Seeds of Hope, Stories of Resurrection

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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.

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That time I preached about the Reformation during Advent…

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Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
1 December 2015
Jeremiah 31.31-34 (Reformation Day)


[With thanks to fellow ML 403 student Analyse Triolo for the recording!]


When I was handed the little slip of paper for my final preaching text, I honestly anticipated what feast or festival I would be given with a bit of dread. After all, we’ve heard a sermon on an Old Testament text for the feast day of a New Testament apostle. And just two weeks ago, we heard three sermons on good old triumphalistic Christ the King Sunday. So not to be disappointed, I got… Reformation Day. I mean, really, what could a Lutheran seminarian possibly have to preach about the Reformation to a room full of the same?

We all know the story of the Reformation. So instead, journey with me on my research for my Religious Heritage paper, about 450 years beyond the time of Luther, to a lesser known but no less important era of our shared ecclesiastical history.

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Jacob Preus

Still some two decades before the dawn of the ELCA, our sisters and brothers in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod had just elected a new president (their equivalent of a presiding bishop), Jacob Preus. That same year, the seminary in St. Louis had also just chosen John Tietjen as its new president. But these two men could not have been more different.

Preus represented the old guard—what we might today call a fundamentalist. For his part, Preus was simply trying to hold together a church body with a fraught and fragile history, insisting that what they’ve always believed could still hold true and be counted on. But his view also thought of Lutheranism as a box: You either agree with us or you don’t. You’re either in or you’re out.

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John Tietjen

But trouble was brewing at the seminary in St. Louis. With the support of President Tietjen, the faculty began to rattle the box. They dared to suggest that the old way might not be the only way or the best way for a changing context. Thinking outside the box, they suggested that Lutheranism was instead a platform. As God’s word cannot be contained, neither can its proclamation.

The faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis—and later Seminex—spoke against a system that tried to contain God’s word within an outmoded framework, privileging the old guard at the expense of those who sought to reform it.


When we gather every October 31st to commemorate the Reformation, we remember another group of reformers that likewise spoke against a system that tried to contain God’s word for a select, privileged few. Isn’t that interesting how church history tends to repeat itself?

The church of Luther’s day, as we know, tried to make salvation a commodity that could be boxed and bought. But Luther and the reformers knew that that’s not how grace works. Grace, they insisted, is freely available to all because it cannot be contained.

d84437ad811812321867d0b64ffc7efff8c5a434124475e335ecaa5d614ab147And surprise of surprises, this is a problem even older than church history itself. We see the same dilemma unfolding in our reading from Jeremiah this afternoon. The exile was one of the most earth-shattering events in the history of ancient Israel and spanned much of the prophet’s career. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they didn’t just take captives. They also destroyed and looted the Temple—the one place where the Jewish people thought God could be contained.

And this is the audience to which Jeremiah speaks his prophetic word. Talk about a challenge in pastoral care! And right smack-dab in the middle of the book comes our reading today: a vision of God’s new covenant and promise of restoration. Of course, Israel’s history of disobedience is nothing new, and in a way, neither is the certainty of God’s clear intent to forgive, no matter how many times God’s people mess up.

But there is also a sense that this “new covenant” is going to be different: It will “not be like” the old covenant, “no longer” will it be how it was in the past. The people thought God could only be found within their now destroyed temple, but God comes to them in a new, surprising way.

Jeremiah prophesies that not only can God’s word of grace not be contained, but that it comes when and how the people least expect it: the law will be written not on stone tablets but on their hearts, and this new covenant will include all people, not just the people of Israel. It disrupts their expectations of a neatly confined God with limited interests.

And so Jeremiah prophesies to us: In the moments that it feels like God is not where we have to come expect, we can look to the heritage of our tradition and our ancestors in faith for the confidence that God comes in quite different ways beyond our comfortable expectations and presuppositions. As we hear this word of reformation in the midst of the Advent season, I’m also reminded of the hymn text: “Unexpected and mysterious is the gentle word of grace.”


Lest we get too full of ourselves and our ELCA Lutheran pride on Reformation Day, we might do best to remind ourselves that God’s word is not limited to the Seminex movement either, nor is it limited to the pages of the Book of Concord. But as God’s word in Jeremiah is for all people, so then it must be able to speak always afresh to new contexts.

seminexThe logo that was designed for Seminex, after the faculty and student majority had no choice but to leave, depicts a chopped down, dead tree stump. But emerging from that stump is a new shoot of leaves. New life out of dead matter. That’s the message of the gospel. For the people of Jeremiah’s day, it meant God emerging from beyond the confines and rubble of a destroyed temple. Some time later in the history of salvation, it meant an empty tomb in a garden while it was still dark.

The good news today and every day is that God’s word of grace is always surprising and always being made new and manifested in unexpected and disarming ways. It can’t be boxed in—not in a temple, not in a sealed tomb, not in this chapel, not in doctrine or dogma made by humans. And for that, thanks be to God.