DYING TO LIVE

Delivered by Ruling Elder James Parks

March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31: 31-34, John 12: 20-33

When Makenzie, our church office manager, and I talked about today’s liturgy she said the sermon title caused her to think of the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. And that’s exactly the kind of change that Jeremiah and Jesus are telling us in today’s texts is God’s way.

In school we all learned about the amazing process by which a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly. The story usually begins with a very hungry caterpillar hatching from an egg. The caterpillar stuffs itself with leaves, growing bigger and bigger. One day, the caterpillar stops eating, hangs upside down from a twig or leaf and spins itself a silky cocoon where it radically transforms its body. Eventually it emerges as a butterfly or moth, in all its magnificent beauty.

In a sense, the caterpillar has to die in order to live again as a butterfly.

In today’s text Jesus is telling us that just like the butterfly we have to die to live as God created us to be. He uses the imagery of a grain of wheat. The grain falls to the ground, loses all it protections and dies. Then miraculously, it reaches out of its decay by sprouting roots and begins to absorb the nutrients in the soil until it is strongly grounded. Then it is ready to reach out to the sun to grow again as a stalk of wheat filled with more seeds.

Jesus knew he was going to be killed. He knew that what he was saying and doing was dangerous. He stepped on too many powerful toes. He upset the Roman oppressors; he upset those who cuddled up to the Romans for their own gain. And because he was dangerous to those folk, he also put those who followed him in danger.

It is clear that Jesus did not want to die. He prays that God will spare him from this suffering. But from his days in the wilderness until the day he died, Jesus practiced obedience to God first and foremost. He knew that the way the world is is not the way it was meant to be; at the same time it will be the way God meant it to be, in God’s time. All we can do is to demonstrate this reality by the way we live.

He may not have known why or how, but he knew God would use his death to further Her plan. Jesus is telling us that like him, we are to be witnesses to a time that has not yet come. We are to be the grain of wheat, the caterpillar in the cocoon of a new day, a new way of living.

Like the caterpillar and the grain we must let go of all we have known and be as obedient as Jesus was. That means we must completely die to the values and comforts of the world we live in and bear witness instead to the values Jesus taught us—love, empathy, humility, justice, peace.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer says we have to die to everything that takes us away from God.

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every person must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is the dying of the old person which is the result of our encounter with Christ. When Christ calls us he bids us come and die. It may be like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work and follow him, or it may be  a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world.

During the Easter season we like to dismiss Jesus’ death and go straight to the resurrection. But today’s texts remind us that death is not the end of life, but the opening to new life. Death and suffering have to come first. There can be no resurrection without the crucifixion.

But you see death is not always physical. Sometimes it is spiritual or emotional. We die a thousand deaths every day. Our relationships die. Our marriages fail. We lose our jobs. We get sick. Our hopes and dreams fade away as we realize that the choices we have made or things we couldn’t control prevent us from ever having the life we wanted. We find out that someone or something we believed in is a fake. But Jesus says regardless of what it looks like, this is not the end. With God, resurrection is always hidden within death, failure turns into victory and God’s love trumps fear.

When we give in to our fears and run away from suffering we declare that death is stronger than God and that the resurrection didn’t count.

If we are to live as witnesses of the time that is yet to come, Jesus says we must pick up our cross and follow him. That means, like Jesus, we will be hit hard by those who want to prevent us from being what God intended. The world will throw all the evil it can at you to see if any of it sticks: temptations, restlessness, roadblocks, envy, hatred, frustrations, fear, sufferings, tragedies and even death to stop us from being God’s witness.

The great theologian Howard Thurman says we must handle our suffering or it will handle us. So how do we handle suffering? First, we must accept the fact that tension and the suffering it can cause are part and parcel of God’s creative process and in the end it can glorify God. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says childbirth is the perfect metaphor for how God operates.

Nothing beautiful in the end comes without a measure of some pain, some frustration, some suffering. This is the nature of things. This is how our universe is made up.

But how do you do all that when you’re in pain, angry, frustrated and just plain tired?

Jesus’ answer is simple. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.  Father, glorify your name!” It is at the very moment of our most intense suffering that we have to check our attitude.  Our lives are not about us. It’s about being God’s witness to a new way of living.

Archbishop Tutu says suffering can either embitter us or ennoble us and the difference lies in whether we are able to find meaning in our suffering.

