(based on Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:20-26 & Psalm 51:1-12)
On Friday evening and most of yesterday I was at First United Church in Kelowna, listening to Amir Hussain, author of `Oil & Water: two faiths, one God,’ talk about Islam. He answered our many questions thoughtfully and graciously, and without consulting notes. It made me wonder how we would do, with the same flow of questions about Christianity and what our faith means to us.
Imagine with me…If you were without a Bible, a hymn book, the internet; if you were living in a post- apocalyptic world, or in a land or culture that seemed completely foreign to you. Do you have a prayer, a scripture, an image, a parable that would sustain your spirit when all the usual supports are gone? What is the word/ what is the covenant written on your heart?
Well, let’s visit the post-apocalyptic world of Jeremiah. In the days of the prophet Jeremiah, the southern kingdom of Judah was caught between a rock and a hard place – the powerful forces of Egypt and Babylon. Babylon won out, and the people of Jerusalem are sent into exile. They are devastated. They must abandon their homes, their livelihood and the Temple, the place for them where God dwells. This is the place where God connects with their lives.
It is at this point that Jeremiah offers a word of comfort and a strange and wonderful concept – God is not in the temple, the covenant between God and the people is written in their heart. They cannot leave God behind. God goes with them. They will have to leave the temple, and they can be sure it’s going to be desecrated. But the invading army cannot destroy their relationship with God, because God is going with them; God lives in them. Somehow, knowing this, makes it a little more tolerable to be displaced.
I want to say a word about the gospel. This reading takes place just after the palm parade into Jerusalem, and Jesus is looking, for the moment, like a bit of a rock star and some visiting Greeks want to meet him. Instead of riding on his popularity, Jesus talks about the need for letting go of the self. “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.” He goes on, `those who love their life will lose it…’ That’s not what the Greeks want to hear. It’s not what we want to hear.
Few of us can expect death by crucifixion, fortunately, but discipleship does require some death of ego, for deeper understanding, some humility and helplessness – and we don’t like to be helpless. As well as attending the Lenten lecture to help me let go of my preconceptions about Islam, I am reading `Peace Pipe Dreams; the truth about lies about Indians’ by Darrell Dennis. I thought I knew a fair bit about Canadian history, but I’ve had to let some old ideas die that I may see with a wider vision.
Letting go of what we know is never easy. There are changes that come to our personal lives – changes in health, employment, relationships, that we would not choose and yet, as we let go, we find new life beyond what seemed like an ending. There are changes coming to this congregation, and to the church regionally and nationally, we are having to let go of what we know, in order for the unknown to rise. How do we trust God with our hearts? How can we surrender to the unknown, trusting that we will be known and loved?
Psalm 51, not my favourite scripture, sings of the need for a change of heart. It is attributed to King David, after the prophet Nathan confronts him with having Uriah killed after he’s got Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba pregnant.
David, the singing shepherd became the mighty king, and didn’t need God any more. He was a self-made man (forgetting who had brought him to the throne in the first place.)
But Nathan tricks him into seeing his own sin. And so David cries out, `Against you alone God, have I sinned.’ And I want to add `Well, no, you sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba too.,’
`I was conceived in sin,’ laments David. `Quit blaming your actions on your parents,’ says I.
Leonard Cohen, in his song, Hallelujah, has a little more compassion for King David than I do. I’ve told you the story of how I came to first hear this song so I won’t repeat it; I just know it has helped me to be a little more compassionate of myself and others when we fail.
When at the last we stand before God, it’s between us and God, and we can say we’re sorry. But we shouldn’t white-wash our sins on the one hand, nor be immobilized by guilt and self-berating on the other. Leonard suggests that ultimately, and most honestly, all we can offer to God is an open and perhaps broken heart, and a Hallelujah – even in the midst of Lent.
(We then sang together Hallelujah – with wonderful accompaniment from Jim, Steve and Andrew on saxophone, clarinet and bassoon.)