The Scariest Word In Church

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

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Warning: this is going to be one of the scariest sermons you’re ever going to hear.

I’m invoking the poet and author Annie Dillard, who said, It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares.

So you have been duly warned.

Now you might be thinking that I’m going to preach a fire and brimstone sermon about the wages of sin and the threat of eternity in the flames of hell. But you’d be wrong. Or you might think this is going to be one of those intimidating stewardship sermons, which will end with a plea to log into Vanco right now and give until it hurts. Nope, not that either.

Today, I am going to be talking about a word that makes Lutheran Christians shake in their shoes. I’m talking about witnessing. I’m sorry, I really am. It’s unavoidable. Jesus has the last word in today’s gospel reading: “You are witnesses of these things.”

Granted, we’re not the only Christians who quake at the idea of witnessing about our faith. But since Garrison Keillor made a living out of portraying Lutherans as shy, unassuming, self-effacing people, we have a reputation to live down. So, while I know that some people do find it easy to do, I’m going to make a wild guess that 99% of you would say that – even if we were not sheltering in a pandemic – you would not relish the idea of walking out your door and start talking to passers-by about your faith.

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Well then, what are we to do with these words of Jesus? For starters, we could say that he wasn’t talking about us. He was talking to those eyewitnesses who had seen the post-resurrection appearances, had seen Jesus walk through doors, heard him ask for something to eat, met him and talked with him on the road, read the scriptures and broke bread with him. We’re not eyewitnesses to these things. Whew! We’re off the hook.

Except then we’ve forgotten the words from last week that Jesus spoke to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That makes us witnesses, too.

The gospel writers took great pains to convey the stories of eyewitnesses to appearances of Jesus after the resurrection. And as much as they can cause us to scratch our heads and wonder what exactly happened in these sightings, we can understand that they experienced a profound encounter with Divine Mystery.

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What’s particularly touching about Luke’s description of this appearance is that, even though the disciples responded to this encounter with a mixture of joy and doubt and wonder, they were still called to be witnesses. Spiritual experience, rational questions, and conflicting emotions were all bundled together in those very-human disciples, just as they are in us. They discovered that a big part of being followers of Jesus now, post-resurrection, was to be witnesses, even with their doubts and fears. And if it was true for them, then we’re certainly not exempt. We’re called to be witnesses to what God has done – and is still doing

Now, I get that there’s a further reason for us to shy away from this ‘witnessing’ word. We’ve probably all been accosted by enthusiastic believers who want to testify to their version of the true faith. So let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that we join the crowd that tries to shove their faith down people’s throats or threatens them with eternal damnation if they don’t believe as they do. I’m sure that’s not what Jesus had in mind.

So then the question is: if we’re called to get over our shyness and be witnesses – but not that kind of witness – how do we do it? What do we say? How do we do it without being offensive? How can we take the scariness out of witnessing?

First of all, let’s take it out of a religious context. If you’ve been keeping up with the news at all, you’ve heard what witnesses have had to say about the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright. Maybe you saw the video of the witness who described the killing of eight people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis on Thursday. Perhaps you have even been called upon to bear witness in court to something you saw. The point of telling your story is to hopefully contribute to the revelation of truth in the pursuit of justice. 

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I never had to testify in court but I did witness a bank robbery once. After the robber had run in, jumped over the counter, grabbed some cash and run out again, the doors were locked, and all the customers had to stay until the FBI could come and interview us. Once I told them what I had seen, I was allowed to leave. All I had to do was simply tell my truth.

That’s a dramatic example, but the fact is we do witness all the time. We talk about things that are important or of interest to us. We might tell someone (bear witness) to a great movie we’ve seen and think they’ll enjoy. Or a book we’ve read, a video game we’ve played, or a binge-worthy Netflex series. 

We bear witness to the accomplishments (or failures) of our sports teams. We bear witness to important events in our family or work lives. It’s as simple as that. We bear witness to things that matter to us.

So let’s practice. 

Think about something you often talk about, something you love – sports, work, family, school, tv, music, whatever. Think of something about that subject that’s happened recently. Don’t overthink it. Remember, we’re not talking about ‘witnessing’ in the church sense.  

