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Divine Amnesia

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 8:1-10

I joined in a march at the state capitol yesterday. We gathered to call our legislators to pay more attention to the devastating damage caused by poverty in this state and nation. Marching right next to me were church people from many different church traditions, including folks from Cove, as well as people who would never step foot in church, synagogue people, mosque people, Starbucks people, people dedicated to ending severe poverty in America and who also are committed to finding a pathway to justice and peace in Gaza and in the Ukraine.    

Throughout the march, I asked myself, “What difference does a rally like this really make? What difference can followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace ,make in a society that is largely apathetic about poverty and in a world that is addicted to war?”

Looking back at the time of our initial invasion into Iraq after 9/11, Anne Lamott writes, “Since the United States went to war in Iraq, I’ve been thinking about A.J. Muste (see note at end of sermon), who during the Vietnam War stood in front of the White House night after night with a candle. One rainy night, a reporter asked him, ‘Mr. Muste, do you really think you are going to change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle’? ‘Oh’, Muste replied, ‘I don’t do it to change the country; I do it so the country won’t change me’” (Anne Lamott, Plan B, p. 142).   

Some 2600 years ago when the Hebrew hostages in Babylon looked at the prophet Jeremiah, they must have looked at him like many Americans looked at Muste standing in front of the White House holding a lone candle in the rain – either as a naïve and dangerous traitor or as a complete fool playing with fire in public.

Jeremiah holds a candle and speaks to real people who have lost everything, refugee-camp type people, people living far from home in a God-forsaken land and not by choice. Jeremiah does not light his candle as a fiery prayer for the day when the Babylonians will experience the same violence and upheaval that he and his kin have. No, Jeremiah lights a candle and speaks from a different script. Jeremiah’s candle burns as a light to draw these exiles out of their hatred, their fear, their xenophobia into the loving, peace-filled possibilities of God.

When I think of Jeremiah and A.J. Muste, my mind quickly connects to a fascinating story that is told only in John’s Gospel and even then, it is a story that most scholars consider a later addition. Anne Lamott tells the story this way: “In John 8, when the woman is about to be stoned by the Pharisees for adultery, we see Jesus doodling in the sand. The Pharisees, the officially good people, are acting well within the law when they condemn the woman to death. A huge crowd of people willing to kill her joins them. The Greatest Hits moment here comes when Jesus challenges the crowd: ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. But the more interesting stuff happens before, when he leaves the gathering storm, goes off by himself, and starts doodling.

“Jesus refuses to interact with the people on their level of hatred and madness. He draws in the sand for a time . . . But when he finally faces the mob and responds, all the people who were going to kill the woman have disappeared.

“You have to wonder: Where was the man with whom she committed adultery? Some people suggest he is in the crowd, waiting to join in with the others and kill her. We don’t know. But I can guess how the condemned woman must have felt – surprised. She was supposed to die, and her life was spared. Hope always catches us by surprise” (Lamott, pp. 262-263).

Our greatest hope, says Jeremiah, is not in human vengeance or divine retribution; our greatest hope is that our God suffers from a permanent case of divine amnesia. When Jeremiah’s people whine, “What was God thinking when God violated the covenant with David and allowed us to lose everything?” he grows weary with their silly refrain. He lights a candle and tells these whiners that they have not lost everything, though they surely deserve to have done so. He talks of a “new” covenant in which God with divine amnesia will remember their sins no more.

In Jeremiah and John, the issue is not whether people sin. Their sin is demonstrable and not in doubt. The issue is God’s inexplicable decision and Jesus’ redemptive response not to allow sin to define people any longer. In each of these stories, the forgetful mercy of God prevails.

I believe that repentance is a good thing and so are reparations for harm done, but you won’t find repentance or reparations in Jeremiah’s story. What you will find is the grand, mysterious God who refuses to remember real sin, real mistakes, real harm, and chooses to reclaim real people. You won’t find repentance or reparations in John’s story either. What you will find is the compassionate, doodling Jesus who pours life over a woman who is expecting death.

