Jumping Off

Mieke Vandersall
Not So Churchy
August 14, 2015
Jeremiah 31:31–34

31The days are surely coming, says the Beloved, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  32It 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 husband, says the Beloved.  33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Beloved: 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.  34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Beloved," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Beloved; for I will forgive their iniquity.


What assures me about this text is that God, or the Beloved, is no different from us, or at least me, in a sense. I tried my hardest, and so does God, to change people, to make people do what God thinks is best. “The last covenant didn’t work and so let’s try a new one,” God thinks. This one will be different and will matter more and will change things, not only will it change things but it will change the people who broke the covenant, even though God was their husband. God, just like we do, hopes for things to be different, and better. God looks back upon the way things that have been and believes there has to be another way.

I chose this reading because in our journey of exploring varying models of God this year, this is a model of God as a husband, as spouse, and thus God’s people as a partner. But I have to admit to you that as I have been sitting with this reading for the last bit of time, it is somewhat freaking me out. You see, in this reading, God feels pretty demanding and controlling and I just don’t need that in my life. God tells the people when and where and how the covenant will be and this doesn’t seem like a very mutual model of God.

At the same time I admit that as I understand a bit too closely what it is like to want to change people, or circumstances that are completely out of my control, perhaps this is what is making me uncomfortable.

I say this knowing that I have to get out of my own skin to try and understand what is happening in the context that this was written. In these ancient times, God’s making of a new covenant is not like a contract in the modern sense. There isn’t such a modern understanding of a relationship between God and God’s people where we have direct access, where we, ideally, do not fear God, where we, this many thousands of years later, are encouraged to explore God for ourselves, within community. Instead, way, way, way back, covenants were more unilateral, and God the one in charge. The people’s consent is not requested or required, there is no room for negotiation.

Even though there was no room for negotiation and the people didn’t have a choice about the first covenant, this does not mean that the people paid much attention to it. People just don’t pay much attention to things that they are forced to do. I get the sense that God, the Beloved is at wits end, is so frustrated and doesn’t know what to do next or how to do it so that it sticks this time, so that the people know how very much they are loved by this God and change their ways so that they live out of this knowledge of being loved. This time people will begin to treat each other with kindness and equality. This time we will stop killing each other. This time we will stop blaming each other.

This time, we will take in God’s law in a way that is so intimate that it is as drastic as having a heart transplant. How much more intimate, embodied, flesh and blood and bones can we get than this? God writes on our hearts! The Beloved begs with such a desperate passion that shows us that we need desperate measures for desperate times.

Some of you might want to know what it is that is the law that God wants to put on our hearts. Is it the 10 Commandments? Is it the books of the Bible that outline what we eat and how we are supposed to dress? It is hard to say what the contents of this law might be, and God might not even know yet, but there are a few distinct differences between the first one and this one. Rather than it being a covenant that is written on tablets, like the 10 Commandments are, it is written on our hearts. Rather than it needing to be taught, because it is so intimately kept on our hearts, we will know it without necessary teachings.  In addition, it is intimate. It is a relationship where the people and God will both know they will belong to each other and that brings us a bit closer to mutuality.

As we prepare for Hannah’s baptism in a few months, is this what happens? Is baptism a reminder, an outward sign of God’s law on our hearts, and that while that law is a bit unclear and nebulous, it is also a law of claiming that Hannah belongs to God and God belongs to Hannah?

I realize that what God is doing here, through the lips of the prophet Jeremiah, is something through desperation that is aspirational. It is aspirational to think that we might know so intimately that God claims us, all of our whole very being, that which we like about ourselves and wish we could will to change, all that the world tells us is strange and weird and all that we find to be beautiful. God claims all of us and does not discriminate. It is aspirational to believe all this. Sometimes we have to begin when we wake up and dream what is most unlikely, what makes no sense, what is aspirational rather than reasonable, considering the circumstances. Perhaps baptism is aspirational too.

