Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
Sunday, March 21, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (TLC Worship Service – 03/21/2021)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Last week by my count, we had seven people who attended worship for the first time since the pandemic started, and each of the seven people had been fully vaccinated. Our current Easter Sunday registrations are just over 60 people – which means we  are getting close to our Covid capacity – and I know that among those are people who will be coming back to in-person worship for the first time after they will be fully vaccinated.  Exactly one year after our first suspended Sunday liturgy, there are real signs that the community is on its way back to resuming a fuller expression of in-person congregational life.

As the church comes back together after the pandemic, many are wondering what  the future church will look like? Some are worried that not everyone will come back. Will some have fallen into new habits that do not include Sunday worship? On the other hand, after a year way, will others feel more renewed and committed in shared fellowship, in the simple act of being in another room with people for worship, study, and fellowship?

A pastor colleague of mine has suggested that before congregational activities and ministries resume, it would be a good time to think about WHO we are as the people of God, as we come back together. He suggests there is wisdom in thinking about and naming the adjectives and adverbs of the people of God. What is the heart and character of the people of God?  Being clear about who we are, and the values we hold dear, will guide us to WHAT we will do as the people of God in this place.

Our Gospel reading this morning tells us who Jesus Christ is.

In the words of John’s gospel, Jesus himself tells us who he is: “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.” (John 12:23-24)

Jesus tells us he is a grain of wheat which dies, in order to give life to the many. It is in his dying and rising that is where his glory was to be found. Yes, his teachings, and healings, and miracles were dramatic and important, but his glory, the true heart of the matter, was in his giving himself away, in his becoming a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying, so that he would bear much fruit for the world.

As we come back together for in-person congregational life, I believe we are called to make the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ our central organizing principle. This new covenant, written onto our hearts, is to replace the old covenants and understandings that have guided us in the past.

Obviously, this is not a new teaching. Pastors and preachers and Sunday School teachers and Bible Study leaders have taught this principle here at Trinity and in the Church. You have lived this principle in your faithful worship, witness and service here in this place over the years.

But, in our Lenten honesty, I wonder if this hasn’t always been THE central organizing principle of our faith, and of the Christian Church prior to the pandemic? I wonder if, pre-pandemic, we the church – and I fully include myself in that “we the church” – focused on what we would build: what buildings, what programs, what ministries we could build for the glory of God? And then we claimed God’s glory in our successes, achievements, and our beautiful new projects.

But friends, as we emerge from the pandemic, what if God no longer wants us to  build/establish/and create? What if God, instead, wants to join us to the glory of Jesus Christ as we give ourselves away? What if God wants us to be the wheat that dies in order to become a harvest of righteousness and salvation?

What if the question to guide us is not, “What can we build and establish?” But instead is, “What can we give away?”  Not – what status can we attain? But – how can we put our status on the line for the sake of others? Not – what comforts should we preserve? But – what comforts and privileges are we called to yield – so that others may live?  

Here’s an example …

Recently, Worcester Interfaith, the NAACP Worcester Chapter, and seven individual plaintiffs who are residents of Worcester brought a Federal Voting Rights Lawsuit against the City of Worcester. The lawsuit claims the current process of choosing the Worcester School Committee discriminates against communities of color.  The lawsuit cites several statistics in backing up its claim.

Today, Worcester’s non-white population makes up nearly 44% of the city’s   residents. The demographics of Worcester’s public school students, however, is even more diverse –with 60% of the students in the Worcester Public Schools identifying as either Latino/Latina or Black.  Another 10% identify as Asian, mixed race and/or Native American. Today, 70% of the Worcester Public School students are non-white. 

This stands in stark contrast to the Worcester School Committee which is 100% white. Over the last decade, in the last 36 open seat elections, 35 elections have been won by white candidates. Only 1 candidate of color won, and that was eight years ago in 2013. That candidate, in her one term in office, raised issues important to communities of color. She stressed bilingual education and raised concern about the manner in which Worcester Public Schools over-disciplines students of color. In her reelection, she was strongly backed by 63% of the voters in the 10 most diverse precincts in the City, but she finished only 8th Citywide – two spots out of the 6th and final position.

This is not about candidates of color not participating in the process – this is about white voters who are a majority, favoring white candidates to represent them. In 2019, the top six vote getters in the ten whitest precincts in the city all won election and all were white. By contrast, the candidates of color most strongly supported in the ten most diverse precincts in the City all were unable to secure enough votes city-wide to win office.

The lawsuit challenging this system is not punitive. It’s not seeking to punish anyone. It’s not seeking payment for damages. Rather, the lawsuit is seeking redistributive justice. It’s asking for a new system that redistributes power and access. It’s asking white people who currently hold power in Worcester, and who make decisions for people of color in the city, to step back so that people of color can be included in the decision-making process for communities of color. 

A school system that is 70% non-white, being led by a school committee that has 0% people of color, means that white people are making decisions for communities of color. Here’s the chilling thing: white people making decisions for non-white people is the basic ideological framework for slavery, Jim Crow segregation, redlining, and mass incarceration.

In response, City leaders and residents of Worcester have a chance to be Christ-like. City Leaders can choose to find ways for communities of color to participate on the School Committee and in the legislative decision making process that makes decisions for students of color.  That means yielding power, it means sharing power with people of color.

To take on the heart and mind of Christ, is to give ourselves away for the sake of others. Not to preserve, protect, and defend our interests at all costs. But to join the life of Christ in being the wheat that dies, in order for new life to be brought into the world.

In the area of racial justice, New York Times columnist Charles Blow has recently said that unless people are uncomfortable in taking a stand, speaking out, or sacrificing for the cause of racial justice, then the person is not doing nearly enough. His opinion is that most people do just as little as possible to make themselves feel good, but not nearly enough to make a difference.    

I believe the same can also be said of Christian discipleship. Unless the giving is a bit uncomfortable, unless our advocacy causes a bit of a tinge, unless we step out further than we’ve stepped out before, then perhaps we are the wheat rotting and spoiling, rather than the wheat dying for the sake of the world. 

The Good News today, however, is not found in our sacrifice. The Good News is found in Jesus Christ who gave himself away completely, for our sake.

Jesus didn’t sacrifice partially, he sacrificed completely and totally. Jesus didn’t sacrifice for our sake by giving away some old sweaters, some pocket change, or a bag of extra food he could easily afford. His sacrifice was not a sign in his yard in Nazareth that said “Sinners’ Lives Matter.” Jesus put himself on the line by accepting the cross. In his death on the cross, Jesus gave everything. “Unless the grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.  But if it dies, it bears fruit.”

Today, in water and word, in bread and cup, the crucified and resurrected savior meets us in our sin to raise us to new life. The savior meets us in those places where with white knuckled grasp we cling to that which only leads to death – either our death or the death of others. Speaking the promise of love, forgiveness, and new life, Jesus invites us to release and let go, to become wheat that dies in order to participate in a harvest of justice, abundance, and generosity.

As we come back together as a congregation, indeed, it is my sincere hope, that in new, powerful, and sacrificial ways, we may become a people of wheat. Joined to Christ through faith, may we become wheat that dies for the life of the world. Filled with Holy Spirit boldness, may we give ourselves away in love for a harvest of salvation.

Indeed may it be so. Amen.