Sunday Sermon

Year B, RCL

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33; Psalm 51:1-13

The Collect

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.


        Jesus does not offer us another set of rules, not even corrections or updates to the Law.  He brought restoration of relationship with the living God to those estranged from God.  There are so many things that can cause us to judge ourselves cast out of Paradise with good reason.  Our desires, our sins, our pride and/or stupidity can lead us down the Garden path to loss.  When we judge ourselves lost, we believe God must also judge us harshly.  

     Lea’s father and I argued about this after he returned from Vietnam. He believed that what he had done separated him from goodness and happiness.  He told me about making and dropping napalm on people, watching them burn.  He hummed an eerie tune under his breath.  The chorus went “napalm sticks to kids.” He mixed agent orange; he saw the land die.  They were convincing stories.  He felt guilty with good reason.  But there was more.  He believed that he didn’t deserve good things anymore.  He didn’t deserve me. When I tried to tell him that I loved him, that God loved him, he told me that I was too innocent to understand real evil.  I worked every day with illness and death at that time.  A bad test result from me changed lives.  I had grown up in a family torn by the evil of propaganda and war.  I never came so close to decking anyone.  He infuriated me with the inward loathing he felt because I felt helpless against it.  He was right. I did not have the knowledge or ability to help him fight this battle.

     Ironically, now that I could help him, I realize that he was always the only one who could stop punishing himself.  I found out last week that he has pancreatic cancer.  So, while getting ready for Holy Week I have been remembering the hopelessness of that time before Lea was born. Two key people in my life, my Mom and my Husband, were disabled by war.  There were no visible scars, but the invisible ones ran deep.  It seems to me that life set me on the path to becoming a pastor.  When God called me, I had some important questions to answer.   

     Mom and John believed they didn’t deserve goodness.  Their experience was so terrible that they locked Eden’s gate against themselves and threw away the key.  I’m a pastor and I’ve witnessed this as it was happening, as powerless to stop it now as then.  Guilt is a juggernaut that strikes in anger and frustration.  Jesus was sent for them and for us who were battered by it.  We never had a good chance at happiness, and no clear way out of hopelessness.  I needed the gospel stories to be real.  They had to stand up to the soul-stealing power of guilt to win some of us back.  Part of the harshness of this truth is that we must look to them for help.  God and Jesus stand ready and waiting for us.

       We needed a powerful symbol of cruelty for Mom, for John and for me.  Is there a symbol more powerful than the cross?  As a means of execution, it was grueling as well as cruel.  Most of us have heard or read descriptions that were quite repulsive.  I certainly have.  In John’s gospel Jesus describes himself as lifted up on the cross.  He was lifted up by men for everyone to see.  Do you see this?  This is the latest discovery in the category “man’s inhumanity to man”.  Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father. They don’t know what they are doing.”  You think you destroyed this Son of God and Man?  Think again. Jesus brought us the message that God wants us to come home; he showed it to us by welcoming sinners.  He was lifted up so that those who wanted to know as I did could witness how much God loves us. I remember early in my journey someone on Good Friday opened his arms wide like Jesus on the cross, and said, “I love you this-s-s much!”  It was sappy, but it stuck.  Jesus forgiving those who killed him from the cross was not sappy.  It was tough, demonstrating his resolve and his love to anyone who saw him lifted up on the cross or has heard about it since.  That symbol is God’s response to all those who have locked the gate to Paradise and thrown away the key.  Jesus knew cruelty.  God knows cruelty.  We choose to love you.  For me now, the cross raises a brutal question for all believers.  “What are you going to do about it?”  

     The cross is a symbol for those with the imagination or the desire or the desperation.  Those who want to know have a permanent symbol of life’s cruelty transformed by love.  We are the crop raised up by the seed of his death.  Jesus showed us God’s desire to restore the relationship that Adam and Eve had with God in the Garden before they chose knowledge of good and evil.  The story tells us that suffering followed on their choice.  They could not continue to live in the Garden which is that place where God reigns.  They broke the first commandment, the keystone.

     I see an analogy of this story of Adam and Eve in the growth process of my granddaughter.  When I was raising my daughters, I was in the middle of it and didn’t notice.  I can still remember the time when whatever Mommy and Daddy said was fine and all right with Hannah.  She is nearly five and now has her own opinion about everything. There is a problem over what she will eat for dinner every time I see her. Those complaisant, early days are gone, and we are faced with the problem of encouraging good behavior in a strong-minded young girl.  She knows what she wants, and it is not always what is good for her.    

