March 25, 2012 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)
5 Lent, Year B
The Rev. Elizabeth A. B. Tesi
Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
When I first moved to Oregon a year ago, I learned a game called Fluxx. It starts with one rule card: Draw One, Play One. But as the game progresses, the rules constantly change. The one basic rule of draw-one-play-one remains, but other rules get added and subtracted. Certain rule cards grant certain people holding certain cards (which they drew by sheer luck) the ability to bypass other rules and win. Sometimes, it takes several players to figure out the rules at any given moment.
Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Humanity’s relationship with God is extremely like a good game of Fluxx. We started out with one basic rule card: Love God, and love each other. On that basis, God made covenants with humanity. And oh, how we have gotten extra rules added in. Don’t covet your neighbor’s donkey, or his wife. If your relative dies, you may redeem his property (and potentially his wife or wives). If certain additional rules are added, you may stone various people for various offenses. Keep a calendar handy so you can keep track of when certain offenses occur. There came to be hundreds and hundreds of rules.
Jeremiah tells us that God declares that the “days are surely coming” when he will establish a new covenant. We have broken the covenant that he established with Abraham, yet he will wipe out that covenant. Instead of us having to teach each other the rules or riffle through the various rules cards to figure out which rule is more important, we will have the rule of God’s love imprinted on our hearts.
The problem with this… well, quite frankly, breaking the rules and breaking the covenant hasn’t always been our fault.
We are all very well aware that bad things happen to good people. Many of the prophets were pretty decent people, and terrible things happened to many of them. Abraham endured years of shame before the promise of a son was fulfilled. Job was a good and righteous man, confirmed by the Scripture itself, and yet suffered the loss of all his possessions and horrible illness before he found any relief. In the new testament, Mary was a simple young lady forced to endure public shame for the dubious honor of bearing a child outside marriage who would eventually die a terrible death on a cross. Peter was a simple fisherman, a good Jewish boy.
Even today, we know that bad things happen to good people. We can all think right now of people, good people, who have suffered terribly. Just yesterday, our church was packed for the funeral of Adrienne Lannom, a good, faithful woman who died of a terrible disease called cancer, despite a life of service to her church and love to her family. Harold lost his wife, and he is also a good and faithful man. Think of all the losses we’ve had, and the anniversaries of losses we have coming up. Terrible things have happened to very good people right here. It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything to earn the tribulation.
The problem with the original covenant was that it seemed to promise that if we obeyed a certain series of rules and laws that God would give us good things- families, prosperity, security- and that just doesn’t happen. It didn’t happen then, and it doesn’t happen now. You can obey all the rules you want, you can do every single thing the Bible ever asks you to do, and bad things have not stopped happening to good people. (Stick with me for a moment, because I promise it gets better.)
This makes me angry. I usually say frustrated, but in this case, that’s just another word for angry. I’m sure it makes you angry as well. It makes a lot of people angry, and it has made people angry from thousands of years ago to today. When we obey all the rules and still lose the game, it makes us mad. How many times have you know a teen to toss down a video game controller after “dying” too many times, saying “I’m not playing this game anymore, it’s so stupid!”? People who run the Butte to Butte often warn new runners not to expect to run that race as a typical race because that huge hill in the beginning is just unfair. Sometimes we do everything right and it still just doesn’t work out.
Doesn’t it seem logical that we also get angry at God? God made that covenant with Abraham, but obeying didn’t actually deliver on its promises. If you think about it, even God Godself was unfaithful to the covenant. It was not possible for us to keep, and it was not possible for God to fulfill. The rules were simply too complicated. Now, I’m not saying that it is not in God’s power to grant good things to God’s people- that would be a little too blasphemous to say from a pulpit, don’t you think- but I’m saying that the covenant as it was given to us was impossible. We can do all the right in the world, and bad things have always continued to happen.
Now being angry at God because that covenant was impossible, I believe that is actually a good thing. Anger is interesting. When I lived in the South, there was this darling expression, “Oh, bless your heart”. It doesn’t mean, “Oh, you sweetie”, but it means, “I will cut you”. We don’t often express anger well, as human beings. It’s an uncomfortable emotion. It’s risky. Think about it- in any new relationship, whether it’s a romantic entanglement, a friendship, or even with children- it’s incredibly risky to express our anger. What if they stop loving us because of our anger? What if it exposes a fatal flaw in the relationship? What if we say angry things that can never be forgiven? What if we lose control? Anger risks revealing the beloved as someone other than who we imagined they were, and it risks killing a relationship.
Yet it also can potentially lead us to new places in the relationship, to a new level of honesty. It’s hard to be angry with people we love, but the alternative is living a life of lies, never being able to express how we really feel. Do you really want to live your life with a sinkful of dirty dishes every morning because your beloved doesn’t clean up at night? Do you want to spend your whole friendship walking on eggshells because you don’t know if you might have offended your friend? Learning to express our anger is an essential skill in relationships. When I know you are angry, I know to be grieved and to seek reconciliation.
Don’t you think it should be that way with God? That’s why the old covenant had to be thrown out. It gave us rules without allowing for space for us to fail or to be angry. In those hundreds of holiness codes, it seems to express that all the responsibility is on us alone as failing human beings to check off an immensely complicated checklist in return for rewards. Under those rules, rewards meant health, prosperity, security, if we followed the rules and that just wasn’t happening. We don’t much like the IRS or airline reward mile programs either, do we? In failure, we had no way to be angry with God, and that is a dishonest relationship.
I think that God realized that as well. That is why God had to be the one to abolish the old covenant. God realized that God was just too other- and God’s wish to grant us good things wasn’t possible under the rules as they were defined.
That is where the good news starts. In the person of Jesus, in that grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, we had God come to us on our terms. The old legalism, all the extra rules, were cleared off the table. God joined us on our territory. No more do we have a God who just didn’t fully understand death because he’d never died like we did. No more do we have a God who had never known how we experience anger in our souls and bodies. No more did we have a God who walked alongside but not as part of us.
Previously, we had a God who created our cosmos.
In the person of Jesus, we gain a God who shares our hearts.
Jesus came… so that all the extra rules could be discarded, and we could live by the original rules once again. Remember those? Love the Lord your God, and Love each other. In Jesus, we are given love. And in love, we forge a bond that nothing can break. In those original rules, we are given power over suffering, over anger, over disappointment, over physical pain, and yes, we are given power over life and death itself.
When we are angry at someone we love, our love prompts forgiveness and reconciliation. Nothing can stop us from loving each other, even across the barrier of death itself. Nothing can stand in the way of love, not laws, not legal systems, not medical devices, not oxygen tubes or casts, not distance, not disasters. God promised the days when a new covenant would be made. Jesus came, and reset the rules so that we could play by the original rules of love. Love levels the playing field. That is a game we can actually win.