Lent 5B – March 18, 2018

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” John 12:33
It was a Sunday morning in the Spring of 1976 just weeks before my graduation at Susquehanna University. Our Chaplain, Ed Brown, had made arrangements for the pre-theological students to have a preaching experience before heading off to seminary in the fall. So, I was standing in a home-made pulpit in a small white-washed country church about 15 miles from campus. I put my sermon down and right above it craved into the wood were the words, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” The word, Sir, didn’t trouble me, by then I had faced enough sexism to view it as a challenge instead of a barrier. But the ones that followed gave me pause, “We wish to see Jesus.” I didn’t know what to do, so I took a deep breathe, crossed myself, and began hoping my words would be enough.
Some Greeks, likely tourists who visitin Jerusalem for the festival of Passover asked Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” He found Andrew and together they told Jesus. I imagine these Greeks as fans who having heard about Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem and his raising of Lazarus from the dead, sought him out to shake his hand and get his autograph. He was famous and they wanted to meet him. But instead of obliging them, Jesus decides to show them and the world that the time has come for him to be glorified. This will happen in a way they least expect, for instead of being crowned king, he will be crucified on a cross.
Jesus tries to explain. He uses the analogy of a grain of wheat being buried in the ground dying and in the dying sprouting and reproducing itself many times over. Then he makes the connection to life and says that anyone who holds onto life just as it is, actually winds up destroying it for they remain stuck in the present which quickly becomes the past. Oh, this is so easy to do. John and I are having some work done on our house, painting and new carpet. A couple of weeks ago, I sent our sons an email saying that they needed to come and get their stuff. Whatever was left behind would be given or thrown away. They both did. On Friday night we stood in their empty rooms with tears in our eyes for it had all gone by so fast. If we could have just hung on to those days and to them. But none of us would have grown. In fact, when we hold on too tightly everyone and everything rots. Instead, Jesus tells us to let go of our lives and be reckless in our love, because only then do we experience life and love, forever, real and eternal.
This is not easy. Not even for Jesus. He says, “My soul is troubled.” He even imagines saying, “Father, save me from this hour.” Then he remembers why he came in the first place. The world is in crisis and the only way to save it is through the cross. Only then will the ruler of this world, Satan, which is everything that defies life, denies love and defeats faith will be overcome and overthrown. When Jesus is lifted up on tree of the cross he will draw all people to himself. Some ancient manuscripts go beyond all people to say, “all things”. For Jesus is the savior not only of people, but of the whole world, indeed, of the cosmos.
Salvation comes through the cross. This instrument of torture and death was the Roman Empire’s favorite form of intimidation and method of execution. It involved a long, public suffering as crosses lined the roads like billboards showing what happens to those who dare to question the Rome’s power and authority. But when Jesus is lifted up on it, the power of the death breaks and is defeated. The tool which the Romans used in their fear-filled desperation to hang on to their Empire becomes their undoing.
God always works this way. The children of Israel mark the blood of the lamb on their doorposts on the eve of their escape from slavery. The prophet Isaiah preaches of swords being beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. Daniel survives the lion’s den and Esther saves her people. Over and over again, God defeats and denies the power of the Empire. For when an instrument of death is defeated it’s transformed into a means of salvation and everything changes. Then and now.
In 1955, Emmett Till—a 14-year-old African-American visiting Mississippi from Chicago—was brutally murdered after being accused of whistling at a white woman. His body was shipped back to Chicago, where his mother, Mamie insisted that her son be displayed in a glass-topped casket, so the world could see what they did to her boy. Emmett’s body was on display for five days at the Roberts Temple Church of God. Thousands of people came to see the evidence of this brutal hate crime. 100 days after his murder Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama city bus. She said, “I thought of Emmett and couldn’t go back.” His death became a rallying cry for the Civil Rights movement.
On Wednesday, we heard rallying cries from hundreds of thousands of teenagers from all over the country and right here in our community saying enough gun violence, enough killing, enough sacrificial lambs, enough blood and fear. Of those who died at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School, seven of them were 14, as old as Emmett Till, two, 15, one 16, three 17 and one 18 who was graduate this Spring, along with three brave teachers. The empire is crumbling, as empires always are and always do. When that happens people feel threaten, so they arm themselves with intimidation in the form of assault rifles, political pay-offs, mutual blaming, self- righteous facebook postings and any healthy conversation dies.
Meanwhile almost 5,700 children are wounded and 1,300 killed by guns in America each year, two of them in our own town. It is the third highest means of death for children in our country. And not in any other country in the world. We have a problem and our children will no longer let us live in land of denial. Nor will Jesus. He draws them up embracing them in his arms. They were crucified with our Lord and it better cause us to tremble, tremble, tremble. Because there is no way to get to the glory land without first going through the cross. No way to get there without repenting, without heeding the cries of our children, without listening to one another, without loving our neighbors especially those we disagree with and diligently working for peace.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” the Greeks asked Philip and our children ask us this day, particularly the 10 and 11 year-olds, who are receiving their First Holy Communion. In the sacrament they see Jesus, his body in the bread, his blood in the wine – the sacrifice of his “very self” given to them and to all of us for the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Note, it’s not just forgiveness, but also life and salvation. Fifth and Sixth graders, just as the cereal Wheaties and calls itself the Breakfast of Champions, today in bread and wine you are given the Breakfast of Christians, of those who are empowered to be God’s people in the world. It is a joy to welcome you to the table and to have you serve as acolytes – shining the light of Christ in in the darkness. We are blessed.
I don’t know if on that spring Sunday morning in 1976, the people saw Jesus. I suspect they saw a very young and nervous college student who thought she knew more than she actually did. But I saw Jesus. I saw him in the council president who unlocked the doors and opened the windows, while his wife who showed me where the restroom was, around the back of the church for there was no indoor plumbing. She primed the pump so I could wash my hands. Jesus showed up in farmers wearing their Sunday best and who as soon as I started preaching fell asleep for they’d been up at 5 am to milk the cows and the feed the pigs before church. Jesus was there in the women glanced at their watches during the last hymn hoping that the roast they put into the oven for Sunday dinner wasn’t drying out and turning into shoe leather. Jesus was there in the shy flirting of teenagers, the singing of hymns accompanied by an old wheezing pump organ, the prayers for the fields and the sick, and the announcement about a pot-luck supper. That morning, I saw Jesus. Indeed, I see Jesus here in this place all the time, especially in those who disagree with each other do so with love and respect while together seeking the common good. I hope you see Jesus here too. Amen.

St John’s Lutheran Church Phoenixville