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Jeremiah 31:31-34 & John 12:20-26
I have been wondering the entire time I have been working on this sermon series how I was going to fit the seven “social sins” from Gandhi’s list into six weeks of Lent. And then, just last week, I decided I wanted to do something different for Palm Sunday, so now I have to fit seven into five weeks. And that means we do the last three today. So, I hope you’re comfortable…
Or really, I hope that you are uncomfortable.
Would you pray with me? God of love and agitation, bless this time together. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts bring us closer to you, the ground of our being. Amen.
One of the common characteristics in all of the “social sins” that we have been covering this Lent, a list generated by none other than Gandhi, is that we all participate in them. That’s the way the seven “deadly” sins from Christian tradition are too, of course – we all participate in them as well. Gandhi’s list is –
Politics without Principle
Wealth Without Work
Pleasure Without Conscience
Knowledge without Character
Commerce without Morality
Science without Humanity
Worship without Sacrifice
I have engaged in all of these, or at least sought them out, and I’ll bet you have, too. Have you played the lottery? Wealth without work. Have you ever made a decision based solely on “what’s in it for me?” Pleasure without conscience. Do any of us who have money in the stock market, which includes this church, really know if it is all being used justly? Commerce without morality.
I say this not for the purpose of shaming, but for the purpose of solidarity. We all ought to know that when we call out sin, every one of us is involved. Not in the same way, not to the same degree, but we are all, as the late Billy Graham would have said, sinners. And I don’t know about you, but that makes me uncomfortable. And perhaps we don’t get enough of this kind of discomfort in religion, not the kind that shames, but the kind that reminds us that, “there but for the grace of God go I.” When we look to scripture, there’s plenty in there about transformation, about repentance, about revelation. Things hidden that are revealed, ways that we all fall short, opportunities to change, to grow to accept our own shortcomings and reach for something better. The language of the Bible is often about decidedly uncomfortable things, as if spiritual practice actually requires an intervention of sorts, an opening of the closet doors, the unpacking of the attic, the spring cleaning of our souls.
But that means the kind of work we don’t like, moving the furniture and dusting the high places, cleaning the baseboards and changing the air filters. Our faith practices rarely get this real, acting instead like a soft cushion to most, empowering our own proclivities and prejudices with the approval of a God who looks far too much like us. Yet the prophets in scripture tell us of a God who comes as a cleansing fire, a God whose intent is to “dig up and pull down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm”, in that no-pain, no-gain sort of way. A God who comes to work the muscles of our souls, causing some of us a lot of sore aching and others a pull or a tear, requiring some treatment, some rehab. Christianity, or the genuine practice of any spiritual endeavor, is not for the faint of heart, and it means that we must be willing to lift up the rugs and clean under the bed.
The section of Jeremiah read this morning comes as part of a great judgment that the prophet announces, despite the sort-of comforting language of “I Shall be their God and they shall be my people.” It points out all the bad stuff, with scary language and loads of public chastisement, calling out injustice, claiming, with the terminology of infidelity, that the people have cheated on God. Then Jeremiah seeks the will of the people to recognize such sin in their midst and to turn from it towards a God who seeks to be their benefactor. Now, I’m not sure I buy this whole model of God, and the judgmental part disturbs me as much as I imagine it disturbs you. Yet I appreciate the sentiment because we are alive in such a time as well. As Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz-Weber says in a brilliant op-ed in the Washington Post:
In Greek, the word apocalypse means to uncover, to peel away, to show what’s underneath.
That’s what this country has been experiencing in the past six months.
There has not been a sudden uptick in sexual misconduct and assault in our country,
the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are simply exposing what was already there.
Add to that the awareness of the ravages of a culture of violence on our society, including guns, the death penalty and a criminal justice system that seeks punishment over all else…attacks on a social safety net that has been steadily degraded over the past decade and, here in our state as well as others, an effort to make the most basic of arguments in support of public education that has reached an almost unimaginable level – the shutting down of schools because we cannot agree that schools are critical. The veil has been lifted and no amount of platitudes, promises or “thoughts and prayers” can put the lid back on – the time is not just coming. The time is now.
