Emily Heath, a UCC pastor in Exeter, NH, recalls her first day of preaching class in seminary. The professor read this passage from 2 Corinthians:
“We are putting no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights,hunger.”
And then he said, “That’s what the first Christians endured in order to preach the Gospel…you’ll
probably survive this class.”
Sometimes we contemporary Christians make the mistake of thinking we have it rough. [Emily writes].We have to compete with Sunday morning baseball games and yoga classes. Our pews
aren’t full the way they were back in 1950. Our kids can’t even sing “Silent Night” at school anymore! Some even say that modern American Christians are being “persecuted.”
Except, really, we modern American Christians are pretty darn comfortable. [In fact, Emily suggests,] calling yourself Christian in our culture is one of the easiest things you can do. [Stillspeaking Devotional, 3/20/15]
Here in these last couple of weeks of Lent, we are closing in on the really tough part of the journey. We know where this journey is heading, and I don’t mean Easter–at least, not yet. The going gets rough here, as we re-tell, re-live, the story of betrayal, of arrest, of beatings, of desertion, of death and loss. It’s a story that is still literally being lived out in many parts of the world today, and even in our own comparatively “safe” lives, we experience betrayal, loss, suffering, and death. We cannot afford to skip over this part of the story, lest we lose the heart of what we claim to be our faith.
The passage from John that Sharon read for us this morning comes immediately after Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem and the growing dis-ease of the religious leaders about Jesus’ popularity. The “Greeks” who came to Philip, who wanted to see Jesus, are an indication of just how widespread Jesus’ notoriety had become–beyond the Jewish community. Jesus speaks to them about what’s on his mind–death. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…”
In John’s gospel, Jesus is a man in control. Writing as an old man, probably sometime in the late first century, John can see Jesus’ life from the perspective of hindsight. Of course it had to happen this way, he can say. Jesus knew what he had to do. There is no Garden of Gethsemane scene in John, where Jesus asks God to find another way for him to go forward, where tears fall like drops of blood; but here in this passage, we see a glimpse of that. “Now my soul is troubled,” Jesus says. That’s the glimpse–but then he’s back in control. “And what should I say–‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”
From the very beginning, John talks about Jesus’ being lifted up on the cross as the ultimate expression of God’s glory. That’s a hard thing for us to wrap our brains around. “Glory” as we think of it is a matter of celebrity, of triumph, of pride. God needed Jesus to die on the cross to get glory?! How is that good news? But God’s glory is not bought with blood. It is in that self- emptying, that letting go into the greater light, that seed dying in the ground so that it might bear much fruit that is a much better way of understanding God’s glory–infusing glory into everyone and everything. In John’s gospel, Jesus nods to his mother and the disciple he loved from the cross and commends them to one another–Behold your son, behold your mother–and a new family, a new community is born.
This is a Jesus whose soul may be troubled, but who knows what he must do, who knows that his calling is to go through the confrontation with the powers that be, with suffering and with death–not because it’s already determined, but because he chooses to follow that path. God’s heart is in his heart. God’s vision is his vision. He knows the way forward “by heart.”
In another rough time, in the midst of grief and loss, of exile and humiliation, when hearts
and spirits were broken, God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah,
“The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah….not like the one they broke, though I was their husband…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; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Jeremiah’s “rant” against the people is over. He’s warned them of the consequences of their betrayal and turning away from God, even though God was their “husband,” or “master.” And they have indeed experienced those consequences of trusting in other gods, in foreign and military powers, as Jerusalem was destroyed and the elite carried off into exile.
But now it is time for a new message–a message of energy, of hope, of deep healing, and the restoration of relationship. “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.” How often do we hear that the God of the Old Testament is the God of wrath, and the God of the New Testament a God of love? It is one God. Here in the “Book of Consolation,” as this part of Jeremiah is often called, God is more like a loving, frustrated parent, who grieves over the consequences of a child’s actions. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.” God grieves over Israel and Judah, precisely because of love. And I cannot help but believe that God is grieving over our world today.
