Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago
17 March 2018 + Lent 5B
Jeremiah 31.31-34; John 12.20-33
Wakanda Forever! (Not to be confused with the Illinois suburb, Wauconda.) It’s the rallying cry of a remote African nation at the heart of the recent theatrical blockbuster Black Panther. Theirs is a civilization technologically advanced beyond that of any modern country, but to the rest of the world, it’s seen as no more than a third-world nation, crippled by poverty and anything but tech-savvy — their discoveries kept a closely guarded secret to avoid exploitation by outsiders.
A central theme set up from the film’s beginning is the extent of Wakanda’s responsibility in global affairs. In a world of so much grave suffering and injustice, can a country so advanced and poised to offer aid really sit idly by? Or do they step in, even at the risk of exploitation?
That’s where I’ll stop, just enough of a teaser to get you to see it for yourself, without treading into the dangerous territory of the spoiler… Suffice it to say that Black Panther brings to the forefront a host of issues: the exploitation of vast parts of the globe by colonial powers, the moral responsibility of nations with the resources to alleviate suffering to step up and help, the ever-shifting and often unpredictable dynamics of world politics.
What does the prophet Jeremiah have to say to all of this? Quite a bit, actually.
Jeremiah knew something of what it’s like to live during a time of tremendous political unrest and turmoil. Jeremiah, in fact, lived through five kingly regimes during a time of drastic change and impending national exile in his country’s history.
Political rivals. Competing factions and parties. International war. Hostile foreign policy debates. It sounds a bit like the fictionalized world of Wakanda. It sounds a bit like our own reality. In the midst of this, Jeremiah prophesies on behalf of God to announce the destruction of Judah for turning away from the covenant between God and God’s people, at the heart of which is the command to love God and love neighbor — in other words, a commitment to social justice… but a commitment the people had long abandoned, turning their backs on those most in need.
Yet even amidst broken promises and the threat of destruction and exile, God acts. To paraphrase Kathleen O’Connor, in this tiny sliver of the promise of a new covenant, the book of Jeremiah testifies to an abiding hope in God despite all evidence to the contrary. This is a new covenant that will not be like the old covenant. We’ve been hearing a lot of covenant stories during these weeks of Lent — with Noah, with Abraham, with all of Israel at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, and now, this new covenant promised to an exiled people who least deserve it.
There’s a sense here that the promised new covenant is like a seed falling into the earth, buried deep, barely noticeable (to borrow imagery from our gospel text). It’s easy to gloss over these few verses from Jeremiah, buried deep, like a small seed, in prophetic oracles of judgment and hopelessness. But the thing about seeds is that they die in order to sprout new life, to bear much fruit. In that way, there’s a sense that this new covenant is a story of resurrection.
We can begin to draw the parallels to Jesus, but: There’s a danger here in leaping to the conclusion that the new covenant is fulfilled in Jesus. This tendency toward supersessionism — think back to Pr. Craig’s sermon a couple of weeks ago — abounds in Christianity, this idea that somehow Christianity has superseded, or replaced, Judaism with the coming of Jesus. In the first place, that completely misses the point that the first Christians were, technically, not Christians but observant Jews, merely a different “denomination,” you might say. But more importantly, it also misses the richness and profundity of this new covenant in its historical context, given to a people in exile, in the worst of the worst of situations, with no perceivable hope for the future. Yet even there, the new covenant means that God has still not given up on God’s people. Like a seed that falls into the earth and dies, this is a story of resurrection.
The story of resurrection is deeply embedded in the whole of salvation history, not just in the gospels. The story of resurrection shows up even here in Jeremiah and continues into the story of Jesus in John’s gospel.
John’s is a gospel full of rich theological language and words loaded with more-than-literal meaning. In John, Jesus speaks of the appointed time for his death as his hour. And his death is no ordinary death but instead the hour when the Son of Man will be glorified — glorified in the double sense of being physically “lifted up from the earth” on the cross and metaphorically glorified, or in some translations, exalted, raised up to a position of power, thus subverting the image of the cross as an instrument of torture and death and reclaiming it as a symbol of hope and life.
In a more subtle way, the image of the seed offers the same message. This week, I stumbled across these appropriate words of the gay Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos: “What didn’t you do to bury me, but you forgot that I was a seed.” As an outspoken advocate for the queer community through his poetry, Christianopolous wrote these defiant words in response to critics who tried to bury his work because of his sexuality. But, again, the thing about seeds, buried in the earth, is that they are destined to sprout new life. Seeds are subversive.
What a marvelous metaphor — this seed parable — for the death and resurrection story of Jesus! Life out of death, hope out of despair. Resurrection even in the midst of so much evidence to the contrary. The promise and presence of God even in the midst of desolation, injustice, political unrest, uncertainty, human brokenness. It’s the salvation story in its simplest form. It’s the story behind Jeremiah’s covenant, it’s the story Jesus tells about his own death, it’s a story that continues all around us even today — maybe you’ve seen it — in the voices of the women of the #metoo movement, or, just this week, in the witness of the students who walked out of their schools to call attention to gun violence. Where else?
Seeds of hope, falling into the earth, lying in wait. Resurrection stories in progress.