Sermon: Sunday, March 29, 2009: Fifth Sunday in Lent

Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34  ;  Psalm 51:1-12  ;  Hebrews 5:5-10  ;  John 12:20-33

A couple weeks ago I went with an interfaith group of clergy up to the Sandhill Farm in Prairie Crossing, up near Grayslake north of Mundelein. We went as part of an ongoing study group hosted by Faith in Place, the interfaith environmental advocacy and action organization that used to have its offices here at St. Luke’s. We’ve been meeting for a couple of years now on a quarterly basis to ask questions and listen to each other’s different religious perspectives about what constitutes “the good life.” We share a conviction that the planet is in the middle of an ecological crisis and the hope that our religious traditions hold resources for reforming the way we inhabit and interact with our environment.

While we were there we met with Peg Sheaffer, one of the farmers who – along with her husband – manages the farm and its CSA, or “community supported agriculture.” Some of you are familiar with this model of farming, because you take part in CSAs here in the city. CSAs transform the relationship between growers and consumers by eliminating the middlemen of grocery stores and farmers’ markets and deliver the farm’s good directly to the consumer who buys what is essentially a subscription for the farm’s season, and then receives a share of what is coming up throughout the season in the form of a weekly or monthly basket of vegetables, fruits, meats, eggs – whatever the farm produces.

Peg talked with us about what it’s like to run a small farm operation right on the edge of the city’s suburbs, and about her changing views on the good life. Originally she and her husband had dreamed of a small farm in rural Wisconsin – far from the city, the crush of urban life and sprawl, the frustrations of pollution and traffic. But as they researched their dream, they began to question the environmental sustainability of growing and producing food so far away from the tables where it would be consumed. They considered the cost of the fuel needed to transport vegetables across the Midwest, and what it meant in the long-term to burn more calories transporting food than the food itself provides. So they came to Prairie Crossing and Sandhill Farm, a vegetable farm that butts right up against what looks like a suburban housing development.

Members of the Prairie Crossing community have often moved into their homes there in a similar effort to live a more sustainable life. They live in suburban-sized homes with front yards and close to a golf course, but they are also walking distance from a Metra stop that can bring them quickly in and out of the city. They share their backyard with the Sheaffers and their farm, and they may take part in harvesting, weeding or sowing the crops they eventually consume. They have created a learning farm within their community that works with community groups both young and old to remember and retain the dying art of farming the way it was practicing before agribusiness turned most of America’s farms into mass production projects. They are trying to re-imagine a life in our fast-paced, urban, multicultural world that can still be environmentally friendly and responsible.

In the spring at Prairie Crossing homeowners are subjected to a potentially terrifying practice as the fields are burned to prepare for the new crop. Imagine working a long day in downtown Chicago in one of the high-rise towers that serves as a home to international banking and commerce, then taking the Metra north out of the city for your daily thirty minute commute, getting off at the station just blocks from your home to see your house backlit by the glow of a blazing prairie fire. Something beautiful, in an abstract way, about the orange light of the fire behind the silhouette of the neighborhood, but terrifying as well. What if the houses catch fire?

There are benefits to a controlled burn. The charred earth only lasts for a couple of weeks, but through the process nutrients are recycled back into the soil and seeds are aided in the process of germination by exposing the soil to sunlight earlier in the growing season. Both Native Americans and early colonial settlers used controlled burns as a way of clearing ground for something new to grow.

There is an agricultural image at work in this morning’s gospel, and a hinted at controlled burn as well. We read the texts somewhat out of order, since this morning’s gospel takes place after the entry into Jerusalem that we will hear recounted next week on Palm Sunday, but the scene allows us to see the degree to which Jesus’ disciples are still struggling to understand the meaning of his life and ministry. Some Greeks have shown up during the celebration of the Passover in Jerusalem, and they want to see Jesus. Greeks – not even Samaritans, who were at least related to the nation of Israel – but Greeks, Gentiles, foreigners, people who practiced another form of religion altogether. Others, and they wanted to see Jesus.

Andrew and Phillip have been traveling with Jesus throughout his ministry, which is quickly drawing to an end, and they still don’t know whether or not to let these Greeks in. They ask Jesus what he wants to do about it, and instead of answering them directly he offers this bit of farming advice along with an interpretation of its meaning,

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain of wheat; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-25)

Jesus, whose ministry has included talking with unaccompanied women, eating with tax collectors, healing the untouchable – and on the Sabbath no less – has not been ambiguous about his position on maintaining traditions. He has acted like any one of the healers, teachers and prophets in Israel’s long tradition – and at the same time has made it clear that what he brings, he brings for all people. Even Greeks, even Gentiles; even people like you and me – and even people very unlike you and me.

