In this sermon, based on texts from Jeremiah (the text about how God will write the law on our hearts, and not forgive our iniquity but remember it no more) and Gospel of John, in which Jesus talks about how the seed must be buried and die in order for it to produce fruit, I explore the question, "What needs to die?" What needs to die in ourselves, and also what needs to die in the church - locally and globally - in order for us to again bear great fruit.
What needs to die in your life? What do you see that needs to die in the church? Please comment below.
Note: This did not get recorded, so we only have a written form. I tried to reconstruct it as best as I could from my memory.
“What Needs to Die?”
Sermon, Year B, Lent 5, March 22, 2015
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber
Focus Scripture: Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33
There is, in Jesus’ call to follow – to be a follower of Jesus – a point of death. Maybe multiple points of death. No, no maybe on that. Definitely multiple points of death.
We talk about it in the act of baptism, when we talk about the waters of baptism symbolizing death to our old life and rebirth into new life in Jesus Christ. A giving up of the old ways to take on the new ways, the ways of life, the ways of Jesus.
This is a big transformation. As big as being born!
To die to the self – the old self – and find a much better way of life in the new self as a follower of Jesus. That’s one thing Jesus asks of us. If we’re going to follow him, he asks, please let go of any ways of life that hinder your journey as a follower. Give up the selfishness – in Jesus, we now live to serve others, not ourselves. Let go of tribal or national identity. Give up the needs for riches or comfort. Give up your ego. Give up whatever it is that is holding you back from following Jesus as fully as you could.
What might that be for you?
We are uniquely made, and so surely there is a huge array of ways this question might get answered if we did a survey in this room. What holds you back?
I’m sure we could all name something that holds us back. Maybe you haven’t thought about it much so need some extra time, but given time and honest self-inspection, we could all name something that holds us back. Probably numerous things, though I imagine many of them would relate to fear in one way or another: fear of letting go of something, fear of encountering something new, fear of the change.
But we all have something, because none of us are perfect. So maybe it’s time to let go of a fear of looking weird to your friends if you told them honestly about your path with Jesus. Or a fear of being told you’re wrong by some authority. A fear of not having enough, if one is too generous? A fear of giving up a stereotype to go help in the street ministry or the at the Community Table...
these are all legitimate concerns, very human. I don’t think God will think any of less of you for having them, because God already knows that who we are as human beings. We are imperfect. And following Jesus can be scary. Dying to the old self to take on a new Way of living is scary. Change is rarely without anxiety, even when it’s a really good, welcome, or necessary change.
I focused on fear a lot there, and perhaps fear is not always the motivator, but I think it rules an awful lot. It’s a heck of a motivator, just as love is a great motivator in the other direction. Often, it seems, they go to together, and are practically the same thing.
But generally fear is what keeps us from moving forward.
What did Jesus have to say about this? He said, as we read in today’s passage, that the grain has to die before it can produce fruit, or else it just stays a grain of wheat.
So we can also ask, then, What needs to die in us to be better followers of Jesus?
What needs to die in the church, to find growth?
What needs to die in this congregation, Plymouth, for new life to happen, for fruit to be produced?
We’ve been talking about that the past year or so, and will continue to do so as we grow this congregation and become an even more impressive ministry presence in Eau Claire.
One thing that we’ve learned that needs to die is the idea that churches exist only to serve the needs of the membership. That the ministry of a church is contained within the castle walls, with perhaps occasional excursions outside, but mostly the ministry is confined to the walls of the castle and to the people who are safely ensconced within.
Another grain that needs to due is the idea that people will just show up at a church. That worked in the 1950s, and seems to have worked only in the 1950s, but most churches continue to operate on the idea that people are ready to bust our doors down in eagerness to join us. It just isn’t so. People are waiting to be invited, perhaps; but many aren’t even aware that they are waiting for that. For majority of the people, at least in the United States, there is little to no desire to seek out a church. But who, if they are invited! Ah, then they might very well come and realize that we offer something that they have been seeking. So let die your fear of being invitational, and much fruit will be produced.
It’s also time to let die any fear of opening doors that might be the result of a “breach of rules”. When the rules interfere with doing ministry, then the rules need to go.
