Strangers At The Door

John 12:20-36
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. 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.
“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. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.

Lent5 / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 3-25-12

Children’s Time: A worrying stone. Have you ever carried a rock in your pocket? I have lots of rocks. But this one is especially smooth. When we worry about things in our lives, we can pray about them. We can remember how Jesus worried (in our lesson today) saying, “Now my soul is troubled.” He knew he was going to die on the cross, but instead of praying to get out of it, he prayed that God would get him through it – and be glorified! We all have tough times in our lives – times when we worry a lot! Jesus knows what that feels like, and we can pray (or rub our worry rock) to God in those times, trusting that God is there through it all, each step of the way. (credit: sermons4kids.com)

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

When was the last time you heard someone say, “That’s a dying church?” It’s not something we often look at as a model for ministry, to b sure. But I want to suggest today, that Jesus is the leader of a dying church.

And I don’t mean in terms of attendance figures, which we do track, or declining involvement of our youth and children. What I mean by dying is what Jesus said in his own words, in today’s lesson: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”

When the Greeks came to meet Jesus, wanting to become his followers, he must’ve said to himself: “That’s it. I’m dead.” I mean, any well-meaning Jew would know better than to associate with Gentile Greeks – heathens. It’s not so much that they didn’t worship the God of Israel, it was: what god didn’t they worship – that was the problem. They had a shrine for Poseidon, Athena, Zeus, Aphrodite. And here they were, coming to meet Jesus. Just imagine a born again Percy Jackson. Here come the Greeks, heaven help us!

And Jesus says to his disciples: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies it bears much fruit.” Something had to die in order for the new to be born. Was it the Jews’ status as God’s chosen people? Was it the strict adherence to the Laws of Moses? Or was it Jesus himself who had to die, and be lifted up, in order to draw all people to himself?

How are we doing at dying?

I once spent a month on the Indian reservations in South Dakota (both at Rosebud and Pine Ridge). And there weren’t any Lutheran churches out there at that time, but there were Episcopalians. So the Lutheran and the Episcopal Churches decided to work together, rather than build a new church. They called it “Lutepisc” Ministry! How do you serve Lutepisc? (a little play on words for those of the Norwegian persuasion – lutefisk being a kind of codfish that my grandmother would soak in lye and dip it butter and, yes, actually eat it!)

Anyway… there was some concern in our group (back in the early 90’s) about how the Indian churches were mixing their ‘gods’ with Christianity. Was it ‘New Age’ Spirituality? We saw a traditional star quilt draped over the altar. Some prayed to the Great Spirit as well as the Holy Spirit – or to Mother Earth, as well as the “Our Father…” They had an Indian Version of the 23rd Psalm – using beautiful imagery from the prairies of the Dakotas, as well as the one from the land of Palestine. A call to worship might include the burning of sweet grass and the wafting of the smoke with an eagle feather (a sign of status, something sacred or “wakan”).

So, here I was, trying to make sense of it all. Where do I fit in? We got to do some preaching and teaching. We attended a wake and a funeral at a church at Pine Ridge. Everybody brought Tupperware – because it would have been an insult not to take food home when the host family offered. And of course, I went strait for the fry bread and wojapi (think deep-fried batter, smothered in blueberry sauce – you can keep your lutefisk!).

But whenever I heard someone who was bothered by this mixing of the faiths – I always remembered what Steve Charleston said (he was a Native American professor at Luther Seminary at the time): He said, “That’s my ‘Old Testament.’ Yes, I believe in Jesus, but that’s my ‘Old Testament.’” So, why would we ask anyone to give up their ‘Old Testament’ – the story that shaped who they are – their rituals and traditions? Maybe there were some over-the-top traditions that needed to be done away with. Personally, I’m glad we don’t have to sacrifice live sheep on the altar anymore! That’s a part of our Old Testament. However, the Sabbath is still a life-giving – the Ten Commandments help guide our lives and provide order for society. The cry for justice from the prophets rings true today as it did then. That winter I had to rethink my beliefs about Indian peoples. And we continue to face the challenges of racism and white privilege in our society.

