Sermon: Fifth Sunday in Lent

Glass_tree-life_circleMarch 22, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31–34
Psalm 51:1–12
Hebrews 5:5–10
John 12:20–33

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” That’s what some Greeks request of Philip in today’s Gospel. Why does the author bother to tell us that these seekers are Greek? Because it shows that Jesus’ message is spreading beyond the faithful Jewish crowds who listened to him in synagogues. The seed of Jesus teaching has fallen and been growing in places no one expected it to grow. Jesus’ disciples assumed that the Messiah was for the people of Israel. Even Jesus himself seemed to believe that. Do you remember the story of a Syrophoenician woman coming to Jesus (Mark 7:25-30)? He tells her that his mission is to the children of Abraham, not to foreigners. She puts him straight, of course, and her daughter is made well, but still, Jesus didn’t spend much time ministering among Gentiles. Nonetheless, the seed of his teaching has taken root and begun producing in places and ways no one anticipated.

People are still coming to followers of Jesus saying, “We wish to see Jesus.” Unfortunately, Jesus followers don’t always do a good job of showing them Jesus. The Gospel of Jesus—that is, the Good News that God loves the whole world and wants to save it—is often clouded by religious people speaking and behaving badly. The public face of Christianity is often besmirched by wackos who claim that Jesus is anti-gay or anti-immigrant or anti-women. The media frequently chooses representatives of Christianity who are cruel and abusive, unknowlegeable and bigoted. The Bible is presented alternately as a book of rules set in stone for all time or a book of fairytales, outmoded and sometimes harmful.

We could sit back and say, “Thank God we aren’t like those people! Thank God we understand that the Bible is too important to take literally!” But that kind of self-congratulatory attitude misses the point. The point is that people are asking to see Jesus, and they aren’t seeing Jesus. If the vast majority of publicity points AWAY from the Jesus we know, the Jesus of grace and healing and forgiveness, then we are failing at our job to challenge and unveil falsehood when we encounter it. People want to see Jesus and we aren’t showing them Jesus.

It seems to me that the Second Commandment—YOU SHALL NOT USE THE LORD’S NAME IN VAIN—applies here. As Luther pointed out, not only are the commandments a guide for what we are not to do, keeping them requires that we do the inverse. If we are not to use God’s name to condemn whatever social or political behavior we dislike, then we are to actively use God’s name to demonstrate who God really is. Keeping the 2nd Commandment means our job remains what it was in the time of Philip and the Greeks—to show people Jesus.

It is not our job to determine how or when or with whom God can use our witness. It is simply our job to show them Jesus. And how do we do that? Jesus himself puts it quite plainly in today’s text: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” And where was Jesus, most of the time? He was with the poor, the disenfranchised, the forgotten, the lonely. So if we are following Jesus, where will we be? We will be with those who have been told—overtly or subtly—that they don’t matter, who are treated as “less than” because of the language they speak, the color of their skin, their immigration status, their insurance coverage, their union membership (or lack thereof), their romantic orientation, or they way they choose to worship. We who have been drawn to Jesus through his radical ministry of inclusion are called upon to speak the truth to and about such people. That’s what it means to follow Jesus. We stand with and for the people Jesus stood with and for.

The hitch, of course, is that many who dare to follow Jesus by standing with the powerless are treated just as Jesus was: with false accusations, humiliation, and eventually, assassination. Voices clamoring for justice are still routinely silenced by those who are threatened by it. It’s true that when people die pointing toward the beauty and dignity of every life, a seed is planted and grows into something much bigger. Someone hears, someone sees, someone follows. But that doesn’t mean it’s not scary—and risky—to show people Jesus.

Somehow, in spite of the ways that loud voices pervert Jesus’ message every day, the seed of curiosity, the seed of hope, the seed of “yes” still takes root in hearts and minds. Every day I meet people who are stunned to hear the real message of Jesus: that Jesus does not want to rob them of their minds, or make their lives miserable with unrealistic rules, but wants abundant life for all creation, that Jesus wants to draw all people to himself. This is still ear-shattering news! And it’s both our duty and our privilege to share it!

People we know are asking us to show them Jesus all the time. That’s what’s beneath their coming to us for encouragement during a challenging time; that’s what’s behind questions about how our convictions shape our politics and our spending habits. When someone probes where your joy, your hope, your kindness, your trust, your courage come from, they are asking to see Jesus.

So what do you do when someone begs you to show them Jesus? My guess is that for many, our first response is to invite people to attend worship with us. And that is a lovely and good thing—the vast majority of people who attend church services do so for the simple reason that someone asked them. And surely God is here among us, as God is wherever two or three gather in God’s name. But this is not the only place to find Jesus, and it may not always be the best place to start. If someone has been wounded by the church, worship might be too threatening an introduction. Instead, you can show someone Jesus in your volunteer gigs, or in the way you talk to or about your family—or people you don’t like. You can show them Jesus in jail or immigration detention centers or at meetings. Try looking for Jesus at work or in bars and buses and beauty shops. Jesus comes the Canopy Center’s programming here on Wed. nights, and he attends AA on Mondays. He’s among the sick to whom you take communion or visit and pray for. Jesus is in garbage dumps and factories. Anywhere people are treated poorly, Jesus is there, weeping with them. Jesus might not always be recognizable in these places, but he is there. Everywhere. Always.

It’s a tall order to show people Jesus, but it is our calling. Still, there are days when we don’t plant seeds of justice, mercy, and compassion among other people. There are days when even those of us who have been Jesus’ followers for a long time have a hard time seeing Jesus. Sometimes we get lost; we feel abandoned or forgotten. Sometimes we cling so hard to the way we think things should be that we fail to see the seed of Jesus’ love blooming in an entirely different location.

On those occasions when I can’t see Jesus, much less show him to anyone else, I look for Philips and Andrews to show me evidence that God is alive and flourishing. Four years ago this week, I came to Trinity Lutheran Church, burned out and wounded by some past church experiences, and I begged you, “Please, I want to see Jesus.” And you took me in and showed me green shoots poking out in all kinds of places. You insisted that death is not the end, that life and love always conquer violence and cruelty, and that bringing life out of what seems lifeless is how God works.

Here I have observed you supporting one another at the loss of a friend, a spouse, a parent, a child. I have seen you standing shoulder to shoulder, fighting addictions and depression and all manner of illnesses. I’ve been there as you’ve served and cleaned up after meals. Some of you have quietly increased your financial giving, knowing that others in our community are struggling. Many of you give time and energy and money to homeless families, to students who need help with academics, to strangers in search of hospitality. I’ve heard you pray for each other, for your enemies, for the world. You have shown me Jesus. You may have planted seeds of hope this week without even knowing it.

This is the blessing of grace. This is the fulfillment of the promise God made to the prophet Jeremiah. Our misadventures and errors do not keep God’s love away from us. God is as close to us as our next breath. Written on our hearts is the assurance that we belong to God, now and forever. Nothing can kill the little seed of faith planted in us at our baptisms. Even when hope is hard to locate, Jesus never leaves us or forsakes us, but accompanies us through every day, and sends us Andrews to walk beside us. Jesus is not only the savior for people who are good and smart and interesting and beautiful, but has drawn all people to himself. Daily he empowers us to follow him, planting seeds of understanding and welcome, sharing his commitment to embrace the whole world. Whether or not we remember or acknowledge it, a seed has fallen into our midst, and nothing and no one can stop it from growing. Thanks be to God!

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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