Sermon for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 2015, March 22, 2015, on John 12:20-24 & Jeremiah 31:31-34
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, 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.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, 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 — a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: 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, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
A fiery preacher took the stand and whipped up the believers into a frenzy. When the service was over they left, not as a congregation of worshipers but more like an angry mob. They went to the nearby Catholic church, broke in, and started smashing “idols” as they called them, and looting the gold and silver. They completely gutted it. Then they made their way to several monasteries, looting and smashing statues.
I’m not taking abut what ISIS is doing in Iraq and in Syria to Christian churches, though it is eerily similar. I am taking about John Knox and the Protestant Reformation in Scotland in 1560.
That was not an isolated event. In the years following the start of the Reformation in the 16th century, there were religious wars between Protestants and Catholics throughout Europe for decades and decades. Each side had real armies. Governments were overthrown. It was brutal. At one battle alone, the Battle of White Mountain which helped bring to and end the famous “Thirty Years War” the casualties numbered over 4,000.
Many of these wars were civil wars. Some were primarily religious in motivation, but many were the result of a toxic mixture of politics, ethnic animosity, and national rivalry. It all sounds very familiar, and modern.
Civil War in the Middle East
Right now there is a huge civil war going on, under the banner of religion, but motivated underneath by other factors too, like ethnic conflict and the quest for power, control, and of course, money. This time I am talking about the Middle East.
This past Friday, quadruple suicide bombers attacked mosques in Yemen killing at least 137 and wounding hundreds more. These were Muslims killing Muslims. Sunni Muslims attacking and killing Shiite Muslims; a civil war.
ISIS and Al Qaeda both base their radical version of Sunni Islam on one particular movement called Wahhabism. Named for its eighteenth century founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, it started as a reform movement. Wahhab wanted to purify Islam of non-Islamic practices like idolatry, the “cults of the saints” and tomb visitation.
We might notice that an iconoclastic reform movement that smashes idols and calls people who venerate statues “infidels” was what John Knox was leading also. We need to be humble when we get the urge to feel moral superiority, and we do not need to reach back to the Crusades to find reasons for such humility.
Wahhab and the House of Saud
Anyway, Mr. Wahhab made an alliance with an influential family, the House of Saud. The deal was this: as long as the Saudi’s promoted and propagated the strict teachings of Wahhabist Sunni Islam, then the Wahhabi’s would bring them “power and glory” and rule of “lands and men.” In other words, military support.
That was the eighteenth century. The alliance held. By the 1970’s the Saudi’s are becoming rich with petrol dollars. So, keeping their end of the bargain, they use this enormous wealth to propagate this fundamentalist, rigid, extremist version of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, all over the Middle East, and the world.
They have been spending an estimated $2 to 3 billion per year since 1975. They sponsor schools for Islamic learning called Madrases. Some actually teach things besides memorization of the Quran, but many do not. Of course they produce extremists. That is what movements of radical purity reform do. Ask John Knox.
One of their chief targets are the Shia Muslims whom they consider idolators and infidels. It just so happens that Iran is predominantly Shia, and ethnically Persian, making the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran intense on several levels at once. They are both ethnically and religiously different.
Let us consider a question here: When is it ever a good idea to get involved in someone else’s religious and civil war? I cannot imagine when that is a good idea
Exactly this: we are people of an alternative vision. It is the vision of the prophets; it is the vision of Jesus. And even though that vision has been betrayed time and time again by the church itself, by its many capitulations to the violent, divisive ways of the world, we are called to embrace that alternative vision.
It is the vision of a world reconciled. It is the vision of the peaceable kingdom. It is a vision of embrace as a real, possible alternative to exclusion.
The Hour of Openness
Consider our gospel reading. At what moment, in the Gospel of John, does Jesus finally say that the hour for him had come? At the moment that the Greeks, the non-Jewish gentiles come to Philip saying, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Everything in John is symbolic. This is the symbolic moment of the door swings open to the world. God’s grace is for everyone. No exceptions.
Though the world of humans may be expert in dividing up into mutually exclusive oppositions of “us” versus “them” we have an alternative vision. It is the vision of the world reconciled; of Jews and Greeks, slave and free, male and female all finding a place at the table together; a feast of shalom, of peace, well-being and wholeness.
This is exactly the kind of openheartedness that Jesus demonstrated time and time again. He reached across gender lines to heal suffering women. He looked past religious and ethnic differences to minister to Samaritans. He even overcame barriers constructed by by the binaries of oppressor and victim in his compassion for Roman soldiers.
Jesus taught and practiced the forgiveness of enemies. He refused resistance, even when it was offered in the Garden. He was faithful to God’s purposes even to the point of death, trusting that,
“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.”
The New Covenant
We are that fruit. We are the people of the New Covenant. Jeremiah imagined a time when the old covenant of Moses, chiseled in words on tablets of stone would be replaced by concepts written on the heart. We are called to internalize a new vision.
It starts with a new vision of God as Loving Father instead of vengeful Monarch. When we embrace for ourselves the truth that God is for us, not against us, we can be transformed. When we internalize the message that “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” we can live authentically and compassionately.
When we know ourselves as entirely forgiven, we become people capable of forgiving others. When we hear and know the words of Jeremiah that God’s desire is to be our God and have us as God’s people, it fills us with hope instead of despair.
The Call to Imagination
People who have the new covenant internalized in their hearts are called to imagine a better world. It begins with us. It begins with a commitment to understanding people who are different from us instead of knee-jerk vilification of them.
We are called to understand people of different races. We can start right here in our own country. It is simply uninformed ignorance that writes off the behavior of young black men in our country as disobedient belligerence; the product of bad parenting. The seeds of systemic injustice sown for years does produce bitter fruit. But blaming the bad apple for the poisoned soil that the tree grew in is unworthy of thinking adults, let alone Christians, no matter who their father was.
We are called to understand Muslims. Most of them hate what ISIS is doing. Most of them reject a Wahhabist version of their faith, even though the minority who do are ready to be so violent. We know that Christians, Jews, Yazidi and others lived side by side Shia and Sunni Muslims in what is now Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt for centuries with out violent conflict.
We are called to seek levels of understanding that go beneath the cable news surface and talk radio demagoguery. This is God’s world, and everyone in it is God’s creature. Therefore we are called to dialogue, to conversations that promote understanding.
I know this is a minority view; I accept that it is far more gratifying to the ego to simply pick up the the biggest club you can find and start swinging it at the bad guys. But that is exactly the tactic of the bad guys. If evil fights evil, what do you call the winner? Evil.
But there is another way. It is the way of the internalized New Covenant. It is an embrace of a world of neighbors. It is a vision of a shared humanity. It is the vision of the way of shalom, of peace, of reconciliation.
People of the New Covenant: know that you are forgiven and loved, and go into the world with the mandate to live as loving forgivers. The world desperately needs advocates for peace, advocates for understanding, and advocates for love. If it is not we who can be those advocates, than who else can it be?