March 29, 2009
The United Churches of
Northcote - Haleys - Adamston
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Click here for an easy to print or email Adobe PDF version of this post.
The Rev. Suzanne E. Sykes (George is away this Sunday)
I am kind of intrigued by our culture’s fascination with piercings and tattoos. When you think of it, it is kind of amazing - the willingness of some people to undergo often painful procedures in order to decorate or brand themselves.
A friend just gave in to her daughter’s wish to get her ears pierced - she’s five. I have to confess that I too have pierced ears - but I was 16 when I did it. That makes some kind of sense - if you’re old enough to drive you should be old enough to get your ears pierced.
And I’ve seen lots of women, and some men, who have multiple holes in their lobes for multiple studs and earrings. And it isn’t just ear lobes that get pierced. That seems pretty tame nowadays.
And then there’s tattoos.
My grandchildren love the tattoos that you get as transfers. Every time I see Olivia she has to show off all her new ones. She’s six. That’s my kind of tattoo - painless and eventually it will wear off on its own.
I know one young woman who has gone the painful route of getting a tattoo removed - one that reminded her of a former boyfriend. But now she is getting the whole opening paragraph of Beowulf tattooed on her back - in old English, yet.
The most curious tattoos I ever saw was on a hair stylist I used to go to. He had his whole faith journey tattooed on his arms, chest, back, in designs he created himself, multicoloured and dramatic.
Tattoos and piercings seem to be our age’s way of creating an identity. In a way it makes sense to brand yourself before the marketing department of some multinational corporation does it for you. Has anyone tried to find a plain unadorned t-shirt lately? Can you even get such a thing for children? Everything seems to come with some scene from Disney - turning our children into walking billboards.
The young woman sporting Beowulf under her shirt is dedicating her life to the study and teaching of Old English literature. So she really has branded herself with what she loves, with her passion in life. She is inseparable from her passion - it is part of her skin, under her skin, permanent. She carries Beowulf on her back and no one can take if from her.
In a strange sort of way I think Jeremiah would understand and admire her. He kind of gets this permanent tattooing thing. He wanted the Israelites to write the covenant on their hearts. He was speaking metaphorically, of course. We live in a much more literal age - if someone could figure out how to actually do it - tattoo the covenant on their hearts - I am sure it wouldn’t be long before someone actually did it.
Jeremiah would understand tattooing because he and his community shared the same concerns that worry us.
Jeremiah writes in a time of change and turmoil. People have seen their cities destroyed their citizens deported. Worst of all, the temple, that focus of religious life and national identity has been reduced to rubble and its objects of worship looted or melted down. The torah scrolls - the written symbol of covenant have been torn up, used for kindling or carted away.
Being religious, being the people of God, keeping their part of the covenant, had been dependent on these things - on these objects and observances. Now that is impossible for the forms have been destroyed or removed. How do the people worship now? How do they keep Torah in the land of exile?
Our time is like Jeremiah's. We have wars, terrorism, economic meltdown. We live in times of rapid change, dislocation, anxiety. Everything that told us who we were and confirmed our identity is losing meaning. Bishop Dyer writes that we are going through one of those periods of dislocation that the church and culture experience about every 500 years. He describes it as the church having a giant rummage sale where it puts everything on the sale table. We are in that place where we are sorting out what to keep and what to discard.
Our future is as hard to read, as hard to plan for as it was for the people in Jeremiah’s time. The reality of our situation is that Jeremiah’s prophecy is as true for us today as it was then. It makes sense if everything is for sale to hang on to what you want to keep by keeping it under your skin, literally.
We are called to write God’s covenant on our hearts. It is a transformative moment. Jeremiah claims that the true nature of God is abundant love and everlasting care. By writing God’s nature on our hearts we say that we belong to God, and that these aspects of God’s character are now internal, an inseparable, unremoveable part of us. The nature of God, that nature of love, is part of our existence, part of our very being.
The gospel says the same thing. Unless a seed falls in the ground and dies it cannot produce anything. It challenges the dominant way of thinking and defining success. Real success is not visible and external. It’s not continual accumulation of stuff. It is measured internally, by what is in our hearts and the actions of love and generosity that flow from that.
Our texts affirm that God is love.
In worship and prayer we remind ourselves that the covenant is written on our hearts. It is through prayer that we experience God and God’s nature of boundless love and peace most profoundly. Our prayers and worship make it easier for God to work in the world. Worship and prayer reminds us and others that individualism, capitalism, materialism and productivity are not the only or best definitions of humanity and worth.
Being faithful means thinking differently about what it means to be a human being. We reject the selfish individualism that defines our era. Being fully human is to be an individual in community trying to discern God’s desires for us and all creation and to live them out in loving and generous ways in our everyday lives.
What is written on our hearts? God loves us. Abundantly and everlastingly. This is our permanent tattoo. No matter what disappears in these times of change - in this universal church rummage sale - this we will not lose. Nothing can separate us from our passion - the love of God. Because at our baptism the love of God was tattooed on our hearts and we keep it forever.