A friend pointed me to a blog written by a woman by the name of Robin. Her young adult son died of suicide in September of 2008. Robin was a second-year seminarian that year, and after taking the fall semester off, one of the first decisions she had to deal with was whether she could manage a preaching class. This is what she wrote about that experience:

“In February of 2009, I met with the instructor of the Homiletics [preaching] class for which, under normal circumstances, I would have registered... My son had been dead for six months.  I had a number of concerns:  What good news, exactly, might there be to preach?  How would I contend with the professor's expectations for memorization, when most of the time I could no longer remember which city I was in?  What if I completely failed?
… It appeared that taking Homiletics [Preaching], just like getting up each morning, was probably an exceptionally foolish thing to attempt. 
So I did.  Attempt it. The most significant factor in my decision was the statement offered by a friend in the cafeteria line one day:  "You'll be studying and preaching the Word of God," she said.  "What could be more healing?" 
I thought that she had lost her mind but: whatever.  The whole universe was so off-kilter that I was hardly in a position to challenge her assertion. 
My first assignment was not terrible, and then I made it through the second.  And then a few months later I began working at my internship and came up with the idea of "preaching ahead of myself."  My friend Wayne would call it Hope.  TIKVA in Hebrew…
Every sermon I preach, I think:  Not there yet.  Look ahead.”[i]

Looking ahead, God provides heart transplants and places the law, the law that does not require extensive teachings, that does not remember sin but instead is based on forgiveness, in our very selves, so that we might remember. God looks ahead and asks us to as well. Look ahead into the aspirational. Because for God’s sake, this world needs it.

While away with Amy and my in-laws this week I found myself with the desire, yet again, to confront my fear of heights. I found myself crouching on a stone wharf, five feet above the water and 15 feet above the ocean floor.

This confrontation became somewhat of a family project. My mother-in-law counted from her childhood porch, preparing me to jump: “ONE!” “TWO!” Fists and eyes clenched shut, knees bent, waiting for the “THREE!” as my signal to tumble into the frigid Maine-sea, I remembered all of my fears. Being in air with nothing to catch me. Hitting the water with my back and the pain that would cause. Breaking my legs on the bottom of the ocean floor. Dying.

The last time I tried to jump was about a year ago. I was fascinated by trapeze and close to our apartment is a trapeze school. Some friends took me there for my birthday. Ready to go in sweatpants and toting my favorite water bottle, I knew as soon as I arrived on the top of the parking garage overlooking the Hudson River at twilight, that while this might look pretty cool this was perhaps the worst birthday idea ever. I had flashbacks to the last jumping experience, hooked up with gear and rappelling into a cenote, or ancient, sacred sinkhole, in Mexico. I stood at the top, feet firmly planted on the dusty earth, tears streaming down my cheeks, my friend Manuel dangling in the air in front of me, looking me in the eye and encouraging me one inch at a time to remove my feet from the ground and let the gear hold me in mid-air, too.

Manu’s encouragement was crazy talk. What sane human being does this, trusting a few ropes and air and a friend to hold you up? Eventually my feet did leave the earth and float down, with a close up of stalactites on the way. To see that view of a cenote was nothing I had ever done before and it took my breath away.

Then I find myself again a year ago for my birthday, I stood ten feet above a net, all hooked up with rappelling gear, overlooking the Hudson with my knees bent.  On the count of three, I was to let go, swing holding a bar, throw my legs over the bar, release my hands, and then somehow LET GO and fall into the net. Instead the tears began to roll, the breath hard to catch and I screamed “NO!” I learned in self-defense my voice is my strongest weapon. Perhaps it would get me down. I was too far off the platform to go back and climb down the ladder and so the woman assisting me, with little patience for my antics, pushed me off the board. “NOOOOOOOOO “ I screamed, my body extended stiff as a board. She told me I had to now LET GO of the bar that was holding me in mid-air and drop into the net. “NOOOOOOOO.” The problem is that there was only one way down and I had to do it. After a lot of encouragement and reminding myself that this was the only option, I let go and fell, caught by the net.

And so just last week I crouched over the sea knowing that at the word “THREE” I had to jump in, hoping that that word “Three” would propel my body forward and that my heart didn’t have to do any of the work. The law would be written on my heart and I didn’t need any teaching anymore. The law of learning to love and trust and not need to force people and circumstances would become common place for me, I prayed.

I recently read this old Buddhist saying: “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.”

I did jump off that wharf. And before me I realized, if only for a quick moment, that the open breeze of the air, the cleansing nature of salt water, the view of the stalactites and the brilliant blues and oranges of the sun setting over the water outweigh my own fear. The point is not the ground—the point is to keep falling through the air. To do so goes against my nature and the nature of the institutions we live within. It does not, however, go against the nature of this God who so deeply desires intimacy with us that we become God’s people, God’s one and only people. And so, willing myself forward, God drove my feet from the solid earth and flung me into the air.

[i] Robin Craig, “Preaching Ahead of Myself,” Thursday February 10, 2011, Beautiful and Terrible, http://metanoia-mrc.blogspot.com/2011/02/preaching-ahead-of-myself.html