The video above includes the full service, except for the time for sharing. For sermon video only: https://vimeo.com/523446920
Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained through One License with license A-727859
Order of Worship | Repent. Repair. | Lent 5
We acknowledge we are gathering on land where Miami, Osage, Shawnee, and other Indigenous peoples have lived and labored, fought, and loved. We continue to work and pray for justice and conciliation.
Call to Worship
VT 636 | Spirit, Open My Heart | Martin family, vocals; Tom Blosser, piano; Quinn Blosser, violin
Reparations: An ongoing conversation
Offering/Dedication Prayer https://www.columbusmennonite.org/donateget-involved/donate
VT 377 | New Earth, Heavens New | Sung/played by Madeleine Friesen, Anna Nekola, Joanna Loepp Thiessen, Janet Brenneman, Anna Schwarz, Michelle Fast
Scripture | Jeremiah 31:27-34
VT 651 | Lord Have Mercy | Conrad Grebel University Choir
Scripture | John 12:20-33
Sermon | Rooted Hopes and Grounded Glory
VT 828 | There’s a Wild Hope in the Wind | Brody Thomas, vocals/instrumental
Sharing of Joys and Concerns
Passing the Peace
Extinguishing the Peace Candle
Christian Education | 11:00 am
Thanks to everyone who helped lead today’s service
Sermon: Mark Rupp
Worship Leader: Robin Walton
Music coordination: Katie Graber
Children’s Time: Cindy Fath and Ruth Massey
Mission Moment: Rachel Gratz
Reparations Reflection: Joel Copeland
Peace Candle: Cartmel-Plessinger Family
Scripture Reading: Berit Jany
Zoom Host: Mike Ryan-Simkins
I recently subscribed to Poetry Magazine. The world is awash in words, an endless stream of think-pieces, hot takes, in-depth reporting, breaking news bulletins, status updates, sacred texts, and even the occasional super important sermon. At some point I realized how overwhelmed I felt by trying to keep up with everything, to take it all in. Perhaps it’s a bit ironic, then, that my antidote was to subscribe to another magazine, but my hope was to regularly put something in front of me that would force me to slow down, something that would say more with less. I needed words that intended to be as beautiful as they were informative.
My first issue came in February, and I was intrigued to find that it was a special edition where all of the selections were submitted by people who have experienced or who continue to experience incarceration. The issue was titled, The Practice of Freedom.
The poems covered an array of topics. Many attempted to capture some experience directly related to incarceration, while others wove images that only connected between the lines. The poems that really stuck with me, however, were the ones that explored themes like freedom, growth, hope, liberation, happiness, and love. These are Easter words, and I found myself especially grateful for the way these authors became my companions during this year’s Lent, helping me to do that inner work of exploring what these Easter words really mean. Lent is a time for slowing down and examining the source, the contents, and the direction of our hopes, and these voices helped me to question the easy answers that rush too quickly toward resurrection without first listening for the wisdom of the desert.
One poem that especially caught my attention was titled Bruises, written by Christopher Malec. Malec was recently named the Luis Hernandez Florida Prison Poet Laureate, a two-year position awarded to a poet currently incarcerated in the Florida Department of Corrections. Bruises covers a lot of ground as Malec reflects on how his relationships have changed while incarcerated, but a main theme underlying all of this is a reflection on hope. At one point, he writes, “Hope...is the lazy man’s drug.../and the guilty man’s religion.../I should have OD’d on the church steps.”
The lazy man’s drug. The guilty man’s religion.
These are not the ways I would usually describe hope, and while we need not take every poet as authoritative, his words help me get beyond the easy, comfortable ways of thinking about hope. With the signs of Spring beginning to break through, it can be easy to turn Easter hope into a comfortable inevitability that asks nothing of us other than waiting. Repentance and reparation can become a little too easy if we see them only as a necessary season before we get to move on to other more pleasant terrain.
