Fifth Sunday

Preacher: Nate Hosler Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 12:20-33, Hebrews 5:5-10

In the 4th century at a time when the church began to align with the empire, certain people began withdrawing from the world to secluded places—often the desert. Monastic communities were formed around orders of strict discipline to foster greater focus on God (Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, “Monasticism,” 812)

Some of these practices are or were somewhat strange to our lives but still understandable. Regular (and often very early) times of prayer, study, work, and communal meals. Some strange and mostly incomprehensible—hermits living in caves but then also walling themselves in save a small opening for food (and poop?) or stylites—living on top of pillars for years on end. What, to us, seems like a misreading (or at least an eccentric reading) of Jesus’ teaching on life and suffering.

Jesus calls and invites us to join him on the way of life—the way that leads to true life. This, ironically, may be the way of suffering and even death. He teaches, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

When Jesus says, “hate their life” he does not mean despise, detest, wish to do away with their life or passively submitting to oppression. In another passage Jesus says, “Anyone who does not hate a brother or sister, spouse…etcetera cannot join the kingdom of heaven.” He says this despite also teaching that we are to love everyone, including, our enemies. This is not a prescription for self-loathing. What it is is a radicle re-prioritizing. A realignment towards others and God. Jesus clearly embraces earthly uncertainty for the cause of the Gospel. This de-centers ourselves as the highest-priority.

Jesus predicts his death and then says:

“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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”

Love life = lose it.

Hate life = find it.

But what if you hate life for the wrong reasons? Say through depression, trauma from abuse, or societal pressures and assumptions about what is good or acceptable or desirable? Surely these are not what Jesus means.

If loving of life means infatuation with self, prioritizing pleasure over everything, and unlimited consumption it would seem to mean one thing. If love of life means appreciation and gratitude for God’s good creation, value of cultures, and care for others it would seem to mean something else.

As I thought about this I kept coming up with caveats. How does one tease out a general tendency to over-commit and take on too much for a good cause or work? Around 75% of pastors in the Church of the Brethren are part-time and have other jobs as well. Almost invariably, if you say that you are a part-time pastor, the response “well, its never really part-time.” Even when not “on the job” there is ministering happening—to a neighbor, informal interaction that is caring for someone.

Much of my work is with advocates, peacebuilders, policy folk, and humanitarians. Almost inevitably, when I open email (notifications are intentionally turned off), people have been emailing this or that list-serv throughout the night. Finalized document to the new administration’s transition team—5:30 am Sunday morning—not up early but up “late.” Report of X or Y at mid-night Saturday. (My own) email to the White House faith liaison office regarding the missile strike in Syria at 8 pm on a Friday evening of vacation week… A colleague who, knowing she was retiring soon worked without rest for months—“flat out” she said.

There are other versions of this. Offices and industries that expect too much and unreasonable hours are needed to succeed. Or jobs that pay too little and just 1 job won’t suffice to cover needs.

And a child, who has not chosen, needing to deal with a parent who works too much or who is writing a sermon (the sentence in particular) on a Saturday afternoon?

Hating one’s life does not mean a dissatisfaction based on a doubtful norm of–beauty, proficiency in sports or spelling (incidentally, autocorrect helped me with “proficiency”).

And there are places and times when the simple act of following Jesus leads directly to suffering, deprivation, or even death.

To suffering and agony the prophet Jeremiah proclaims hope. The prophet brings a word of hope. After the description and experience of much pain, suffering, and exile the prophet brings a word of hope. Not hope based on a general optimism but one thoroughly grounded in and oriented to God.

A hope thoroughly grounded in and oriented to God.

The hope is not merely for the return of the status quo or getting by but of something new.

We read, 31:34 “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.”

“since the ultimate ground and certainty of this hope rested on the nature and purpose of God, these saying bring to the surface some of the of the most vivid and theologically significant pictures of the divine nature. (R.E. Clements, Jeremiah, 185)” “..it was neither a vague injunction ‘to look on the brighter side of things’ nor an optimistic assessment of the potentiality of historical events. (Clements, 185).”

The grounding of hope outside of ourselves and rooting ourselves in a discerning, challenging, and caring community provides a balm in uncertainty, clarity in discernment, and care during suffering. This community is immediately around us but also linked beyond our geography (as demonstrated in this church service) and even beyond our relationships or even time.

 On an Easter Week planning call Thursday evening, I told others that I just got the Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity. I noted that I found this surprisingly life-giving—and upon reflection realized this is because it reminds me that the story of the church is bigger than just our congregation, denomination, or even time. Jeff, being very pastoral said, “Everyone is nerdy in their own way.”

I also recently began using the Global Bible Commentary. Though each entry is relatively brief I have greatly appreciated it. While the fields of Biblical and theological studies still don’t fully represent of the beautifully diverse life of the global church, one of the wonderful aspects of our present time is the expanding access/voice/participation in these discussions. The chapter on the book of Jeremiah is written by Renita J. Weems.

 Rev. Dr Weems was the first African American woman to receive a PhD in Old Testament. While it is shocking and distressing that this happened only in 1989, I am grateful to hear her read Jeremiah in light of her history as a person of African descent whose ancestors came to America through slavery. It is a gift for her to describe both the ways that scripture was used to oppress but also how it is part of ongoing liberation. She writes,

“One must, like Jeremiah, be able to see beyond the destruction to newness and beyond despair to gloriously fresh possibilities. The despair among the poor (which those in power thrive on), says: ‘The future looks like the present. God’s purposes will not get accomplished, so why bother?’ The cynicism that keeps capitalism going says: ‘God’s will will come, but not for a long, long time…so I’d better cut a deal and get by the best I can.’ What does hope say? Hope says, ‘Pain is not forever. Wounds heal. Death does not have the final word.’ Hope is possible because for Jeremiah judgement was never an end in itself. It was a means for Bringing God’s people into a new and more lasting relationship with the divine. The old order passes away, making way for a new order to rise from out of the ashes. This is possible because our pain is God’s pain and God’s pain is our pain. (Renita J. Weems, “Jeremiah,” Global Bible Commentary, 224)”

In the Hebrews passage we read of Jesus participating in suffering. It reads, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…”

Having been made perfect, he became the source of salvation for all who obey him. This obedience is a participating with and following in the steps of Jesus. The language of “perfection” or completion shows up in the Gospel of Matthew as well. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls to non-retaliation, forgiveness, and love of enemies—and this is based on the example of God, who sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous—we are then call to “be perfect” as your heavenly father is perfect.”

We are called, invited into eternal life—true life not bound by our finitude and weakness. True life not defined by false measures of success and consumption. True life not beyond to our immediate horizons of possibility. A whole life, lost but yet found. This calling is a call to the difficult work of justice seeking and peacemaking. Care for all (even when they are annoying and even ourselves). A life of the Spirit and hope.  

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