What Will Your Verse Be?
If you had a personal mission statement, what would it be? Mission statements are a way of focusing organizations. Some of you remember that, a few years ago, our Session leadership here at OPC spent some time working on a mission statement for the congregation. Through multiple conversations and input from you all, we ended up with a statement that says, in part:
Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church is an inclusive community of faith that uses our gifts and resources to continue the earthly ministry of Jesus. We exist as a church not merely for ourselves.
And then comes the part many of you will recognize from regular usage here:
The broader community is our congregation.
This was not a way of forging new ground, but a way of drawing up out of our history and out of our current context what it is that drives and motivates us. As we know well from our involvement in ministries of compassion such as the Food Pantry (and the Bargain Shop and other activities which help to fund that our Food Pantry), what drives OPC more than anything is that God-given mandate to take care of the least of these – in Biblical terms, “widows and orphans” – by reaching out a caring hand to the community in which God has planted us.
So what if each of us had our own personal mission statement; what would it be? In other words, what drives you? What motivates you to get out of bed each and every day? What is it that makes your heart sing? Where is it that, in the words of Frederick Buechner, “your deep gladness and the world’s hunger meet”?
Is it family? Friends? Relationships? Is it a political or humanitarian cause? Is it your job, your fitness, your health? Is there a verse of Scripture or a personal sense of God at work in your life that roots you firmly, or cheers you on? And if you are able to narrow that down, if you can fill in the blanks, saying with clarity, “I am truly here on this earth to ______________,” can you drill down? Can you find where that purpose is linked to the God who created you, who gifted you, who provides for you each and every day, who, in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, gives you that daily bread?
We find some help in the prophet Jeremiah’s rehearsing of God’s decree. The time is an uncertain one forIsrael. Depending on how you read the book of Jeremiah, the nation is either about to be overrun by the Babylonians or already has been, in which case the people have been taken into exile. Up until this point, what has united God’s people are the decrees which came down from Mount Sinai, the tablets of the law as summarized in the Ten Commandments and which echo throughout the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
What has also given them both political and theological purpose is the land. They have come to see the nations of Judah and Samaria and the united kingdom of Israel as the fulfillment of God’s promise to them, and so Jerusalem has been set aside as a holy city, and the Temple has been built in order that the people might rededicate a mere portion of that land to give glory to God.
But now, all of that comes crashing to the ground. And so Jeremiah gets to wrestle with the questions left behind: What does it mean to be God’s people of land and covenant when all of that is about to be taken away? Has God removed all form of blessings? Is this some kind of divine version of March Madness, with ancientIsraelfalling out of the bracket, another nation ready to take its rightful place as champion?
Much of Jeremiah’s prophecy relates to the “why”. To be fair, the people haven’t exactly kept up their end of the bargain. They’ve become so consumed with the power of kingdom-building that they’ve forgotten how it is that it happened in the first place, and who it is that had sustained them as they moved out of slavery through wilderness into promise. And so, yes, some of this is punishment for wrongdoing.
And yet, that’s not the totality of it. By the time we get to the section of Jeremiah we read this morning, we learn that God’s promises remain true. Those physical tablets, that written law, may have been destroyed; but there is another law, one written on hearts, that can never be destroyed. The people will no longer need to be reminded of God’s presence in their lives, because they will know it deep down in their very souls. They will understand what is that God has created them for!
Kind of a mixed message, don’t you think? On the one hand, the physical nature of God’s faithfulness – land, Temple, kingdom, tablets, law – all of those have been stripped away. And yet, because of this, the people’s faith will be strengthened, not weakened. It is as though these things which had been meant as tangible signs, reminders of the covenant, had become instead distractions, political and religious trappings and practices, now devoid of their central purpose and meaning. Perhaps, as the saying goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
Not quite…The trick is not to get so caught up in what “used to be” that they miss sight of God at work in the “here and now”. As they leave behind what they knew, they head into the unknown. As the Israelites are taken into captivity, God goes with them. The story of faith isn’t finished; in some ways, it has just closed its first chapter.
I can’t help but wonder if that’s what is at work in our New Testament lesson this morning from John’s gospel. Jesus speaks of the grain of wheat, whose purpose is only served when it is dead to the world. Once it is out of sight, buried beneath the ground, that is when it can fulfill its purpose, nurtured by water and light, sprouting and bearing its fruit, providing sustenance for the hungry.
It is clear that Jesus is speaking of himself, the living water, the light of the world, whose own death and burial has its purpose in satisfying our hunger for spiritual nourishment. As we move through Lent and toward the highs and lows of Holy Week, we are clearly being prepared for this, reminded of the purpose of the Last Supper and the crucifixion and the empty tomb. And yet, hear again what Jesus says:
Anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go in reckless love, you will have it forever.
There is a paradox at work in faithful living. As the great theologian Sting once wrote, “If you love someone set them free.” We are asked to let go of the things that we hold precious. Those things which have become distractions will go away. And those things which have true meaning and anchor us will come back – but the risk is that they might return in a form that we don’t recognize: law written on hearts, not stone; a risen Lord, once crucified; a refined and resurrected sense of purpose in life that now clings to the heart of God.
Some of you may remember the 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society in which Robin Williams plays a boarding school teacher who energizes his students by throwing out the rule book and bringing literature alive in new and passionate ways. In one particularly memorable scene, he recites a Walt Whitman poem:
O me! O life!...of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless train of the faithless – of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light – of the objects mean – of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all – of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest – with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, so recurring – what good amid these, O me, O life?
And then, after the desperation of these questions, comes the answer:
That you are here – that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
In the film, Williams finishes his recitation, turns to his students, and puts the question to them:
“What will your verse be?”
What about you? What will your verse be? What is it that you need to let go of this Lenten season, trusting that God will send what is needful back to you? What is it and where is it that God has called you to be? Know this: you do not go alone. God goes before you, and God goes with you.