Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33
I feel like I need to start today’s sermon by saying it’s been a busy week in Lake Woebegon! Not just snow days that were mild, and non-snow days that were wild, or surprising turns in the news. I also attended a couple of events this week that still have me thinking.
This past Wednesday afternoon, in the middle of that big snow storm, I went to Muddy Brook Elementary School just down Route 7 for an all-school assembly. You will recall that Wednesday was the one-month anniversary of the school shooting in Florida. While high school students all over the country were walking out, the administrators and teachers at Muddy Brook worked to find an appropriate way for their young charges to observe the day.
Each student had made an affirming card they exchanged randomly with another student. They also made bracelets for one another, each with three beads: a red bead to symbolize caring for your self; a green bead to symbolize caring for the earth; and a golden bead to remind them of the golden rule: to treat others as they would like to be treated. When the students were asked why they were gathered, one student said, “because it’s good for our community to be kind to one another.”
In addition they sang songs like, “This Little Light of Mine” and “Peace Like a River.” And two fourth grade classes stood and recited a Shel Silverstein poem:
I will not play at tug o’ war.
I’d rather play at hug o’ war,
Where everyone hugs
Instead of tugs,
Where everyone giggles
And rolls on the rug,
Where everyone kisses,
And everyone grins,
And everyone cuddles,
And everyone wins.
I am grateful to Principal Mary Berle and Librarian Patty Melville (both part of our community here at St. Paul’s), as well as all the teachers and administration who thought of such creative ways to respond our current world situation—to help kids understand the best ways to respond to hatred and violence.
And then just yesterday I went to parish leadership day for our diocese, at a college in Springfield. We talked about how our God is a God of story—everything we do as Christians is tied to story. We learned about the power of telling our stories and how to do it. All of this was about evangelism—learning how to share the good new of Jesus Christ. I also had the privilege of being part of the announcement of our upcoming Revival here in this diocese – mark your calendars: on Sunday, October 21 our Presiding Bishop will be with us for a wonderful moment of evangelism that will move from place to place here in the Diocese. I am honored to be the co-chair of this Revival. More to come soon!
And I am amazed at the power of the Holy Spirit: All of this relates to this morning’s reading from the Gospel. As we join the story, Jesus has just come into Jerusalem. He has come to the great city for Passover, and, also, we know, for the inevitable events of the Passion.
Following his triumphal entry—the event we will recall next Sunday—he is approached by Greeks, who want to meet him. As this is Jesus’ last public dialogue in the Gospel of John, scholars speculate that this approach by outsiders signals the change of focus for the message of Jesus from his own people to the entire world. Jesus is pointing the way for his followers—that they must connect outside of their own familiar surroundings.
Interestingly, however, we don’t really get the story of Jesus’ interaction with the foreigners. Instead, he makes a public statement. He begins to explain the meaning of his coming death and resurrection.
Who Christ is speaking to is really unclear—and probably irrelevant. That’s because we are the audience Christ is speaking to. He is pointing us to the mystery of God’s actions in the fateful week that lies before him.
And he says words that are ripe with symbolism. “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.” We know that the grain Jesus speaks of is himself, and the death he speaks of is his own.
But with these words, and those that follow, he invites us to follow him into the events of Holy Week—and to be willing to die to self, because only in the act of giving oneself completely can we unleash the full power that God promises.
Jesus then appeals to God the Father, who answers him from heaven—now that must have been quite a scene! I know there’s a whole sermon just in those verses, but my eye is drawn a bit farther down. “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out,” says Jesus. That one intrigues me.
As we try to unravel this statement, we first have to look back to the original Greek, to understand just what Jesus means when he says, “the world.” The Greek term is kosmos, which refers not to God’s creation, but rather to the fallen realm of humanity that is in opposition to God’s purposes. One scholar says that a better translation of kosmos for our day might be “the System;” that is, the structures and institutions of humanity that shape our lives and seek to hold us captive to their ways.[i]
Theologian Walter Wink spoke extensively about this concept of kosmos and of Jesus’ preaching about it in his book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination.
