I would like to read the last line of scripture, but from a different translation. So, here is verse 10, “I the Lord probe the heart, search the mind – to repay every man according to his ways, with the proper fruit of his deeds.” May the Lord add blessings and understanding to the translation of this word.
I the Lord, probe the heart. I the Lord probe the heart.
When I hear the word probe many things come to mind. The first thing that comes to mind is science. And if you know anything about me, you know that I do NOT like science! I do not like space, because I associate it with science. As a result, I do not like Martians, extraterrestrial things or matter. I have never seen E.T. or a single Star Wars movie. I will allow you all a moment to gather your thoughts and I may even regret saying all of this information so early in a sermon, because I may have lost 75% of my audience. I hope that you all will still respect me as a minister in this church. If not, remember that my time here is limited, and you only have to deal with my crazy anti-Star Wars self for a little while longer.
I hear the word probein this text and I think to myself what an interesting word to use here. I think of how Jewish sacred texts are so beautifully written. I think of the lustrous stories that fill what we call the Old Testament, and I think of the poetry that compose the Psalms and Lamentations. I think of the people that compiled this book, I think of the canonical significance and I think, “how wonderful it is to have people who love the Lord and words as I do.” The word probe is such an intimate and invasive word. For God to probethe heart, means that God is not just around and listening, it implies that God is deeply within us, feeling as we feel, in the most deep and impenetrable ways. God knows our hearts.
So, when God knows our hearts, that means that every thought we have is known by God. So, when God probes your heart, what would be there for the finding?
Feelings of anxiety? Unworthiness? Inadequacies? Or do you think you’re not smart enough? Unloved? Underappreciated? Taken for granted? Overlooked? Underutilized? Stepped on? Torn down? Just plain broken? Or do you remember that you are beloved, and that you are called to remember that same deep love for all of God’s people?
It is so easy to get caught up in the former – the uneasiness.
But that is kind of the role of a prophet, right? Bringing the uneasiness to the forefront. Forcing you, me, all of the people to listen to the relentless cry of the God who is constantly searching for us, God’s children.
“The word prophecy comes from the Greek word meaning proclaimer and refers to one who speaks on behalf of a god or goddess (Collins).”
Jeremiah, the spokesperson for Yahweh, for God, was speaking to a specific audience. Much of his writings are to a people who have forgotten about God’s goodness, particularly in reference to their worship practices. These people are removed from their homeland, and the rituals and worship of their people.
Jeremiah, the book, was written after the fall of Jerusalem. Once the temple fell, as did spirits. These were a displaced people. Moved from their home and kept in exile in Babylon. So, while this nation of folk was facing “massive assault and the ravaging effects of war, exile, economic ruin” and social disarray – God sent a prophet. In the midst of this fragile state, in the midst of this already-not-yet, God sent a prophet.
God sent the prophet Jeremiah to the disenfranchised refugees.
As we see earlier in this chapter, Jeremiah is already in dialogue with these people. He states in verse one that their sin has been written with an iron pen, engraved on their hearts. Again, the personal and intimate reach of God’s inspired word and the root of our actions is deep. Verse two speaks of the children ‘remembering.’ The children are remembering the traditions that are not part of their history. They are remembering traditions of a foreign people in a foreign land. This is the opposite of how the Israelite people typically engaged in worship. As one commentary states, “one of the fundamental obligations of the people of Yahweh is to remember what they have received and already know” (AC 167). This act is called holy remembering.
This act of holy remembering calls back to one’s ancestors. This harkening back, in the tradition of the Israelites, is representative of the religious community of God’s chosen people. Remembering through worship and actions. Remembering what they already know because it has been engrained in them, on their hearts, through the teachings and lives of those who have gone before them.
In many African religious traditions this holy remembering is engrained in the people. Sankofa: go back and get it. This word comes from the Twi language in Ghana. Sankofa is typically expressed using the image of a mythical bird that is flying forward, while its head is craned in the opposite direction, and its beak is agape while balancing an egg on its back. The egg represents the future. In order for us to move forward we have to remember where we have come from. That, whatever we have been stripped of or forgotten can be reclaimed, preserved, perpetuated, and brought into the future.
This year marks the 400thanniversary of having enslaved Africans brought to the United States. There is no need for an in-depth history lesson; many of you already know the sins of those in the past and how those sins have systemically impacted the lives of those with black and brown skin and specifically those of African descent.
The unwelcomed poaching, taking, raping, work that is back-breaking, whipping, stigmatizing, stereotyping, criminalizing, over-sexualizing, of an entire people causes emotional turmoil that is learned and deeply engrained in the hearts of that people. Sometimes what is learned ain’t always good, but it sticks with you just the same. When you are a people of a diaspora, you have so much that you bring with you. But you are living in The New World; they don’t speak the way you speak, they don’t eat the foods you eat, they don’t listen to the music you listen to – but you have to adjust to them, their ways, because you are on their turf now. You find yourself flying forward, but you’re forgetting to look back.
You’re forgetting where you came from. You’re forgetting that mother didn’t have the same opportunities for an education that she fought for you to have. You’re forgetting that your grandmother never dreamed of reaching this level of education. You’re forgetting that your grandfather had to drop out of grade school to help his family on the farm. You’re forgetting that your grandmother’s mother is the daughter of a share-cropper. You’re forgetting that somewhere down the line 400 years ago, your ancestors were dragged against their will to this foreign land! You’re forgetting that they worked a land to reap benefits that would never benefit them! You’re forgetting – I am forgetting where I came from.
But this could be true for you, too. Your situation may look a little different. It may take the form of your own family’s traditions. You cannot always remember the wisdom and wise words of matrons passed. You remember many of things your grandfather taught you, while many others have slipped your mind. There was a way you always did things and there was a reason for it, but now you cannot remember it. Things are slipping your mind. You are forgetting where you came from.
It is so easy to get swept up!
It is so easy to forget!
It is so easy to get wrapped up in the worries, qualms, and the cries of God’s children around you even when they are not for you.
But you must remember. Sankofa. Go back and get it.
The struggles of my family did not just happen to teach me a lesson, they happened, and they are deeply a part of my history. Sankofa. They happened and they have intrinsically shaped who I am. Sankofa. They happened and they are a part my being – deeply engrained in my heart. Sankofa. I hear the stories of my great grandmothers and I cry. I hear other stories of my great grandmothers and I laugh fully – from my gut. The act of holy remembering has me feel with my entire being. What has happened to them, has happened to me. I am becoming one with the narrative of my people, I am maintaining my identity with God and God’s chosen people.
The importance of correct worship is stressed here and many times in Jeremiah. The moment holy remembering is gone and is no longer a part of your worship, or your story, you have lost something. You have lost a part of you. You have gotten amnesia. You have taken to remembering the stories of others more than you have appreciated and perpetuated the story of your people. Your heart has been probed: the writings etched in the tablet are a foreign language, you may know it, but to decipher it, to translate it, to understand it takes time. It was once second nature to you, but now it is abstract.
Jeremiah is calling the people in exile back. He is calling them to correct worship. He is calling them back to holy remembering. He is calling God’s people away from idolatrous worship. He is telling them to go back and get it. To go back and get the stories and tales of their ancestors. To go back and get right with God.
So, now, in this moment, God is probing your heart. Searching the tablet that was etched with a diamond point pen. What is there?
Is it the uneasiness from earlier? Are the words underappreciated, unworthy, and taken for granted still etched in? Or have you gone back? Have you gone back and retrieved the words of your ancestors? The words that speak truth even in the midst of adversity: you are blessed and beloved. I hope so. I hope so.