Sunday, November 22, 2020

Phil Kniss: The God who overdoes it

God’s New Covenant
Written on our hearts

Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 2728; 31:31-34

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The Bible is a story about a generous God.
Generous beyond our imagination.
A God who loves to overdo it,
when it comes to giving undeserved gifts and grace.
A God who is either loved or hated,
for being extravagant.

God overdoes it almost every week in our lectionary.
Remember Jonah two weeks ago?
He was so angry he wanted to die,
because God handed out undeserved grace to his enemies!
Remember the Hebrew slaves in Egypt?
It wasn’t enough for God to simply release them from captivity.
No, God arranged for their oppressors
to hand over all their gold and jewelry,
and beg them to leave.
Remember the widow of Zarephath?
She and her son were ready to lay down and die of starvation.
Then her oil jar and flour bucket refused to go empty,
and she kept feeding herself . . .
and her son . . . and the prophet of God
all the way through the famine.

It’s not enough that God does good.
God wastes goodness and blessing on us.
Lets it spill out everywhere on everyone,
like an overfilled milk bucket sloshing around,
without regard to its precious contents.
God is just, but is not judicious —
not very sensible and prudent and discreet about things.
God overdoes it.

There’s a disconnect between this picture of God,
and the austere Mennonite tradition that formed me,
and maybe some of you—
where we almost physically turn away
from talk about God’s abundance and generosity.
We are frugal and sensible people,
so obviously, God is too.

If we blather on too much about the abundance of God,
it might encourage us to live like
some of our worldly Christian neighbors,
who live lavish lives and are flashy and indulgent
and not-at-all sensible like us.

I actually appreciate this about my tradition.
Because I do think we find
deeper joy and closer communion with God
in lives that are simple and uncluttered
by possessions that tend to possess and entangle us.

But woe to us, if that frugality blinds us
from being flat-out overwhelmed
by our extravagant God who overdoes it all the time,
in grace and beauty and abundance.

God is prodigal, a word that means extravagantly wasteful.
Like the Father in that poorly-named parable of the prodigal son.
Yes, the son was wasteful,
with things he shouldn’t have been wasteful of,
but the Father, the God-figure in the story,
was extravagantly wasteful—
prodigal in love and mercy and forgiveness,
and caught flack for it, of course, from his other son.

Over and over our prodigal God stretches out, in love,
far beyond what God’s bargain with humans requires.
Lesser gods would walk away from the deal altogether.
Yet, after repeated and catastrophic failures on our part,
God just reaches farther for us.
God keeps restarting the missional project
of partnering with us humans for the sake of the world.

In today’s text from prophet Jeremiah, God does it again,
in an ultimate act of generosity—
offering to make a whole new covenant
unlike any that had gone before.
This covenant would be written not in legal code,
but on the hearts and minds of the people.
There would be a deeper divine-human communion
that surpassed anything known thus far,
and could not be undone.
There would be a deep knowing, we are told—
“from the least of them to the greatest”
and an everlasting bond
forged by complete and unconditional forgiveness:
“I will remember their sins no more.”

What God?—after repeatedly being spurned—
what God refuses to walk away,
but turns toward those who did the spurning,
offering an even greater gift?
What God does that?

This generous covenant on the heart
came to fulfillment in Jesus,
who embodied God’s extravagant grace and generosity.
In Jesus, God overdid it again,
coming to dwell fully among us
and participate fully in the human experience
including suffering and death.
In Jesus’ own words,
“this cup is the new covenant in my blood,
poured out for you.”

Furthermore, God’s radical generosity and abundance
is built into creation itself,
into the seasonal cycles of rest, planting, and harvest.

We remember, on this Thanksgiving Sunday,
that the earth—this planet loved by God—
is an expression of God’s abundance.
Against all odds,
against our continued mistreatment of it,
the earth is still extravagant—
still fruitful, and abundant, and beautiful, and resilient.

The planet mirrors this attribute of God—
of not giving up, not being put off its extravagant mission.

