Sunday, March 25, 2012

Love and Glory

Sermon on John 12: 20-33
5 Lent, Year B
March 25, 2012

(Click here for an audio recording of the sermon)

Several of us here at Holy Communion are taking part in the Bible 365 program. There’s a special Bible used in this program in which each day’s readings are organized into supposedly chronological order. Now, anyone who has ever made a New Year’s resolution knows how hard it is to keep up with something every single day for an entire year. And I will be the first to admit that there have been days I have gotten behind, but mostly, I was doing pretty well -- until we got to the late February and early March.
Those readings were centered predominantly upon the thousands of rules and regulations in the book of Leviticus. I mean to tell you, that was a SLOG, even though I knew it was coming. All the orders to use this specific color of thread and this specific kind of wood and avoid eating any sort of creeping animals. All this discussion regarding the burning of entrails! All these different animals getting sacrificed, and their blood being sprinkled all over the altar, and then at the same time all the specific rules about cleanliness, which if you think about it is somewhat contradictory. It was just so mind- numbingly detailed. The endless lists! It was the part of the Bible that could have been written by an… engineer. An engineer who likes to play Modern Warfare 3, the gory Playstation game. But I’m being redundant.
Nevertheless, there are many reasons why we need to be familiar with these readings in the Old Testament. The early Jewish Christians understood Jesus as the one who had been foretold in the Law and the Prophets, and through them we have that understanding as well. Those readings in the Old Testament that we endured in February explain that the people need a lot of guidance to live in community with each other and in community with God. Our readings today build upon both that tradition and upon a presumption of our familiarity with that background. Without that frame of reference, Jesus could have been just another failed rebel against a corrupt regime who was born, lived and died without much outside notice.
As Brooke discussed last week, the important thing for understanding any story is context. Of the four gospels in the Christian Bible, John’s is the most different, and many biblical scholars say it is the most theological, which is why the author of the gospel of John-- whoever he was-- is often referred to as “the theologian.” In each Lenten lectionary cycle, there is at least one reading from John. In year B, the year we are currently in, four of the Lenten readings are from Mark, and three are from John. This is interesting because these two gospels are very different. Mark is the shortest of the gospels, and it presents one of the bleakest pictures of Jesus’ passion story. It probably originally ended on a note of despair: “They were afraid.” And who could blame those beholding the empty tomb and the missing body of Jesus for being afraid?
But John’s gospel is different. Jesus’ suffering on the cross is downplayed, in favor of the concept of the cross being a means of glorifying God. All through this gospel, Jesus is a heavenly figure who comes to us to reveal to humanity the true way of faith, and hope, and love, and then will ascend -- be lifted up-- bringing glory to God. In this gospel, Jesus is very clear about his divine origins, so he doesn’t engage in a lot of tap-dancing around his status as the Messiah. This view of Jesus is of one who is in charge.
In our reading today, even when Jesus admits that his soul is troubled, yet in the same breath he presses on in order to fulfill his purpose and bring glory to God. Now, if that was the only part of the story we had, we might walk away missing the fact that Jesus was also fully human. We have had five weeks of Lent in particular to contemplate how God is with us in trials and in suffering because Jesus is walking the way of suffering and death on the cross. We will return to that contemplation through Holy Week. But today we are called to remember that Jesus is a figure of amazing power, God incarnate sharing our joys and suffering but also drawing all people to the love of God. Death will be unable to keep down hope, and faith, and love, even death on a cross.
            How do we (and John) understand the paradox that the cross is a symbol of victory and power rather than dishonor and disgrace? A death which is a sign of torture is instead a triumph. This was a scandalous idea at the time it was formulated, as it also is for us. Crucifixion was the means of execution for rebels and for murderers, and it was a terrible, lingering way to die.
But by casting back to the events of the history of Israel, John sees that the saving power of the cross has already been hinted at. Last week we heard the story of the people of Israel being saved by looking upon a symbol raised up on a pole, and looking upon that sign saved them from death. The reading from John’s gospel last week started off making explicit the connection between this sign and the lifting up of Jesus on the cross. For John, it is through the exaltation of the Son of Man on the cross that God, through Jesus, is glorified.
