|Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:20-33, 42-43
March 25, 2012
So……do you ever find yourself sitting in the pew, pretty much minding your own business, trying again to count just exactly how many gold crowns there are in the stained glass window, when you hear something so… well… weird, that it snaps you back to attention when your brain yells, “WHAT??”
That’s what happened to me when I read Jesus’ words in our gospel reading. What could Jesus possibly have meant when he said, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Surely Jesus, who was always all about bringing the Way of God to daily life… healing the sick, feeding the hungry, liberating the oppressed – surely this same Jesus was not encouraging the dualism that has so bedeviled Christianity; the dualism that promotes ignoring the harsh realities of life because, if we just wait long enough, everything will be hunky dory in the sweet bye and bye.
If you can stand the tension, let’s put that question aside for a bit while we consider the greater historical/political/theological context. I know, those are the words that invite what my daughter would call a snoozefest, but if you can stay with me, I promise, there is light at the end of the context tunnel.
Depending on your patterns of worship and your powers of recall, you may have noted that the readings for Lent almost always have an underlying covenantal theme. I read that as an assurance of relationship. If we are going to honestly look at our sin, we need the re-assurance that God will not give up on us or desert us because of our sinfulness. And Biblical covenant is just that; repeated assurances that if anybody bails on the relationship between us and God, it’s not going to be God!
We remember the covenant between God and mortals in the promise to Noah, after the known earth had been flooded. Through the symbol of the rainbow, God promised that the earth would never again be destroyed by flood. The next covenant God extended is described in the story of the Israelite’s exodus out of Egypt – when God gave the Law…synopsized in the Ten Commandments.
Today, in the prophet Jeremiah, we heard God comforting the people as they returned from exile in Babylon. In brief, God said, “Well, you haven’t kept a covenant yet, so I’m going to write my Way on your hearts, rather than on tablets. Maybe that way, you can keep track of my intentions for you….and by the way, I will be your God and you will be my people.”
It is clarifying to bear in mind that at the time God made these covenants with the people, there was nothing reciprocal about them. They were not agreements between equals. Rather, the structure of these covenants was like a parent telling a child how it will be. The child is beloved and treasured, but in fact, a child needs the care and protection of the wiser and more able parent.
Reflecting on this kind of covenant brought to mind some principles I learned long ago and that still inform my life and work. When I was in high school and college, I worked for 4 years in a Head Start program. One of the gifts of that experience was learning from my mentor, Ann, a master teacher if ever there was one.
Ann taught me that a wise and respectful adult should never ask a question of a child if there is only one acceptable answer. If the only acceptable answer is ‘yes’, it is neither honest nor respectful to pose a question. For example, an adult should not say to a 4 year old at recess time, “Would you like to put your boots on for recess?” There is no room for a ‘no’ response to that question. Part of actually being a mature adult is to be both honest and respectful and say, “It’s time to put your boots on so we can go outside to play.”
Likewise, God did not give Israel a choice. In Israel’s formation as a people, they were still children. Being both honest and respectful, God simply told the people how it was going to be. ‘I will be your God, and you will be my people, and here’s the equipment to do your part - wise and tender hearts. In your hearts, you will know what is right – if you pay attention, you will be drawn like filings to a magnet to compassion, integrity and justice’… in other words, God-like love.
The centrality of the heart in relation to God is reinforced by the prophets; that is, the heart of the law rather than only the letter of the law. Hosea says, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Today’s lection, Ps. 119 – is all about the life giving nature of God’s law, rather than slavish adherence to the letter of the law in order to avoid punishment, but completely misses the spirit of the law. Just minutes ago, we responded to the call to worship by praying, “Teach us you’re Way and give us understanding – that we may keep your Way and observe it with our whole heart, to the end.” ……..It has the tone of reciprocity does it not, as if we were entering into a covenant relationship on a more mature level?
Jesus lived in a culture built on the foundation of covenant and shaped by it. He was also born into a religion permeated with language of the heart. Had we overheard prayers in the temple where he prayed, we would have heard the people praying with the language of Ps 119, “Do not let me stray from your commandments. I treasure your word in my heart…I will not forget your Word.”
And still, despite centuries of emphasis on the heart of the law, the religious establishment of Jesus’ time clung to keeping the letter of the law the thing – and using it as a tool of oppression and control. Jesus’ contemporaries missed the big point, just as we could so easily think a relationship with God is all sewed up if we don’t kill, steal or covet our neighbors….Beemer, or perfect kids, or job success … We, like Jesus contemporaries, can miss that religion as God intended, is meant to be a matter of the heart – not minus the brain – but it comes to life in the heart.
In Mark, which has been the guiding gospel through Epiphany and early Lent, the text has been hammering home what it looks like when God’s people miss the point, worshiping the law itself or the letter of the law, and missing the Spirit of the law. Mark does this hammering by recounting Jesus’ constant challenges to the religious establishment. Jesus saw that being held captive to the letter of the law killed the spirit of the law – again most truly comprehended and expressed by the heart.
