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5th Sunday in Lent                                     John 12:20-33                                    March 18,2018

Back when I was serving at First Lutheran in Pillager we offered something I had never heard of prior to arriving there: Release Time. Once a month the elementary school kids would be released from school and were allowed to head to the church of their choice to participate in a couple hours of Christian Education.
It was an interesting idea, but I must admit I thought it was redundant in light of our Sunday school classes and confirmation classes that were offered every week, but hey, the kids showed up and for a few hours the place was a cauldron of chaos as we did the best we could in providing some kid friendly bible study, some arts and crafts, some music and of course a snack.
One of the things that stands out from those Release Times days was a song we sang at the start of our time together, the song was entitled, “Turn your Eyes Upon Jesus.” I particularly recall the chorus: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”
I was reminded of this song when I read the first few lines of today’s gospel story where some of the Greeks came to Philip and said, “Sir, we want to see Jesus.” For many of the kids who showed up for Release Time, they were not entirely unlike the Greeks in the story. I say this because not all the kids attending were members of the congregation, in fact, many were a bunch of kids from the community who really did not have a church they called home. And admittedly, some were there solely for the purpose of getting out of school and having a chance to play around and at the end of our time together, enjoy a snack or two.
In today’s reading Jesus and his disciples were in Jerusalem and they were preparing to celebrate the Passover. It was here that the Greeks came to Phillip wishing to see Jesus, perhaps they too were looking to “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face.” The truth is, we really don’t know what prompted this request. Were they curious about his message and his parables. Were they hoping he might do something miraculous; walk on water, heal someone, multiply some more loaves and fishes? Or maybe they were skeptics or troublemakers. Or maybe they were simply bored and seeking a distraction. In this regard they really did have a lot in common with the kids at release time.
I suppose a similar question might be, which Jesus were they looking for? The teacher, the healer? The peacemaker? The master of wind and wave? A man who could give sight to the blind and raise the dead to new life? In short, why were they interested and what were they seeking? In this day and age, we still have many who are seeking something or someone to give hope and meaning to their lives. For some they might actually tell you they are seeking Jesus, others are still not sure what they are looking for, they just know that something in their lives is missing. I would also venture to guess that if we are honest with ourselves, perhaps we are all looking to see Jesus in some manner, shape or form. We all have a need to “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face.” Maybe it is because we have been taught that seeing is believing.
So where do we find the face of Jesus. Jesus would tell us that we can see him in the face of the poor, the hungry, the thirty, and the imprisoned. That being said, seeking the face of Jesus in the lives of such can be uncomfortable and unsettling.
Back in 1995, I watched the movie "Dead Man Walking" staring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn and it raised some disturbing questions, including the justice of the death penalty. The movie is about an inmate on death row who had been responsible for the brutal slaying of two young lovers and the savage rape of the young girl. The inmate (Sean Penn) sends a letter to Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) and asks her to visit him in prison, which she does. As she gets more involved with him, she encounters the parents of the victims in a court hearing regarding the overturning of his death penalty. They can't believe that she is "on his side" in all of this. Just before the end of the movie, she is successful in getting him to ask the parents for their forgiveness.
Sometimes it is not easy to see Christ in others, just as Sister Helen had to fight her own feelings of revulsion in trying to help the inmate find salvation. But see him we must as hard as that might be. This is one of the challenges we face when we try to seek the face of Jesus—we tend to see only what our eyes want to see and not what our hearts should see, namely, that there is a piece of God in each one of us. So maybe we can see Jesus in people who are able to forgive. In them we see the forgiving nature of God and are inspired to be forgiving people ourselves and maybe we can see Jesus in those who show compassion and caring, those who are able to see Jesus within each of us?
In the story of Don Quixote and the prostitute Dulcinea, Don Quixote thought so highly of Dulcinea, eventually she comes to believe in herself. She didn't see the beauty in herself until he did. Others desperately need us to show them the truth, namely, that Jesus is in them, too, just as that death-row inmate needed Sister Helen to show him.
Perhaps another question for us to ponder might be—where do others seek Jesus? Do they see Jesus in us? As the Body of Christ, do others seeking Jesus look to us? And if so, what will they see?
Recently I read about Michael who rises every morning at 4 A.M., in good and bad weather, workday or holiday, and walks into his kitchen. In it are the fixings of his famous sandwiches, famous at least to those who desperately need them to stave off hunger for the day. By 5:50 A.M., he's making the rounds of the makeshift homeless shelters on Centre and Lafayette Streets, near New York's City Hall. In a short time, he gives out 200 sandwiches to as many homeless people as he can, before beginning his work day in the New York City courthouse. Michael’s story started 20 years ago with a cup of coffee and a roll for a homeless man named John. Day after day, Michael brought John sandwiches, tea, clothes, and when it was really cold, a resting place in his car while he worked. In the beginning, Michael just wanted to do a good deed.
But one day a voice in his head compelled him to do more- something foolish…On a cold, winter morning, he asked John if he would like to get cleaned up. It was an empty offer, because Michael was sure John would refuse. Unexpectedly, John said, "Are you gonna wash me?" Michael heard that inner voice say once again, "Put your money where your mouth is." Looking at this poor man, covered in ragged and smelly clothes, unkempt, hairy and wild-looking, Michael was afraid. But he also knew that he was looking at a big test of his commitment. So he helped John upstairs to the locker room of the courthouse to begin the work. John's body was a mass of cuts and sores, the result of years of pain and neglect.
His right hand had been amputated, and Michael pushed through his own fears and revulsion. He helped John wash, cut his hair, shaved him and shared breakfast with him.
"It was at that moment," Michael remembers, "that I knew I had a calling, and I believed that I had it within me to do anything. There are days when it's snowing, and I have a hard time leaving my warm bed and the comfort of my family to go downtown with sandwiches. But then that voice in me starts chattering, and I get to it." And get to it he does. Michael has made 200 sandwiches every day for the past 20 years.
"When I give out sandwiches," Michael explains, "I don't simply lay them on a table for folks to pick up. I look everyone in the eye, shake their hands, and I offer them my wishes for a good and hopeful day. Each person is important to me. I don't see them as 'the homeless', but as people who need food, an encouraging smile and some positive human contact.
When Michael looked to folks like John he eventually saw Jesus. And when John looked to Michael he too saw Jesus.
If we like the Greeks in the gospel, want to see Jesus, the place to look is twofold, in the eyes of our brothers and sisters as well as in the eyes of the stranger, the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned, the marginalized.
The other place to look is to the cross. Yes, Jesus was and is many things: teacher, healers, companion and Lord, and it is essential that we experience him in all of these ways. But the center, the heart of who he is, is revealed at the cross. The cross makes true sight possible. In the end, what this week’s Gospel reading teaches me is that I don’t have to strive and strain to sse Jesus because the good news is that Jesus is constantly drawing and gagthering all people to himself. He is the one who allows himself to be lifted up that we might see the face of God and experience the love of Christ.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” In these final days of this Lenten season I invite you to seek the face of Jesus as well. Look for him where you least expect to find him. Look to the cross. I also invite you to be Jesus to those others who are seeking. Help them to see Jesus in your spirit of compassion, forgiveness, empathy, kindness, generosity, and grace.
Let us pray: “Turn our eyes upon you O Lord, move us to look full into your wonderful face. And may the things of this world grow strangely dim in the light of your glory and grace.” Amen

Pastor Stephen Blenkush

Zion Lutheran Church
Milaca MN 56353

Love like Jesus!

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