If this is uncomfortable language to you, it should be. These are uncomfortable times because they reveal to us what is at our core, and the core seems unbearably rotten. Again, Rev. Bolz-Weber:
When the subordination of women is established as God’s will, when slavery is established as God’s will, when discrimination against queer folks is established as God’s will, when the CEO of the National Rifle Association claims the right to buy a semiautomatic assault rifle is “not bestowed by man, but granted by God,” it delivers a poison that can infect the deepest parts of us.
Because messages that are transmitted to us in God’s name embed far beneath the surface,
all the way down to our original place, our createdness, our source code.
This is the trouble with sin, no matter the categories, no matter if it is social or deadly or otherwise. It infects us all, living inside us even if we don’t know how we caught the virus. I did not grow up in a fundamentalist household, nor did I attend a church that programmed me with the subjugation of women or the hatred of gay people. But I do live in Oklahoma, where we push legislation each and every session to do just that, where the theology of privilege and hierarchy dominate the landscape, where poverty is equated with moral failure and where a Gospel of love and compassion seems drowned out by the weak gospel of personal salvation and plastic righteousness. I too bear witness to a narrow faith. I have never belonged to a church with a female senior minister, nor, until I became a pastor, belonged to a church with a person of color on staff. I have heard the words echo in my own head – well, why don’t they just get a job? And, as the Lenten class on Wednesday nights is teaching us, I have engaged in racist acts that I did not know were racist, because racism so often masquerades as “normalcy”, that’s how infected we all are. I am infected, too.
The list of social sins we have been covering for Lent is just like the list of personal sins from the so-called seven deadlies that our tradition leaves us…they aren’t any good if we simply aim them at other people. We have to know that they live in us. We have to know that they are woven into this thing we call life, infused at a cellular level into our beings. Then, and this is the tricky part, we have to be willing to set them aside, including the assumptions that come with them, the paradigms that are so “normal” to us that we don’t even see them, and be willing to have them die.
In the passage from John, some Greeks come to the disciples…by Greeks we ought to read “foreigners” or “pagans” or the “not to be trusted.” They want to see Jesus. Note that they don’t ask about a new member’s class, nor do they want to sit down for coffee with the pastor or learn about the programming for their kids. They want to see Jesus, face-to-face. And Jesus responds with a finger pointed right in the direction of the cross. Upon hearing the request to “see him”, Jesus asks that they be drawn more deeply into the kin-dom of God. He tells them they must plant themselves, and be tended to by the God of whom Jeremiah speaks – a God who watches over them to build and to plant. He offers his life as example, a life of love for, service to, and sacrifice on behalf of the neighbor, those all around us. A life that demonstrates God’s strength through vulnerability, God’s power through what appears as weakness in the eyes of the world, and God’s justice through love, mercy and forgiveness. And he calls those who would follow him, all of us, to the very same kind of life and love, and to the death that accompanies it – the death of status quo, the death of our forgetfulness as to how we are created and for what purpose we are created, the death of our sin. This is no metaphor, but a death that is very real. Think about the ways that teenagers are being shouted down as they make a simple claim for their safety, or how women who finally voice their mistreatment get dragged through the mud. Think of how stubbornly legislation continues to hammer away at poor people, and how the lie of “might makes right” continues to be propagated, even by people calling it peace. Think of how quickly the angry reaction to #BlackLivesMatter came, despite overwhelming evidence that people of color are treated differently by our systems of justice. Now, if that doesn’t make you uncomfortable, I don’t know what will.
May God bless us in our discomfort. May God stretch our love so that we might offer mercy and forgiveness to a world dead-set against them. May we know that what it means to follow Jesus is to live life, death and resurrection over and over again, seeking life beyond this age, beyond our limited understanding of what success or fulfillment is and trusting in the God who attaches our souls to eternity. Amen.