On the Foundation of Faith
March 21, 2021
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.”…The 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?” Jesus 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. While 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.
Jeremiah 31: 31-34
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. It 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. But 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. 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.
Today’s sermon is titled On the Foundation of Our Faith. Some of the granite blocks that the walls of the church sit on are over twelve feet long and about as wide and thick as two adults standing side by side. A block of stone that size would weigh two tons, or 4000 pounds, requiring an intricate system of block and tackle to move them. To even remove a stone that large from a quarry, iron spikes were driven into the solid rock at intervals of 3-6 inches with a hand-held hammer until the rock split. Can you imagine the strength required? Can you imagine the ringing noise of iron striking iron, over and over, all day long, ringing in the ears of hundreds and hundreds of workers? Could those workers imagine that the products of their labor would remain as a testament to their efforts hundreds of years in the future? I think so; I hope so.
There is a Hebrew word for someone who can see into the future. That word is navi, meaning prophet. Our Judeo-Christian tradition is literally built upon the promises, the law and the prophets. This is our religious history and we have been travelling through time over the past four Sundays, tracing the progression of events and teachings that shaped the Hebrew culture that in turn shaped the life and ministry of our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. We began with the ancient promises or covenants offered to Noah and then Abraham, then the law handed down in the commandments that grew into over 600 laws. Today we hear the words of one of the many prophets, the prophet Jeremiah.
Jeremiah lived some 500 years before the birth of Jesus. Jeremiah was an advisor to the king, King Zedikiah, when invasion from the Babylonians was imminent. Once again, all that the Hebrew people had established was under threat. What is essential for us to hold in our minds is that the two greatest symbols of God’s protection for the Hebrew people were their temple and their king. In 587 B.C. they lost both to the Babylonians and along with it their security and their freedom. All of the brightest lights of their culture, all those who were most capable of reorganizing and rebuilding and restoring what they once had, all those people were forced into exile to Babylonia. The workers and laborers and farmers were allowed to remain and the prophet Jeremiah, released from prison and guaranteed safe passage to Babylonia, chose to stay with them.
In the most despairing of times, as their beloved temple laid in ruins, the blocks of stone so carefully crafted and transported and assembled lay in tumbled heaps. Conquered, occupied, scattered and overruled, Jeremiah sought to offer them hope. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant… It will not be like the covenant that I made with your ancestors …—a covenant that they broke. But this is the covenant that I will make… 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… I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” Thank God for Jeremiah! His words would begin the mending that the people so desperately needed. They were a people mourning many losses…loss of life, liberty, governance, and protection.
This past week I heard an interview with the author of an article that appeared recently in The Atlantic titled “America Without God: How Politics Replaced Religion.”* The author, Shadi Hamid, chronicled the decline in church membership from 70% in the 50’s to less than 50% today. My professor in a class on Church History pointed to the Vietnam War years as the short period when the decline was most apparent, due in large part to the mainstream church’s refusal to take a stand against the war. The silence of the church led many to question and then to search elsewhere. In the article, Hamid writes, “humankind has a need to express ultimate loyalty and if not through religion, we find expression through secular commitments such as nationalism, socialism, liberalism and conservatism.” We have seen with our own eyes the irrational violence that can erupt from misplaced loyalty in political ideologies. And yet, we hope and strive for a better future, a more perfect union, and a fully-realized democracy for all people in America.
Is this because we have a foundation of faith? Could this be, in part at least, because we are part of a long tradition that has evolved over four thousand years? Is our ability to hope and to search for a better future somehow connected to what Jeremiah prophesied so long ago, to what has been written on our hearts? The law that is written on our hearts informs us of right and wrong. We know. But the law can be overshadowed and eclipsed by desperation.
Hunger, housing insecurity, working long hours for a wage that does not cover even basic necessities, being the target race-based insults because of physical appearance or race-based violence like we witnessed this past week…these are all threats that can override our ability to do the right thing. Even in people who are, by all outer appearances, successful and prosperous can fall victim to their fears and fear can override our ability to do the right thing.
What we learn from the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth helps us to stay connected to what is written on our hearts. Even as his people faced oppression, racism, and classism, Jesus instructed them to care for one another and to put no political leader above God. Even as Jesus faced his own death he prayed for God to be glorified. Even as Jesus could clearly see the forces of darkness at work in his world, he turned his followers to the light. Jesus said, “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. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”
In closing, I invite us to recognize the ancient foundations of our Judeo-Christian faith. It is not as ancient as our granite foundations, but it, too, came from the hardship, commitment, and selflessness of generations upon generations. It is up to us now to move it forward and outward in hopes that a Christianity that truly honors Christ will still arise. So be it. Amen.
“To believe in politics also means believing we can, and probably should, be better.”
-Shadi Hamid, author of “America Without God.”
God of our hearts, we come as we are this morning. Your promises of acceptance and love seem, at times, impossibly generous; help us to accept them, Lord, and help us to settle, if only for brief moments, into a place of security and knowing that we are children of a most wondrous God. When we doubt and fear, turn our minds in trust. When we dwell on hardship, turn our minds to giving thanks for our many blessings. And when we struggle to hold weight of the many problems in our world, strengthen us to hold them long enough for our hearts to open a little more, and for our inner vision to focus on a way we can be of service to our brothers and sisters. Remind us, Holy One, that one smile can offer welcome, one hug can offer abundant love, and one prayer can send ripples that have unimaginable effects. If ever we are at a loss for words, bring these words of Jesus to our lips: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever and ever. Amen.
I leave you with these words from the prophet Jeremiah (6:16):
“Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”