In the scene from John’s gospel we just read, Jesus’ time with his disciples is growing very short. Jesus knows no spot on challenge will go unpunished. Jesus has confronted the powers of his time, religiously and politically, and has spoken with a voice too true, a voice that must be silenced permanently. Therefore, every moment and every conversation with his disciples is precious. Every word must be indelibly engraved upon their hearts. In this context, like the last words of a man on death row, we hear, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” What, truly in God’s name, did Jesus mean?
To my mind, Jesus words have nothing to do with the sweet bye and bye, and everything to do with the here and now. He knows there are no rules or commandments to guide his followers on what to do in what is to follow. Just as we do, they will have to rely on what is written on their hearts, carved ever more deeply by prayer and practice.
I have no need to create a dilemma where there is none. Jesus’ meaning is made very clear by verses late in the story, v. 42 and 43. “….Many, even the authorities, believed in Jesus. But because of the Pharisees, they did not confess it; for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God.” They loved the comfort of their lives, made accessible and insured to them by conformity, silence in the face of wrong, and lust for the approval of powerful people. Had they been able to see their own cowardice and shallowness – in Jesus’ words, “hate their life in this world,”…. had they been courageous enough to be guided by what God had written on their hearts and was just waiting to be kept, then they would have known eternal life – that is, friendship with God and integrity before God.
If you are participating in a Lenten small group, or following the guide on your own, you will observe that the final week asks us to consider our contribution to the world, what we are here for, or in the language of the church, to consider our vocations.
We speak often of vocation, but most often in relation to work or career. But the concept of ‘vocation’ needs to be reclaimed by the church. In the Christian tradition, vocation is not a skill or a trade or even necessarily a profession. It is not about finding a career path or about what we do. In the church, vocation is about listening to the voice of God to hear who God is calling us to be. Some people are able to find or create work that expresses who we are called to be. But, most of us are given the high challenge of practicing who God has calls us to be, regardless of our circumstances or the shape our work takes. Always, being faithful to our vocations will require of us ‘hating our lives in this world’ as Jesus meant it.
You know, it may be true that we learn everything we really need to know in kindergarten. I learned about vocation and about eschewing life as defined by the standards of this world from Mary and Margaret, twin sisters in my kindergarten class.
On the surface, Mary and Margaret were drab, easy to ignore waifs. Every day, they wore the same threadbare plaid, cotton dresses, the same stretched out dingy gray socks, the same worn out brown shoes. They were very quiet, like mice, their enormous gray green eyes taking in everything; their pale, thin faces framed by long soft brown hair, plaited into thick braids. The kids didn’t play with Margaret and Mary because they smelled of neglect; dirt, bacon grease, urine and smoke.
One winter day, I stood beside their desks on the perimeter of the room next to the bathroom, waiting anxiously for Tommy Mason to finish, wondering what in the world he was doing in there. I stood first on one foot, then on the other. And then, it happened. The warmth running down my legs was tepid in comparison to the fire in my cheeks. Embarrassed and stricken, I stood stock still as a puddle collected around my shoes.
Quiet as ghosts, Margaret and Mary eased out of their desks, took paper towels from the dispenser on the wall and began to mop up the puddle. When the teacher discovered what had happened, she set me in a chair with my feet up on the wall heat register to dry my panties and socks, while snickers rippled across the room. But when I caught Margaret’s gaze, her lovely eyes filled with tears. She understood humiliation and being caught in circumstances well beyond her control far better than any 5 year old should. To this day, her dignified kindness remains a standard for me of what it means to hate life in this world, but to keep it for eternal life.
You see, Margaret and Mary faced judgment and disapproval every day. They were desperately poor, malodorous and told in countless ways that they were undeserving of care, attention and love. But Margaret’s kindness toward me was an act of her real self, not the false self laid on her by others that made it easy to label, reject and despise her. Her real self, her heart, was tender and kind, more than anyone could see, smell or label…and it made her perceptive, compassionate and fearless. She knew the other kids would whisper and giggle, call her names and push her away, perhaps even more harshly for what she had done for me, but she had the courage to do what her heart told her to do.
Though our exterior circumstances may differ, every one of us faces the same spiritual challenge as my 5 year old classmate. Often, our most formidable challenges come from our earliest experiences in our families - how we were understood and labeled in our first nests. (In my family, I was told I was too smart to be useful. That’s absolutely untrue. I’m not that smart.) Yes, sometimes it’s expressed in humor, but we all have things to get over; old messages that repeat themselves at our most vulnerable times, temptations to overcome, imposed labels and controls to get past.
When we rise above those labels and exterior constraints, we follow Jesus’ call to hate our false lives in this world. By her actions, Margaret rejected the acceptance, approval and control of “the world,” and kept the covenant of the heart, thereby experiencing friendship with God and giving me an unforgettable gift from her heart. May we do likewise?
Thanks be to God for what has been engraved upon our hearts and is waiting to be kept. Amen.