Our Jeremiah text is a great example.
I already reviewed the poetic section,
where God promised a new and everlasting covenant
written on the heart.
That’s especially remarkable, given the story part,
and thanks to Valerie, Gabe and Terry for reading it to us.

Remember the book-burning scene in that story,
where King Jehoiakim, God’s own anointed,
ripped up the words of the Lord
and threw them in the fire?

This was not a symbolic protest,
but destruction of costly property.

Long before the days of books and printing,
every manuscript was painstakingly written on expensive
hand-made parchment by highly-trained and patient scribes.
Any scroll was an object of inestimable value,
immense human time and love and skill
were poured into this artful labor.
But the words of Yahweh were so disrespected by the people,
that the king didn’t just throw the whole scroll in the fire—
he stretched out the pain . . . to make it last longer.
Every time the reader, Jehudi, finished reading
another few columns of text,
the king took a knife—a scribe’s knife, it says—
the tool of trade of the one who wrote it—
and cut off the strip of what was read, and threw it in the fire.
Every three or four columns, another cut to the heart.

So what did God do about such disrespect?
Did God take offense and walk away?
Did God tell Jeremiah, “I give up.
I’m going to start over with another people.”
No, God told Jeremiah, “Take another scroll” . . .
Take another valuable scroll!
Write it all down again.
Verbatim. Every single word that the king just burned.
Write it down again.

That’s why God’s promise in chapter 31 is all the more powerful.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
    “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel.
I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God, and they will be my people.
I will forgive their wickedness
and will remember their sins no more.”

This, dear sisters and brothers,
is the same God who sent Jesus to come and live with us,
and help carry our burden.

It’s this extravagantly generous God,
who overlooks our grievous offenses,
and says, here, let’s try again.
This time I give you myself.

The ball is now in our court, as to how we respond.
Even today, the gift is ours to respond to.
God is no less extravagant today.
Who are we to who hold back in austerity, or self-preservation,
or fear, or judgement, or unwillingness to risk?
Who are we not to just let go of ourselves,
in extravagant love and grace toward others,
including our political opposites,
including the cultural or religious “other”?

We worship the God came to us in Jesus,
who sat at a table with his disciples,
as he was walking into a deep and dark night of suffering—
said, here, let me give you some more of myself.
Over a cup of wine he told them,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,
which is poured out for you.”

What God?
What God does such a thing?

And yet, we repeatedly fail to recognize
the God of extravagance and abundance,
and instead get lost in diligence and duty and fear
and scarcity of grace.

Let us speak aloud our confession.
You will find the confession in your order of worship.
Please respond each time with the words in bold print.

one Every day, we miss noticing God’s extravagant gifts.
Every day, we walk by the color purple,
or green, or yellow, or blue, and we don't notice it.
all Forgive us, and open our eyes.
one Every day, we fail to hear the sound of laughter,
or footsteps, or birdsong, or weeping.
all Forgive us, and open our ears.
one Every day, God’s extravagant gifts surround us
and fill us and connect us with every one and every thing,
and we don’t take in that beautiful truth.
all Forgive us, and open our hearts.
one Come and hear what God has done:
Even when we don’t notice,
God’s extravagant gifts continue to surround us
and fill us and connect us with every one and every thing,
showering our lives with grace. Thanks be to God!

On this Sunday before Thanksgiving,
when we celebrate First Fruits generosity and God’s abundance,
we come to the table of plenty.

This posture of God’s abundance is nowhere more evident
than at the Lord’s Table, in our ritual of communion.
Simple elements, but representing a lavish gift.
This communion was established by Jesus
when he and his disciples ate their last Passover meal together.
As it says in Luke 22,
19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it,
and gave it to them, saying,
“This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,
which is poured out for you.”

May God bless this bread and cup
to our physical and spiritual nourishment.
Let us celebrate God’s abundance together,
even as we are scattered far and wide.
Eat the bread and drink the cup at home,
while you meditate and listen to a song,
“Prayer of Praise,” the last hymn composed by John Horst,
paired with a text by Myron Augsburger,
and sung by Nathan May.

—Phil Kniss, November 22, 2020

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