Sermon, 3/21/21: God Wants Us to Succeed

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5 Lent

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

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  John 12:24

In the most recent issue of the periodical “The Atlantic,” (April 2021, p. 10), Shadi Hamid replaces the traditionally held thought of the United States as a Christian religion-infused nation, with ‘America’ itself as the national religion.  He writes of ‘America’ as “the newly ascendant …ideologies, having to fill the vacuum where religion once was, are so divisive…[T]he ‘woke’ take religious notions such as original sin, atonement, ritual, and excommunication and repurpose them for secular ends…[for] religion sees the promised land as being above in God’s kingdom.”

My quarrel is not with Mr. Hamid, for I fear that he gets it right.  The United States was not founded as “a Christian nation.”  He has offered a thought-provoking essay that everyone, adults and perhaps youth, with assistance of an adult, should consider mandatory reading, especially those who live under the Christian banner.  Rather, I ask myself, whether over the many millennia we the people of faith have gotten it wrong.  Whether we have chosen, rather than confronting in real time the human condition, to hide behind the guise of religion and not deal with reality.  I raise, without apology, the question: Is that which the Creator desires for the Creation to be postponed as an athletic event due to inclement weather?  Does not God want us to succeed?  If the latter be the case and our belief, what has in the past hindered and continues presently to hinder our success? 

I concede readily that our Book of Records is rife with images of God who, so distraught with the Creation, that He subjects His chosen ones to plagues, drought, and other calamities, which are visited upon the fathers of the children and upon the children of their children.  The writers of the Psalms and the recorded words of the prophets did not hesitate to remind the people of their respective generations of what would befall them when the anger (or the poetically more pleasing word “wrath”) of God would befall them.  Of a truth, this is what we of faith have inherited.  However, a fairer question that one ought to raise is: “What has provoked this wrath?”

A response—and surely not the sole, defining response—that I offer for our Lenten reflection is this: I believe that we have inherited something else, something more akin to the Creator’s original intent: God wants us to succeed.  Creation came not into being in order that the Creator should show displeasure, anger or wrath.  And, therefore, I introduce the Prophet Jeremiah as my chief witness.  Jeremiah, one could say, was not hesitant in expressing his concern that God would show anger and hold people accountable.  But the question remains:  Is this what a firebrand such as Jeremiah wanted for the people of God?  Could or did Jeremiah look beyond God’s anger?

Jeremiah had, himself, cause to be angry, directing his anger at Judah, the southern portion of Israel, for having seceded from Greater Israel.  The livelihood of the state was at risk.  Judah (also called Israel) had forsaken what Jeremiah saw as its true calling: to put God first and neighbor as self.  Judah, this breakaway state of Israel, had focused its attention on other things.  There were new gods: Avarice (good old-fashion greed), self-comfort (neglect of the less-fortunate), and godlessness (God is an invisible; I come by my wealth with my own hands.)  There was no longer anyone who knew the story about the Exodus and of surviving on manna.  Of a truth, Judah (Southern Israel) recited ritually this tale during the annual Seder of Passover.  And that, for Jeremiah, was precisely the problem.  It came to be a fairytale-like recitation, not something grounded in reality.

No one believed Jeremiah.  I suggest, had Jeremiah lived in the 20th or 21st Century, he may have been viewed as the man in Times Square, New York City, who is pictured in cartoons in The New Yorker, carrying a sign or wearing a sandwich board that reads: “The End is Near!”  A more positive description of Jeremiah would be to say that he was filled with righteous indignation. Jeremiah was disillusioned with his fellow Israelites. 

Above all, however, Jeremiah was angry with God, angry that an omnipotent God should let things so deteriorate between God and his chosen people, as well as among the people themselves, that they ran the risk of being enslaved again.  God, under the old covenant, had allowed the people of Israel to exercise freedom of will, and this pending domination by an outside power was what had come of that.  Would not, could not God intervene to impose a divine curfew?  Thus, the Prophet Jeremiah ranted, probably thought by his contemporaries to be delusional, foreshadowing John the Baptist.

Because of his fervor and his zeal for Israel, Jeremiah, despite his rants, was imbued with positivity.  Jeremiah was a prophet with a vision.  Jeremiah had a dream, long before Martin Luther King, Jr. had his dream.  Indeed, it is from Jeremiah (and the Prophet Amos) that Dr. King borrowed his language and fashioned his now internationally recognized speech.  There is something about Jeremiah’s dream that, even in its written form, raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck, not unlike the feeling that the King speech still evokes.  Though, read in liturgical settings, even as eloquently as we have done in years past when we were not distant from one another because of Covid-19, that thunderous voice of Jeremiah on the written page often fails in its affect.  The reason lies not with Jeremiah, but elsewhere.