Malec ends his poem with the following words:
I’ve spent so much time trying to grow through this bid,
but a tree planted indoors
will eventually hit a ceiling,
I realized it
when someone once asked me what God was
and I said I wasn’t dense enough to claim to know
but if one exists and created me,
then there’s got to be some essence of it within myself, and I need to search
there for it ...
before I look anywhere else
And I need to tap that power to extricate my soul from this derisive spell, but I don’t want hope’s help
Because hope has become a needle ...
and I’m tired of its bruise
Again, he talks about hope in a way that can chafe at our plush ideas of what hope is, yet he leaves the door open for something, some essence of the Divine rising up from within.
Lent is a time for admitting to ourselves that hope is complicated and rarely sits comfortably inside easy answers and stories that end with “happily ever after.”
Perhaps no prophet understands a complicated relationship with hope better than Jeremiah. He is sometimes referred to as the “weeping prophet” because he is not afraid to put his full range of emotions on display. Where other prophets seem to maintain an emotional distance as they proclaim their oracles to the people, Jeremiah maintains a deep connection with those to whom he has been called to prophesy. At one point, he cries out that he wishes his eyes were a “fountain of tears” to be able to weep day and night for his people.
He regularly preached against opposing prophets, calling them out for saying “peace, peace when there was no peace.” He was mocked for proclaiming a message of impending doom in the midst of a sunny day. As with many other prophets, much of the texts ascribed to Jeremiah are warnings, calls for repentance, yet even these are permeated with a sense that judgement and salvation are bound up with one another. In the book, You Are My People, Louis Stulman and Hyun Chul Paul Kim write, “Whereas oracles of judgement must be distinguished from oracles of salvation formally, the two are not mutually exclusive in Jeremiah’s formulation of hope.” (100)
He resists letting hope become the lazy person’s drug or the guilty person’s religion.
Jeremiah’s warnings go unheeded, and further disaster befalls his people. The book of Jeremiah is a mish mash of writings that span different time periods, and in the middle are a string of chapters that many now call the Book of Consolation. This is where our text for today comes from. It speaks to a people in exile, inviting them to imagine a future beyond their current circumstances. In this section the prophet regularly uses the phrase “The days are surely coming says the Lord...”
At the beginning of our text for today, Jeremiah harkens back to the specific charge he was given when God first called him as a prophet. At that time, God described Jeremiah’s call in six ways: to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow, and to build and plant. Most of Jeremiah’s career as a prophet has been spent speaking to the first four, but in this section he turns more toward the final two: building and planting. The old ways that led to death crumble away to make space for new ways. Repent and repair.
In this vision of building and planting, Jeremiah reverses a popular idiom. No longer will people say “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” Instead, Jeremiah declares that all shall die for their own sins. To a people trying to make sense of devastation and exile, this is good news. It makes way for a hope where future generations will not be held responsible for the sins of their ancestors but will have the option to choose life instead of death.
As we think of our own work of reparations, however, I think it is important to point out that Jeremiah goes on to say, “The teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge.” We can sometimes resist the work of repair because we convince ourselves that we are not responsible for the sins of others. It may be true that we are not directly responsible for the sins of those who came before us, but we would be fooling ourselves if we didn’t think that we have continued to partake of our own sour grapes, especially when we have inherited that same soil that produced those sour grapes in the first place. Our teeth continue to be set on edge when we refuse to do what’s needed to create the kind of space, the kind of soil where better fruit can grow.
Maybe we’re pushing the edges of this metaphor, but the truth we must be willing to admit is that those of us who benefit from white supremacy bear responsibility for working to dismantle it, for using whatever power is at our disposal to create better soil. We were not there when Indigenous People were forced off their land, but this soil still cries out with their blood. It doesn’t matter that we have never owned slaves because the sourness of the sin of racism and white supremacy continue to set our teeth on edge no matter how hard we try to smile through the bitterness. It doesn’t matter if we have never used the racist terms to describe the covid-19 virus made popular by those at the highest levels of power, because the bitterness of violence against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is very much here in our communities now. No matter how hard we may try to sever ourselves from these realities, they are not other people’s problems, and we must allow ourselves to listen deeply, to mourn fully, and follow humbly the lead of those most affected by these bitter realities.
