For my birthday, my daughter gave this t-shirt to me with the words: “Free Hugs!!! (Just Kidding, Don’t Touch Me)”. I laugh, not only because it appeals to certain personality-types. But also because it’s a paradox that describes our times so well.
On the one hand, the invitation for ‘free hugs’ is in keeping with the message of grace—in the Lutheran tradition we will say especially today on Reformation Sunday. God’s grace is free! God’s love is free! All good things are free! Even hugs. ‘Let’s hug!’
At the same time, and especially in a pandemic , this message of ‘free hugs for all’ has been tempered by public health protections to keep us from physical proximity from and touch with others. And even as legal protections are lifted, so many are choosing freely to keep those protections in place—like masking and physical distancing. So, ‘Let’s not hug!’
We’ve had to live in the tension between the message—which we thought meant one thing—and the reality—which looked like the opposite of the message. And living in this in between place, trying to hold both seemingly irreconcilable truths has been difficult to say the least.
What do we do? ‘Let’s Hug!’ or ‘Don’t Touch Me!’ Whatever we do, we are leaning into a new thing for both.
Yesterday the confirmation class went into downtown Ottawa, right into the Market area of Vanier. We stood outside on a street corner and handed out pieces of pie to anyone who wanted. Freely. Without any cost to them.
Mostly the poor and homeless responded to our invitation. The pies went quickly. Some just wanted one piece. Others wanted many more pieces. And we gave them out, without condition. Without limit. Until they were all gone.
Afterwards we debriefed the experience with the youth and had a conversation about how it felt to give without cost or expectation of anything in return. This is not an easy frame of mind for us to accept, even in the church, and even in a Lutheran church where our main doctrine or belief you would say is the unconditional grace of God. Because we are so used to counting the cost and looking for ‘what’s in it for me’.
The confirmation class practised grace because the grace of God towards us creates the community of faith. Because of the loving way God is with us we practice loving others. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive others,” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. And this was the basis of the new covenant God made with Israel. The prophet Jeremiah announces the new thing that God is doing to renew God’s relationship with us, and consequently introducing the defining character of human relationships and community in faith.
There’s the old covenant and the new covenant. The old covenant is based on rules and the obligation of the people to follow them, with consequence. The old covenant is based on ‘what’s in it for me’ thinking. Israel failed at that project. The Babylonian exile resulted. The new covenant, born of the exile, still holds the rules, but now with a twist: “I will write my law on their hearts,” says the Lord.
Our faith as Lutherans and as Christians is in a God who embraces the earth and all that is in it, a God who embraces our humanity in Jesus, a God who gets hands dirty in our dirt and who bleeds for us. This is a God who initiates a loving relationship with us, with no conditions attached. And so, God touches our hearts.
An old woodcutter leads a donkey piled high with brushwood along a narrow mountain road. The wood slips and falls to the ground. As the man struggles to raise it, the king—disguised as a commoner—passes that way and stops to help. His hands embrace the thorns, his back bends to the task. The old man mumbles, “Thank you,” as the king rides on ahead to meet his waiting attendants.
The woodcutter continues down the mountain track, eventually catching up with the royal company. To his horror, he discovers who has helped him with his load. “I made a king stack wood for me,” he cries in dismay.
But the king smiles and offers to buy his donkey’s load, letting the woodcutter name a price he thinks fair. A gleam of understanding comes into the old woodcutter’s eye, and he explains that such wood can’t be sold cheaply. Ten bags of gold, he figures to be its worth. The king’s attendants laugh, saying the whole lot isn’t worth two barley grains. But the woodcutter insists that a great hand has touched these thorns … pointing to the bloodstains on the rough kindling.
“The wood itself is worthless, I agree – It is the touch which gives it dignity.”
The woodcutter knows the worth of a king’s touch. And the king, in turn, finds his boldness again in love irresistible.
There is no better time than in the turmoil and disruption of the pandemic, to assert the new covenant. It is important that Jeremiah, most anguished of the prophets, speaks this hope, for only one in anguish could hope so deeply. Here is another paradox: That only when we have exhausted all our resources, confessed our need, do we discover the grace of God.
God’s grace brings forth willingness for glad obedience. We don’t do God’s will because we have to, are forced to, or guilted into doing, or feel obligated, or because we fear punishment. But we follow God because we are free to do it, no longer bound by the legality of it. But doing it because it is the right thing to do. “The truth will make you free,” says Jesus in the Gospel for Reformation Day.
This new initiative on God’s part is grounded in God’s readiness to forgive all of Israel’s sins. The passage from Jeremiah announces God’s readiness to move beyond conditionality to a free embrace of Israel, to a new faithfulness with no strings attached. That divine readiness is matched by an anticipated readiness of Israel now to obey the commandments that are so intimately inscribed inside of every person.
At a time when we feel all our resources have been exhausted, when we feel we can’t do anything more, we hear the promise that God makes the first move of grace, a move which makes all things new on earth. God appeals to that still small voice within us, each one of you, in your hearts, to respond freely, with love.
God surprises us on the path of our lives by picking the pieces up that we will have spilled along the way. God makes the first move of grace, embraces our reality. God hugs us. God’s hands get dirty and bloody in the process. But God won’t go back and escape into a faraway heaven. No, God is committed to walking with us, and living in us, the rest of the way.
 Jeremiah 31:31-34
 John 8:31-36
 Walter Brueggemann, https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/passages/main-articles/new-covenant-jer-31
 Walter Brueggemann, https://www.religion-online.org/article/covenant-as-a-subversive-paradigm/
 Belden C. Lane, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), p.60-61.