Enjoy the Fruit
Jeremiah 31:1-14, 31-34
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
25 March 2012
There are times when we move away from God's will for our life. There are times when we make decisions that we later regret. Decisions that alienate us from other people. Even decisions that alienate us from who we really hope to be.
Barbara Brown Taylor, who is a retired Episcopal priest living in rural Georgia and one of America's best preachers has a powerful little book entitled Speaking of Sin in which she eloquently describes this experience:
Deep down in human existence, there is an experience of being cut off from life. There is some memory of having been treated cruelly, and – a little deeper, perhaps – the memory of having treated someone else cruelly as well. Deep down in human existence there is an experience of seeing the light and turning away from it, either because it is too beautiful to behold or because it spoils the dank but familiar darkness. Deep down in human existence there is an experience of reaching for forbidden fruit, of pushing away loving arms, of breaking something on purpose just to prove that you can. Deep down in human existence there is an experience of doing whatever is necessary to feed and comfort the self, because there is no one else to trust, no other purpose to serve, no other god go follow.
I assume that you've had that experience sometime. Sometime when you've felt guilt, shame, or regret for something you've said or something you've done. Or maybe it was something you failed to say or do. Sometimes we don't realize what we've done until we run into the wall of the consequences we didn't take the time to consider.
In these moments we can find consolation in the stories of our tradition. For these stories remind us that God is gracious. God forgives us. God will help us to rid ourselves of our destructive and unhealthy traits. And God will help us to start again.
Today's scripture passage from Jeremiah 31 comes in a part of the Book of Jeremiah called the "Book of Consolation." Jeremiah is mostly known as a doom and gloom sort of prophet, warning people of their sin and the consequences that are soon to follow. But there is this section of the Book of Jeremiah in which the prophet looks beyond those consequences, beyond the time of exile, to the time of restoration. And what the prophet sees there is a glorious vision.
"The days are surely coming," he says. Yes, the days are surely coming. Time marches on. When we get through today there will be tomorrow. Will tomorrow be just like today or will it be something else? The days are surely coming, the prophet says, when the Lord will restore the fortunes of the people of Israel.
"I have loved you with an everlasting love," says our God. Though you have broken covenant with me, I will uphold my covenant with you. In fact, I will make a new covenant with you. And what a surprising act! Usually if someone breaks promises with us, we are very unlikely to enter into promises with them again in the future. But God will make a new covenant.
"I will gather you. I will comfort you, and again I will build you," says our God. And in response you will take your tambourines and go forth dancing. You will sing aloud and raise shouts of praise. You will plant vineyards and enjoy the fruit!
You "shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; [your] life shall become like a watered garden, and [you] shall never languish again."
Of course this is not directly our story, our vision, our dream. It is the story, dream, and vision of the ancient people of Israel as they looked forward to the time after exile. But we can enter into this story and claim it as our own, for the subject of it is God. It tells us who God is and what God does for us.
Yahweh, the God of Israel, is like a gardener. This is an image used in Isaiah and Jeremiah. Walter Brueggemann writes that this is a "metaphor of sustenance," and there are a handful of others in the prophets – potter, shepherd, mother, and healer. Like a gardener God both cultivates and plucks up. Brueggemann writes that these sorts of metaphors and the actions associated with them remind us that the relationship with God is open and on-going and that God can surprise us. We aren't dealing merely with "a concept." We are in a covenantal relationship with a particular, free, active agent with a name and a history.
In Jeremiah this free active agent who is like a gardener does some mighty things. Yahweh gathers the people, loves them, heals and restores them, comforts them, forgives them, builds them up again, and enters into a new covenant with them. There are lots of active verbs in this passage. And that in and of itself is a consolation to us. When we have alienated ourselves, we often wonder if God has forgotten or rejected us. We sometimes feel the absence of God. But Jeremiah reminds us, through these active verbs, that God takes the initiative to restore us. That God is ever looking to the future and new possibilities.