This year, marks the 150th anniversary of the hanging of the 38 Dakota after the Dakota Conflict in SW Minnesota. Most people I talk to have never heard of this chapter in Minnesota history. The months preceding the hanging had been marked by several battles, and killings (on both sides – between white settlers and the Dakota) with some of the heaviest fighting occurring in New Ulm and Hutchinson. Originally, over 300 Indians were rounded up and sentenced to death by swift military trials. President Abraham Lincoln personally intervened and pardoned all but 38 of the prisoners prior to the hanging, which occurred the day after Christmas, Dec 26th, 1862. A large, square gallows was constructed so that they could all be hanged simultaneously. It was (and remains) the largest mass execution in US history, and it occurred right here in Minnesota (just blocks from the church I served for 4 years, in Mankato).

But those numbers pale in comparison to the genocide committed in this young nation’s history against native peoples across the continent. Hundreds of thousands of Indians were simply wiped out in the name of Manifest Destiny, blankets infected with Smallpox were deliberately given to entire villages; treaties were signed, with no intention of abiding by them; land was snatched up, leaving the Indians little choice but to move onto reservations.

So, why should any of this matter to us today? We weren’t there when our ancestors committed such crimes against humanity. Neither were the descendants of the Dakota, who live on in our time. But all that garbage from back then still pollutes the waters today – when we neglect the work of true reconciliation – of dying to our pride and arrogance and being born again as brothers and sisters in God’s family.

The system of racial superiority is alive and well, on the streets of Florida, where Treyvon Martin was shot dead, leaving more questions than answers. “He looks suspicious” is the line from George Zimmerman’s 9-1-1 call that keeps haunting me, before Trayvon died from a fatal gunshot wound. I think it’s too early to know all the facts and to pass judgment. But what is indisputable is the suspicion in the air. “He looks suspicious.”

Today, I want to think with you about what was at stake for Philip and the disciples when they were approached by those Gentile Greeks (in today’s lesson). When Jesus heard they wanted to see him he speaks of death in his future, but also of glory and fruit that would come of it. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies…” To lose one’s life was not just a metaphor, it was a call to actually risk welcoming the stranger.

Through Jesus Christ, Jeremiah’s prophecy from our first reading was coming true: “The days are surely coming, when I will make a new covenant, not like the one I made with your ancestors. This covenant shall be written on human hearts – not tablets of stone. On that day, they shall all know me, from the least to the greatest.” So, how are we doing at being the hands and feet of Jesus, drawing “all people” to himself through us? Even those we hold in suspicion? Jesus said, “Whoever serves me must follow me.” Such promise & peril have always been part & parcel of the life of a disciple of Christ.

So I ask you, who are “the Greeks” that enter your life today? Who stands on your threshold ready to meet Jesus? Just this week I was approached by 2 pastors from different ethnic churches: one a Guatemalan church and the other a Liberian church – asking if they could rent space from us to worship on Sunday afternoons. I was glad the Guatemalan pastor brought his two daughters, when he dropped by the office, as they served as interpreters. Both pastors said they both have 40 or so members each. We still don’t know all the facts, and the council is gathering more information about what they specifically would need.

I’m a bit hesitant, (maybe even a little suspicious, if I’m honest with myself). We’ve only just gotten used to renting space with Head Start these last two years; and that’s brought several children of immigrants and varying ethnic groups into our building. But I’m also not one to second guess the work of the Holy Spirit in reaching out to our neighbors right in our own backyard.

How about you? Who are the Greeks at your doorstep these days? Would you welcome them to join a dying church today – a church that lifts up Christ as its head, through prayer, worship and sharing of the Lord’s Supper?

Thanks be to God, in Christ Jesus, who bears the promise of fruit and grain, from the dying seed of God’s people. Let us pray:

O God, you bid us come and die. We cling to our sin, pride and prejudices. Open us up when we fall through the cracks and let us be born anew, bearing much fruit, in your Holy and precious Name. Amen.

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