Friday, April 3, 2009

Sour Grapes -- a sermon

I was listening to some call-in show on the radio the other day and somebody called to talk about how some of the stimulus money will be used to rebuild public transit systems around the country, and how they are especially important these days with gas prices heading back up for good.  Then they asked how come we ever got rid of what used to be a pretty good public transit system.

The answer?  World War II.

How’s that?  Well, the short version of the story went like this.  In World War II, we started building lots of things, among them jeeps and tanks and planes.  After the war, we had lots of manufacturing capacity, not to mention a lot of surplus vehicles and new drivers, so corporations used that extra capacity to build cars. 

The more cars we built, the more roads.  And the more car owners, the fewer people who took the bus and train. Then came the interstate highway system, and the fact that World War II also created the biggest migration of its citizens, moving them all over the country, not to mention the world -- and now you have a country of migratory people with cars.  Goodbye trolley.

Fascinating as always, you say, but we are talking about sour grapes in the Old Testament, not cars.

Well, here’s the point.  Jeremiah talks about an old saying that goes: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  It’s a message that says children pay for the sins of the parents.  There were certainly some pentalities in their system of law that punished not just the guilty but all members of the family.  And the belief was that the sin of the people would affect generations to come.

That’s a pretty universal idea.  Native American teaching is that in everything we do, we must consider its effect down through the next seven generations.  Because if we take a short-sighted view, our descendents will be paying for our sins.

Like having to rebuild a public transportation system that we dismanteled even though it once was the envy of the much of the world.  And urban and suburban sprawl.  And pollution.  You get the idea.

If you wanted, you could look at our modern situation -- the actions of others over the past thirty years -- often short-sighted and selfish actions, sometimes just wrong guesses -- have led to our current crisis.  No matter what route we choose to get out of the crisis, it will affect us for generations.  So yeah, the parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

But the strange thing is, Jeremiah takes the old saying and says, “Some day that won’t be the case.  Some day, the only people who will be punished for their sins are those who commit them.”

That might sound good, but it’s not going to happen.  Good luck with that.

Jesus seems to take a more logical stance.  He says, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it cannot grow.  But if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

The wheat he’s talking about, of course, is himself.  He’s telling his disciples that his death will be the gateway for life eternal not only for himself but for all his people.  If you will, the righteous action of one will save many.

But since his saving act is for God alone to perform, what can we learn in how we are to live?  Has the time come when our actions don’t affect future generations anymore?  Hardly.

On earth, even though our actions have ramifications for others, we can only be responsible for our actions, not those of others.  We can’t make others do what is right -- only ourselves.  

And the right thing to do?  Be a grain of wheat.   We ultimately are responsible to God for our lives -- including letting them go -- giving them up to God.

What Jesus says to offer ourselves up -- to die.  To let go of this life in order to embrace life in its truest, deepest, most lasting form.  In short, stop clinging to all those things we think are so important -- and which often lead to sour grapes down the line -- and focus on what loving God, which necessarily entails serving our neighbors.

So the paradox is this: we are responsible only for our actions, but we know that those actions affect generations to come.  We know we will make mistakes, but we must keep them in our calculations.

The irony is that there is one place where our actions affect us and us alone.  Heaven.  There are no sour grapes.  Each of us stands before God facing with our own sins which have the power to damn only us.  The Good News is that the actions of one person affect us -- Jesus’ death and resurrection overcomes our sin and opens the way for eternal life.  But then, we are still responsible for embracing it.  Amen.