Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling picture
March 21, 2021

Fifth Sunday in Lent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling

 John 12:20-33

Dearly Beloved,

There’s a lot packed into these verses, worth an entire Bible study.  These are Jesus’ last public words before his crucifixion. The sentence that has always grabs me:  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  I can make the first part work. Loving the wrong things can make you lose everything. I certainly have stories to tell that would prove that point.  You probably do, too.

It’s the word hate the trips me up.  Frankly, I don’t like it in the Bible, unless there’s a clear denunciation of hatred. At one level, it just doesn’t make sense to hate the life that I have in this world.  There’s so much good.  There’s you participating in this online service this morning.  Gloria Dei.  There’s my family.  There’s snow painted on the branches of the crabapple tree, and delicious food, and great jokes, and books that make time disappear.  There’s dark chocolate. There’s the Jesus in my kitchen window that dances when the sun is out.  There’s romance, and pie (thank you, Pastor Lois), and the sound of that big gong we ring on Wednesday nights, and people who paint murals, and people who are willing to dirty themselves with politics to get something done.

I love those things.  I don’t want to leave them behind for some spirituality that might get me into God’s good graces but leaves me with no desire, no joy, no delight in what’s offered every day in this creation.  I especially don’t appreciate the encouragement to pick up hate as a guiding principle toward life.  There’s already too much hate in the world.

Don’t love your life, hate it.

John does this all the time.  He sets up such sharp contrasts in his writing.  Love vs. hate in this passage.  It makes me ask what he’s up to.  Like anyone who uses such dramatic opposites, I suspect he’s trying to get us to pay attention. He’s trying to move his listeners from unbelief to belief–from veiled, bumbling, limited life to abundant, joyful, juicy life.

I wonder if Jesus is used these stark contrasts to get us to consider our primary allegiance, which is not a bad idea with only a week left in Lent to get all our Lenten disciples accomplished. To ask once last time before we face the cross, where our allegiance is going to lie.

From the time I was in kindergarten until I graduated from high school, we began the day by standing, putting our hands over our hearts, and saying the Pledge of Allegiance along with the voice on the intercom.  In elementary school, we also sang “My Country Tis of Thee” every day.  I can remember the moment in third grade when I realized that we weren’t singing about icing, but “Sweet Land of Liberty; Of Thee I sing.”

Nations are extraordinarily effective in how they nurture the allegiance of their citizens from a very young age.  Don’t get me wrong.  I almost always sing the National Anthem at baseball games. I shed a tear or two listening to the Boston Philharmonic on the Fourth of July. Bonding and sharing an identity, of course, is important.  We all need those markers for how to locate ourselves in a big world.  It’s why we’re proud of our church membership, or our high school mascot, or our state.  And let me say, Minnesotans are extraordinarily proud of their state.

Yet once again this week, we become aware that so many of our allegiances prove to be too narrow.  Lines get drawn on maps. Categories get assigned by history, certain groups get labeled as the personification of evil.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 3000 cases of reported incidents of anti-Asian racism.[1]  Those who fuse national identity with whiteness have been emboldened to attack Asian Americans, violently assaulting them on the streets, burning “Chinese virus” into front lawns, shooting Asian women who “are a temptation.”  This surge in violence demonstrates that our human need to identify and bond can be twisted by sin, creating a world of us and them, in and out.  Hate becomes one of the bonding mechanisms for feeling part of a group. In fact, it’s probably easier for all of us to feel part of a group if can have a clear common enemy.

Let me re-register my resistance to Jesus’ use of the word hate.  It’s such a loaded word in our culture. We use it to describe anchovies on pizza and the animating force for violence and prejudice.  We’ve even come to understand hate as something that lurks within institutions and policies, not always apparent on the surface and to the untrained eye but doing its oppressive work behind the scenes.  In fact, hatred is probably even more insidious as a policy or words in a constitution than it is as a feeling.

I think that’s the life we’re supposed to hate.  We hate violence done to human bodies.  We hate what deforestation does to animals and birds.  We hate what bitterness and grudges do to human minds and spirits.

I think of the scientist pressed deeper into research because he hates the spread of the virus.  The chef who cannot stand the waste that ends up in the dumpster ever night, so packs up his car and makes deliveries.  The fifth grader who can’t take the bullying of the little kid in the class any longer.  The spouse who decides that intervention and the toughest kind of love is the only choice for her wife’s addiction.  The schoolteacher who runs for office because of the lack of equity they see in their district.

Maybe that’s what Jesus is getting at.  His crucifixion will not take us out of the world but will place us back in it with a whole new set of allegiances.  I pledge allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ, above all things.

In her book, “Be My Guest: Reflections on Food, Community, and the Meaning of Generosity, Priya Basil, writes about her allegiance to the North Indian smells and tastes from her mother’s kitchen:  curry leaves, onion, garlic, turmeric, green chili, tomato; all coming together into khadi, the food that her mother makes every time she goes home.  It’s a sign of her mother’s generosity.  She says, “We begin as guests, every single one of us.  Helpless little creatures whose every need must be attended to, who for a long time can give nothing or very little back, yet who—in the usual run of things—nevertheless insinuate ourselves deep into the lives of our carers and take up permanent residence in their hearts.”  She goes on to say, “Maybe reaching adulthood really means learning to be more host than guest.”

She talks about those people who share recipes and those who keep them to themselves, holding on to their treasures as if they are their own.  On one hand, the treasures of aroma and platter and culture can be hoarded.  Yet, the world is changed when we share our recipes, when we decide that the goodness that enfolds us, must be shared.

I think this is John’s understanding of the cross.  The love that Jesus experiences in the very core of his being, the love that he’s willing to give himself to, the kind of love that bears glory, is not his to be hoarded.  It must move into other bodies.  His death on the cross is the way that he gives his spirit into his friends.  He has to be the seed that falls to the ground, so that the love that is in him, can bear fruit through the birth of a community.  It’s only in the gospel of John that Jesus shows up on the day of his resurrection to breath into his friends, to give them the recipe for the abundant life that he had.  His death was his way of saying, “Unless I get out of the way, you won’t discover that you’re just like me.  With this gift of the Spirit, you are as full of eternal life as I ever was.  If I stick around, you’ll expect me to do all the loving and all the healing and forgiving, and feeding and serving.  I can only do so much.  But with millions of you breathing my breath, there is no end to love.  You can do even greater things than me.”

Love, generosity, service, perhaps even a meal shared, is the antidote to the kind of hate that establishes borders and draws lines.  The love of God, breathing in this community of faith, hates any empty seat at the table.  It can’t stand to see the wrongs of the past determining the future for anyone.  It’s fueled by its sometimes forceful desire to share the recipe of mercy and justice, not just within its own walls, but to every living being.  Good, juicy, abundant life is the way, the truth, and the life.  We are simply a people who hate having one moment, one life, one nation, one world, be anything less than that.