Does anyone have something they’d be willing to share? This is a relatively safe place. Just speak simply and conversationally about it. Don’t worry if you’re doing it right. You can’t go wrong when you’re sharing about something you love.  Not too intimidating, right?

OK, now take a deep breath as we move into the church zone.

And let’s consider that witnessing is not all that different when it comes to your faith. Witnessing is simply saying where you sensed or experienced God in your life – at home or work, through a stranger or friend, a doctor or teacher or neighbor, something you read or heard, even through yourself. It could be through the work of the government or school or the church or through someone else’s life. Bearing witness is nothing more than saying where you think God is at work in your life and the world. We witness all the time; we’re just not used to thinking about doing it in terms of our faith. It doesn’t take any fancy church-y language. All it takes is a simple story of what you yourself experienced.

Here we are, almost in the middle of the Easter season. Easter Sunday was the high holy day of belief in the possibility that good can triumph over evil, beauty can overcome beastliness, that there can be hope for a way through whatever challenges confront us.

On one of the news shows the other night, in the midst of a difficult conversation on race relations in our country, Rev. Al Sharpton was surprisingly optimistic. He credited two things that give him hope. He said,

When I’ve lived long enough and fought in the civil rights movement long enough to see chiefs of police get on the stand against a policeman and Pat Robertson come out for police reform, I know there is a possibility that we can turn this country around. 

He didn’t frame it as such, but that was a witness to resurrection. Another panelist on the show was less optimistic – for some very good reasons. Oftentimes, we proclaim resurrection while we’re still entombed in Holy Saturday. But I like to think that his witness sparked some small flicker of hope in her that can grow and sustain her. Sharpton isn’t naïve; he ended the quote “I know there is a possibility that we can turn this country around” with “if we don’t get weary in our well-doing.” 

So, in these 50 days of Easter, I am encouraging you to be on the lookout for signs of resurrection life. Not just on Sunday morning, but in the news, with the family, at work, at school, at any and all places – even the ones most impossible to imagine such a thing. 

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Here’s another resurrection story. I recently read an article about 185 baby tortoises recovered from a smuggling attempt from the Galapagos Islands. In Googling around for more information, I learned that just six years ago ten baby tortoises were seen on the Galapagos Island of Pinzon. The ten new hatchlings were the first bred in the wild in more than a century. Recent surveys suggest that there are now more than 500 tortoises estimated to be now living on the island.

This is a resurrection story – good news to those of us who sometimes wonder if there is any hope for our planet. Now we could put this down to human activity, our conservation efforts. And we would be correct – to a point. However, I believe there is even more to it. The God of creation and redemption is never inactive. The story of the baby tortoises is a witness of God’s resurrection work in the world – working through us, through human repentance and commitment, as well as through the healing power of the earth that is part of the body of God – “if we don’t get weary in our well-doing.” 

Now, if I were to tell these stories in a non-church setting, I might say something like: “you know my pastor is always encouraging us to look for signs of hope in the world, especially in places you wouldn’t expect to find it. I’m going to tell this one next time in church.”

Of course, that might open you up to further questions – especially if they didn’t know you were a religious person. So you have to be prepared to say more. But don’t be afraid. Because you know what, those first witnesses were afraid, too – which was the reason for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit then and now, and the on-going support of our church community. So take a deep breath of Holy Spirit and speak your truth. 

So now that I’ve told you a couple of my witness stories, maybe you’ve had time to think of one of your own. What has God been up to in your life or in the world as you’ve observed it? Would you be willing to tell your story? Anybody want give it a try? If not today, that’s OK; we have another 35 days of Easter. And then it’s Pentecost, so who knows what might happen then! During Easter, we’re going to collect our resurrection stories. And we’re going to practice witnessing. Because like everything else, it gets easier with practice. 

Maybe you could even find a trusted friend or family member who could be your witnessing partner. You could each make a commitment to remember these times of noticing and share them at some point each week. That way you can practice with somebody you trust until you feel more comfortable and willing to tell your story to whoever happens to be listening – in your own natural, unassuming, shy-Lutheran way.

Then, when it’s not so scary any longer, all you’ll have to worry about are the fire and brimstone sermons and multiple offering plates. And I really don’t think you need to be concerned about them here.