            The gospel reading for today is the hinge upon which the good news of the gospel of John is proclaimed. This is the point at which, as Jesus says, “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” What caused this hour to finally come at this particular point? The world—in the form of some “Greeks,” which means us—has come to Jesus. And now—NOW--Jesus is going to be exalted—lifted up—on the cross and beyond the cross, held up to bring all of the world to Go. Jesus makes this clear when he says: “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” In the gospel of John, this is the point where Jesus moves from his ministry toward his exaltation-- when we come to Jesus. Victory can push through to us at the darkest of times. For John, the crucifixion brings victory, because the cross brings the world to God. We don’t usually think of it this way, but the metaphor of the grain of wheat helps us remember this too. Jesus speaks again in paradox. In order to live we must die. Those who die to themselves will finally have a full life.
Today’s readings are a breath of hope in the season of Lent. Our Old Testament reading comes from a section of Jeremiah known as the “Little Book of Comfort,” and it was written at a time when many in Israel felt that Israel was being punished yet again for its lack of faith. Jeremiah promises that God will make a new covenant and wipe away the old system of atonement for sin. God will write the Law upon our hearts by planting the knowledge of God in our hearts. No longer will God’s people have to rely upon a complex set of rules and sacrifices to maintain a correct relationship with each other and with God. Our epistle makes it clear that Jesus is the means for that old system of sacrifice and atonement to pass away. God has given us an everlasting gift that can finally overcome our doubts and pettiness that seem to always be getting us into trouble.
Just a week ago, the trees were bare, and the ground was hard. I was sitting in my backyard working on what I would say today, in the dead remains of a garden I planted last spring. It looked pretty brown back there. The soil is very poor, and the summer had been very hot. I thought I had probably wasted all of that effort, and that none of the plants I had planted would return.
But as I spent hours there each day, and really stilled myself to see, I looked around and things had changed right before my eyes! I noticed the fiddleheads of ferns poking through the dead blanket of needles from the pines. I saw a crocus I had planted years ago and completely forgotten about push through the new sod. That delicate Japanese hosta unfurled its first tentative leaves in the place along our back fence where I was sure the daily deluge of urine from my neighbor’s moronic dog had killed it!
And two days later—boom!! The redbuds waved their millions of tiny blossoms from bare branches, and they were beautiful. They are beautiful, but they are transitory. Those same blossoms must themselves fall to the ground to make way for the heart-shaped leaves that will soon provide a canopy of cool shade. Then, in November those leaves too will subside and drift to the ground themselves.
So, also, the solitary grain of wheat must fall to the ground and be buried before it can bring forth much fruit.  Otherwise, it remains a single grain—the original Greek here actually says, “Remains alone.” Jesus, through his upcoming passion, will also be nailed on a cross, facing death and feeling abandoned and alone. We know this will happen. But we also know that that cross will then awaken the world to the greatest power on earth—the power of love that does not hold our frailties and sins against us, but calls us to a new life in love.  We know that the cross is not the end for Jesus, but just the beginning of victory.
So the image of the grain of wheat says something first of all about Jesus as the Christ, but second of all it says something about us. Christ transforms death through his own death on the cross, and then rises again to bring light and hope into this divided world. We become faithful by dying to our own divisions and fears and embracing love as Jesus spread his arms of love on the cross.
This is what all of the Bible has been trying to get through our thick skulls all along. Our faith doesn’t tell us how to die. It tells us how to live. It doesn’t tell us what to give up. It tells us what we will gain. It doesn’t tell us that the world is broken. It tells us how to make the world better.
            How should we respond to this? It is made clear to us in the gospel, that we who claim to serve Jesus have to be willing to allow our old lives spent living for ourselves, spent surrounded by our individual concerns and cares, to pass away. We are asked to allow the bitter, jealous parts of ourselves to die, and empty our grasping hands and our fearful hearts so that there will be room for something better to be planted and burst into bloom. When our hearts are full of fear, there is no room for love to take root. There is no room to truly love God and glory in the ability of God to love us. We have to be willing to let go of the junk the world tells us to value in order to be able to grasp the gift of God’s incredible love and mercy that never fades and never dies.