     The first commandment is very clear.  I am the Lord your God.  You shall have no false gods before me.  The first commandment is a keystone.  If we fail that one, we don’t have God’s help with keeping the rest.  I believe that is the purpose for restoring relationship with God.  God hasn’t turned from us.  We have chosen other rulers, other rules. Following the Law perfectly is no substitute for enthroning the living God in our lives.  When the living God occupies first place, we have that love to guide us in making loving choices.  It doesn’t mean we always choose correctly.  It means we want that love to guide us; we repent when we believe we have strayed.  When I am feeling overwhelmed, I pray until I find an approach, a possible way to understand what is troubling me.  Usually it means letting go of what I am afraid will happen.  I don’t give time to justifying my actions before God because I am forgiven so long as I repent. I don’t have much invested in being right. I know I am forgiven and my attention is focused on improving rather than on justifying myself.   

      The Love Command doesn’t clarify obligation for us; it widens obligation’s scope and application.  The only scripts we have for keeping the Love Command are in the gospels, and they are difficult.  Some discernable patterns include care for the lost and their restoration. Jeremiah refers to a Law written on our hearts and not on paper.  Jesus insists love will require us to lose our lives for his sake and the gospel’s. 

     I am an instinctive cook like my Mom.  I have cooked since I was able to look down on a counter top.  I know what will taste good.  I only use a recipe if I’m baking a fancy dessert.  Mom understood dough and never even used a recipe for baking unless the proportions were critical.  We can be led to love, but it is hard to develop an instinct for it.  The proportions are very critical, and the recipe doesn’t work half the time.  If we make loving others the most important thing, we will lose our lives trying to get the recipe right.  Loving will preoccupy us and loving often leads away from safety.  We will need God to face our fear of the unknown and to keep loving.  I think that restoration of relationship with God in Jesus Christ and the giving of the Love Command are related events.  I need God’s help to love.   

      Loving leads us to commit to a journey with others and not to a set way of doing things.  We bring God’s love and forgiveness on that journey with us. We bring the dedication and commitment of God to us into relations with others, and we seek to do that reliably.  Thinking and rethinking, considering, seeking, hoping to love, we lose our lives as we journey with the other.  Jesus lost his life in seeking the lost of Israel, and it was lost long before he took his last breath.  His dedication to loving drew him inexorably away from the life he knew to find it in caring for others.  Jesus taught us we may not use our obligations as an excuse.  He did not accept “I must bury my Father.  I cannot come.” as an excuse.  The rich young ruler was more honest.  He didn’t argue, just turned away.

      “Losing my life to save it” cannot become an excuse to kick over the traces.  Boundaries become more important to me every year.  We use the commandments to help us set good boundaries.  Maintaining good boundaries honors the freedom of others and may encourage them to give that gift to others.  Love is exercised within the boundaries set by the commandments; love may sometimes take us right up to the fence and rarely, may bring us to cross it.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German-Christian ethicist, famously engaged in a plot to assassinate Hitler.  Jesus broke cleanliness laws while reaching out to those lost to sin.  Civil disobedience has sometimes been motivated by love of neighbor. Love may lead us away from what we know to journey with the other.  We owe obedience to God.  Love is exercised on that playing field defined by the commandments.  We do not leave it without good cause.  God has no need to control us.  Should we do wrong, God forgives those who repent.  As St. Paul tells us we may not sin so that love may abound. The example we give of our care in keeping God’s law demonstrates its importance to us.  

      That grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, raising up a crop of wheat.  Life lost to love raises up fruit.  As we journey with others we may lose a way of thinking about right and wrong that we have held all our lives.  Is a sacred cow more important than a person?  I think love brings us to ask that question.  By my gender and position I have caused people to wrestle with their sacred cows.  As they journey with me in the Church they leave something of their old life behind, and that grain of wheat raises up a crop if we do our job.  As every seed dies, God helps us raise up a crop.  Our sacrifice isn’t lost; it germinates and multiplies life.  I am looking for your sacrifices in this place to raise up a bumper crop.   

     I think love makes a level playing field.  If we sacrifice for someone, it is hard to think of that person as unworthy, as less important than we are.  This leveling is an effect of Jesus’ gift to us.  That gift helps us to realize how very valuable all of us are.  For us he was willing to die, even death on a cross.  Laying down his life brought a bumper crop of believers who know their own value.  Because he gave his life for all, there is no one here more or less important than any other in God’s eyes.  The gift levels our pride.  Laying down Jesus’ life meant a bumper crop, and God stood ready to raise him up again.  Death where is thy victory? Resurrection removed the victory of death for those who lose their lives to save them.  The reward of living to love is life and always will be.  God is love.       

 Sermon for 5 Lent by the Rev. Deborah T. Rankin