We moderns may push aside the value of or need for dreams and visions, but medical science teaches us of the value of dreams, for they allow our brains to process events in our lives when the body is at rest and is not being required to respond to all the other stimuli and chores of our waking day.  Every motivational seminar these days includes segments on developing a vision, the role of vision, and maintaining your vision. 

Jeremiah lived in the real world.  He did not shunt the problem off to some later time in God’s kingdom.  The people of Judah, the southern kingdom of what was once a united Israel, a nation of power and a nation of promise, stood before collapse.  Although this secession of the south from the north is often seen by historians solely in the context of a socio-geo-political move, this decision places Judah at a distinct disadvantage against its other neighbors.  They had forgotten whence they had come.

There are moments of insight where Jeremiah catches a new vision.  In the verse just prior to where our text of today begins, there is an insight that every modern-day psychologist would applaud.  Again, hearing from God, Jeremiah learns that no longer will the fault of the fathers and mothers be passed on to the next generation.  Each of us, singularly, will be held accountable for what we do:  “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.  But every one shall die for his own sin.” (31:29-30)  That text when combined with our text today is such a hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck-raising, skin-tingling moment.  Our text today is one of the most remarkable examples of visionary statements.

I have often tried to recapture my dreams, a.k.a. visions, when I awake of a morning.  Most of the time, no matter how hard I try, I cannot.  Dreams are often elusive, especially as we attempt to twist them to our own desires and perceived needs.  The greater, more vivid stimuli of the day, the real world takes over.  During the day, I allow myself an occasional daydream.  Most times I realize that my dreams are pretty insignificant and material-centered.  And then there are those moments at 3:15 in the night, when I cannot sleep, that I try to envisage those ministries that will attract to our parish those who share our awe of God’s presence in our world. 

If what Shadi Hamid writes is true, things will not and cannot be the same after we reopen our doors in Teele Square.  An amended way of thinking, of proclaiming that which we hold to be true, must take hold of our spirit, because the already weakening thread with which “organized religion” held our social fabric together has been weakened even more.  However, I remain persuaded that our social fabric needs that which we of faith have been charged to mend, if we but visualize a different reality.   I do not carry the Jeremian sign “The end is near!” 

I call my second and closing witness.  The portion of St. John’s Gospel appointed for our reading today at Mass would appear to direct our attention to the crucifixion.  Yet, however much this saying of Jesus would appear to presage his death, I offer the possibility that it is about life and change.  As recorded by John, two foreigners, two Greeks, come to Jesus, a Jew, in order to learn more about his program and his teachings.  Jesus, according to John, instead of inquiring who the men are and for what reason they wish to speak with him, responds with what appears to be a non-sequitur, namely with the allegory of a wheat seed, a singular seed, that must be sown, that must die, that must change, in order that a greater benefit might emerge.  It the seed does not change, it remain exactly that, but if planted, it produces wheat which in turn can be grounded into flour, which in turn can be baked into bread, which in turn can feed countless others.  That is dealing with reality.  Moreover, without stating so outright, Jesus of Nazareth teaches that the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in heaven, is not exclusionary, but includes even non-Hebrews, all humankind.  This action is not postponed for “the hereafter.”

Each of us is that seed now and shall be in a post-Covid-19 world, in which we live out the Good News of the God.  It is not I alone who has been charged by God to carry the message of Christ forward, but every one of us who proclaims herself or himself Christian, and not only at St. James, but wherever we may find ourselves.  My vision, without your complementary vision, and without allowing our collective vision to be governed by our collective sense of where God is among us, is of little or no value.  This certainly is what God did with Jeremiah I believe, is announced in Jesus’ image of the seed. We are the beneficiaries of God’s plan, and as we change, so do we become the seed that gives forth more seeds.  ‘America’ as a religion does not address, for me, the universality of faith in God the Creator.

God, through Jeremiah, invites us to much grander and more important visions for our generation.  Jeremiah invites us to dream of being again one with God.  Jesus, in the plainness of the image of the seed, figuratively and literally, grounds that vision for us.  Our own limited visions take on meaning and take on growth.   And in that growth is proof positive that God wants us to succeed.  Amen