Sunday, March 29, 2009

(Lent 5) What God does with failure

Lent 5
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-12; John 12:20-26

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Human beings fail.
Often. And miserably.
Human beings disappoint each other.
Often. And deeply.
Human beings hurt each other.
Often. And with great consequence.

On the one hand,
there’s not a lot of good we can say
about the human condition.
Human failure, deep human failure,
is in our face every time we pay attention to the news,
whether global, national, or Harrisonburg community news.

In our community a young woman is being tried
for the death of another woman in our community,
because the young woman apparently drank heavily
until the wee hours of the morning,
and in a drunken fog got behind the wheel of her car.
Her failure to use good judgement, and moderation,
resulted in the tragic death of a wife and mother and friend.
Her failure ended tragically.
But failures in judgement and moderation
that are absolutely identical to hers,
happen dozens of times, daily, all over this very community.
The consequences may not be newsworthy,
but they harm just as many people.

On the national front,
a man recently went to jail for crimes driven by unmitigated greed.
A ponzi scheme larger than any in history,
destroyed countless lives, and businesses, and relationships.
And the same failure to value the dignity and worth of others,
the same sin of greed,
is continuing to destroy lives, and businesses, and relationships,
all over our country and world.

On the global stage,
where do we start?
Everywhere we look,
the failure to respect the worth of human beings
from other nations, or ethnic groups, or religions,
the failure to love . . .
is devastating the world as we know it.

Human failure is epidemic. It is endemic.
That is, it’s constantly and everywhere present.
We obviously don’t need to look across the ocean, or state lines,
to see it.
We don’t even have to look as far
as the Rockingham General District Court.
We need only look in our church,
in our own families.
We need only look in the mirror.

Choices that I myself make,
sometimes hurt, and disappoint, others in my life.
Human failure is rampant.
And in many situations, even in our own lives,
the result is devastating.
Human beings sin against each other, and against God,
often, and with great consequence.

So what do we do with . . . human failure?
What do we do when others fail?
I think we all know what happens much of the time.
We point fingers.
We make sure that as many people as possible
see that failure clearly, and in detail,
so that we come out looking good in comparison . . .
so that our own failures fade in proportion.

That seems to be the norm . . .
bolster our own self-image,
by shining light on the failure of others.

I sometimes wonder whether that’s what actually
drives the news industry in our culture.
That’s why tabloid journalism sells.
That’s why the more sensational the failure,
the larger the headline.

It reassures us average citizens
who are good people,
but have real-life, everyday struggles with greed,
that we are not anything at all
like those monsters who took bonuses at AIG.
We are a completely different species
than those corrupt thugs on Wall Street,
and those greedy bank executives, and corporate CEO’s.
It helps our own lives just . . . shine . . .
compared to that scumbag of a person
who robbed a bank or convenience store.

Seeing a sordid story of some pervert’s gross sexual misconduct
splashed across the pages of the paper,
can have the effect of making those among us
who struggle with sexual brokenness and addictions
minimize our own temptations,
or pass off our own indiscretions
as something completely different.

What do we do with human failure?
We create distance between us and them.
We point our fingers, and call people
monsters, and thugs, and scumbags, and perverts,
so we don’t have to do the painful work of examining ourselves.
But what should we do with human failure?
How do we respond to the sheer overwhelming mess
the human race is in?
How do we relate to those close to us
who have failed us miserably?
Or how do we relate to our own failures?

We could take a hint, perhaps, from what God does with failure.

Each Sunday during Lent, and this is the fifth one,
we have looked at a different Old Testament covenant.
One with Noah, one with Abraham,
one with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai,
and last Sunday, the bronze snake covenant for healing.

But in all of these covenants,
and every other agreement between God and God’s people,
the people failed.
They did not live up to God’s intentions.
They cheated on God, in a major way.

So in today’s text, in the book of Jeremiah,
we see what God does with these multiple failures.
But before we look again at Jeremiah 31,
let’s jump back a few chapters,
and get a picture of how God really felt about these failures;
how these human failures impacted God.

Here is what God says (Jeremiah 11):
“Both the house of Israel and the house of Judah
have broken the covenant I made with their ancestors.
They have returned to the sins of their ancestors,
who refused to listen to my words.
They have followed other gods to serve them.

Therefore, I will bring on them a disaster they cannot escape.
Although they cry out to me, I will not listen.
The towns of Judah and the people of Jerusalem
will go and cry out to the gods to whom they burn incense,
but they will not help when disaster strikes.”

“Do not pray for this people,” God said to Jeremiah,
“or offer any plea or petition for them,
because I will not listen when they call to me
in the time of their distress.
What is my beloved doing in my temple
as she, with many others, works out her evil schemes?
Can consecrated meat avert your punishment?”

God could not have been more hurt, more disappointed, more angry,
and more justified in unleashing that anger on the people.
God wanted this relationship to be one that worked.
God had carried out God’s part of the covenant.
God poured everything into these people.
these people he loved,
these people he called friends,
these people he called his own wife.
But the people rejected God’s love, with contempt.
They acted like God’s love for them didn’t matter in the least,
and ran after other gods to worship them.
God was as angry as any scorned lover would be.

