Life and Death

Lent 5B-24

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

A member of my family reached a major milestone this week.  Mehari became a U.S. citizen. It was a special occasion made even more special because the ceremony was conducted by longtime friend and life-long Lutheran, Judge Rebecca Pallmeyer, Chief Judge of the United States District Court.

Mehari’s story is not like our story. Nine years ago, Mehari (then age 12) and his older brother, fled their family home at night and on foot. They hid from soldiers, risked arrest, and the possibility of being shot as they made their way to the border and crossed into Ethiopia. There, Mehari lived in a United Nations refugee camp for 3 ½ years before coming to Chicago around Thanksgiving time in 2018 before becoming part our family in July of 2019.

There is much more to this story, of course. Today, I want to focus on one small part of it.  Knowing and loving Mehari gave me a front row view to the vagaries, anxiety, and convoluted legal maze that is the U.S. immigration system. Knowing and loving Mehari makes it impossible to watch or read about families crossing the Mediterranean Sea and often, or refugees being driven into the Tunisian desert and left to die, without seeing his face.  Mehari’s life has broken my life open. Now I see, feel, and hear differently.

Leaving home became a matter of life and death. Nothing motivates us so urgently –whether as individuals, or as families, or as societies or as nations, more than an existential crisis. Perhaps that’s why suffering and failure are so much more likely to lead to transformation and growth than our own happiness, insight, and understanding. People like Mehari and the asylum seekers living in the Broadway Armory have had to make such a choice.  Their lives, their stories, hold power to break the hardened shell of our hearts open.

Perhaps we need real people and real things to make the abstract suffering of people half a world away into something concrete and tangible.  Ordinary things, like the quilts many of you are sitting on, which we will bless today, connect us to the very real pain and struggle endured by God’s children today.

Lutheran World Relief (LWR) began distributing quilts in 1945 to families in Europe following the Second World War. LWR Mission Quilts create a tangible, lasting bond between the people who lovingly assemble them (like Henrietta, Kelsey, and Marcia), and our neighbors around the world, who receive quilts in their greatest times of need. Last year alone, more than 462,000 quilts and kits reached children, women, and men in 19 countries, including Ukraine, Haiti and Tanzania. These quilts go to people like Mehari.  They go to people living in such dire conditions that this simple quilt is literally their only shelter.

Njombe is one of the coldest regions of Tanzania, where one out of every three children growth was stunted, a condition that has lifelong consequences. In 2020, researchers discovered that children there were not only hungry — they were also cold. Instead of using every calorie to grow, they were burning significant energy just to keep their bodies warm. Today, thanks to the work of your hands, nearly 9,000 children in Njombe have quilts to keep them warm and help them grow up strong and healthy.  Dr. Lali Chania, who leads our LWR in Tanzania, says, “Thank you to quilters on the other side of the globe for all the great work and dedication, and for bringing works of their hearts to children of Tanzania. It’s very important.”

These quilts are a lifeline for them and a powerful way to stimulate growth in us.  Let them break your heart open. Svein Ellingsen (13 July 1929 – 5 April 2020) was a Norwegian artist and hymn writer. Many of his texts are used equally as hymns, devotional readings, and prayers. He wrote our hymn of the day in 1978. “Seed that in earth is dying grows into ears of grain. Grapes that are crushed in the vessel turn into golden wine.  God, through this mystery grant us faith in our deepest darkness, life in our night and death.” (ELW #330)

The choice between life and death is a forceful motivator for change, but ultimately, it proves insufficient. For the life we prize to finally flower death must precede life, not the other way around. Jesus said, “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” (John 12:24). This saying of Jesus was so central to his mission and message that it occurs in all four gospels (and twice in Luke).  It is the life-giving way of the cross.

A seed sown in soil does not literally die when germinates; but it does become something other than a seed, as the new plant begins to take form, the husk is burst, and the stored nutrients become part of the growing plant’s body. The seed must cease to be a seed to become a plant; ceasing to be one thing in order to bear fruit as a new thing is a kind of death and resurrection, a perishing and re-formation as a new creation in God.

By his death, Jesus taught us how to live.  St. Francis of Assisi summed up the gospel this way, “it is in giving that we receive; it is in dying that we are born again.”  It seems counter-intuitive.  But it is the way of things.  Like seed scattered upon the earth, Christ is revealed as we love one another as Christ loved us. It changes the way we see everything when we begin to see Jesus in all things. People like Mehari, and these simple quilts, can be like a seed planted in us to break our life open.

The Lord God made a new covenant with us, not like the one that we broke, but a covenant written within us. We eat and drink it at the Lord’s table.  We bath in it at our baptism.  It is a covenant not written on stone tablets or on paper in a book.  Instead, it is written upon our heart.  ‘I will be your God and you shall be my people’ (Jeremiah 31:33).

These five Sundays in Lent we have had heard God make five covenants with us.  Five promises that embolden us to confront our illusions, our frailties, and faults so we may turn to God, be healed and broken like bread for the world.  Noah, Abraham, the Ten Commandments, the serpent in the wilderness and today, the prophet Jeremiah, walk us into an encounter with God’s promise to accompany us even in the deepest, most intimate inward struggles of mind and heart.  We borrow God’s courage and hope to confront the realities of life in preparation for the radical new beginning of resurrection and transformation God prepares for us in the great Three Days and at Easter.

These promises of God are like water on dry ground, bringing forth life out of death. God’s promises are like a mighty fortress to surround and protect us when life threatens to beat us down in one of its many storms.  God says, ‘See my rainbow and know that I fight, not against you, but with you.’  ‘If you count the stars in the night or the grains of sand beside the sea, they do not exceed the gifts with which I will bless you.’  ‘While you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, look upon me and live. Look upon me and be healed.  Look to me to be forgiven and to learn how to forgive.’  Follow me into death that your life may become like a watered garden.  Jesus is with you. Christ Jesus is in you.  The husk of our old life is opened to become nutrients for the growing life of Christ alive and at work in our lives and the world.  Look, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17). Thanks be to God.