I know my sabbatical sermons are over, but I want to share one more trip story with you. In my down time in London, I went to Westminster Abbey. As it happened, the Abbey was celebrating the anniversary of its founding that weekend, and I walked into a stunning evensong on a Saturday afternoon. Afterward, as the music and incense still hung in those heavenly vaulted ceilings, I came across something I hadn’t known was there, among all the monuments to famous men (and a few women). What I found was a lectern, carved from hard English wood. It was given in memory of the missionary William Carey, who worked in India in the early 1800s and translated the Bible into several different languages. What struck me, other than the woodwork, was the quote from William Carey emblazoned across the front of the lectern: “Attempt great things for God.1
What made me stop short was the verb. It doesn’t say, “Achieve great things for God.” It doesn’t set the bar at success on our terms. It says, “Attempt great things for God.” There’s good theology in that: After all, most outcomes ultimately are not in our hands; and what we perceive to be the outcome may be only a momentary glimpse of a very long process.
As we heard in the readings today, God plays the long game. Millennia ago, as the Israelites sat in exile, God promised that their story had just begun. The people had failed in keeping the covenant of Law, the covenant intended to make them a holy presence, a missional light drawing all the world to Israel’s God. But even in the darkness of exile, God proclaims, “The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant” with my people. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts … and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31,33,34) This one wouldn’t be a covenant of law and obligation. Nor would it be a covenant of worldly convenience by which we judge whether we’re getting what we want from our “relationship” with God. Instead, God promises the New Covenant – a covenant of worldly risk and kingdom reward, the covenant of eternal life.
In eternal life, both risk and reward are guarantees. The reward is so clear, we may miss it, like fish who don’t notice the water in which they swim. The reward of the New Covenant, as our catechism puts it, is Christ’s promise “to bring us into the kingdom of God and give us life in all its fullness” (BCP 851). And our guaranteed risk? It is the deeply risky work of remembering – remembering who we are and whose we are.
Our part of the New Covenant is what Jesus commanded in the Last Supper, what we bring to life at this altar every week. It’s the sacrifice of anamnesis. That’s a ten-dollar Greek word used by theologians as well as physicians, for whom it has to do with taking a patient’s history. In a church context, we usually say anamnesis means active remembering, remembering in the sense of bringing a past reality fully into the present moment – and that’s true. But at Episcopal 101 last week, a faithful physician pointed out the word’s etymology: Anamnesis actually means “not amnesia,” “not forgetting.” It’s basically the same as “remembering,” but with a shade of defiance.
When we remember Jesus – when we remember his sacrifice for us and our call to follow in his steps – we proclaim defiance to the forces that would tempt us to the covenant of convenience instead. And in the Greek, we hear Jesus saying it defiantly, too: “Do this for the not-forgetting of me.”
He says, “Don’t forget that I want you to attempt great things for God. Don’t forget that I want you to be my body in the world, united in the love of washing each other’s feet. Don’t forget that I want you to obey my commandments, which can be the opposite of convenience. Don’t forget that those who love their life lose it; that whoever serves me must follow me; that where I am, there will my servant be also.” This is risky remembering.
But with it comes God’s side of the New Covenant: the promise that we will abide, now and always, in eternal life – not just in the sweet by and by, but each and every day we rise in resurrection.
That’s definitely playing the long game. But in the Gospel stories, and certainly for the people there 2,000 years ago, it can seem sometimes like Jesus was driving toward outcomes in the moment, outcomes on the world’s terms. Just before the Gospel reading we heard today, we get some of the Bible’s very best drama, seeming to tell the story of Jesus’ rise to power: He raises Lazarus from the dead. That brings new followers out of the woodwork, and it makes Jesus a marked man as the religious authorities decide it’s time to kill him. Meanwhile, more and more people come out to follow him, and Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph on what we call Palm Sunday. As the Pharisees put it, “Look, the world has gone after him!” (John 12:19). Even the “Greeks” (John 12:20) – the non-Jews crowding into Jerusalem for the Passover festival – even they want to find out what this miracle worker and would-be king is about to do. You can almost hear the voices in the crowd: “Jesus, now’s the time for you to mobilize us against the Romans! Now’s the time for you to call down the armies of God against them! Hosanna to our commander in chief!”
And the king’s response? “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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and wherever I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:24) So much for the coup d’état.
