Seeds of Hope, Stories of Resurrection

Standard

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago
17 March 2018 + Lent 5B
Jeremiah 31.31-34; John 12.20-33


Wakanda Forever! (Not to be confused with the Illinois suburb, Wauconda.) It’s the rallying cry of a remote African nation at the heart of the recent theatrical blockbuster Black Panther. Theirs is a civilization technologically advanced beyond that of any modern country, but to the rest of the world, it’s seen as no more than a third-world nation, crippled by poverty and anything but tech-savvy — their discoveries kept a closely guarded secret to avoid exploitation by outsiders.

A central theme set up from the film’s beginning is the extent of Wakanda’s responsibility in global affairs. In a world of so much grave suffering and injustice, can a country so advanced and poised to offer aid really sit idly by? Or do they step in, even at the risk of exploitation?

That’s where I’ll stop, just enough of a teaser to get you to see it for yourself, without treading into the dangerous territory of the spoiler… Suffice it to say that Black Panther brings to the forefront a host of issues: the exploitation of vast parts of the globe by colonial powers, the moral responsibility of nations with the resources to alleviate suffering to step up and help, the ever-shifting and often unpredictable dynamics of world politics.

What does the prophet Jeremiah have to say to all of this? Quite a bit, actually.

Jeremiah knew something of what it’s like to live during a time of tremendous political unrest and turmoil. Jeremiah, in fact, lived through five kingly regimes during a time of drastic change and impending national exile in his country’s history.

Political rivals. Competing factions and parties. International war. Hostile foreign policy debates. It sounds a bit like the fictionalized world of Wakanda. It sounds a bit like our own reality. In the midst of this, Jeremiah prophesies on behalf of God to announce the destruction of Judah for turning away from the covenant between God and God’s people, at the heart of which is the command to love God and love neighbor — in other words, a commitment to social justice… but a commitment the people had long abandoned, turning their backs on those most in need.

Yet even amidst broken promises and the threat of destruction and exile, God acts. To paraphrase Kathleen O’Connor, in this tiny sliver of the promise of a new covenant, the book of Jeremiah testifies to an abiding hope in God despite all evidence to the contrary. This is a new covenant that will not be like the old covenant. We’ve been hearing a lot of covenant stories during these weeks of Lent — with Noah, with Abraham, with all of Israel at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, and now, this new covenant promised to an exiled people who least deserve it.

There’s a sense here that the promised new covenant is like a seed falling into the earth, buried deep, barely noticeable (to borrow imagery from our gospel text). It’s easy to gloss over these few verses from Jeremiah, buried deep, like a small seed, in prophetic oracles of judgment and hopelessness. But the thing about seeds is that they die in order to sprout new life, to bear much fruit. In that way, there’s a sense that this new covenant is a story of resurrection.

We can begin to draw the parallels to Jesus, but: There’s a danger here in leaping to the conclusion that the new covenant is fulfilled in Jesus. This tendency toward supersessionism — think back to Pr. Craig’s sermon a couple of weeks ago — abounds in Christianity, this idea that somehow Christianity has superseded, or replaced, Judaism with the coming of Jesus. In the first place, that completely misses the point that the first Christians were, technically, not Christians but observant Jews, merely a different “denomination,” you might say. But more importantly, it also misses the richness and profundity of this new covenant in its historical context, given to a people in exile, in the worst of the worst of situations, with no perceivable hope for the future. Yet even there, the new covenant means that God has still not given up on God’s people. Like a seed that falls into the earth and dies, this is a story of resurrection.

The story of resurrection is deeply embedded in the whole of salvation history, not just in the gospels. The story of resurrection shows up even here in Jeremiah and continues into the story of Jesus in John’s gospel.

John’s is a gospel full of rich theological language and words loaded with more-than-literal meaning. In John, Jesus speaks of the appointed time for his death as his hour. And his death is no ordinary death but instead the hour when the Son of Man will be glorified — glorified in the double sense of being physically “lifted up from the earth” on the cross and metaphorically glorified, or in some translations, exalted, raised up to a position of power, thus subverting the image of the cross as an instrument of torture and death and reclaiming it as a symbol of hope and life.

In a more subtle way, the image of the seed offers the same message. This week, I stumbled across these appropriate words of the gay Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos: “What didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot that I was a seed.” As an outspoken advocate for  the queer community through his poetry, Christianopolous wrote these defiant words in response to critics who tried to bury his work because of his sexuality. But, again, the thing about seeds, buried in the earth, is that they are destined to sprout new life. Seeds are subversive.

What a marvelous metaphor — this seed parable — for the death and resurrection story of Jesus! Life out of death, hope out of despair. Resurrection even in the midst of so much evidence to the contrary. The promise and presence of God even in the midst of desolation, injustice, political unrest, uncertainty, human brokenness. It’s the salvation story in its simplest form. It’s the story behind Jeremiah’s covenant, it’s the story Jesus tells about his own death, it’s a story that continues all around us even today — maybe you’ve seen it — in the voices of the women of the #metoo movement, or, just this week, in the witness of the students who walked out of their schools to call attention to gun violence. Where else?

Seeds of hope, falling into the earth, lying in wait. Resurrection stories in progress.

Advertisements

Covenant, Promise, Presence: A Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent

Standard

Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
5 March 2018 + Lent 3B
John 2.13-22; Exodus 20.1-17



What does this mean?

I can still hear those words as if I were hearing them in my childhood confirmation classroom. “What does this mean?” “We are to fear, love, and trust God above all things.” An almost robotic response.