You are witnesses of these things: the all-encompassing love of God, the compassionate justice-seeking of Jesus, and the power of Divine Presence to bring new life out of the many death-dealing experiences we face.

We are witnesses of these things. Together we are a community of witnesses. And we will not be afraid.

Amen

peace

Luke 24: 36b-48

While they were still talking about this, Jesus actually stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

In their panic and fright, they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus said to them, “Why are you disturbed? Why do such ideas cross your mind? Look at my hands and my feet; it is I, really. Touch me and see—a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones as I do.” After saying this, Jesus showed them the wounds.

They were still incredulous for sheer joy and wonder, so Jesus said to them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” After being given a piece of cooked fish, the savior ate in their presence. Then Jesus said to them, “Remember the words I spoke when I was still with you: everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the psalms had to be fulfilled.”

Then Jesus opened their minds to the understanding of the scriptures, saying, “That is why the scriptures say that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. In the Messiah’s name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

“You are witnesses of these things.”

Empty Tombs and Open Futures

Easter

Sermon for Easter Sunday – April 4, 2021  

The reason I especially wanted there to be parts for readers in the gospels today is that I wanted to remind us that Easter is participatory, that we are included in this story. Easter is not just about a day long ago when something extraordinary happened; it’s also about today.

Years ago, I was talking with a colleague, who was bemoaning the difficulty of preaching anything new on Easter. “I mean,” he said, “how many ways can you say ‘Christ is risen’ year after year?” My answer back then was different from what it would be today. Back then I said we should preach, assuming there would be people in church that day who’d never heard the story. And while that might be true, today I’d say: tell the story and be sure to expand it beyond a one-time event in the past and even beyond a promise of life after death.

Not that those are minor details. The resurrection of Jesus was a cosmic event – whatever actually happened. We don’t know. As Marcus Borg asked, “If there were a video camera at the tomb for those three days, would it have recorded Jesus getting up and walking out of the tomb?”

It doesn’t do us any good to rely on the biblical witness, either, because as we can see very well from our gospel readings this morning, the biblical witnesses don’t agree – which is why I like to read from two gospels on Easter. Every year in the lectionary cycle, we get a choice. John’s version is assigned every year, with the others in a three-year rotation. If we took a survey, I’d expect to find that most people prefer John’s version, with its dramatic race of Peter and John to the empty tomb, the charming story of Mary mistaking Jesus for the gardener and then recognizing him after he calls her by her name, and then her climactic announcement of the resurrection to the other disciples. There is so much good sermon material there; why would we ever use any of the other versions?

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Honestly, most preachers I know don’t like to use Mark’s version, the one assigned for this year. Did you notice: there’s no Jesus? There’s someone telling the women what had happened, but no risen Christ. And the women take off running, because they’re scared senseless. What a contrast; two very different perspectives on the resurrection. In contrast to the approach of many Christians today, the early church was comfortable with diverse witnesses to Jesus’ birth and resurrection. So the differing stories aren’t a stumbling block, but a reminder that resurrection is ultimately indescribable. 

For example, many years ago, I got to go to the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany. This tradition began in 1633, when the villagers of Oberammergau, who had been suffering and dying from the plague (their pandemic), pledged to act out the story of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus once every ten years. The play is five hours long (there is a break in the middle). It’s pretty impressive except for, in my opinion, the resurrection scene at the end. There’s a lot of flashing light, but nothing that could be seen or known of what was happening. But, really, there’s no good way to depict whatever happened that morning. Each of our attempts, including those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, ultimately fall short – at least in terms of historicity. But the message in all of the versions is the same: Christ comes to us in dire situations and rolls away the stone of hopelessness. Christ brings new possibilities, new ways, new life, even when we can see no possible pathway forward.

A colleague recently shared with me a question she was asked during her call process: if you were going to be stranded on a desert island and could have only one book of the Bible, which one would you take? My answer was the gospel of Mark because it was the first one written and, even though it lacks the details of the others, it’s undoubtedly one of the closest sources we have of the very first responses of the people who had encountered Jesus and had experienced that first Easter. 