“I will write my law upon their hearts,” God says through Jeremiah. “… They shall all know me.” The heart is not just about feeling. It is about our core identity. God’s vision, God’s law, God’s love at the heart of our identity. I read somewhere this week that our lives are not about acquiring skills and experiences and wisdom until we finally become who we’re supposed to be, but rather a stripping away, a letting go of everything until we uncover who we’ve always been and are meant to be.
“Lent is our season of honesty,” Walter Brueggemann writes. (Odyssey Networks, 3/16/15) – honesty about our brokenness as individuals and as a society, about how far we’ve gone from our true hearts which are filled with God. Like Jeremiah warned ancient Israel, Brueggemann points to our “indulgent privilege and strident exceptionalism” as a nation–an indicting, biting summary as Walter is so capable of. As long as we are in denial and illusion about how we have broken the covenants of neighborliness and with God, wholeness is not possible. The prophetic tradition cuts through the denial and strips away the illusion so that radical newness can break through. We are called to live as neighbors, in our local and global communities, sharing and being stewards of the resources of this beautiful planet. It might even be said that this call to live as neighbors and stewards, in justice and peace, a call that is at the core of the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is the only way forward to any kind of sustainable future–just as Jesus knew that the way forward for him would involve sacrifice and dying to self.
When the going gets rough–and really, before the going gets rough–it is important to know what–or Who–is in our hearts. We talk about coming here on Sundays to be reminded of who we are and Whose we are. What do you know by heart? We’ve been using games to help us remember important parts of the psalms, which we know Jesus knew by heart as well, calling them out from the cross–”My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” –Psalm 22. “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” –Psalm 31. When we are wracked by guilt over something we did in the past, might we remember hopscotch and the line from Psalm … – “Skip over the sins of my youth.” When we feel like an utter failure, not fit for anyone to see us, might we remember hide and seek–”God, you do not hide your face from me when I am a mess.” Feeling lost and abandoned? “Gather us in from north and south, east and west, O God.” Think you’re the only one who seems to want to acknowledge God? “Day speaks unto day, and night unto night, the praises of God.” Wondering how you should act? Follow the leader: “I will repeat aloud all the laws you’ve given. I delight in following your ways….”
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit…” That is not just way of wheat, it is the way of human beings, living in community in relationship with God. “I will write my law upon their hearts…and they shall know me.” At our core, the most essential truth about us, is that we are filled and surrounded by the love and power of God. The challenge, of course, is to be open to that truth, and aware of that truth, day by day.
F. Forrester Church was pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York until his death from cancer in 2009. In his book, Everyday Miracles, he wrote,
The power which I cannot explain or know or name I call God. God is not God’s name. God is my name for the mystery that looms within and arches beyond the limits of my being. When I pray to God, God’s answer comes to me from within, not beyond. God’s answer is yes, not to the specifics of my prayer but in response to my hunger for meaning and peace. Choose life and trust life. Grow in service and love. Take nothing for granted. Be thankful for the gift. Suffer well. Dare to risk much. Consecrate your world with laughter and with tears. And know not what I am or who I am or how I am, know only that I am with you. This is God’s answer to my prayer. There are times when God is not with me, so many times. Times of distraction, fragmentation, alienation, brokenness. But when I open myself to God, incrementally my wholeness is restored. Perhaps that which I call the mystery of God is no more than the mystery of life itself. I cannot know, nor do I car, because the power that emanates from deep within the heart of this mystery is redemptive. It is divine. By opening myself to it, without every hoping or presuming to understand it, I find peace. The mystery of God will remain a mystery. That, I suppose, is as it should be. Anything less would fail to do justice to the every day miracles of consciousness, of love and pain, of life and death. Responding to these miracles, responding to God’s yes, I can do not other than to answer yes in return.
When the going gets rough, remember what and who is in your heart. Remember whose heart you are in. So may we too answer yes.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark