Sermon - Year B

5th Sunday of Lent

My restless mind is rarely pleased with the status quo. It’s always looking for learning opportunities, whether new hobbies or skills. Several years ago, inspired by a particularly hot Scottish summer, I became interested in growing trees – not just any trees, mind you. I didn’t own the land, and my residency, by definition, isn’t permanent. Bonsai, the Japanese-style miniature trees known for their dramatic appearance and composition, were the answer to my newly hatched interest. So, I ordered online seeds of some attractive tree species and a book; while waiting for the delivery, I bought some soil and seedling trays from a local garden centre. The idea was simple: stick the seeds in the soil for a while and let nature take its course. Well, it turned out to be anything but simple. To germinate the seeds, I would have to replicate what happens to them in their natural environment. It would involve soaking them, planting them in soil, keeping them under wraps in the fridge for weeks, and so on. The multistage process involved much more than I had bargained for just to get the right  conditions for the seeds to sprout. Simply sticking them in the soil wouldn’t work. Moreover, I learned from the book that creating bonsai trees required a lot of work and that the rate of success (i.e. keeping them alive and growing) was low. And then there was the final blow to my ambition: I realised I should have started at least twenty years earlier in order to have a chance of seeing any compelling results. However miniature bonsai trees are, they are still trees – they grow slowly.

“I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel. […] Deep within them, I will plant my Law […]. There will be no further need for neighbour to try to teach neighbour […], ‘Learn to know the Lord!’ No, they will all know me, the least no less than the greatest.” God made this promise through the prophet Jeremiah to the People of Israel, battered, scattered and exiled, firstly by the Assyrian and then the Babylonian Empires. Their tragic fate was interpreted as punishment for their constant failure to stick to the covenant God had made with them after their liberation from Egypt: “They broke that covenant of mine, so I had to show them who was master. It is the Lord who speaks.” The promise of the new covenant was made in line with the anthropomorphic vision of God, whose “anger lasts only a moment. But his kindness lasts for a lifetime” Psalm 30:5. The new covenant would go much deeper than the first one; instead of writing the law on tablets of stone, it would be written in people’s hearts. In other words, the law of the new covenant would be internalised, made part of people’s mental and spiritual constitution, rather than superimposed and enforced from the outside. Over two and a half millennia have passed since the promise was made, yet its fulfilment seems as distant as ever. The body of law keeps growing, providing loopholes for the canny, safe employment for lawyers and a stick with which to hit those who cannot take advantage of the law.

There are two misplaced ideas as to why the promise seems unaccomplished. Firstly, we might be disappointed to see society as a whole not living up to it but, even worse, apparently going backwards from the Christian point of view. But society doesn’t have a collective heart; the promise was that “deep within them I will plant my Law, writing it on their hearts.” The promise comes true individually, not collectively; the latter might happen almost accidentally when many individuals are living it out. Secondly, the promise must be seen as the goal to achieve over one’s lifetime rather than a starting point. It’s indicated by the phrase, “deep within them I will plant my Law.” Then, it needs time to sprout and grow, and it has to be taken care of in the process. Here’s where I see my failed bonsai trees experiment as a good illustration. In order to achieve their final dramatic appearance and composition, a lot of techniques must be employed over time. Left unattended, they might randomly grow into pot plants hardly deserving of the bonsai fame. Shaping and forming the bonsai tree takes a lot of time and effort. We entered the new promised covenant at our baptism when its seed was planted deep in our hearts. At the same time, our parents and godparents took upon themselves the responsibility to actively facilitate its development: “Dear parents and godparents, you have come to present this child for baptism. By water and the Holy Spirit he is to receive the gift of new life from God, who is love. On your part, you must make it your constant care to bring him up in the practice of the faith. See that the divine life which God gives him is kept safe from the poison of sin, to grow always stronger in his heart. If your faith makes you ready to accept this responsibility, renew now the vows of your own baptism…” (The Rite of Baptism of Children) Having been formed as children by our parents, catechists, and teachers, in adulthood, we take care of further development in our own hands. A well-formed conscience helps us discern easily, almost instinctively, what is right and wrong, and follow the former and avoid the latter. Every mistake we inevitably make is an opportunity to fine-tune the conscience so it gets better and better at doing its job, leading us to the fulfilment of this promise: “They will all know me, the least no less than the greatest – it is the Lord who speaks – since I will forgive their iniquity and never call their sin to mind.”

Image by Luca Finardi from Pixabay