The words from Luther’s Small Catechism have been emblazoned on the hearts and minds of Lutheran confirmation students everywhere, as surely as the Ten Commandments were first given to the ancient Israelites at Mt. Sinai many years ago.

Newly brought out of slavery from the land of Egypt, the people of Israel, God’s chosen ones, hear these new “commandments” read to them in the context of the covenant-promise between God and Israel, a marker of national and religious identity already established in the covenant made with Abraham we heard last week, and a moment that would define their relationship with God from that point on.

These “commandments,” however, are not exactly a set of laws or legal codes but are intimately tied to that covenant-promise. It’s unfortunate that Luther’s Catechism misses what our Jewish siblings actually observe as the first commandment: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The commandments begin with a word of good news! The law is rooted in gospel. And the you here is singular: These words are a reminder that God has liberated each person of Israel, that God has redeemed each one of us.

Rooted first in God’s action, the Ten Commandments are ultimately given as a model for living in community, with God and with each other. As later summarized in the version that appears in Deuteronomy, the Ten Commandments boil down to this: love God and love your neighbor. It’s a vision of God’s shalom, to borrow from Dr. Menn’s sermon last Wednesday, God’s peace, God’s wholeness. It’s a vision of being in an intimate relationship with God and with each other.


Fast forward to the time of Jesus, to the scene we encounter in John’s gospel, and we get a very different picture. We see religious practice not driven by love of God and neighbor for its own sake but co-opted by a sacrificial system made oppressive by corrupt temple practices by those in authority.

In three out of four gospels, we get an idea of what that corruption looked like. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus accuses the money changers and vendors of making the temple into a “den of robbers,” exploiting the people with price gouging and dishonest transactions. But in John, there’s no reason given. Jesus walks in, takes one look around, and promptly makes a whip to drive everyone out with a stern warning: Take these things out of here! Instead of targeting individual practice, Jesus condemns the whole system.

Then, in an allusion to the passion events still to come, Jesus makes the bold assertion: My body is the real temple, the real place you can meet God. Access to God is not comprised of complex rules and regulations and systems that have corrupted and only exacerbate the problem. Access to God is here and now! God is made known in the very presence of Jesus, the Word made flesh who makes his dwelling among us. Here, in Jesus, is the place where God and humanity meet. Get these other things out of here! What you need is here. As if to say: I AM.


While neither we as Christians nor our Jewish siblings today have any firsthand notion of temple-based worship, we do know something of what it’s like to get bogged down in things that distract or deter us from being in relationship with God.

We who seek ordination and consecration in this church as pastors and deacons know something of what it’s like to jump through hoops, feeling like we’re always having to “prove” our call to ministry, from entrance to approval. And the hoop-jumping continues in the paperwork, interviews, and evaluations of CPE, MIC, internship, assignment, and first call.

For we who are LGBTQIA+ or persons of color or living with disabilities, proving ourselves is made even more difficult by the systemic hurdles of homophobia and transphobia, sexism, racism, ableism, the list goes on.

The stress of midterm exams and papers, the hours spent preparing for qualifying exams and writing theses and dissertations, the time-consuming labor of sorting through CVs and interviewing faculty candidates, the minutiae of managing academic administration and accreditation and comprehensive campaigns…

It’s not difficult to get bogged down and burned out in the midst of carrying out our vocations, making us feel like our relationship with the One who called us here is distant, at best. Instead of temple vendors, cattle, sheep, doves, and money changers swarming all around, the demands of academic and administrative hoops to jump through absorb much of our time.


During Lent, a traditional time for “giving up,” we are invited into disciplines and practices that are meant to foster a mindset of repentance, of turning around, of refocusing and reorienting. This season, I found myself returning to Quaker writer and theologian Richard Foster who has written one of my favorite pieces on the spiritual practice of simplicity. Foster offers some very practical marks of what simplicity looks like:

Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.
Develop a habit of giving things away.
Learn to enjoy things without owning them.
Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.
Reject anything the breeds the oppression of others.

I have come to value the practice of simplicity as Foster describes it, though of course these things are easier said than done. But simplicity as a practice is an intentional invitation to declutter and remove those things which distract or harm us and to refocus on that which is life-giving, to enter anew into the intimate relationship with our Creator which they invite us to and so desperately want with us.


When I took a class on preaching the gospel of John last semester, one of the questions we asked after hearing a colleague preach was: What is the image of abundant life in this text? John’s gospel is indeed one of abundance, beginning right away with Jesus’s first miracle of turning water into wine at Cana and including such other signs as the feeding of the five thousand. There is explicit abundance in these stories, but there is abundance in more subtle places too. Jesus’s act of cleansing the temple is an act of  practicing simplicity — a clearing away of distractions, in order that we might experience God’s presence without obstruction. There is abundance here, and it is abundance in simplicity.

And while there is no allusion to the Ten Commandments in this story, it shouldn’t be lost on us that the gospel writer sets this event in the context of Passover — a festival with its roots in the exodus from Egypt, the journey through the wilderness, and the covenant at Sinai. Maybe it’s pure speculation, but I’d like to imagine that maybe, just maybe, Jesus had this in mind, pointing his people back to the covenant, back to all the words which God spoke, beginning with a reminder of their liberation and redemption.

These texts offer us the same thing. Whatever the baggage we carry with us into this space today that weighs us down, Jesus strips all that away and offers us the divine presence and promise in his very self.

I also remember hearing way back at my seminary sampler visit five years ago of LSTC’s mission statement: “to form visionary leaders to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ.” In the midst of our work here, no matter what else weighs on us, distracts us, burdens us, stresses us out, this is what are we are here to do, as God’s own redeemed people, loved beyond our wildest imagining.