Sermon for Fifth Sunday in Lent
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Jeremiah 31:31–34 | Psalm 51:1–12 | Hebrews 5:5–10 | John 12:20–33
I was brushing up on the book of Jeremiah, which is not reading for the faint of heart: It describes in sometimes graphic terms, the problem with the people God has related to and rescued—and what’s going to happen to next as a result. Here are some descriptions of the problem: [They] went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves. On their clothing is the lifeblood of the innocent poor, who didn’t even try to steal from them. They are greedy for unjust gain (we consider a lot of gain, just); even the religious leaders even, deal falsely. They don’t act justly with one another, they oppress the immigrants, the orphans and the widow, and go after other gods, which only causes them pain. In fact, there’s a lot of language that uses the metaphor of prostituting themselves, and going after the same: They have taken what is deep and good from God, and thrown it away. The relationship that was to be built on trust in God’s already- demonstrated abundance and generosity, to which they were only asked to give God credit and respond in kind to one another—means nothing to them. The response of God is deep grief. And consequences that will hopefully bring restoration.
What I also notice is a pattern of something we’ve touched on with Excellence in Leadership through the Rocky Mtn. Synod: And that is in the process of becoming absent to the needs and gifts of one another; it is a process of shutting down people’s experiences, dodging responsibility and just shutting down our senses so that we can keep going the way we want and think will bring happiness—but that puts us on a trajectory of destructive behavior. There’s a lot of language in Jeremiah about what puts us and keeps us on this path—and that is de-sensitization. This is a phenomenon that has been studied particularly in relation to experiences of violence—real life or in the media—and how it affects the developing teenage brain. When brains de-sensitize to disturbing information that would normally alarm us, there is also a measurable decrease in empathy toward others who are suffering. Here’s some of the language in Jeremiah that describes this de-sensitization happening: “Foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears, but do not hear.” Or “They did not listen to me” says God, “or pay attention.” Because they have already become habituated in their mistreatment of the weak and in their ignorance of God, their rate of travel toward destruction accelerates because they can’t see- and now don’t care- what’s actually happening: As God says through Jeremiah, “your ways and your doings have brought this upon you… It has reached your very heart.” (And we’ll hear about this heart again in a moment.)
Now, skipping ahead, the gospel-writer John sees as the primary problem that Jesus addresses as being antipathy. When we turn off our senses to the suffering of others and make excuses for our unjust world, we are practicing antipathy: Which is an aversion and lack of feeling toward, say, mothers and fathers and children fleeing in fear and now being torn apart because of confusing immigration practices; or maybe its being unwilling to understand what’s it’s like to show up in the world as something other than majority culture and appearance; or what it’s like to work as hard as you can and still not be able to pay the bills; or enduring up bankrupt because of an illness. Maybe you’ve been “there” and maybe it’s opened you up, or closed you off. What Jesus keeps pointing toward; what God calls for in covenantal relationship is, empathy, not antipathy. Both have the same root, pathos, which means experience, condition or emotion. When we have empathy, we feel alongside and seek to understand the experience of others. Given openness and attention, the result often inspires care and action for the other.
The irony in Jeremiah, is that God’s people’s senses will be opened up, but it’s going to sound like this: “Hear, a noise! Listen, it is coming—a great commotion from the land of the north to make the cities of Judah a desolation, a lair of jackals.” This is the eve destruction that reflects the path they are on. “They shall eat up your harvest and your food; they shall eat up your sons and your daughters; they shall eat up your flocks and your herds; they shall eat up your vines and your fig trees; they shall destroy with the sword, your fortified cities in which you trust.” EEE- gads! This will be an experience of suffering—the very definition of pathos.
The most simple form of pathos that we hear in English is “path.” In the midst of this national catastrophe, here’s an option: “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” From there, it will become obvious which way to go toward the world and yourself and your neighbor. But the response is antipathy: They said, ‘We will not walk in it.’ Martin Luther said this in his own words. We have one response to God and that is “no.” God requires us to give up too much of we’ve habitually thought and done. It’s too hard.
“Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies…” Jesus is talking about himself, yes. But he is also talking about the journey that we make as Jesus- followers. “Whoever serves me must follow me…” And “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” This is the Dark Night of the Soul that suspends our habits and beliefs and even our senses that we might learn to sense-anew with the mind and heart of Christ; so that our life as people-made-by-God can be lived out once again on the path that God set us on in baptism, with conditions ripe for something new to spring forth.
Thirty-one chapters into Jeremiah, God announces such a new thing: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my law/ teachings within them, and I will write it on their hearts;… No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” God really is that forgiving. And persistent. And calls us on the same path. For our own sake, yes. And for the whole word that God so loves. Thanks be to God. Amen.