United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

“A Heart for God”
by Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Sunday, March 21, 2021


        We are quickly approaching Holy Week.  This Lenten season we have been exploring the covenant, the bond between God and God’s people, between God and us.  We started with the bow in the clouds, the promise never to flood the earth again, the promise of a new start.  And we moved next to the promise to Abraham and Sarah, that through their progeny, through their line, all peoples of the earth would be blessed.  Next came Moses and God’s giving of the law, the law of love, the law that was to make right the relationship between God and God’s people.  And finally, last week, we ended at the ultimate act of God—coming to be with us in Jesus, for God so loved the world.

        What more could be said?  What more needs to be said?  Yet we know that the story of God’s love isn’t finished with the incarnation, isn’t finished with Jesus growing to be a man, isn’t finished as he became a preacher, a healer, a revolutionary.  We know the story is heading towards Jerusalem, towards palm waving crowds and betrayal and suffering and death.  I found this week’s readings at once the most personal—Jeremiah’s image of God writing God’s law upon our very hearts—and the most outwardly active—Jesus telling us, “if you would serve me you must follow me” (and we are aware of where Jesus is heading now).

        I have always been struck by the intimate nature of Jeremiah’s picture--God writing the law, the covenant, the message of love, on our hearts.  It is one thing to chisel words into stone—a stone can be broken, a stone can be tossed away, a stone is cold and other.  And although stone can last a long time, especially if it is protected in a beautiful case, it is over there—and we are right here.  Jeremiah imagines that God, in God’s wisdom, as God continues to try to step closer to God’s beloved, us, God realizes that words on stone, the 10 commandments, the law, doesn’t bring God close enough. 

        And so Jeremiah speaks of a “new” covenant with us, God reaching into our very being, to the center of us, the heart, literally and figuratively, the heart--the place from which in the Jewish perspective thinking, and feeling, and acting emanated.  Maybe that is why we talk about “going to the heart of the matter.”  In the Jewish mindset, Heart wasn’t just feeling; Heart also included your thoughts  and Heart included your actions.  So God writing on our hearts was a way of changing our very selves.

        I started to try to picture how this writing would take place—was it like a fine etching, scratched into the outer edges of that beating, whirring machine that keeps blood pumping through our veins?  Was it a tie-dye job that changed the coloring of that precious internal part of us?  Was it something deeper, like in the make-up of our DNA, transposing one letter amidst the lengths and lengths of code, altering who we are forever?  However this writing is done, Jeremiah lifts it up as God’s latest love letter to us.  Jeremiah is telling us so that we know, so that we can respond—as we heard last week, so we might live thankful and grateful lives.

        This isn’t just about us personally, as much as God wants us to know we are loved and freed to be ourselves.  God’s love is never just about our internal feelings.  It is also intended to shape our relationships with others.  For the change is at our core—it is meant to change our thoughts, it is meant to flip our feelings, it is meant to urge our action. 

It reminded me of the conversations that some of us have been having during the last few weeks, based on Ibram X. Kendi’s book “How to be an Anti-Racist.”  Kendi, brilliantly I think, presents us with facts, with data, about the way racism has impacted our society.  (For instance, in 2014, 71% of White families lived in owner-occupied homes, compared to 45% of Latinx families, and 41% of Black families—created by years of racism in banking, real estate, lower wages, and the minds of those selling).  With these facts we can begin to change our mindset, change our viewpoint.  But Kendi doesn’t just recite facts.  He is also telling a story, his own story, about how racism impacted him—from struggles in school, to coming to terms with his own journey in becoming Anti-Racist.  That story invites us into his world of feelings.  Even in his own life, Kendi tells us he felt a pull to put these thoughts, these feelings into action.  And although he can’t tell each of us what actions we need to take as we walk our own “becoming” Anti-Racist pathway, he certainly urges us to acknowledge that this is not a “one and done” decision, it is something we need to work on, each and every day of our lives.

God writing God’s message of love on our hearts is a call for us to feel God’s love and to allow that love to radiate from us to others; it is a call to face the facts, the truth about ourselves and our world—it is a call for us to make that love visible—in the words of the prophet Micah, to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

        Sometimes it is important to create a ritual, to help us bring what we dream into existence.  Seasons of the Spirit had this very creative idea that I pass along to you.  They invited everyone to trace, and cut out, a circle, a heart, and a hand.  The circle represents your thoughts.  The heart represents your feelings.  And the hand represents your actions.  In confronting something like racism, take some time to ponder, “what do I know” and “what would I like to learn”—and write it on the circle.  Then move to the heart, where you can put down, “what type of feelings do I have?”  And finally, on the hand, you pledge “what can I do,” some action, however small. 

        Each of God’s covenantal stories was told intending to give us an opportunity to change our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions.    What might that look like?  Jesus tries to paint a picture with something that this agricultural community would understand.  He talks about a grain of wheat, a seed.  All by itself, it doesn’t accomplish much.  But if it is planted in the ground (if it dies), it, along with sun, and soil, and water, and time, can grow into a stalk of wheat, which bears a harvest, many grains.  I think this image points to important truths.  One might be that we can’t think everything will happen yesterday.  Yes, we can be full of righteous anger.  Yes, we can be filled with the spirit of enthusiasm.  But changing your thinking, your feeling, your actions takes time.  Just because we plant seeds does not mean we immediately will see fruit.  We need to have patience that seeds will take root.  We need to have hope that there will be a harvest.  We need to remember, and this is point two, that it takes more than just ourselves.

        Last week during Offertory I brought up the Self-Development of People, an arm of the Mission Agency of PCUSA—funded through the One Great Hour of Sharing collection.  Self-Development of Peoples is a 50 year old outreach.  Responding to James Forman (most known for his involvement in SNCC) and his Black Manifesto and Eliezer Risco, who headed La Raza, an organization focusing on justice issues for Hispanics, the General Assembly of 1969 acted.  They formed a committee!  But by 1970, that committee had reported back to GA, and the Self-Development of People was formed (along with a $1.25 million grant, and designating continued funding from the One Great Hour of Sharing collection, along with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Presbyterian Hunger Program.)  Self-Development of People was tasked to “assist the PC(USA) in carrying out its global commitment to work toward the self-development of economically poor, oppressed, and disadvantaged people who own, control, and benefit directly from projects that promote long-term change in their lives and communities.

        If we were “in person,” we would have shared a bulletin insert with stories about those who have benefited from SDOP grants.  Here is one of the stories.  Black Women’s Blueprint was started in 2008 in Brooklyn, NY.  It is focused on taking action on economic justice issues and other forms of oppression against Black women and girls, providing tools for social justice organizing, and delivering education resources and support services to women in their community.  If you go to their webpage, it proudly proclaims “Black Women’s BluePrint envisions a world where women and girls of African Descent are fully empowered and where gender, race, and other disparities are erased.”

        Black Women’s Blueprint offers community, especially around sexual assault issues; it has created a space for artists to work, showcase, and sell their creations; it provides consulting and training through “Restore Forward;” and helpful in this Covid-19 world, operates a mobile unit called “Sistas Van” which allows them to provide healing circles (and everything from food to sanitary supplies) in Brooklyn and the Bronx.  They have formed a partnership across the world by collaborating with “The Ghana Center”—a safe space for sexual rights and reproductive health in Accra and northern Ghana.  By supporting One Great Hour of Sharing, which in turn supports the 100% survivor-led organization, Black Women’s BluePrint, we make a small step toward embodying our call to Matthew 25 ministry.      

        This week has been filled with more stories of hate, more calls for Anti-Racism, this time from our Asian-American and Pacific Islander brothers and sisters.  They are reminding us, or schooling us, on the long history of Asian prejudice, the destructiveness of Asian stereotyping, and the hurt and anger and fear of this portion of our society.  We need to listen.  We need to speak up and speak out.  We need to insist our representatives sign legislation declaring this is not acceptable.  We need to commit to continuing the work of changing our hearts—so we might live in a more accepting, more loving place.

        Jesus doesn’t say any of this will be easy.  In fact, Jesus makes plain with his grain of wheat dying image, that this following business is not for the faint of heart.  It requires sacrifice on our part—the idea of “picking up our own cross.”  It may mean, for some of us, that we have to let go of long-held beliefs, of deep-seeded feelings, of things “the way we thought they used to be.”  We may have to allow some things to die, that there might be new life, abundant life. 

        Yes, we are heading to Holy Week, we are marching toward Jerusalem.  But we can stand strong on the promises of God—promises of a relationship, a covenant, that reach back to the very beginning.  Promises that arch over us, bless all of us, insist on relationships of love with God and others, and end up being imprinted on our very center, turning around our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions.

        We are heading to Holy Week, we are marching toward Jerusalem, for we are following Jesus, the one who came to be love in our world, and to show us how to love one another.  So we stand strong on God’s promises, and we join the caravan, the community of faithful people who are willing to walk with Jesus, experiencing both the highs and the lows.  Jesus says to his disciples, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”         

        If we follow Jesus, we too should not flinch from the hard work that may lie ahead.  May God grant us the courage, and the energy, and the intelligence, and the love, to see this as our hour—maybe we have been put here, for such a time as this.  In a contemporary setting of ancient thoughts:

   God, be the love to search and keep us;

   God, be the prayer to move our voice;

   God, be the strength to now uphold us:

   O Christ, surround us; O Christ, surround us.  May it be so, Alleluia