We ourselves have to let go of fear, and place our faith in the power of love just as Jesus did as he prepared for his glorification. When we allow ourselves to be reborn to love, as we are called to be as servants of Christ, we will receive back not a life filled with poverty of spirit. We will be given a life of abundance instead.
And yet, our old life dies hard. Our suspicion that we will somehow lose out by realigning our lives with love has to be overcome. How do we do this? We have to prepare the fields of our hearts for the seed to be able to take root and grow.
            Lent is a season of preparation. But for what are we to be preparing? We began Lent being reminded that we are dust, and to dust we will return. Some despair when contemplating this very true statement. Some find this statement to be a frightening reminder of how short our lives are, in the general scheme of things. But we will not have much of a life if we spend it distracted by fear from the things that really matter. We are called to live lives that have meaning, and today’s gospel reminds us that that meaning is found in serving God, which is another way of saying that we must serve the cause of each other as God’s people.
Our lives began in love, and our lives are exalted by love, and must be spent serving the cause of love-- the love that gives itself up for friends, the love that is willing to see beyond the tomb, just as Jesus did, to being fully within the glory of God.
In her book of Lenten spirituality entitled A Practical Christianity, the Very Rev. Jane Shaw, dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, writes: “Faith in the God of love draws us back to a path of preparation: it calls us to the expression of love in all that we do, by which we might reflect the love of God and become most fully who we are called to be. This forces us to look outward, to love neighbor and love God. And it prepares us to look inward with confidence, to see ourselves as received and loved—wholly and completely—by the God who created us….”
We are given that love through the love of Christ that manifested itself through his laying down his life for us. We are approaching Jerusalem this week, turning our faces toward home, toward the raising up of the cross-shaped banner of Love. We are approaching the hour when God’s love will be made manifest to us, when, in a few short days, we will pass through the darkness of the passion. It is for this moment that Jesus lived—it is for this moment that we are called to allow the love we receive to transform us into the people of God here on earth.
The signs of God’s love are all around us everywhere, and today we are reminded that Jesus is the beacon that calls us to open our eyes and our hearts. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” the Greeks asked Philip and Andrew. But as anyone who has read scripture knows, even physical sight of Jesus was not enough for most people. The kind of sight we need is the recognition that we ourselves are nothing without love, and we see that when we behold just what Jesus is willing to do out of love for us. Last week we were reminded that God so loved the world that God’s only Son was given so that all would have true life. All of us. No exceptions. No dividing lines. No “us” versus “them.”
Jesus is right before us, always. We already have the love of God written in our hearts. In a few short weeks we will be able to proclaim this beautiful hymn, written by e. e. cummings in 1950:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of all nothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

How could we doubt unimaginable God and the love that lifts us up? We have the sign of that love right in front of us and indeed all around us. In the gospel today Jesus says, “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The way we have twisted our own lives in this world is the way of struggle, the way of strife, the way of tearing apart the fabric of the community in the name of self-glorification. Why fear letting that way of life die and be blown away like so many dead leaves?
Without the love of God transforming our lives, we are the walking dead. We are dead to beauty. We are dead to truth. But by giving up this self-centered life, we do not lose but gain. We become aware of the transcendent power of God to heal our wounded souls, to illumine our lives even at their darkest moments, to make clear the millions of ways every day that God sustains us and loves us.
We begin and we end with Jesus calling all people to himself. This is the sign of the exalted one. This is the sign of perfect love, love that knows no boundaries or admits any defeat, even at the foot of the cross. This is the hour that Jesus is glorified, the hour when we can finally let go and allow ourselves to be drawn to him. The Son of Man lifted up on the cross publishes and proclaims the love of God in the world, a love that is present for us at all times in all places. Let us allow ourselves to let that Love take root within us, now and forever. Amen.

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