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3/29/2009 - The Fifth Sunday of Lent - Alexander Webb

posted May 21, 2010, 6:25 PM by Unknown user   [ updated May 21, 2010, 6:25 PM by Terry Brady ]
In the name of the One, Holy, and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

Five weeks ago Wednesday, we embarked on a spiritual journey. We began the Lenten season of self-examination with a Litany of Penitence in which we confessed our failure to love God, our failure to serve others, and our sins of infidelity, self-indulgence, anger, envy, worldliness, dishonesty, greed, and negligence in prayer.1 It was quite a list, and the lessons appointed for the last four Sundays have drawn us further and further into our exploration of sin.

Today is no exception. In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus lays out an understanding of discipleship that emphasizes sacrifice and obedience. Jesus wants us to choose godliness, but the world’s temptations are strong. Too often, we make decisions that separate us from the love of God. That’s what sin is, you know, a conscious or unconscious action or inaction that draws us away from God. But, our salvation lies in our power to do otherwise. The choice is ours.

Jesus says:

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, for where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

Jesus’ words are famous, poetic, and filled with double-talk. Jesus addresses the nature of discipleship and knits it together with the nature of his own sacrifice. By dying, he bore much fruit. By hating his earthly life, Jesus procured eternal life for us all. By going where God led, Jesus honored God and God honored him.

Jesus’ entire ministry was characterized by obedience to God, yet he made no friends among the religious establishment of the day. Jesus turned water into wine, healed the sick, and fed the multitude. Jesus appeared to have more power than the people in power, and he proved it when he raised Lazarus from the dead. From that point on, Jesus’ days were numbered.

At the Passover, Jesus was faced with a choice: he could go into hiding or he could join all of the other observant Jews on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jesus chose to go to Jerusalem, a path that meant certain death. He literally walked into the courts of the officials who wanted him dead.

In John, this is the precise moment at which Jesus decides to lay down his life in God’s service. He never looks back, and never reconsiders his choice.2 His first teaching once he arrives in Jerusalem: 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.

The death that Jesus calls us to die is not death to life, but death to sin. Jesus wants us to shun the temptations of the world, the individualism of our society, and the greed that pushes us to advance ourselves at any cost. In other words, Jesus wants us to give up those things that define what it means to live in the modern world. Jesus wants us to lay down our selfish, sinful lives so that we might be able to seek God’s glory instead of our own. As Saint Paul wrote in Second Corinthians,
“[Christ] died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”3 Sin is living for ourselves; righteousness is living for God.

When you begin to think about the number of ways we live for ourselves and not for God, the weight of sin becomes overwhelming. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “When I say ‘sin,’ there is no telling what you see: the stolen candy bar, the rumpled sheets of a bed you shared with someone else’s lover, a large pipe spilling orange sludge into a once-blue river, a clutch of homeless people sitting around a fire built from trash in a vacant lot between two corporate skyscrapers.”4 The list
goes on and on.

Pleasure, affluence, and success are the idols of the twenty-first century, but idolatry has no place in the Christian life. God created everything in the world to be in right relationship with everything else. It is human sin alone that moves the world away from that perfection. Sin corrupted God’s perfection and sin corrupts it still.

It’s hard to talk about sin. Most of the people who talk about sin on television do so with an air of superiority that makes me tune them right out. Yet, speaking about sin with integrity is downright embarrassing, because we must acknowledge our shame and shortcomings. We don’t even want to name the sins that we see around us for fear of being associated with the prudes that branded Hester Prynne, and the judgmental fools that looked down on Johnny Tremain.

One of the best-kept secrets in most families is that the struggles our young people face in school are not all that different from the struggles that adults face at work. Social pressure and substance abuse, cheating and dishonesty, bullying and harassment are hardly limited to our teenage years. Not only do we remember the pain of adolescence, we still experience much of it every day.

Yet, there is a code of silence that surrounds human weakness. There is a code of silence that allows sin to spiral out of control. God has placed us within churches and families so that we can share our struggles and encourage each other in faith. We were never intended to walk this road alone, yet we are made prisoners by our own shame and embarrassment.

A bit of shame is not a bad thing when we talk about sin. To feel shame is to know that we have come up short, and to acknowledge our dependence on God alone. We cannot overcome sin without God’s grace, but shame prevents us from accepting the grace that God has offered.

When we get all caught up in the shame and embarrassment of our imperfections, we miss the opportunity to rejoice in our redemption. When Christians tell the story of their sin, they should do so with joy and thanksgiving, not shame and grief. God created us for joy, not sadness.

What would the world be like if we were willing to admit our struggles, and encourage each other in faith? I suspect that there would be a lot less sinning.
Barbara Brown Taylor concludes, “To measure the full distance between where we are and where God created us to be — to suffer that distance, to name it, to decide not to live quietly with it any longer — that is the moment we know we are dead and begin to decide who we will be tomorrow.”5

Tomorrow is always a new day. In the waning hours of Lent, I invite you to measure that distance between where you are and where God wants you to be. I invite you to talk with your partners, your friends, and — yes — even your children about the pressures and temptations of the world. When we name the role that sin plays in our lives, we rob sin of its power. Nail your shame to Jesus’ cross next Friday and leave it there. Easter will be our resurrection too.


1 Abridged and Paraphrased: Ash Wednesday Litany of Penitence, The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 267-268.
2 Compare Jesus’ attitude towards “the cup” in John 18:11 with Jesus’ attitude towards “the cup” in Matthew 26:39,
Mark 14:36, and Luke 22:42.
3 II Corinthians 5:15 (NRSV)
4 Barbara Brown Taylor. Speaking of Sin: The Lost Language of Salvation. Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2000. 62.
5 Barbara Brown Taylor, 62.