One has learned in very many instances that for us to grow in generosity of spirit we have to undergo…a diminishing, a frustration…There are very few lives that just move smoothly from beginning to end. They have to be refined…It’s probably something like your muscle. If you want good muscle tone, you work against it, offering it resistance, and it will grow. These experiences can with the right way of thinking, lead you to have great inner strength. This is something very useful when you are passing through difficulties.

A loved one dies. You will never get over it. You can roll up in a ball and let your grief consume you or you can acknowledge your grief and think of all those who will lose loved ones after you. Maybe now you can have compassion for what they are going through. You lose a job and you can quit living, thinking your job defined you or you can use the free time to find and do what you really want to do. Or you realize there are millions of people who have never had a job and who struggle each day to simply put food on the table.

Suffering is God’s way of putting us into the fire to refine and strengthen us. It’s our attitude that defines how it affects us. One of my favorite new quotes from Abraham Lincoln says it clearly:

You can complain because rose bushes have thorns or we can rejoice that thorn bushes have roses.

But all suffering is not personal. It also occurs on a global scale. That’s where the passage from Jeremiah comes in. This text is part of an extended promise in the full chapter to restore Israel, particularly Judah and Jerusalem, to wholeness in the aftermath of the Babylonian conquest and decimation. The promise includes rebuilding, exiles returning home, abundant harvest and restoration of the temple.

Professor Wil Gafney says what is new about this covenant is that it will be engraved on the hearts of God’s people. Unlike other covenants, this one will not need to be taught. He is describing a world in which people who had lost everything were restored and did not need anyone to teach them about God. They would know God for themselves through their own experience.

The God they would know is a God who is trustworthy and who redeems and restores because She restored and redeemed them.

Jeremiah’s call is to a nation, a whole people, not just one person. Just as God redeems us when we die a thousand deaths, God can redeem a nation gone bad. How many times does God redeem Israel? Over and over, in the desert, after the exile, God continually resurrects a nation that has suffered from the toll of its own sins.

For Lent, the In the Loop/Apostles group of the Baltimore Presbytery is studying the book “The Cross and the Lynching Tree” by James Cone. In that very powerful book Cone describes how African Americans have connected Jesus’ suffering on the cross to a transcendent power which gives us the inner strength to endure, fight and cope with whatever racism, economic exploitation and yes, lynchings and deaths, that have come and are still coming our way. The names may have changed, but people of color are still being lynched by the prison system, rogue police, the drug trade and a general sense of hopelessness.

But our faith holds strong.  As I heard pastors proclaim from the pulpit at St. Mark A.M.E. Zion Church as a child:  “If God was with Jesus on the cross, God is surely with us as we bear our crosses. If you follow God, you will have a cross to bear and only by faith can you make it through.”

In two weeks we will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Much will be said about his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. But his best most prophetic speech, I believe, was his speech in Riverside Church delivered exactly one year to the day before he died. Hear his prescription for our resurrection, how we can truly make America great again:

We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered….There is nothing, except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities…There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

I don’t need to read the litany of the sins in our nation’s recalcitrant status quo.  But I’m here to tell you that God is moving in our time and I see resurrection coming from death. I can see it when students walk out of class to honor 17 other students who were murdered in Florida. I will see it next weekend, the day before we commemorate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when some 500,000 people are expected to march into Washington, D.C., our Jerusalem, to demand that we release the choke hold that guns have on our culture and our lives.

I see it when Hollywood’s filthy “casting couch” gives birth to the #MeToo movement that has spread to 85 countries worldwide.

I see it when states and foundations are beginning to realize that the over incarceration of black males is backfiring, leading to a generation of people, many of whom are poorly educated, unlikely to get jobs and who are not able to participate in the increasingly competitive world economy.

The crosses we bear personally and as a nation humble us. They remind us that we are nothing without God. When we suffer we cry out for God’s help and through our own experience we know God.

It reminds me of the spiritual “Take My Hand Precious Lord,”  The author, Thomas Dooley, wrote these words after the deaths of his wife and newborn son and he is asking God to walk with him to keep him from falling. He needs God and he is not ashamed to say so.  As we sing the words of that hymn, let us think about how much we and our country need the God who creates a butterfly from a caterpillar, who brings victory from defeat, light from the darkness and resurrection from death. Alleluia, alleluia, amen.

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