When I first started in ordained ministry, as a solo pastor, when I came here, I had a fear around baptism. Well, around many things, but let’s just talk about baptism today. Now, I knew that if someone from the congregation asked for a baptism for a child or themselves, that was an easy request: of course, one says “Yes!” They’re already here, part of the community. But what if someone asked for a baptism, and that person was not involved with or even related to the congregation at all? That’s a little trickier. Baptism is about community, and promises are made about growing in faith and being active in a congregation. Hmmmm.... or what if someone unrelated to the congregation requested a baptism, but asked that it not be at the church at all, but in their home, or some resort, or a park? Now that’s getting even more difficult to answer.
I had a lot of fear around this. Becoming ordained takes a lot of years and a lot of testing and a lot of money. I wasn’t quite sure how the whole system worked. What if I made a mistake? What if I did a baptism when I wasn’t supposed to? There goes a hundred thousand dollars and my future.
My gut and my heart told me that if someone asks for a baptism, you do a baptism. Never deny a sacrament. That’s what I wanted reality to be. And it seemed the only truly faithful option to me. But, I didn’t know if others would see it that way. Especially not those with authority over me. My fear said, “What if you baptize someone, and it annoys someone else? Someone in the congregation?” Or the bigger fear, “What if it violates my standing as an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ?” Could I get in trouble for such a thing?
Th fear won out. The stakes were just too high. After all those years of study and training, how could I go back to my family and friends and say that I wasn’t a minister any more because I baptized someone I wasn’t supposed to? Embarrassing.
So I did turn a few people away. I’m not proud of it. I wouldn’t do so now. But that’s where I was. The fear over-rode what my heart and guy were telling me is right: never deny a sacrament to someone. In fact, never deny someone a chance to be ministered to.
Probably the people I turned away would never have become part of the life of the church anyway; but we’ll never know. And by saying “No” to them, I probably guaranteed it. I didn’t wait for them to close the door on the church, I closed it for them. Not good. My heart and my gut said to go ahead and do the baptisms, but my fear of doing something “theologically improper” over-rode what I saw as real ministry.
I let the fear win.
We get beholden to rules and regulations and policies, and then hide behind them so that we don’t have to take risks; they become the seeds that need to die before we can grow fruit.
I shared this baptism story with the clergy I met with a few weeks ago as part of our Communities of Practice, and many shared their stories as well. We mostly (maybe all, I don’t remember) had similar stories about taking the safe path of fear and not doing the ministry that we were pretty sure we were supposed to be doing. We talked about it. Talked about how read scripture and see Jesus tearing down walls and smashing fences and wanting to do that, but then the fear comes: we think, What might the Trustees say? What about Mr. or Mrs. so-and-so? Or the division on church and ministry? We worry that breaking a rule might cost us too much, and so we to ourselves, “Well, maybe a little fence here. That’s not so bad. This is probably something that ought to have a fence around it.”
So we put a fence around baptism: only in the church, only in worship, only for people related to the church. Even though the biblical witness is contrary to all that. We build a fence around the church, even – “If you can find your way in, we’ll welcome you, so long as you conform!” We put a fence around our traditions, our history, how we operate, how decisions get made. We put a fence around the communion table. Not here at Plymouth – we have an open table, and that’s how it should be. Never deny someone access to the sacraments if they desire it. If someone is seeking the divine, don’t slam a door in their face. Show hospitality. Be invitational. Open the doors.
As I said in last week’s sermon, I’d rather make a mistake on the side of generosity and love, than on the side of fear. If I’m going to get into trouble for doing something, if my Association standing as a minister is going to be put in jeopardy, or my standing with you, or ours with each other, or with other Christians, or even with Jesus: let it be because I was too generous, not because I closed too many doors. At least then my conscience will be clear.
If we’re going to err, let’s err on the side of love.
What needs to die? What do our hearts tell us?
Jeremiah the prophet, in the reading we heard, talks of a time when the law will be written on our hearts, no on paper or stone. We will know it, because it will be on our hearts. We get that, at least partly, in Jesus. What did Jesus show us about love and hospitality? About rules? He definitely put a pretty low priority on following rules. At least the ones the religious leaders came up with. He let that seed die on just about day one of his ministry, and he let the fruits of the heart be born out of it.
We can also trust in the power of the Spirit, that informs how our hearts feel, and trust in God’s grace. “I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sins no more.” We are free to break the rules, so to speak, because we have grace.
We don’t have to be afraid of making mistakes. We can tear down the walls, tear down the fences, throw open the doors, send wide the invitations, and let us produce fruit in abundance!