Love is Stronger

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | March 21, 2021

John 12: 20-33

A couple of weeks ago I heard a program on the radio presented by a minister who said, “In our preaching tradition we are taught that it is in bad form to speak of our own experience.”

I thought, “If you can’t speak from your own experience, then all you’re giving to me is second-hand information. Sure, go ahead and tell me what the authorities on the subject have said, tell some stories you heard that happened to other people. But if you want what you tell me to mean anything, tell me what it means to you!”

When it comes to the Good News, unless it is Good News to me, I can’t expect that you would find it so. With that in mind, let me tell you a story –

The summer when I was twelve years old was what I call, “the summer of the dentist.” Where I grew up, fluoride in the water was thought to be a communist plot. So, by the time I was twelve, I had some cavities to fill. The dentist was one my parents could afford. His heart was in the right place, but his methods were old school; very old school. After each appointment I felt a great sense of relief that it was over; yet the countdown would begin until next week. Dreading the day; pedaling my bike to his office as if to my doom. But I survived it; and even came through it with a life-long commitment to brushing my teeth.

So, you could say it was bad; not so bad by comparison to the real bad that life can throw at you; and something good came out of it.

Remembering events like that helps me to understand a difficult reading from John’s Gospel. That some hard times in life can’t be avoided, and that hard times are not of our choosing; and sometimes new life can emerge from going through hard times. Not always because of hard times, but in spite of them.

When I read a story from the Gospel of John, I understand its difference from stories in the other three Gospels. The four Gospels tell the story of Jesus in different ways. John, the fourth Gospel, was written much later than the other three. It is thought that a disciple of John wrote the Gospel based on John’s preaching about Jesus. So in a way, it is an interpretation of Jesus.

In this story Jesus knows that the end is near. It’s clear in the story that Jesus was not looking forward to being crucified. He knew that God wasn’t going to save him from that happening. But he also knew that God would be with him in whatever happened. That can make a difference.

And one thing he says that makes preachers everywhere say, ‘let’s talk about something else,’ is, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Because I want to say in response, “But Lord, I don’t hate my life. I love my life. Am I missing something here?”

The context of the story sheds some light. At the time of John’s Gospel, followers of Jesus were being persecuted. As in thrown to the lions persecuted. They could say, “Yeah, I don’t know the guy,” and maybe get on with their life. They would live, but what would they lose in the bargain? What is the cost of following Jesus when it’s not easy to follow Jesus?

There’s also the question of Jesus making the hard choice. He could have stepped back and said, “Maybe I misspoke,” and gotten on with his life. What would he lose in the bargain? What is the cost of being Jesus when it’s not easy to be Jesus?

Those are questions I ask, but it’s not my place to answer them for you.

Getting back to the idea of something good coming from the hard times in life, I wrestle with how to make sense of that. And that shows my bias, the need to make sense of things; as if there is some order in the universe, or what we call “God’s plan.”

Does God have a plan for us? People will say, “I believe things happen for a reason.”

I tend not to say that. Not that I don’t believe it, but I find that it’s not helpful for people going through a hard time. And if there is a reason to be found in suffering, it’s usually not something I can put my finger on at the moment.

Some interpreters of Jesus will tell you flat out though. There is a reason, and it usually has something to do with your failing to please God in some way. In that view, God is vindictive and waiting to teach you a lesson for when you didn’t pay attention in just the right way. Now you know – lessons will be learned.

Why would we see God that way? Is grace something we need to earn?

It’s easy to think that way if we feel guilty about something. Guilt is a good way to keep people under control. Then, whether our guilt is deserved or misplaced, we think we merit punishment. When life strikes a hard bargain, we see punishment as our just desserts.

However, one way to look at misplaced guilt is to see it as connected to unresolved grief. Grief is an experience common to us all. It doesn’t just magically disappear. We can talk about the stages of grief, but going through stages is not like climbing the rungs of a ladder. Grief is hard work, because grief is painful. We want to avoid it. But avoiding it doesn’t make it go away.

A friend of mine, David, is my oldest friend. I call him my oldest friend because he is 97 years old. David is a veteran of WWII. Anytime he goes out he proudly wears his veteran’s hat. Sometimes people will come up to him and say, “Thank you for your service.”

Of his wartime experience he will say, “I didn’t do anything.” He was stationed in a remote outpost and the rest of his unit was sent to Europe where most of them were killed in battle. All these years he has carried with him the sense of “Survivor’s Guilt.”

And after all these years and people telling him, “But you didn’t have a choice. You went where they sent you and you did your part in the overall effort,” he still thinks, “Why me?”

Is there a reason, a plan? One of the hardest lessons to learn is, “You didn’t do anything to deserve this. It is not your fault.”

On one level you know that, but you still live with the feeling. Feelings are not always logical and telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel that way doesn’t always change how we feel. Because grief is not a feeling we can turn off with a switch. Grief is not something you “get over.” You go through it; you carry it with you and you live with it.

Jesus spoke of the grain that must die before it bears fruit. The good that comes from bad. Where do we see that in our lives?

For me, the seed was planted at an early age. My normal was getting smacked around a lot. My dad used a belt and my mother preferred a coat hanger. It was what it was. I remember once when I was around five years old, I was sitting out on the back steps after getting a beating over some minor infraction, hurting all over, crying and the thought occurred to me, “That’s not how you treat a boy.”

When I remember that moment I think, “That was my guardian angel talking.” Because I took the message to heart. That’s not how you treat someone you are supposed to love.

This wasn’t about me; it was about them. I never took to heart the idea that I somehow deserved that sort of treatment, or that if I could just somehow be better that it wouldn’t happen. In taking to heart the truth that you don’t treat people that way, my guardian angel never prevented me from getting hit, but my soul was safe-guarded.

Before he died, my Dad said that if he could go back and change anything, he would want to be more loving to his children. In his later years he would often say, “I love you,” at the end of a phone conversation. That helped me to know that love is a strong healer. The story of Jesus facing his demise, seen through the lens of the Church facing persecution, seen through our lives in the struggle, the pain and grief. God’s mighty hand is stronger – stronger in love; stronger in healing. Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s