He suggested that many of the lures of our society can easily take us down the path of death rather than life. He points to our appetite for consumerism, where we begin to value stuff more than relationships; our inclination toward domination, where we start to see the world only in terms of winners and losers; and even the embrace of violence, where we begin to believe that the only path to eliminating threats to peace and order is to destroy them with physical force. Wink reminds us that this is the system that takes Jesus’ life. Jesus was hardly a major player in the Roman-occupied Jerusalem; by all rights he should not have been considered dangerous. But those in power perceived of Jesus as a threat to the Pax Romana, or Peace of Rome. And so they turn to the solution of violence—they kill him.
In his very public torture and execution on a cross, Jesus continues to expose the system for what it is. By his very death, he shows that the human systems that we think might give life, or protect, are actually what bring us death.
Jesus urges us to turn away from the ways of the kosmos – of our human world, and instead turn to the way of God. As we prepare to go into the events of Holy Week, and again face our own guilt in turning away from the way of Christ, we are challenged to turn our focus outward; to see the world around us, and to experience the other.
What might that mean for us?
Well, it begins with actually seeing and naming the powers—acknowledging the ways that the System gives unfair advantage to some while allowing others to flounder.
And this naming of the powers is also an important part of the work of racial justice. At St. Michael’s Church in Manhattan, where I served as an assisting priest, a racial justice group gathered regularly to hear stories of the ways that racism has affected each of us, and to name the evils that we all too often are willing to overlook. This was important, and sometimes difficult work. But as we engaged one another, I think all of us had our eyes opened in ways we had never imagined. We learned not only about each other, but about ourselves. For me and for many other members of the group, these conversations were some of the most stimulating and illuminating conversations we had ever engaged in. Like the workshops I attended yesterday, they remind me of the power of hearing and telling our stories.
Now, once we’ve identified some of the evils of the world, we must move beyond just naming them—naming is an easy thing for anybody, but especially for a preacher, to do. I find myself challenged not just to talk about it, but to do something; to actually work to make a difference.
One route to these ends is through activism—working directly for change. Each of us must take seriously our responsibility to make our system more just, more fair, more compassionate. We make this happen through the ballot box, as well as through our advocacy, letting public officials know what matters to us. We are called to play an active role in changing the system.
Another route to that path to this way of Christ is through service to others; in choosing service, we are able to see the way of God, which is the way of love. And in service our hearts are softened, so that we can begin to see beyond ourselves and to empathize with those who are not like us. As we serve, we are changed. We begin to reflect Christ.
And such service is itself a political act. By supporting the Lee Food Pantry for over twenty years, we have been a constant reminder to our community that there are many among us who do not have enough to eat, and that we believe it the responsibility of society to feed those who are hungry. And, through our service, we not only stand with those who are in danger of succumbing to the system, but we gain empathy and understanding. We gain far more than we give.
In the center of these verses, Jesus says, “Those who love their life lose it; and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” I wonder if at least part of what he’s getting at is our far too pervasive smugness about the good fortune many of us have been privileged to live in. Wallowing in the superficial, in the trappings of the good life, and turning our eyes away from those ravaged by the same systems that have made that good life possible, leads only to death. Opening our eyes and acknowledging the ways that the System makes us all less, in fact, leads to Christ and to eternal salvation.
And finally, and above all else, we must always turn to the way of love.
Jesus calls us to die to self—to give up the self-centered and short-sighted ways of the world, and instead open our eyes to the needs of the world, and to dare to live for others—to dare to love others. We are all called to follow the way of Christ—the way that looks outward, that values the other at least as much as we value ourselves, and that opts for the love of God and not the violence of the world. Each year, as we experience again the events of Holy Week and Easter, we are reminded of the grace of God, which made it possible for Christ to rise from the dead, and also makes it possible for even strong-willed—dare I say stubborn?—folk like us to walk the way of Christ.
May we all find our feet on the path to God’s eternal salvation. Amen.
[i] Campbell, Charles L. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p. 141.