a people.
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As we walk together toward Holy Week, I would ask you to consider carefully two questions: what has God written on your heart, and how can you tell it’s God’s handwriting?
In The Little Prince, Antoine de St. Exupery writes, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” Perhaps that is why God has written a message on yours.
 Luke 22.20 and I Corinthians 11.25
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.