“Thus says the Lord, ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Jeremiah 31: 33
What do you know by heart? Or more specifically, what do you know by heart besides your Social Security number, phone numbers, account numbers, PIN number and passwords — all of which take up precious memory space for most of us. What other things do you know by heart? What famous words? What poetry? What songs? It was common in my generation to memorize certain great works like the Gettysburg Address, Shakespearean sonnets, and the dying words of Julius Caesar. Some of us committed the poetry of Robert Frost, Emily Dickenson, and John Dunne to heart. I had a friend who knew all the words to every single Beatles song on their Abbey Road album. And if you’ve been here on Children’s Day, you have heard the third graders of our church family say the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer by heart. What scripture do you know by heart? I would guess many of us silently recite the words of the 23rd psalm (King James Version) along with the speaker at a memorial service. Words and music take on added depth and meaning when they have been written on our hearts. While in Michigan, I occasionally led worship services at a nursing home. The nurses’ aides would bring patients into the room, some from the Alzheimer’s unit. Just what awareness these patients might have had of most of the service I cannot say. But when we would get to the doxology, it moved my heart to watch them move their lips to the words, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”
Michael Lindvall, a minister I knew in Michigan, wrote a book a few years ago entitled Leaving North Haven. The book is a collection of small stories told by a Presbyterian pastor who served a medium-sized church in the fictional town of North Haven, Minnesota. In one chapter, the pastor, David Battles, is invited to be the guest preacher at the tiny First Presbyterian Church of Carthage Lake, Minnesota, which he describes as a “withered town of seven weathered frame houses, only five of them inhabited, plus the church.” The church hadn’t had a minister of its own for over 60 years, but a handful of faithful people gather there once a month for Sunday school and worship with whatever minister they can find. The lay leader of the church, Lloyd Larson, tells David “there are only eleven members, but they’ll all be there.” And he promises there will be an organist, Agnes Rigstad, Lloyd’s sister-in-law.
The Sunday of his guest pulpit appearance David arrives at the church, a small, white frame building with large sentimental stained glass windows of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, lamb in one arm, staff in the other, and Jesus praying alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. Two cars and a pick-up truck are parked out front. I’ll let the pastor tell the story from here…
On Sunday I arrived at 12:15 p.m., that being the odd hour at which the once-amonth church has been scheduled the past 20 years for the benefit of preachers doing a second shift from their home congregations. Inside there were the twelve people, all but Lloyd seated in the front two pews of the little sanctuary. At eighty years, Lloyd was perhaps the youngest of the congregation except for a young man sitting at the end of the second pew.
One very old woman, a wig slightly askew on her head, mounted the chancel steps and went to the organ bench. Lloyd pulled me over and said, “Speak loudly. There’s no mike and some folks don’t hear as well as they used to.” Then added, “And we don’t do a Sunday Bulletin no more, so you just gotta tell us when it’s time for a hymn.”
I began the service belting out, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Then followed with, “Let us join together in singing hymn number 204.” I glanced over to Agnes to make sure she had heard. She smiled back and launched into the hymn. She had not played but a measure before I realized that she was not playing “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart.” It took me another moment to recognize “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The young man was the only one with a hymnal in his hand; the others were clearly singing from memory. “Maybe Agnes didn’t hear me,” I thought to myself.
The gospel lesson was from John – Jesus imploring his followers to love one another after he was gone. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” These words seemed to fit this tiny group of faithful at Carthage Lake. Nobody to love them but Jesus and each other.
After reading the scripture lesson, I very loudly announced the middle hymn, “Love Divine, All Love Excelling,” looking pointedly over to Agnes. She smiled back before diving at the organ keys and launching into “I Love to Tell the Story.” Following the sermon I prayed. I prayed for the old and sick as well as the young and confused. I prayed for this bewildered world and I prayed for Carthage Lake. Then it came time to announce the last hymn. I looked at Agnes and then thought better of it. I took two steps over to the organ bench, bent down, and whispered loudly in her ear, “Agnes, what are we going to sing?” She smiled her demure grin, said not a word and began to play “Just as I am Without One Plea.” After the service was over I greeted at the door. Agnes smiled broadly as she pumped my hand, but said nothing beyond, “Nice sermon, Reverend.” Lloyd and the young man were at the front of the church when I went back up to gather up my notes. Lloyd gave me a sheepish grin and said, “Forgot to tell you about Agnes. You don’t need to tell us what the hymn is, only when. Agnes only knows those three hymns, so we always sing ’em.”
“Good grief, Lloyd, you mean to tell me you always sing the same three hymns?” I blurted out. Lloyd concentrated on the frayed sanctuary carpet and answered, “We like those hymns well enough, and we know ’em by heart . . . . And, well, she’s our organist. . . .”
I’ll pause the story at this point, but come back to it in a bit.
In today’s second scripture reading, Jeremiah speaks God’s word, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…I will put my law within them. I will write it on their hearts.”
Years prior, Jeremiah had warned of a calamity that was coming if the people continued their sinful ways. He fiercely condemned the leaders and the elite of Israel for neglecting the needs of the common people. He spoke forcefully of the uncomfortable truth of their sins of indifference and selfish accommodation. Again and again he warned of God’s judgment – only to be ignored by those in power and those prospering at the expense of many. I suppose that in a certain way, Jeremiah could be likened to Harry Markopolis, the whistleblower, who since 1999 repeatedly warned the SEC that Bernard Madoff was running a giant Ponzi scheme.