The outcome isn’t about Jesus riding the wave of success. It’s about the Body of Christ, his followers then and now, being sent to reach “the Greeks,” the people still on the outside of God’s beloved community. The outcome is about Tim, whom I mentioned a couple of weeks ago – the young man I met outside a restaurant who loves Jesus but indicted the churches he knew as being sluggish and self-centered. The outcome in the Gospel story is that Jesus gives himself away to die – not because he wants to, which he clearly doesn’t. Jesus gives himself away because he’s playing the long game. He knows his death will defeat death – and he knows that’s only the beginning of the work. He knows it won’t be him, in historical reality, who will reach billions of people across time and space, who will “draw all people” to himself (John 12:32). He knows he must be the seed that falls into the ground to rise as so much more.
And he asks us to follow suit. We who call ourselves Christians must take his path of dying and rising, giving ourselves up to be made new. We must be about anamnesis, defiantly not forgetting our part of the New Covenant. We proclaim it at every baptism, and we’ll do so again in the half-light of the Easter Vigil: We promise to be part of a community of blessing. We promise to resist evil and return to God and each other when we fail. We promise to proclaim Jesus’ good news in all we say and do. We promise to serve Jesus in everyone, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We promise to practice peace and justice in the hardest places, even the intimate spaces of our own lives. And over time, we come to do what Jesus says is the ultimate holy work (John 6:29), believing in the one whom God has sent as the source of light and life and love. Jesus calls us to belong, to become, and to believe – to play the long game.
That long game is what we’re playing as a church community, too, with the Gather & Grow initiative. Like Jesus entering Jerusalem in triumph, Gather & Grow might seem like something driving toward a worldly outcome – buildings. And given the way churches sometimes behave, a person like Tim, the church critic, could be forgiven for coming into the Jewell Room, looking at the architects’ renderings, and thinking, “That church just wants to build a monument to itself.” Churches do commit that sin sometimes – pastors, too. We’ve heard this week of the impossibly named pastor Creflo Dollar with World Changers Church, who’s apparently changing the world by having his followers buy him a $60 million private jet.2 That kind of thing makes people like Tim blow a gasket. Me, too.
But Gather & Grow is not about monuments or egos. It’s about a seed that fell to the earth and died here in 1913, thereby bearing a century of fruit. Our use of space new, old, or otherwise – and, by the way, everything else we do as the Church – must be about three things: loving God, loving neighbor, loving each other. And through that love, God sends us out to reach “the Greeks,” the people who aren’t yet part of God’s beloved community. Working toward that mission brings us to a few Palm Sundays here and there, moments when we might be tempted to look for worldly triumph. But the truth Jesus proclaims this morning is this: Mission takes sacrifice. It means grains of wheat falling to the earth. It means Jesus’ followers taking costly steps. In our very real lives in this very material world, it means keeping the New Covenant in ways that will stretch us – pledges of our hands and our hearts, but also pledges of financial commitment. Gather & Grow is the most significant step in Christ’s mission we’ve taken since we built this nave in 1952. As he did then, Jesus is asking us now to play the long game. He’s asking us to choose against a covenant of law, church “because you have to.” He’s asking us to choose against a covenant of convenience, church that’s there to meet my needs. He’s asking us to choose the New Covenant and write it on our hearts, the covenant of worldly risk and kingdom reward.
And the outcome? The outcome is literally inscribed on the other side of the lectern I saw in Westminster Abbey. Like I said, one side reads, “Attempt great things for God.” And the other side reads, “Expect great things from God.”
Expect great things from God – not in terms of worldly success but in terms of our life as the body of Christ, bringing love to the people God asks us to serve. Expect great things from God – not as a payoff for good works but as a consequence of “walk[ing] in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us” (Ephesians 5:2). Expect great things from God because God is playing the long game. Expect great things from God not despite the embarrassing fact that the grain of wheat dies and lies buried in the ground. No. Expect great things from God because of it. Expect great things from God because we are being lifted up with Jesus into the magnificence of his abundant life – the exaltation of servanthood, the glory of sacrifice, the greatness of giving ourselves away.
1. “William Carey.” Westminster Abbey. Available at: http://www.westminster-abbey.org/our-history/people/william-carey. Accessed March 19, 2015.
2. Stringer, Sam. “Minister Creflo Dollar asks for $60 million in donations for a new jet.” CNN. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/13/living/creflo-dollar-jet-feat/. Accessed March 19, 2015.