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Now, if you look up the Easter story in your Bible, you may find that there is a resurrection account. Jesus does appear. Most Bibles do include these extra verses. Some put them after a paragraph break and a brief disclaimer. Some put them inside brackets or in a smaller font and in italics. But most scholars agree that this longer ending was a later addition – maybe by someone who was as uncomfortable as we are leaving off with Mary and the other women running away in fear.  

But the shorter version that we read is likely the original. That doesn’t take away the importance of the later stories, but if we ignore Mark’s version because it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the others, we might miss a crucial point. Because Mark’s story is unfinished and all the details and questions are not resolved, we have to see that we get to be part of the story.

There’s a legend told about Mozart. There’s a version also told about Bach, but the point is the same (just like the gospels!). It’s said that every morning, Mozart’s father (some versions say his wife) would get him out of bed by going to the keyboard and playing a series of familiar chord changes. But they would intentionally leave off the last chord. The unresolved ending would drive Mozart to jump up, run to the keyboard, and play the final chord.

And that’s just what Mark has done – left off the last chord. He’s left his story unresolved, which means that we should be compelled to jump into the story to see how it plays out in our own lives. In Mark, the future is open. For us, that means that we can name the tombs that try to enclose us, and identify the places where the stone has been rolled away, where we can see the open futures for ourselves and others.

But make no mistake; resurrection life does not ignore the harsh realities of life. It takes the tomb and the time we sit in its darkness seriously. And there’s no time limit on tomb time or the time between an empty tomb and a totally resolved future. We’ve had to live with the fear and anxiety of the pandemic for over a year now. The future is looking brighter, but still unknown. We have begun to take the problems of racism more seriously, but as the trial of the police officer accused of killing George Floyd continues, we know we have a long way to go. 

And frankly it seems that we live more in a Good Friday world, in a Holy Saturday existence of uncertainty and waiting, of being entombed, not knowing how to move forward. This would seem to be a more realistic assessment of the human condition. 

However, today we come here to make an audacious claim: that assessment isn’t true; resurrection can still happen. There is a power beyond the tragedies, horrors, and all the everyday injustices. There is resurrection power that comes from the deep place where divine and human spirit intersect, where pathways of rebirth and renewal are created, where new hope, new energy, new life come to fruition – even in the midst of our life situations, in places where, with our limited vision, we might see only scarcity and impossibility. 

It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?  Hope for our warring world, restoration of ruined environments, healing of broken relationships? After we log off and the ‘Alleluias’ are no longer ringing in our ears, will the possibility of resurrection power still ring true? How can we keep Easter every day – which is, after all, what we claim to do?  

In her poem called “Holy Saturday,” Joyce Rupp wrote in this excerpt:

Who urges us to sit still, to be patient
in the nurturing tomb of darkness,
to enter its enveloping silence
with assurance?

Where do we seek steady courage
when sadness, distress, confusion,
and flatness
wall us in with airless depression?

How do we wait with a balance
of acceptance and yearning,
relinquishment and action,
hesitation and confidence?

The stones that block our light,
whatever they might be,
let us stop shoving them aside.
Let them be.
Give ourselves to required gestation
before hope’s fresh air unseals the tomb.

Do not hurry the soul’s metamorphosis. 
Trust in the maturation of essential growth. 
Remain trustful, focus on the Risen One.
Breathe in the possibility of some new joy,
for it hides in this very moment,
readying itself to slip past the stone.

Sometimes, all we can do is trust that the future is still open, the stone will be rolled away, there will be light.

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I read a recent piece by Barbara Brown Taylor, in which she tells the story of Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French resistance fighter in World War II, who wrote a memoir called And There Was Light. When he was seven years old, he had an accident that left him completely and permanently blind. The doctors recommended sending him to a residential school for the blind, but his parents wanted him to stay in public school and learn to function in the seeing world. His father told him after the accident, “Always tell us when you discover something.” And he did live a life of discovery.

He wrote: “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there. Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread over the world. I had only to receive it.” He also wrote: “The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”

Taylor says that when she first read this, she thought he was speaking spiritually or theologically, but as she continued to read, she realized he was talking about what he actually experienced. With practice, he had learned to attend so carefully to the world around him that he confounded his friends by describing things he couldn’t see with his eyes, and yet somehow, he could see them.

