“Tattoos on the Heart”

Sermon March 22, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:20-33

“Tattoos on the Heart”


A few years ago, I began to follow Nadia Bolz-Weber. I have quoted her many times because I think she has great insight into being a follower of Jesus. Nadia is a Lutheran pastor in Denver. No one talks about her without describing her – she is covered in tattoos. She has saints and the church year tattooed on her arms. She is a beautiful mix of reverent and irreverent. We invited her to speak in Albuquerque a few years ago. I took her breakfast before the event began and she texted me with her breakfast order and the words “I love you so much and I haven’t even met you yet!” I showed up with breakfast and she was wearing a tight fitting tank top. Nadia does Crossfit and she’s very strong. It is hard not to stare at her tattoos. I thought she was wearing her pajamas and expected her to change for the presentation. She didn’t. She warned the group up front that she cusses like a sailor. She was a very engaging speaker, telling stories of her unique congregation House for All Sinners and Saints. I was struck by her open heart and her honesty about who she is. Tattoos are an expression of faith for her and church is a place where she is truly herself.


The reading today from Jeremiah comes during a tumultuous time. The people keep messing up and Jeremiah keeps telling them what a disaster they are making of things. They are tired of his negative viewpoint. God too, must be wondering what to do. The covenant idea seemed like a good one and it hasn’t worked so well. Everyone has to be reminded about God. They can’t seem to remember on their own. The text today is God’s brilliant solution…no more covenants out there somewhere. The covenant will now be written on our hearts. We won’t need teachers to remind us, “Don’t forget about God”. God will be so much a part of us that our actions will be a reflection of God.


It isn’t just God who struggles with people. Jesus calls followers and they have plenty of issues. They vie for positions of honor, they rebuke him when he talks about the suffering he will endure, and they betray him. Jesus wonders what to do with them. U.A. Fanthorpe imagined his perspective in her poem “Getting it Across”. In the poem, Jesus is speaking and expressing envy that Moses got his laws on stone. Jesus says, “I alone must write on flesh.” He describes his far from perfect disciples as “keystone cops” and says, “I am tattooing God on their makeshift lives”.


I’m fascinated with tattoos. I read a book called Virtual Faith years ago. This book tried to unlock the mystery of Gen X (the generation that follows the baby boomers). Tattoos and piercing became mainstream with this generation. When the book was written, leaders were trying to figure out why Gen Xer’s were disappearing from the church. The author of this book said this generation has deep spiritual longings. Tom Beaudoin, author of the book and a GenXer, said, “We are a generation willing to have experience, to be profoundly marked, even cut, when religious institutions have not given us those opportunities.”(p. 78) I think my fascination with tattoos is what they reveal about the person. It’s one thing to read about them in a book, it’s quite another to hear the stories that go with them. A friend’s blog says she “tattooed her story on her body a few weeks ago. She says her skin got a little bit more dangerous and it fits her just a bit better.” (http://www.blessedarethefeet.com/my-dangerous-skin/)


Another friend said that all of her tattoos mean so much. She calls them a “sweet little road map.” I asked several people about their tattoos this week and they all have stories to accompany them. This outward sign often reflects something deeply meaningful to the one who wears it.


I am curious about the exchange between our inner and outer selves. I think I’m especially curious because I know what it is to want to change something and try everything I can think of…reading books, talking to people, surrounding myself with quotes…and I still find myself stuck in ways I don’t want to be. Maybe you too have wanted to change something and couldn’t do it. Perhaps it was an addiction, or nursing old resentments, or forgiving someone who hurt you, or losing weight, or watching less tv, or praying every day. The Jeremiah text comes after covenants and promises and commitments have all been broken. The whole situation looks rather bleak. Perhaps it is time to give up…maybe we will just never get this God thing. Then God comes up with a new plan…forget the stone tablets (they are heavy anyway and someone is always dropping them)…what if I write on their hearts? What if I become a part of them in a way that I don’t have to remind them with some post it notes?


The new plan doesn’t involve tying a string around their finger or a tv commercial. It involves a radically different way of relating to people. God is written on our hearts. It is part of who we are. It isn’t something we grasp for externally. It comes from deep inside. It reminds me to start from the inside and to allow God to change us from the inside out.


Greg Boyle was a priest assigned to a poor mission in Los Angeles and found his calling in the gang community. He has written about his experience in a book called Tattoos on the Heart. In it he says, “Once, after dealing with a particularly exasperating homie named Sharkey, I switch my strategy and decide to catch him in the act of doing the right thing. I can see I have been too harsh and exacting with him, and he is after all, trying the best he can. I tell him how heroic he is and how the courage he now exhibits in transforming his life far surpasses the hollow “bravery” of his barrio past. I tell him that he is a giant among men. I mean it. Sharkey seems to be thrown off balance by all this and silently stares at me. Then he says, ‘Damn, G… I’m gonna tattoo that on my heart.’” (Tattoos on the Heart, by Gregory Boyle, preface p. xiv)


In the Old Testament, the heart was considered the seat of the will. If the heart belonged to God, one didn’t have to work to act like God, it just happened.


In a TED Talk called Compassion and Kinship Greg Boyle describes telling gang members “’You are exactly what God had in mind when God made you’ and then watching them become that truth, inhabit that truth. No bullet can pierce it; no four prison walls can keep it out. Death can’t touch it because it’s huge. Sometimes you have to reach in and dismantle the messages of shame and disgrace that get in the way so that the soul can feel it’s worth.” (2012)


There are so many messages telling us how we don’t measure up. We should make more money, lose weight, wash that gray right out of our hair or whatever the message of the day might be. I found myself in that situation this week as I wrestled with external messages that came at me day after day. I was told that it is ok for gays to live together but they shouldn’t be married. Another person told me that homosexuality is an abomination and I should divorce my wife. A very public pastor of a prominent church said that we can’t be gay and be Christian. It’s wearisome to be told that we aren’t enough. I didn’t come out until I was forty. I was scared because my call to ministry happened when I was sixteen. I have known God’s call so much longer than I have known I am gay. How would I reconcile these two things? A wise person told me it was like the two core parts of me were fighting with each other. Here is what I know. I am God’s beloved child. I am called by God. Another person’s inability to embrace that doesn’t diminish me in God’s eyes. I know this because God has written on my heart. “You are my beloved.” No one can take that away from me.


Macrina Wiederkehr said, “O God, help me to believe the truth about myself—no matter how beautiful it is!” (Seasons of Your Heart)


Can we look at our hearts and embrace the beauty within? Can we see ourselves through God’s eyes? Our task is to embrace and live the reality that we are God’s beloved. God has written this amazing love on all of our hearts. We belong to God and that is more than enough.