If the hope we profess relies on severing ourselves from the past, that hope can too easily become the lazy person’s drug. It can become a hope that doesn’t ask anything of us, that lulls us into an anesthetized sense of salvation, unable to make sense of the real world we inhabit. A hope that attempts to uproot us rather than helping us tend the soil of the actual communities we call home will turn sour in our mouths.
Stulman and Kim describe the kind of hope Jeremiah speaks to the people. They write:
Hope is possible when the community embraces the painful realities of exile. In contrast to prophets who would deny these tragic dimensions and predict a speedy return to business as usual, Jeremiah affirms that there can be no ecstasy without mourning, no homecoming without exile, no salvation without judgment, and no joyous songs without the memories of loss. Any vision of the future that avoids that real world of human suffering makes a travesty of the past and can never deal with the emotional and symbolic pain of exile. (135)
As much as our hopes may reach up toward a brighter tomorrow, they must also root down into the soil of today.
A similar theme emerges in our passage from John, though in this instance the temptation seems to be more about turning our hope into a guilty person’s religion.
At the time of our story for this morning, Jesus has truly begun to gain notice. While next week is when we will celebrate Palm Sunday and hear the story of Jesus riding into town surrounded by the cheering crowd, this story takes place in John’s gospel immediately after the triumphal entry. It picks up as a handful of Greeks make their way to try to see Jesus.
The author probably included this detail to symbolize the evolving mission of Christianity beyond the Jewish people to include Gentiles, but what sticks with me is the way a bureaucracy seems to have already built up between Jesus and the people. The Greeks approach with the humble request, “We wish to see Jesus,” but are handed off multiple times as their request makes its way up the ladder.
It’s unclear whether the Greeks ever even get to see Jesus because he launches right into a speech, telling Philip and Andrew that the time had come for the Son of Man to be glorified. When he goes on, however, this glory does not take the shape many would expect. Rather than a glory that is about being raised up on high with power and might, Jesus instead starts talking about death and seeds and servanthood.
I can’t help but think that maybe Jesus saw the distance that was being created between him and the people around him and knew that this was antithetical to his mission and who he was. As people began to place their hope in him, maybe he feared that he would become just another idol.
I’m reminded of the time Dorothy Day is reported to have said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.”
I think Day and Jesus both recognized that when we put saints and saviors on pedestals beyond our reach we tend to treat them as though they represent an ideal at which we can only grasp. Their actions become so heroic, so miraculous, so holy that we begin to look to them not as inspirations that spur us to walk alongside them and do as they do but as figures we expect to do what we have convinced ourselves we cannot.
Our hopes become nothing more than a guilty person’s religion when we treat Jesus as a stand in for our own guilt, when we treat salvation as if it is something Jesus does for us rather than a way of life to which he invites us to join. As much as the world doesn’t need those who try to sever themselves from the guilt of the past, it also has no use for those who feel so guilty that they’ve convinced themselves their only hope lies somewhere beyond.
We even see Jesus struggling with this as he wonders whether he should ask God to save him from this hour. When we face the hard realities of our world, may our response echo that of Jesus with a firm, “No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour,” as we sink our hands into the soil to do the hard work that must be done: plucking up and breaking down, and, by the grace of God, building and planting.
The glory that Jesus comes to show us is the subtle miracle that becomes possible only when we stay close to the ground, when we recognize ourselves as part of an ecosystem. He tells them, “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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” The glory of God is about fully taking part in the life of that ecosystem, not in trying to separate oneself or bypass the stuff of life on the way to heaven.
We must resist any hope that acts as a lazy person’s drug or a guilty person’s religion.
And so my wish for us, my friends is:
- that our hope would remain rooted in the present moment and all the possibilities that exist for choosing life here and now;
- that our glory would be grounded, over and over again bringing us closer to each other and the world around us through the miracle of seeds and fruit, dying and living;
- and finally, that we would trust the covenant written on our hearts, the essence of the divine that dwells within and gives us the courage to work out our salvation as we repent and repair and repent and repair...