Texts: Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
27The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. 28And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. 29In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” 30But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. 31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It 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. 33But 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. 34No 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.
20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.”30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine.31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” 35Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.
I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh that was (and still is) a predominantly white area. In fact the 2000 census said that our town was 99% white and 1% “other”. I’m pretty sure that by “other” they meant my house. One thing about growing up in that circumstance is that you learn not to assume the worst of people. You also learn to keep your eyes open. 90% of the people who lived in my neighborhood were great people. My race led me to very few problems in my growing up years.
But I remember the few times very well. I remember the word nigger being used pretty casually in certain circumstances. I remember being having it yelled at me by some much older boys when I was delivering papers (this was back when we still had paper boys and girls). I remember always questioning if any slight I received was based on who I actually am or if was based on the color skin with which I was blessed.
It’s largely because of this experience growing up that I have always attempted to engage myself in conversations about race relations and racial reconciliation. It’s always a messy conversation. People who these problems are easy to solve, overstated, or even non-existent have their heads very deep in the sand. People get very touchy around this conversation. Feelings get hurt. Old feelings and memories get unearthed. People get angry. People get angry about others getting angry. The hurt cuts in both directions. People with good intentions get their feelings hurt when those intentions are misinterpreted. Others find trust to be difficult in cross cultural situations.
All of this has been rolling around in my head as I’ve been sitting with the story of Trayvon Martin for a little over a week now. It’s a heartbreaking story: a 17 year old African American boy, who by all accounts was a great kid, was coming home from buying candy. It was a rainy evening, he had his hood up. A neighbor, George Zimmerman, himself having Hispanic heritage, made a 911 call reporting that the boy looked suspicious. In the 911 call he also called the boy a racial slur. Despite the 911 operator’s insistence that he not pursue, he chased the boy, tracked him down and shot him to death. A despite a groundswell of outrage and support for Trayvon’s family, George Zimmerman is a free man. He claims self-defense, despite the fact that Martin was armed only with Skittles and Iced tea. Some say that Mr. Zimmerman’s ethnicity stops this from being a story about race. In my mind, it makes it several stories about race.
So what do we do with all of this? Well, I think we should be angry. And I think we should cry. And I think we should sign petitions. And donate money. And we should put pictures of ourselves wearing hooded sweathshirts on facebook and we should get really heated for, oh I don’t know, maybe a week or so… and then we should return to the status quo and wait for the next thing that outrages us. That’s an option. It is most often the option that we take.
But what if we want something lasting? What if we really want to see change? What if we are so tired of seeing young black men gunned down because they are guilty of breathing while black? What if we are tired of seeing people harassed and questioned because their primary language is Spanish? What if we’re tired of suspicious glances shooting towards our neighbors because they appear to have Middle Eastern decent?
In the midst of some of his most enigmatic words, Jesus says to those who are listening that if I be lifted up, I will draw all people to myself. ALL people. He says this an indicator of the cross. All people will see the cross of Christ and be drawn to it. What does that mean? For the early church, it meant that the Gospel was forcing them to have cross cultural encounters. It meant the cross was forcing them to die to their preconceived notions, their prejudices, their biases, and their stereotypes and see only those who like them were, like the words of the hymn, drawn in by the Spirit’s tether. We see it at Pentecost. In fact the entire book of Acts is the story of the church growing from a Galilean sect to a movement that incorporates people from all nations, tongues, tribes, skin tones, and languages.
The cross calls us to die to self in a way that won’t allow us to feel superior to another for any reason, but particularly not for reasons of culture. This is not to say that the cross calls us to “color blindness”. I hate that term when it comes to talking about race and culture. You don’t properly value someone by pretending to ignore a facet of them. What we’re being called to crucify is a form of pride that says that my life has greater value than yours. My culture has more worth than yours. My attitudes and behaviors are normative and yours are deviant. We are called to nail that sort of thinking to the cross.
The cross calls us to see love as our highest ethic. Love is not assimilation. Love is not “color blindness” a term I hate hearing in regards to race and culture. If you’re willing to ignore something as central to who I am as the color of my skin, then what else will you ignore when it becomes convenient to do so. No, love calls us to walk arm in arm with those with whom we have differences, knowing that we’re walking in the same direction and that we don’t get there unless we get there together. Love calls us to see the worth inherent in all humans.
In the cross, the power of love is made evident, calling us to reconciliation with God and with one another. Reconciliation is different than assimilation. It is different than integration. Reconciliation acknowledges that there are in fact major differences and despite those differences, relationship must persist. Not for my sake, nor for your sake, but for love’s sake.
The prophet Jeremiah calls us to imagine. This is in fact what good prophets do. Jeremiah calls us to imagine a time where we need not have religious teachers and institutions because we all have the knowledge of God within us. Isn’t it interesting to note that Jeremiah says that what gives us such knowledge of God is the forgiveness of sin. TO know that we have received grace for our many faults allows us to deal graciously with others. Imagine a world where we have so internalized the grace of God that we need not be given external proofs of its existence. Where love and forgiven are imprinted on our hearts in ways that make teaching about such things unnecessary. I long for such a world. For in such a world, young men don’t die because of the suspicions of men.
Jeremiah’s God is a god involved in renovation. Jeremiah’s God tears down in order to go back and build up. Jeremiah’s God is planting a garden with humans as seeds. I think that God is calling us to be a part of both the tearing down and the building up. I think we are being called to be apart of tearing down systems of racism, bigotry and injustice. I think we are being called to tear down systems that devalue life enough to kill based on suspicions. I think we are being called to tear down that which creates “otherness” in our neighbors. In it’s place, we are being called to build up systems fueled by grace. We are being called to conversations that are hard, but honest. We are being called beyond mere integration to the true beloved community of which Dr. King so often spoke. We are being called to look into the face of strangers and see instead the face of God.
I don’t know what else to say about Trayvon Martin’s death other than that it was tragic. But our faith is built on the death of an innocent man. Our faith is cemented in the belief that the tragedies we experience do not get final say. That death does not have the last word. That hope can emerge from even the darkest of moments. May this be a time when we push beyond superficial gestures and momentary outrage and move instead to dismantling the systems that create injustice and distrust. And replacing them with communities of love and acceptance where all see the image of God imprinted in the face of their neighbor.