Sunday, March 17, 2024

Fifth Sunday in Lent

“For Your Sake”
– Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Jeremiah 31:31-34, CEB)
Gospel Reading (John 12:20-33, NRSVUE)

I went to my first major league baseball game in June of 1976 with my father, right about the time I turned eight. It was the Yankees versus Cleveland at the old Yankee Stadium and while I, as a Boston fan, am not terribly proud to admit that now, it was a really big deal to me at the time.

We parked the car and strolled through the streets of the South Bronx towards the stadium. After handing over our tickets, my father and I made our way through the dark recesses of the concourse that encircled the field. We turned and walked underneath the archway leading toward our seats and, when we finally emerged into the stifling heat and humidity of that New York summer night, I stopped in my tracks with my mouth agape at the splendor of it all.

Because I’d only ever seen professional baseball on what passed for a color TV back in the 1970s, my young senses were completely overwhelmed: Vendors screaming at the tops of their lungs trying to get people to buy peanuts or beer or hot dogs or whatever else they happened to be selling; the smell of all of those things wafting through the stale and heavy New York air; the sight of the bright stadium lights which made all of the colors seem impossibly vivid — the contrasting white and black of Yankee pinstripes, the lush green grass, the reddish brown dirt and the deep blue of the outfield walls. It took my eyes a few minutes to adjust to all of this but, once they did, I saw him.

Standing there a little ways in front of me, near the on-deck circle on the first base side, was Graig Nettles, the Yankees third baseman, who was a hero of mine before I came to my senses and starting rooting for the Red Sox (you know, you grow). He was leaning on his elbow on the low wall between the backstop and the home dugout, talking with a man and two young children near the first row of seats.

“This is my chance,” I thought to myself as I began my sprint down the long aisle of stairs leading towards the field, with my glove and black magic marker in-hand hoping to score an autograph.

I made it about halfway to the field before I ran into what seemed like a wall, but was actually a security guard. I was so focused on getting down there that I didn’t even see him step into the aisle to thwart my forward progress.

“You can’t go down there,” he said from what seemed like way up there in a big booming voice.

“But they did,” I replied, pointing to the aformentioned family standing right where I wanted to be.

“Yeah, but you can’t,” he responded tersely, cutting off all conversation and refusing to address the irrefutable logic of what I’d just said. And eight year-old me was heartbroken. Then again, maybe my age wasn’t all that relevant because it’s never great to feel unwelcome.

We headed off to our seats to watch the game, which, don’t get me wrong, I was still glad to be at; but that encounter with the security guard definitely left a bad taste in my mouth. The Yankees lost 3 to 2 that night (what a bummer). At least I’m not still bitter about the whole thing almost a half century later, though.

This unfortunate experience was what came to mind for me when I was looking at today’s reading from John’s Gospel. As the story goes, some Greeks come to Jerusalem during the Passover festival to see what was up becuase that event was a big deal, and because the Temple was quite a sight to see (sure, they didn’t have lights or a scoreboard or peanuts but, from what I‘ve heard, it was still cool). Oh, and as it turns out, these Greeks also want to see Jesus.

Jesus has recently raised Lazarus from the dead, and word of this miracle has spread throughout the land. The people are pretty fired up when they hear about this and are hoping that Jesus will make an appearance in Jersualem for Passover so they can get look at him. Right before our story begins, Jesus makes their wish come true when he rides into town on a donkey amidst the palm-waving crowd (which, admittedly, makes today’s reading an off one, since the events of which it speaks actually follow those of Palm Sunday, which we’ll celebrate next week).

The chief priests and Pharisees are also pretty fired up about Jesus’s arrival, but for a whole different reason; they want Jesus to come to Jerusalem so they can arrest him (and, let’s be honest, kill him) because his growing popularity among the people is causing a bit of a ruckus.

And when there’s ruckus in these parts, the Roman army tends to show up and put a stop to it. The religious authorites are afraid that the Empire will destroy this pretty good thing they’ve got going for themselves if they can’t manage to get Jesus to be quiet and stop causing trouble once and for all.

But these Greeks are apparently undeterred by all of this imperial drama, so they arrive at the Temple and express their desire to see Jesus. In their attempt to make this happen, they approach the apostle Philip, which seems like a good idea because, while Philip may be from the Galilean town of Bethsaida, his name is Greek and so the pilgrims probably think that they stand a chance of getting what they want. But they don’t.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” the Greeks say to Philip, who then tells Andrew. Philip and Andrew head off together to inform Jesus about this request, and, oddly enough, Jesus doesn’t seem to respond to it. Instead, he starts talking about the Son of Man begin glorified, and grains of wheat falling on the ground and dying and bearing more fruit, and a bunch of other cryptic stuff. And the Greeks’ wish to see Jesus, it seems, goes unfulfilled that day; but, strangely enough, this makes sense.

I say this because these Greeks were most likely Gentiles and, as Gentiles, as non-Jews, they wouldn’t have been allowed into the Temple — well, at least beyond that certain part of the Temple known as the “Court of the Gentiles” anyway. This was the Temple’s outermost courtyard and the only place in the Temple where foreigners and Gentiles could be. It was also the place where the money-changers and merchants, whose tables Jesus flipped over a few weeks ago, were permitted to do their thing.

The punishment for those who violated this boundary was death — which certainly isn’t very welcoming — and this was made very clear on the signs posted near the entrances leading from the Court of the Gentiles to the Temple’s inner precincts.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

“You can’t go in there.”

“But they did.”

“Yeah, but you can’t.”

I imagine that stung a little. Like I said earlier, it’s never great to feel like your not welcome.

It’s probably not a coincidence that this particular episode happens to mark the end of Jesus’s public ministry. When he informs Philip and Andrew that, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus is saying that he’s done preaching and teaching and healing, and will soon die at the hands of the powers-that-be upon the cross. And this is a really big moment in the gospel story as John chooses to tell it. And now that Jesus has everyone’s attention, what does he go on to say next? “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.”

At some level, of course, Jesus is speaking about himself here. As we all know, he will soon die; but the story of his life, death and resurrection will subsequently take root and grow, spreading far and wide over the next two thousand years, impacting the lives of countless people, and changing the entire course of history. And that’s a whole lot of fruit. But there might still be a little more to be found here.

At the very end of Mark’s Gospel (to which we’ll turn our attention next week), the newly-resurrected Jesus tells his disciples to, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” The point is that the gospel is meant for everyone. Indeed, Jesus articulates this idea throughout the Gospels, and will do so a few chapters later in John’s version when he expresses his wish for the people of the world, “that they may all be one” (which is, of course, a big deal here in the UCC — which is why it’s written on the cover of your hymnal).

So, when Philip and Andrew carry the message to Jesus that there’s some Greeks who want to see him, but who aren’t allowed to come into the Temple, and Jesus suddenly starts talking about the need for certain things to die so that life can thrive, maybe he’s referring not only to himself but also to the Temple in which he’s standing — and the entire Temple system itself.

I mean, isn’t the questioning of the places in our lives in which distinctions such as insider and outsider, chosen few and everybody else, persist kind of the whole point of the gospel? And yet I wonder whether most of those people inside the Temple rally gave a second thought to those Greeks standing outside. After all, it’s pretty easy to ignore what you don’t see.

Every week, at the beginning of worship, we take the time to articulate a belief shared by many UCC churches, which is this: “Whoever you are and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” And I know, deep down inside, that we truly mean it when we say it.

May we never not believe it;

may we never stop saying it loudly;

may we continue understand the importance of living it;

may we always to seek out those people beyond these four walls who, for whatever reason, feel like outsiders;

because it’s never great to feel like you’re not welcome.