Both Markopolis and Jeremiah spoke truth to power. As you know, Madoff’s fraud resulted in over $60 billion being lost, ruining countless lives. And what of Israel? The country was overrun by the Babylonian empire, and the leaders and elite of that society were forcibly taken from their homeland to exile in Babylon. There they lived in desolation and regret. They could not help but wonder, “Has God abandoned us?” In wounded love, God responds with words of compassion from the divine heart. “I will be their God, and they shall be my people…I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Though disappointed, God kept loving them still.
It is important to note that the word “heart” in the biblical sense means so much more than our usual romantic notion. To the ancient Hebrews, the heart was at the center of all that a person is: our intellect, our emotions, our wisdom, our fears. It is within the heart that our most intimate knowledge of God resides.
The cellist, Pablo Casals, once wrote a student: “Each person carries inside…a basic decency and goodness. If we listen to it, and act on it, we are giving a great deal of what the world needs most. It is not complicated, but it takes courage for us to listen to that inner goodness and act on it. Do we dare? That is the question that counts.” The author of the book of James put the question even more pointedly: “Faith without works is dead,” he said. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?”
The late Charles Schultz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, knew a lot about the Bible. Sometimes I think he was in his way a modern day prophet. He clearly understood what James was talking about. In one strip Charlie Brown and Linus are trudging through the snow. The wind is blowing and it is freezing cold. They are bundled up in their snowsuits with fur hats and scarves and gloves and boots. They encounter Snoopy who is shivering in front of his doghouse. The little dog looks sad and miserable. Charlie Brown says brightly, “Be of good cheer, Snoopy.” Linus echoes, “Yes, Snoopy, be of good cheer.” In the next panel off they go leaving Snoopy with a quizzical look on his face that seemed to say, “What is the good of that?”
What God has written on the heart is not much good unless we live it. What has God written on your heart? The surest way to know what God has placed on our hearts is to decode our own experience and pay attention to that urging sense within that encourages us to go beyond ourselves. That inner voice we have which says it is wrong to ignore the tears in another’s eyes. That anger that wells up when you encounter an injustice. The regret we have when we have done things we ought not to have done, and left undone things that begged our doing. Acting upon God’s law written on our hearts turns cold hearts to caring, hard hearts to empathy, frightened hearts to brave hearts.
The writing upon our hearts which God promised through Jeremiah was sealed in the person of Jesus Christ. If the gospel is about one thing, it is about life-giving transformation. Following in the way of Christ we are inspired to lower the barriers that separate us one from another; we are directed by his example to remove the barriers that define people as insiders and outsiders, acceptable and unacceptable, clean and unclean, neighbors and strangers. Jesus Christ seals the law of love upon our hearts so that we may be agents of healing and reconciliation and community.
With that in mind, we return now for the “rest of the story” as told by pastor David Battles at that little church in Lake Carthage. After haltingly explaining about the organist, Lloyd Larson walked out the door to a rust-brown Ford pickup. The young man remained and offered his hand. “My name is Neil Larson,” he said, “I’m Lloyd’s grandson. Moved up here from Texas in March. You have to understand about Agnes. She’s Lloyd’s wife’s baby sister, and has never been quite right. She never says more than a few words, and usually the same words. But she learned to play those three hymns in one week sixty years ago when the regular organist got sick. It was a musical emergency. Anyway, she hasn’t been able to learn another one since. Playing the organ this one Sunday a month means the world to her. Sometimes I think it’s mostly for her that they keep the church open. Aunt Agnes lives for the first Sunday of the month.”
“They asked me to play, of course. They had to ask. But Grandpa knew I’d say no. I remember how he sighed with relief when I said no.”
“You’re an organist?” I asked.
“Eastman class of ’84. I’ve had some big church jobs, the last one down in Texas, big Baptist church in the Houston suburbs. The organ had 102 ranks. Three services every Sunday. Then I became ill. I’ve been HIV positive for six years, but it wasn’t until last fall that I got sick. The personnel committee of the church figured it out…the weight loss, all the sick days, not married. They told me it would be best if I were to move on, but not till after Christmas, of course. My parents live in St. Paul, but my father hasn’t spoken to me since I was nineteen. I’m on the cocktail, not sick enough for the hospital, but just too tired most of the time to work. I actually had nowhere to go. My grandfather said I could move in with him and Agnes. To tell the truth I kinda feel at home in a town of eighty-yearolds.”
The young man looked up and held my eyes. “You know, Pastor, that was a fine sermon, but I think that they got the message some time ago. I mean, the ‘love one another’ part. He paused and went on, “They keep Agnes, and they took me in. And since I moved up here, most every night they open the church for me. If it’s cold they lay a fire in the woodstove; and then I play the organ. It’s a sweet little instrument believe it or not. Lloyd’s kept it up.”
“These last weeks, it’s been almost warm in the evenings, so they leave the doors and windows of the church open and everybody sits out on their front porch and listens to me play, Bach, Buxtehude, Widor, all the stuff I love. And they clap from their porches; even Agnes claps. (story adapted from Leaving North Haven, 147-155)
God’s law written on our hearts is the stuff of everyday faith: love thy neighbor…be merciful…give and it shall be given unto you…welcome the stranger…feed my lambs…love one another….
Bless our hearts. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.