It sounds mystical, doesn’t it? But not so mysterious. We have spiritual senses. And if we use them, if we’re in touch with the light within, which is the living Christ, then no matter how bleak and dismal a situation may seem, the future is still open. The last chord has not been played.

The resurrection of Jesus on the first Easter and resurrection life for us every day means that no life-diminishing powers can extinguish the light that resides within us. This light, says the Gospel of John, is in all people and is there to enlighten every individual. It shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

That’s true for our world as well. We become so discouraged by the seeming intractability of the problems we see all around us. But one Easter Sunday, the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, preaching at New York’s Riverside Church, reminded his congregation of their obligation to take the resurrection out of the realm of ancient mythand bring it to life: “It’s dark, the world’s at risk, there’s conflict, misunderstanding, poverty, racism, violence—but over here a group is working to do this, and over there a group working to do that, until it almost seemed like, despite the imperfections of the world, there might be a glimmer of hope—brought on by people just like us. By God’s grace, WE bring new life to the world.”

It’s our story, says the gospel according to Mark. The risen Christ is going on ahead of us. The final chord is yet to be played.

Amen.

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Mark 16:1–8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought perfumed oils so that they could anoint Jesus. Very early, just after sunrise on the first day of theweek, they came to the tomb. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to thetomb?” When they looked, they found that the huge stone had been rolled back.

On entering the tomb, they saw a young person sitting at the right, dressed in a white robe. They were very frightened, but the youth reassured them: “Do not be amazed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the one who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. Now go and tell the disciples and Peter, ‘Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee, where you will seehim just as he told you.’”

They made their way out and fled from the tomb bewildered and trembling; but they said nothing toanyone, because they were so afraid.

John 20:1-18

Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance, so she ran off to Simon Peter and the other disciple—the one Jesus loved—and told them, “The Rabbi has been taken fromthe tomb! We don’t know where they have put Jesus!”

At that, Peter and the other disciple started out toward the tomb. They were running side by side, but then the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He didn’t enter, but bent down to peer in and saw the linen wrappings lying on the ground. Then Simon Peter arrived and entered the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings on the ground, and saw the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head lying not with the wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the disciple who arrived first at the tomb went in. He saw and believed. As yet they did not understand the scripture that Jesus was to rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.

Meanwhile, Mary stood weeping beside the tomb. Even as she wept, she stooped to peer inside, and there she saw two angels in dazzling robes. One was seated at the head and the other at the foot of the place where Jesus’ body had lain. 
They asked to her, “Why are you weeping?” 
She answered them, “Because they have taken away my Rabbi, and I don’t know where they have put the body.” 
No sooner had she said this than she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. He asked her, “Why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?”
She supposed it was the gardener, so she said, “Please, if you are the one who carried Jesus away, tell me where you have laid the body, and I will take it away.” 
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” 
She turned to him and said, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 
Jesus then said, “Don’t hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to Abba God. But go to the sisters and brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Abba and to your Abba, my God and your God.'” 

Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Then she told them what the Savior had said to her.

A New Covenant: A New Heart

Lent 5        March 21, 2021                       Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33

Slide2When is the last time you made a promise? “I promise I’ll have that work done by tomorrow.” “I promise I’ll clean my room.” “I promise I’ll love you forever.”

When’s the last time you broke a promise? One of my pet peeves is when a character on TV or in a movie says, “I promise I you I will catch the guy who did this” or “I promise you are not going to die.” I want to scream, “Don’t make promises you don’t know you’ll be able to keep.” Because even though we don’t set out with the intention of breaking a promise, unfortunately it does happen. And it causes disappointment, pain, heartache, and sometimes even anger. There are consequences.

Now let’s get a little more legalistic. When’s the last time you entered into a contract? That’s a kind of promise, too, right? Two parties make a binding agreement, such as an employer promises to pay a certain amount to the employee for specified work. Or a church signs a contract for the installation of new carpet. There are consequences there too if one side or the other doesn’t fulfill their part of the deal.

