March 21st, 2021: Josh Bascom, “Constant Companions”

Jeremiah 31:31-34

There is a topic of literary criticism that’s also being used a lot recently in teaching language arts to kids and adults. It’s the distinction made between a story or a passage being a mirror or a window. The education resource organization called “Learning For Justice” describes the teaching strategy like this: “The world looks different depending on who and where you are, and students need practice understanding multiple points of view. The study of texts that reflect their own identities, experiences and motivations (mirrors) and also texts that provide insight into the identities, experiences and motivations of others (windows) can move students toward more nuanced perceptions of the world around them.”

I love how this is being used to teach kids as well as adults, to show them how literature can crack open someone else’s experience to us, someone in a different time or place, maybe on the other side of the world, and maybe even instill a little empathy. 

But as is the case with so many things, we as human beings, young and old, we find ways to make just about anything about ourselves. My experience in and outside of the classroom, from teachers, friends or just my own voice in my head, is often that we find ways to turn these windows, these images of other people, into images of who we should be become. The window becomes a guide; “This is who you should be, this is who you could be if you just did this.” The window shows us a better version of ourselves, and it’s often presented as motivation, or a path towards development, progress and growth. “This is who you should be, this is the life you should have, now go and be this way.”

Unlike the mirror which is showing us who we already, right now, today, something like a Christmas card, or an advertisement, or a story about a beautiful relationship, we turn these into windows of what we wish we had. What should be a passive experience of simply viewing someone else becomes a law that actively condemns and judges us as being not enough—not being like that person through that window.

In today’s passage from Jeremiah I want to focus on one particular verse. The passage is a powerful prophecy from the Old Testament in which we’re shown how God will be with us and relate to us once Jesus has come and made a real change, a real revolution and turned religion and the world upside down. The prophecy is of a new covenant, one that will not be like the old. God will no longer relate to us as some distant disciplinarian, instead, now He will be close, very close.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord”.

God has done something interesting in writing the law on our hearts. The law being written in our hearts means that it’s everywhere and always with us. There is no escaping the law and its power, always piercing through the false sense of identity we carry with us and project out into the world. In the end the law never lets us off the hook. There is something within us that makes us know when we’ve messed up, not kept our promises, been impatient, haven’t forgiven. The law of God is written on our hearts, and this isn’t a bad thing, knowing right from wrong, even when we’re wrong. But having the law as our constant companion isn’t always a fun or comfortable thing. When the law is more of a mirror of our troubled present than an optimistic window of our future better selves, that doesn’t feel very good. 

It’s March and March Madness has begun—the college basketball tournament that I absolutely live for. I’m obsessed, and so I have basketball on the brain day and night. But I’ve also got basketball on my mind because of this fantastic show I just started watching on Netflix called “Last Chance U: Basketball”. I can’t recommend this show enough, this show that follows the East Los Angeles College basketball team and their coach John Mosley. Mosley is a fiery, but loving guy, a Deacon in his church—a coach who walks alongside these young men who are incredibly talented, but for many different reasons are very troubled. These kids have the law as their constant companion, they are told by the world and by themselves that they haven’t lived up to expectations. They’ve struggled with academics, or gotten in legal trouble, and found themselves in junior college instead of division 1.

One of the great lines towards the very beginning of the show helps us to think about windows vs. mirrors. Coach Mosley talks about how many people think that basketball is something that can turn us into who we want to become, but in his experience, “basketball doesn’t build character, basketball reveals character.” Which is very similar to saying that the Law doesn’t build character, it doesn’t turn us into who we want or should be. Instead, the law reveals us to be who we truly are. 

This show is full of illustrations of these kids talking about how difficult their lives have been. Joe Hampton who had a division 1 scholarship, lost his scholarship and ended up in jail, and is on his last strike, describes his path like this: “I’ve hated myself for what I’ve done. Disrespecting the game. I’ve had those moments when I explode and can’t control myself. So I regret a lot of things, I regret a lot of things. [Messed] my life up. I was supposed to be in a position to help my family a long time ago, instead I’m here. I wish I did a lot of things differently.” And yet these young men find themselves at East Los Angeles College with coach Mosley, who as the players say, “has this no man left behind mentality, this no man left behind thing”. 

One of the reasons the law is good and true and holy is that as a mirror it shows us we need help. If you feel like you need help, like you need forgiveness, only then will you be able to ask for it. Our hands sometimes need to be cracked open in order to receive some help or a little mercy from someone else. But one of the reasons the law isn’t fun and it’s painful is that when we feel the need for forgiveness, the world is not a forgiving place. The world doesn’t forget our sin ever. 

But there is a last chance for these kids. Coach Mosley says everyone has given up on these players: “Most of the kids that I get, they only have one door, one window left, and if they make a mistake that door is closed.” Many of the kids have moments when they break down and ask for help, when they’re cracked open by the law written on their hearts to their need for mercy. Thankfully the law is not all there is, and their request for mercy is met by Coach Mosley, and most profoundly by God Himself. 

At the end of this very powerful passage from Jeremiah, the prophet writes these words: “for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” The world remembers our sin; we remember our sins—sometimes we can’t forgive ourselves. But God has told us that He is with us, that His law is written on our hearts, He will not let us go, and most powerfully He will remember our sins no more. The law written on our hearts is our constant companion, but grace and God’s beautiful promise to remember our sins no more, this too is our constant companion. Coach Mosley says about these young men, “They need love the most when they deserve it the least. It’s not, oh that kid sucks, he’s a bad kid. The kids are dealing with a ton of demons. And they need love the most when they deserve it the least”.

Just before the team captain Deshaun transferred to East LA, his mother died of cancer. But she had a chance to talk to coach Mosley before she died and tell him that she was giving him her son, and that she was putting Coach Mosley in charge of Deshaun. The coach responds by talking to Deshaun, a young man who can’t sleep because of a “lack of peace” in his life, and telling him that he should listen to scripture on tape at night—maybe that will be the thing that puts you to sleep. But most powerfully the thing that coach Mosley says and demonstrates to this kid who has lost everything, made mistakes and doesn’t know where to turn, is this: “I looked at Deshaun and I told him, you’re mine forever. I think now he trusts me.”

Despite the fact that the law has been written on Deshaun’s heart and he knows he’s made mistakes, that basketball hasn’t been the window into his perfect future that he thought it would be, despite the fact that all he seems to have are these broken dreams and feelings of being lost and worthless, despite all of that, Coach Mosley looks at him and says, “you are mine forever.”

At our baptism, as the sign of the Cross, the eternal meeting place of the law and god’s Grace for us all, as it’s marked on our foreheads we’re told that we are marked as Christ’s own forever. The law may be a mirror, showing us who we are, it may be written on our hearts, constantly reminding us who we are as opposed to who we should be, cutting out our legs from us and forcing us to our knees searching for some answers and some mercy, but the Cross is our true window. It shows the experience of another person. Someone unlike ourselves who knew no sin but became sin on the cross, so that in him we all may become the righteousness of God. 

God knows that we’re all on strike two, but he has forgotten our sins, he has forgiven us, remembering our sins no more, but remembering, loving, guiding and claiming us as His own forever.