Why? Why would God restore hope to a people who violated God’s sacred covenant so consistently and grievously? Why would Jesus restore hope to a person whose guilt was not in question? Jeremiah lights a candle and speaks of a new covenant that God will etch on the human heart. Jeremiah is speaking to fellow Jews, living in exile, who failed God and each other in real ways.    

Jesus looks out at an angry mob and invites anyone without sin to haul stones at this guilty woman. In the end, forgiveness prevails. But why? In Christ, why does God choose not to remember our sin? Archbishop Desmund Tutu writes: “I have often told the story of the rustic priest in Russia who was accosted by a brash young physicist who had rehearsed all the reasons for atheism and arrogantly concluded, `Therefore I do not believe in God’. The little priest, not put off at all, replied quietly, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, God believes in you.’.” Tutu follows this story by lighting his candle and saying, “God does believe in us. God relies on us to help make this world all that God has dreamed of it being” (Tutu, A Vision of Hope for Our Time, p. 18). 

So, what did the Hebrews in Jeremiah’s day do and what have you and I done in this day to prompt God’s change in heart and failing memory? Again, I find the archbishop’s thought provocative: “At the risk of getting myself into trouble,” says Tutu, “I will say that in a sense it actually doesn’t matter what we do. For nothing we can do, no matter how bad, will change God’s love for us.          “But in another way, it does matter, because when you are in love you want to please the one you love. Only those who have not been in love don’t know how demanding love can be as we try to please the one we love . . . Love is more demanding even than law. No law tells an exhausted mother and father who want nothing more than to collapse in exhaustion that they must get up in the middle of the night to comfort their baby, walking for hours until their child calms down, but this is what parents do – because this is what love commands” (Tutu, ibid., p. 36).

Even if Tutu offers an inkling of an answer to my question, even a hint of the nature of God’s love, ultimately, I still don’t know why God loves us, loves you, loves me, enough to engage in divine amnesia. What I do know is that I come to this table again and again, not because I am entitled to come, but because despite the ways I have failed God and failed others, kyrie eleison, in God’s mercy, I am still invited and welcomed to this feast. What I do know is that even though the winds of war and the ravages of poverty have rarely diminished in my lifetime, I still light my candle and march for justice and peace, not because I am convinced that it will change the world, but because God’s love has changed me and I can do no less. 

Just maybe, if you and I live long enough in the shadow of such great love and profound forgiveness, our minds will blur a bit when we’re next stormed by fear, our hearts will soften a bit when we are next goaded to retaliate, our souls will be ready when we’re next asked to practice forgiveness. Just maybe, as you and I live in the shadow of such divine amnesia, we will not remember all the sin in us and around us and in such forgetting, hope will catch us by surprise.

Just maybe.

         Please God, please.


Note on A.J. Muste:  Abraham Johannes Muste, a peace activist known as the “American Gandhi” spent his life challenging the “big problems” of the world, such as social justice, capitalism and nationalism. He used religion as a basis for guiding his radical and nonviolent peace movement, with his goal to create “the kingdom of God on Earth.”

Muste began his adult life working as an ordained minister of the Dutch Reformed Church and in 1916 became an avowed Christian pacifist. In 1919 he became involved in the Lawrence, Massachussets textile strike, persuading the picketers to use nonviolent methods even though they were being physically attacked by the police. The workers won after four months. In 1921, Muste was appointed director of the Brookwood Labor College, an educational institute for trade unionists. He urged people to think critically of the human struggle.

Muste spent the latter part of his life leading nonviolent protests against the nuclear arms race. In 1957, on the 12th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, where 130,000 people were killed, injured or reported missing, Muste walked into a restricted nuclear testing site. In 1958, he laid in front of trucks that carried construction material to a nuclear base. In 1960, at the age of 75, Muste led the San Francisco – Moscow Peace March which opposed the war policies of the East and West. The very last years of his life, he worked on pacifist responses to the war in Vietnam.


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