Fifth Sunday of Lent

With the slow and labored rollout of the coronavirus vaccine worldwide, we may have begun imagining what a post-pandemic world could look like. Many have publicly shared a deep longing for life to just return to normal, just the way it was before everything shut down and the world descended into darkness and chaos. As much as we imagine that world to be a picture of bliss and contentment far removed from the hardship and grief we’ve lived with these last 12 months, we must know that rosy picture falls far short of the best outcome possible. It might be the best picture for some people. But if you were already experiencing darkness and chaos and hardship and grief pre-COVID, simply returning to that same life would be no improvement at all, like being downgraded from business class to your originally assigned cramped non-reclining middle seat in coach behind that clueless passenger who likes to recline his seat in your lap the entire trip just because he can.

The protests and demonstrations that so violently erupted across the country and around the world were so much bottled-up anguish and anger demanding release. With countless lives disrupted and patience stretched thin, disaffected communities reached their tipping point triggering a flood of discontent, anger, resentment, and frustration in response to issues such as heavy-handed policing in minority communities, systemic racism, inequities in housing, employment, and education, widespread poverty and hunger, religious intolerance, homophobia, random gun violence, inadequate mental health resources, economic and political turmoil, illegal immigration, white supremacy and privilege. Much of it has been percolating beneath the surface this whole time, to explode at the most inconvenient opportunity leaving destruction and loss in its wake.

Clearly returning to the old normal after COVID won’t significantly change for the better those already hurting the most. But if we are serious about creating the world anew to promote the greater good for as many as possible, the process will be tedious. Who gets to lead the charge? Already it sounds like an impossible task. Every attempt to set the ground rules alone could spiral into a never-ending power struggle. Who gets a seat at the table? Who gets a vote? How do we create consensus? How do we resolve disagreements without alienating and destroying one another? If we fail to accomplish that on a much smaller scale, as a family, a nation, a church, how would we do that as a planet? I wonder how long God has been trying to figure that one out.

Many generations after God made a covenant with his people in the desert, it seems success is nowhere within reach. Israel would constantly fall short of God’s expectations, transgressing various precepts of the Law of Moses in matters great and small, and would forever have to offer holocausts and sin offerings to atone for their offenses. This arrangement was doomed from the start. God would have to forgive sinners constantly and forever be undoing and repairing the damage they caused. Israel would forever be asking God for pardon as they continued offending God through their many acts of disobedience and malice. And an endless parade of sheep and cattle offered in sacrifice would nowhere really satisfy the justice of God.

Speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, God hints at a new approach. “I will place my law within them. No longer will they have need to teach their friends and relatives how to know the Lord. All, from least to greatest, shall know me.” God knew well the human creatures he had made. God was familiar with our stubbornness and resistance to truth. But what if knowledge of right from wrong already resided in their hearts? Would they be more receptive if they thought they came up with the idea first?

Unfortunately the knowledge of right and wrong whether imposed from outside or emerging from within still had to contend with the human will, which has become both our greatest flaw and our greatest attribute. God gave us the freedom to embrace God’s own will and design. But our first parents set a pattern of disobedience for all the human family to follow, widening the gap between us and God. So God had to send his own Son clothed in our disobedient nature to repair that pattern of disobedience and set humanity on a new course of willing surrender in obedience to God’s will and design.

“I am troubled now. Yet what should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Obedience to God’s will and design would require a willing surrender even from Jesus. After all, he shared our selfish and rebellious nature. Perhaps the Son of God was troubled that so much would depend on him. “Why me? Why can’t somebody else do the hard part?” I’m sure Jesus didn’t say that, but I probably would have if I was him. I probably would have said, “I had a great time teaching and feeding the hungry and healing the sick. I was even willing to put up with religious leaders who tried every chance they got to make me stumble and fall. Can someone else shoulder the rejection, the beatings, carry the cross, be nailed to it, and suffer a horrible public execution?”

The grain of wheat must fall to the ground and die, or it remains just a grain of wheat. Jesus uses this image to speak about his own death. But a grain of wheat seems an unlikely comparison. Unlike Jesus, it could not willingly surrender to God’s will and design. Now I’m thinking a grain of wheat actually has three options. It can get eaten and sustain someone else’s life. Jesus didn’t mention that. It can sit pretty and remain a grain of wheat. Or it can fall to the ground and die, producing more grains of wheat. The crucial factor is Jesus’ willing surrender to God’s will and design by giving up his own life for the redemption and reconciliation of the human race. If he was concerned above all for his own welfare, death would hardly make sense. But because of his willing surrender, Jesus transformed the world and set an example for the rest of us to imitate. If we surrender willingly in obedience to God, we too could help recreate the world anew.

A new and improved post-pandemic world simply cannot happen for as long as we are only looking out for ourselves. Jesus didn’t have to die if he was only looking out for himself. But poor people cannot choose not to be poor. People with disabilities cannot choose not to be disabled. Black and brown people cannot choose not to be black and brown. Gay people cannot choose not to be gay. But people with better choices have the option to choose to sit pretty or to fall to the ground and die. And only one of those two options will result in new life. Our first parents created a pattern of resistance and disobedience which we know all too well. We are expert practitioners of selfishness and greed and sin. Jesus invites us to follow his pattern of willing surrender. Does any of this trouble us? Are we asking, “Why us?” God gives the best business class upgrade.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021