So clearly, it’s all over for the people.
Those monsters, those scumbags,
deserve whatever they have coming.
Well, in fact, the disaster God predicted did happen.
The consequences came, right on schedule.
They were raided by foreign armies,
carried away captive into a strange land,
their temple demolished,
their holy city in ruins.
God’s covenant with his people was over.
We know what to expect.
When we turn a few more pages in book of Jeremiah,
we will see the words, “THE END,”
in all block letters in the center of a blank page.
That had to be the end of the story.
Total failure, which leads to total destruction.

But instead, we turn the page and find Jeremiah 31.
“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.”

What?? A new covenant!!?? With the same people!!??
You’ve got to be kidding.
Jeremiah . . . you must have heard God wrong.
After the way they treated God? Again??

Is God so desperate as to try to make another go of it with Israel?
Apparently so.
“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.”

After all this, God still wants to identify with these people.
God is still enamored with the people he chose.
God still wants his relationship with them to be rebuilt.
God is going to see that the new covenant gets internalized.
It’s not enough for the law to be carved in stone.
It’s not enough for the people to know, in their heads,
what God wants.
Knowledge of God must be written on the human heart.
Deep, experiential knowledge
of God’s great love and mercy and justice
must be deep within,
pulsing through our entire beings,
as essential to life as our very heartbeat.

You see, unlike us,
God doesn’t deal with failure by creating distance.
God doesn’t try to build up his own reputation,
by gloating or pointing fingers at those worthless scumbags.
God doesn’t move away from those who fail.
God moves toward them.
God pursues them. Persistently.
Second chances aren’t enough.
It’s fifth, sixth, and seventh chances.
Seventy chances times seven.

That is, to put it simply, awe-inspiring.
But it’s also, as some have said, “the grammar of the gospel.”
It is the basic structure of God’s good news.
It’s God’s powerful, persistent, unstoppable movement
from brokenness, toward wholeness,
from alienation, toward community,
from being lost, toward being found,
from condemnation, toward salvation,
from death, toward life.

That’s what God does with failure.
God redeems it.
Creates new life from it.

I think that should say something to us,
in terms of how we respond to the failures of others.
When people hurt or disappoint,
do we create distance? or move toward?

Now, I recognize that immediately there is tension,
when I imply that we imitate God’s endless mercy.
Because there is the very real and life-preserving concern for safety.
So I want to be clear that I’m not saying
we should give offenders blank checks for offending again.

There are some relationships that go beyond
hurt and disappointment,
to abuse and violence.
Sometimes distance, and even strong barriers,
are exactly what is needed,
for the health and well-being of everyone concerned.

And furthermore, God did not give God’s people a blank check.
God called them back into a relationship that had a history,
a relationship based on rebuilding genuine trust,
and then God held them accountable.
Of course, there never is a perfect parallel between
God’s relationship with God’s creatures,
and the relationships of fallen and broken human beings.

God’s love, paired with God’s justice,
is a powerful thing,
and we do have something to learn from it.
Failure happens.
And what God does with failure,
is redeem it.
Again and again.
That is who God is, and what God does.
Takes what seems dead, and creates new life from it.

That’s why in Psalm 51 which we sang,
the psalmist, devastated by his unspeakably horrible sin,
could come broken and begging to God,
and make a such bold request of God,
trusting that God would say “yes,”
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation.”

And that’s what the heart of Jesus’ words were about
in the reading from John this morning.
“I tell you for certain,” Jesus said,
“that a grain of wheat that falls on the ground
will never be more than one grain unless it dies.
But if it dies, it will produce lots of wheat.
If you love your life, you will lose it.
If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life.”

It seems, to the untrained eye,
that the seed dropped in the ground is dead and gone forever.
The very same forces of death
that cause a fallen tree to decay and return to the soil . . .
those same forces do their deadly work on the seed.
They soften and begin to rot the hard outer layer of the seed.
But those death-dealing forces are the very ones
that end up freeing God’s life-giving powers to burst forth,
and grow new life.
That is the grammar of the Gospel.
That is how God works!

But, here in John 12 is revealed an essential truth.
Before God’s life emerges,
the seed must fall to the ground,
and surrender its seed-ness.
It cannot hold on for dear life to that inner treasure,
or that dear life will wither away and really die.
No, it must surrender to One greater than itself.
In God’s economy, protection of life, equals death.
But surrender of life equals true life.
It’s that simple, and that difficult.
In the words of Jesus,
“If you love your life, you will lose it.
If you give it up in this world, you will be given eternal life.”

I don’t know what this surrender looks like for each of us personally.
It will look different for you, than it will for me,
because there are different things we are clinging to,
that hold back the life that God wants to free in us.
But I am certain,
that God will wait until we drop the seed into the ground.
God will not knock it from our hands.
God waits for our surrender.

God waits until we stand before him open-handed and empty-handed,
and say “You, God, are all I have. My life is in your hands.”

It is in that spirit of surrender that I invite us to sing again,
our theme song for Lent,
“You are all we have, you give us what we need,
our lives are in your hands, O Lord,
our lives are in your hands.”

If you don’t need the music, and many of you won’t,
let’s simply sing it with our palms outstretched,
and imagine, if we can, that thing, or situation, or thought,
to which we cling,
that’s preventing the new life God wants to grow in us.
Hold it there, loosely, in open palms, and offer it to God.
If you need the book, that’s fine. Turn to STJ 29.
Just find some way to also symbolically surrender to God,
whatever needs to be surrendered.
Truly, our lives are in God’s hands.

—Philip L. Kniss, March 29, 2009

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