In our Hebrew scripture reading this morning the prophet Jeremiah delivers this promise from God,

The days are surely coming…when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 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…

Throughout the season of Lent we have been remembering the promises of God, God’s covenants with God’s people. We heard God’s promise to Noah after the flood, never again to destroy the earth with water. We heard God’s promise to Sarah and Abraham, to make of them a family as numerous as the stars in the sky. We heard God’s covenant with the nation of Israel at Mt. Sinai, delivering the law as God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. We heard God’s deliverance from death in the story of the snakes sent in the wilderne
ss. Now, on this final Sunday before we begin Holy Week, we hear the promise that foreshadows the end of promises – a promise that in the end, God is not interested in the welfare of some people, but all people. That God is reaching out to all of creation in love, in terms so intimate that they are written on our hearts.

And yet Andrew and Phillip still want to know if these Greeks can come see Jesus.

Andrew and Phillip, and too many of us I fear, are practicing a form of religion that has to die. About three weeks ago a major study of American Religious Identity was released by Trinity College in Connecticut. Among other things, it found that 15% of the country now identifies as belonging to “no religion” – the only group that increased in size in every state in the country, and third largest behind Roman Catholics and Baptists. Evangelical denominations, like Baptists, seem to be declining in favor of non-denominational churches. Membership in mainline Protestant denominations like our own has declined by a third in less than twenty years. From 1990 to 2008 Lutherans of all denominations – ELCA, LCMS, and all the others – have shrunk 25%. All the sorts of trends that put our own membership concerns in greater context.

Stepping through the front door of a church and hearing statistics like these feels a bit to me like what I imagine our neighbors at Prairie Crossing feel when the step off the Metra and catch sight of the fire blazing behind their houses. Something terrifying and dangerous. Or is it? Is this the controlled burn that the farmer sets in springtime to prepare the earth for new seed?

Andrew and Phillip have been following Jesus, but they still don’t know if Greeks and Gentiles are allowed in to see Jesus. That’s just not the way they’ve done things in the past. Yet, as I discussed earlier this Lent, Christianity has been since its birth an interfaith movement. Two thousand years later we live in a shrinking world where our neighbors are Jews and Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus, Christians of every kind and – increasingly – people who do not connect to religion at all. Our first reaction is to say, “then we need to teach them! We know God, and they don’t! We have a tradition and they don’t! Our culture, our ritual, our way of being church is what’s called for, if only they would join us.”

But Jeremiah forecasted a time when we would no longer teach each other, or say to each other “know the Lord.” In this moment in history, when the fields of faith are on fire – a blaze that is destroying ways of being that have held us for centuries – I wonder if we can trust in Jeremiah’s words. If we can make them more than prophesy, but actually let them take root in us and grow into a way of living.

At our last council meeting I led a bible study with the group in which I invited them to interrupt the reading of the biblical text as often as they liked, as long as the interruption began with “I wonder” or “I notice.” We are so used to approaching stories and people with our pre-formulated opinions about who they are or what they mean. The point of the exercise is to practice curiosity, to allow questions to lead us into deep knowledge.

What if we approach our own faith, people of other faiths, people claiming no religious tradition, with the same kind of curiosity? What if we took Jeremiah at his word, and trust that God has already written God’s law, God’s mercy, God’s love, God’s justice on the heart of every living thing in all the world? That it has already happened. If that is so, then we don’t need to teach – we need to listen to people’s answers when we ask, “I wonder where you have sensed the extraordinary beauty of creation.” “I wonder what words you use to describe the awe you feel when looking at a newborn baby.” “I notice that you care about your neighbors and the world they live in, and I wonder what teachings or traditions have helped you do that so well.”

God’s promises have always been for all the world. It is our human desire to separate ourselves from one another that has led us to privatize those promises, to make them for us and not for all. We fall in love with our religion instead of falling in love with the one that our religion intends to point us towards. But God is not confined by the ways we have known God in the past. God is fulfilling a new covenant, God is inviting Andrew and Phillip, and the Greeks, and you and me and people nothing like you and me; and God is calling us to a place of meeting, a crossroads, a scorched earth where the end of what we have known makes way for the harvest of seeds planted long ago, sprouting with new life.


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