Sunday, March 18, 2018

5 Lent B, 2018: Communion with God

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

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En el nombre del Dios, Padre, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

As we prepare to bring our practice of a Holy Lent to a close, I offer you this prayer from Pierre Teillhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest (d. 1955): "…when the painful comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great, unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you …who are painfully parting the fibers of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself… Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion… For you bring new life out of every form of death."

Teillhard says, "when the painful comes…" because it will. Being a faithful believer doesn't exempt us from the painful experiences of life; it simply gives us the way to perceive them in the big picture of God's plan of redemption where everything is gift, including the painful. For as Tiellhard says, in those moments we are awakened to something so great that we can let go and surrender ourselves to God, who is communing with us, joining to us at the deepest level, "the very marrow of [our] substance," to lead us to new life. For a believer, death is always the gateway to new life.

This prayer speaks to what Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel. When Philip and Andrew told Jesus that some Gentiles wanted to see him, Jesus proclaimed that now his hour had come to be glorified, explaining what he meant by likening himself, that is his life, to a seed.

Jesus says this seed must die because unless it does, it remains only one seed. But if it dies, if it breaks open its protective cover, then the seed can reach into the soil that surrounds it, send out roots, grow, and bear fruit. Only if the seed dies, Jesus says, can it be transformed into its true identity and complete its divine purpose.

This is as true for our lives as it was for Jesus.' He was the first. We are the next.

As individuals, we have been participating in Lenten practices that help us identify and willingly break open the protective coverings we have within us. Then together, as a community of faith, our individual Lenten journeys become one story, each of us prepared by God to take our part in that larger story.

Jesus' story led him to the cross. Ours will too. We must, like Jesus, be willing to die to ourselves if we are to live in him. Jesus' story also led him to the grave, that dark place of emptiness, nothingness, where God continues to create beyond our sight and comprehension. Finally, Jesus' story led to the empty tomb, evidence that, in the big picture, God has been redeeming all along and we emerge the same but different - in a physical and spiritual communion with our Creator God.

This transformation, while it is an amazing gift to us, is not for us. It's for the world. Just as Jesus died and rose again for our sake, we die and rise again (metaphorically) for the sake of the world. The challenge for us is to switch our focus from saving ourselves and others - which has already been done for us by Jesus - to serving the world.

At the end of this Gospel, Jesus and Peter have that famous conversation where Jesus teaches Peter, and all of us, how we are to serve: Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?" Peter responds three times, 'You know I love you.' And Jesus tells Peter, "Feed my lambs… tend my sheep… feed my sheep." That is our focus, that is how we are to serve.

When Jesus says things like this, I believe he's speaking metaphorically and literally. Feed those who hunger for friendship, for an encounter with God; but also, feed those who are hungry.

Who are the lambs, the little ones who need feeding in our world? Well, there are those children in Panama so generously served by our mission team this past week. I think of our own children across the US who recently protested their loss of peace in their own schools and ask us to act to make them safe again. I think of the people who live in constant terror that their families will be torn apart by deportation.

I also think of the number of children here in Jackson County who live with food insecurity; little ones whose only full meals may be the free breakfasts and lunches they get at school and who may not eat on the weekends.

A study done in 2015 states that 26% of children in Jackson County live in food insecure homes. Feed my lambs.

Overall, 6,370 people in Jackson County are food insecure. Feed my sheep.

When we tend these lambs and feed these sheep, we must be willing to enter their reality, which is when the painful comes, as Teillhard says. But we don't enter in hopelessness or with judgment or pity. We enter their lives as Jesus entered ours… bearing the love and mercy of God to all who hunger and thirst, being willing to lay down our lives (that is, our comfort, our convenience, yes, even our power) for their sakes.

In order to do that, Jesus says, we must cling to nothing. We cannot put the life we think we want ahead of the life God has planned for us. Neither can we prioritize ourselves over any of the other sheep in God's fold.

We must die to life as the world presents it and instead, go deeply into our hearts, "the marrow of our substance," where we will awaken to the eternal life that is already in us - because God is already there.

Please indulge me in another quick word study: Eternal life. Eternal life is life in the eternal presence of God. Eternal life isn't something that happens after we die. "Eternal," after all, means having no beginning and no end.

Eternal life also isn't a heavenly reward for good behavior on earth. It's a way of living on earth. It's a way of being in the present moment of our lives - in communion with God.

This is what God was speaking through the prophet Jeremiah: "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… they shall all know me, [that is, intimately join together, become one with me] from the least of them to the greatest."

And that has been our Lenten purpose: to open ourselves to deeper communion with God. In order to do that, we had to choose to walk into the wilderness where the wild beasts of our fear and self-centeredness threaten us, and surrender, as Tiellhard said, into the hands of the great, unknown forces that formed us.

On this last Sunday in Lent, when look at the seed God has planted in us, we awaken to the realization that that seed is God. It's a scary thing when we think about it. Even Jesus admitted that his soul was troubled as he sought to do this.

Then Jesus showed us how to respond when the painful comes: This is why I'm here, Jesus said. I came to do this. Then he surrendered himself into the hands of the great force that formed him saying: "Father" (which translates as "nourisher, protector, upholder") glorify your name.

It's why we're here too. We glorify God by our lives, just as Jesus glorified God by his life.

As we journey through this last week of Lent I pray that we continue to go deeply into our hearts to take that last step we may have been avoiding finally breaking ourselves completely open, allowing God to penetrate to our very marrow.

Let us pray: God of love, we know you bring life out of every form of death. Hold us close in your embrace that your love may comfort us as we admit the painful. Breathe your Spirit into us as we let the next death happen in us. Feed us with yourself, your body and your blood, as we live into the new life you are forming in us. For we love you, we trust you, and we surrender ourselves to full communion with you. Glorify your name, Holy nourisher, protector, and upholder. Glorify it in us, in this time, and in this place, where you have planted us. Amen.

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