Now let me ask a different way – when’s the last time you made or broke a covenant? We’ve been spending the Sundays in Lent on a tour of the covenants that the Bible tells us were made between God and God’s people. Still ‘covenant’ isn’t a word we use very often in everyday conversation. I know it’s a legal term used in finance and real estate. And the United Nations has an International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Maybe where we’re used to hearing it most is in reference to marriage. A covenant is a pledge, a formal and serious promise or agreement. But it’s not a word we hear or use a lot – except in the Bible, where there are covenants all over the place.

Blue,Sky,And,White,Cloud,With,Sun,Light,And,RainbowSo, to review. First, there was the covenant with Noah, with the rainbow as the sign of the promise made to all of creation to never again flood the whole earth.

The second covenant was with Abraham and Sarah, with the  beautiful, poetic promise that their offspring would be as innumerable as the stars in the sky and grains of sand on the seashore.

Then came the covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai. This contract, often known as “the Law” and included the Ten Commandments, was more fully developed than ever before as the way to live both in covenantal relationship with God (I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me. Don’t take the name of God in vain. Honor your father and your mother) and with our neighbors (You shall not kill, etc., etc). This was the way to live in right relationship, in covenant relationship with God and with one another.

UnknownSo how are we doing with these promises? If we go by Martin Luther’s explanations of the 10 Commandments, we have to admit that we fall far short of keeping up our end of the deal. For example, for the 5th Commandment Luther says that not only should we not kill our neighbors, we should also help them with all their physical needs.

And concerning the 8th Commandment, not only should we not bear false witness or lie about our neighbors, we should defend them, speak well of them, and always put the best construction on what they say and do. On those two alone, we have a lot of work to do. If we’re honest – and Lent is the season of honesty – we’ll admit that we continually play a part in breaking covenant with God. We do it in our personal lives in the choices and mistakes we make as individuals – those things for which we offer our confession and our intention to repent and do better.

shutterstock_88938097We also have to admit that we participate corporately in breaking covenant with God. This is what Jeremiah was talking about in his day. He was writing his prophetic proclamations in the midst of colossal failure in ancient Israel. The city of Jerusalem had been conquered and burned, the temple destroyed, the monarchy terminated, the leading citizens deported into exile. This all came about, said Jeremiah, because Israel had broken the covenant, disobeyed the commandments of Sinai, did not take justice seriously, and did not ground its life in the God of the Exodus. And so, he said, came the judgment of God.

Now we would not say that it’s God sending punishment. Covenant is not a quid pro quo deal: you scratch God’s back and God scratches yours. No, it’s about living in harmony in the body of God. But there are consequences when we don’t.

In 2014, Old Testament scholar, author and prophet Walter Brueggemann brought the brokenness of ancient Israel into our present day:
We see that in our society the fabric of human community is almost totally broken and one glaring evidence of such brokenness is the current unrelieved tension between police and citizens in Ferguson, Missouri (after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer). That tension is rooted in very old racism . . .

This is one frontal manifestation of ‘the covenant that they broke, as referred to in the Jeremiah text: a refusal of neighborly solidarity that leads, with seeming certitude, to disastrous social consequences. Of course the issue is not limited to Ferguson but is massively systemic in US society. We have, like ancient Israel, been on a binge of narcissistic self-indulgence.

Of course it was not limited to Ferguson. It boggles the mind to consider all the ways since 2014 that our corporate life – as neighbors, communities, as a country – has been broken. Brueggemann again:
. . . we know that a sustainable social life requires attentiveness to neighbor. Torah obedience is not a narrow moralism. It is rather realism and readiness about what is required for society to work in life-flourishing ways.

This is exactly what Jeremiah is addressing in his stunning oracle that we read today. The admission of the brokenness of his society allows him to anticipate a “new covenant,” a new beginning, a new possibility. He imagines a time when all of us will naturally “know” God. We’ll instinctively know how to be a good neighbor to all people. Our relationship with God will automatically define attitudes, actions, and policies.