This week, as I studied for this sermon, I was struck by how the great Old Testament scholar and UCC member Walter Brueggemann interpreted this passage from Jeremiah and its themes. For instance, he wrote,
All of these verbs, and Yahweh's actions to which they testify, mean that Israel is freed from all that had failed. Israel is now completely unburdened by its past.
Wow! I don't think we usually think of forgiveness in such broad and powerful terms. When God forgives and restores us, we are freed of all our failures. We are unburdened of our past. We can start fresh.
Just imagine. That deep down experience in human existence that Barbara Brown Taylor spoke about, you are completely freed of that. It does not burden you. It does not weigh upon you or bring guilt or shame or regret.
Now, the truth is, I don't know if that is even psychologically possible. If you are like me, things I thought I forgave myself for a long time ago, might suddenly pop up in my awareness again, and I feel just as lousy about them as I did before. So, it's probably not the case that the past disappears. But what should be the case, is that when those lousy thoughts do re-appear, we can immediately draw upon the grace of God and remind ourselves that we have been unburdened of that experience, that it does not define who we are, we are free to live into a new covenant and be a new person, born again by the grace of God.
Brueggemann goes on to say other profound and liberating things. He writes that the future is not dependent upon our obedience. The future "is in the hands of the One [Yahweh, God] who is . . . faithful." That no matter what we do or how often we might fail again, God will always be faithful to us, loving us eternally, restoring us, and helping us to rebuild again. Just like a faithful gardener who prunes and cultivates and brings forth new fruit every season.
I also found this sentence particularly powerful and liberating -- Brueggemann writes, "Yahweh refuses to be governed by circumstance, so the prophets urge Israel to refuse to succumb to circumstance, even when the circumstance is generated by Israel's ethical failure."
Even when the consequences are of our own choosing and making, God is powerful enough to liberate us from them. That is a message all of us need to hear at various points in our lives. The awful circumstances that at the moment feel like a trap from which you will never emerge, you do not have to succumb to those. You can continue to live into a future filled with other possibilities, including your own restoration. A future where you can dance and sing and build and plant again and enjoy the fruit.
Now, lest you think that all personal ethical responsibility is removed, that is not the case. To enjoy the fruit means that we must live into the covenant. We must repent and participate in God's new future. Brueggemann writes that God does the gathering, healing, forgiving, and loving and will always do that, but it is up to us as the people of God to reconstruct our new life given this reality. Our ongoing work is responding to this "miracle of a future."
And the Season of Lent was created by the church to remind us of exactly that. As Barbara Brown Taylor explains, "Lent was set aside for the greening of the soul." She describes it with metaphors that fit beautifully with our "Tend the Soil" theme:
As any good gardener knows, new life requires some assistance. The life itself is entirely God's gift, but the cultivation of it calls for work. There is some tilling and fertilizing to be done, some weeding and pruning of dead branches. Without such intentional participation in the renewal of life, the roses will eventually disappear under the pokeweed, and the Japanese beetles will eat all of the peaches.
God creates the possibility and helps us do the good, hard work. And then once all the good hard work of gardening ourselves is done, then we get to reap the benefits and enjoy the fruit. We get to experience what Wendell Berry, in our contemporary reading for today, described as the "satisfactions of the mad farmer."
raspberries ripe and heavy amid their foliage,
currants shining red in clusters amid their foliage,
strawberries red ripe with the white
flowers still on the vines—picked
with the dew on them, before breakfast;
grape clusters heavy under broad leaves,
powdery bloom on fruit black with sweetness
-- an ancient delight, delighting
An ancient delight indeed. Makes me hungry just imagining these fruit. But remember, these are also metaphors. We aren't talking only about literal fruit, we are talking about the fruit we cultivate in ourselves through the work of repentance and participation in God's covenant. And what might those fruit be? How about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? How would you like to trade guilt, anxiety, shame, and regret for love, joy, and peace?
You can. God, in God's grace and everlasting love, offers us precisely that. God has created the possibility. How do you respond?