That sounds really good, doesn’t it? This text is so beautifully hopeful; we love to read it and believe that we are recipients of such a covenant. Make no mistake, though, and think that Jeremiah is talking about a covenant that will replace or surpasses the previous ones. All the covenants we’ve read throughout Lent are still in place. Jeremiah isn’t speaking of a new law, but rather of an upcoming era in which God enables human beings to follow the existing law by way of a transformation of the heart: “I will put my Law in their minds and on their hearts.” This is a Jewish idea picked up by Jesus and the early Jewish-Christian communities that followed him. It is an extension of the longing for intimacy and Divine guidance already present in earlier covenants.

unnamedWe can relate to that longing today. Like our Jewish siblings, we yearn for an inner transformation that would render sin obsolete and teaching unnecessary. Of course, even though the prophet says the day is “surely coming,” we’re quite aware that, to put it mildly, it’s not yet here. As a people, we are broken in so many ways. My taxes support our state of perpetual war. My fuel consumption poisons the planet. My government is gridlocked. My relationships with people who think differently from the way I do have been strained or broken. I don’t think I’m alone in this condition. We have much truth telling and repenting to do in Lent.

The pandemic has exacerbated societal inequities that have been festering for a long time. The killings of eight people in Atlanta has put a spotlight on yet another way that racism rears its ugly head – not only in the actions of the shooter, but in the ways our national attitude has long been one of closing our eyes and turning our backs. Even the discussion of whether or not this was a hate crime is telling. Even if (and it’s a big if) the shooter did not target those of Asian descent, he definitely primarily targeted women. The controversy shows us how poorly we see the interconnections of race, gender, class, sexual identity, orientation and expression, and other communities that are often oppressed or marginalized.

I’m part of a group in our synod that is dedicated to promoting awareness of intersectionality. Now let me explain that – because this is a big part of our mission. These days, it is very easy to become embroiled in a battle over who is more oppressed, like there’s a hierarchy of oppression. In fact, when we recognize that  oppressed groups are not in competition but are all part of an overarching system of domination, we are in a better place to stand with and support one another, not just in our own silo, but across the board.

It can also get carried into our own considerations of oppressed groups. In a conversation with a good friend a few years ago, she expressed her frustration with the Black Lives Matter movement. Her struggle came from the fact that she herself had been marginalized and her career as a pastor had been threatened because she is a Lesbian. But it’s not an either/or matter. And the fact is that many people belong to two or more groups, like the Asian-American women who were killed, like gay African-American men, like a disabled white man.

This is how it’s explained in the latest ELCA social statement, Faith, Sexism, and Justice:
The  experiences of individuals and groups are shaped and complicated by intersecting factors. These include race, ethnicity, national origin, nationality, religious identity, immigration status, sexuality, marital status, economic means, age, ability, embodied experiences, and education.

Unfortunately, many people on the conservative side of the divide have come to understand intersectionality as a new hierarchy of oppression, one in which minorities are now at the top and white people at the bottom. This could not be more false, at least from everything I’ve read and from the standpoint of living out our faith. It is all about bringing the un-hierarchical nature of the realm of God a little closer to fruition. It is recognizing the brokenness of our society and bringing covenant living to bear in whatever way we can.

When we live mindfully of our covenant with God, we know we’re not yet living inimages the fullness of the Divine will for us. But this magnificent oracle from Jeremiah is a vision of what can be, what God desires it to be. It’s the vision that was written on Jesus’ heart. Coming, as he did, out of the history and tradition of covenant of his study of the Hebrew scriptures, he longed to bring that vision to fruition in our own hearts.

But as we well know, that beautiful vision, that Divine-infused heart would not prevent him from being killed by those who had a vested interest in thwarting the fulfilment of that vision. There’s no way to sugar coat the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Roman empire. There’s no way to sugar coat the reality of the ongoing crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of empire today. This far into Lent, it is hard to see Easter light at the end of the journey.

And yet, Lent is preparation for Easter. It’s planting the seeds of radical, inexplicable new beginnings. In this oracle, the admission of his people’s brokenness permits Jeremiah to anticipate a “new covenant.” It allows Jesus to go to death in expectation that the vision can still be true. It hopefully enables us to live, as Martin Luther called it, in the “now and the not yet” realm of God, in which we can operate “as if” the new covenant is already in place, “as if” it’s written on our hearts and embedded in our minds. It enables us to take seriously the promises of our baptisms, to serve all people following the example of Jesus; and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. If Good Friday is to have any meaning, there has to be the promise that God can take what is broken and make it whole – that applies to us, it applies to our world.

But a covenant is never just one-sided. Are we willing to seriously live in covenant relationship with God, with God’s people and all of creation? Because it means commitment, accountability, neighborliness, community, hospitality – not good descriptors of our society today. It means taking action, operating out of the covenant in our hearts – not because it’s been programmed in us against our will, but because we have chosen to live in relationship with the Divine Presence, which can make broken things new. Why would we not want to abide in the heart of God?

Yesterday, taking a break from writing, I turned on the news. MSNBC weekend host Joshua Johnson had a commentary called “Losing loved ones to ‘the culture war.’ It was a moving call to acknowledgement of the loss that so many of us feel these days due to the political divide – loss of relationship with a family member, with friends; he even acknowledged splits in churches. And far from stoking the fires of our differences, he encouraged recognition of our losses and offered some ideas for beginning to get beyond our current gridlocked divisiveness. It seems that there is some movement from some quarters in reclaiming our covenantal bonds with those from whom we’ve been estranged. And I think Johnson had it right – by appealing to our universal feelings of loss, our common humanity, we might be able to find a way forward out of the wilderness.

Imagine how our world would be different if we really did take seriously Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment: to defend our neighbors (which means everybody), speak well of them, and always put the best construction on what they say and do. I’ll be honest, I need help. I need a new heart, a renewed heart, an infusion of Divine Presence within me to be able to do the work that is required of us in these trying times. And I believe we are coming into a time of new imagination, new creativity. New pathways are being opened through the wilderness and our broken hearts are being infused with Divine Love – much too much to be kept inside and in need of spilling out into the world.

Next week is Palm Sunday, then it’s Holy Week. The cross looms large. Jesus tells us that unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. Yes, he’s talking about his own death and resurrection. But he’s talking about us, too. “If you love your life, you will lose it; if you hate your life in this world you will keep it for eternal life.” Or as Matthew and Mark have it: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

To die to our self-centered ego-driven ways and live into the heart of the covenant into which we’ve been baptized, is to find those places where we can take an active part in the commitment, accountability, neighborliness, community, hospitality, compassion of the realm of God. The way is already written on our hearts – not because it’s been programmed in us against our will, but because it speaks to our deepest longings.

Some days, many days lately, the brokenness of our world seems intractable. As I’m sure it did in Jeremiah’s day. Yet he tells us to look up, to look ahead. Because God loves making and keeping covenants.

As I’m sure it did in Jesus’ day, too, especially when the powers of the Roman empire and the religious establishment conspired to quench the flame of love in that Divine heart. Except they couldn’t do it. Jesus also tells us to look up, the cross looms ahead. Jesus also tells us to look ahead, not in denial of the pain and suffering of the world, but in trust that to follow in the way of Jesus is to enter eternal life – now. That’s the promise. Cross my heart.

Amen

Free image/jpeg Resolution: 1920x1440, File size: 250Kb, Crucifixion of Christ on the cross against a cloudy sky

 

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Behold, the days are coming, says Yahweh, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them up out of the land of Egypt—a covenant they broke, though I was their spouse, says Yahweh. But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my Law in their minds and on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they need to teach one another or remind one another to listen to Yahweh. All of them, high and low alike, will listen to me, for I will forgive their misdeeds and will remember their sins no more

John 12:20-33
Among those who had come up to worship at the Passover festival were some Greeks. They approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and put forth this request: “Please, we would like to see Jesus.” 
Philip went to tell Andrew, and together the two went to tell Jesus. Jesus replied, “Now the hour has come for the Chosen One to be glorified. The truth of the matter is, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. If you love your life, you will lose it; if you hate your life in this world you will keep it for eternal life. Anyone who serves me must follow in my footsteps, and wherever I am, my servant will be there too. Anyone who serves me will be honored by Abba God. Now my soul is troubled. What will I say: ‘Abba, save me from this hour?’ But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour. Abba, glorify your name!” A voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowds that stood nearby heard this and said it was a clap of thunder; others said, “It was an angel speaking.” Jesus answered, “It was not for my sake that this voice came, but for yours. Sentence is now being passed on this world; now the ruler of this world will be overthrown. And when I am lifted up from this earth, I will draw all people to myself.” By these words Jesus indicated the kind of death he would die.