Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 21, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Jeremiah 31:31-34+Psalm 51:1-13+Hebrews 5:5-10+John 12:20-33

Over the past couple of weeks, those of us who are so inclined did our homework, studied the entries, checked out the possibilities of future match-ups, and filled out our brackets with meticulous care, hoping not to have the bracket busted in an early loss. I am talking, of course, about Lent Madness. (If you thought I meant that other March Madness going on right now, well, let’s just say that bracket is thoroughly busted!) Lent Madness, as I believe I have told you before, started back in 2010 as a fun way to learn more about saints and other holy people who have demonstrated faithfulness and lovingkindness in the way they lived. It all starts on the day after Ash Wednesday with thirty-two names on the Saintly Scorecard. We then move to the Saintly Sixteen, the Elate Eight, the Faithful Four, two in the Championship, and the winner of the Golden Halo, announced on Maundy Thursday. Past winners of that Golden Halo have included St. Francis,  Florence Nightingale, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and last year’s winner, Harriet Tubman. I have learned a lot about a lot of people I had never heard of before to get to that Golden Halo.

One in particular came to mind as I studied our reading from John’s gospel for this morning. Marina the Monk made it to the Saintly Sixteen a couple of years ago. Marina probably lived in the 5th century in what is today Lebanon. Her mother died when she was a child, and she was raised by her devout father who wanted to enter a monastery once he had married her off.  Marina was equally as pious as her father, so when she came of age, she shaved her head, dressed in men’s clothes, and changed her name to Marinos. Marinos and her father entered the monastery together and shared a cell until his death. At some point after that, Marinos was traveling on business, stopping for the night at an inn. The daughter of the innkeeper was raped that night, and her rapist made her accuse Marinos. Marinos was kicked out of monastic life and lived at the gates of the monastery with the baby for ten years. Finally, the monks relented and invited Marinos and the child inside, but Marinos was forced to do the most menial labor, which he did without complaint.

At the age of 40 or so, Marinos got sick and died, and when the monks were preparing the body for burial, they discovered that Marinos, born Marina, could not possibly have impregnated the innkeeper’s daughter. The monks were distraught at how they had misjudged and mistreated this monk. One of them who was blind in one eye supposedly regained his sight upon touching the body. Today, Marina is venerated in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Coptic churches.

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, 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” (John 12:24-25). We imagine that grain of wheat falling to the ground as an image Jesus is using for himself. The crucifixion is looming, and he knows that the way to eternal life for all humankind is through the cross and the tomb. But it isn’t just about Jesus; it’s about us. Marina the Monk may seem like an impossible standard of faithfulness, but her devotion to the Christian life was such that she died to herself, literally changing her gender identity, in order to fully commit to a life of prayer and service.

There are lots of Lent Madness saints about whom the same could be said. Francis renounced his wealth and took a vow of poverty. Harriet Tubman risked her life repeatedly to obtain freedom for enslaved people. They and hundreds of other famous and less-than-well-known people have set aside their own self-interest for the good of the whole. For the sake of the gospel.

When those Greeks come to Philip and say, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (12:21), maybe they are curious about this Galilean who just came riding into Jerusalem as the crowds shouted “Hosanna.” Or maybe they want to see this man who raised Lazarus from the dead, causing such consternation among the temple leadership. Maybe they just want to get a look at this worker of signs and wonders.

Whatever the reason, John brings these Greeks, these Gentiles, into the picture just in time for Jesus to make the pronouncement about who is going to be included when he comes into his glory.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (12:32)

All people. All of us. Not some. All. Saints and sinners alike are drawn into that saving embrace from the cross. Which is why, when someone tells us they wish to see Jesus, we’d better be ready.

So what will you say?

Where do you find Jesus to show to them?

Look around. There are saints, holy ones, people called by God, all around us. Because that is all of us. God called us by name, claimed us as God’s own, wrote our names on the palm of her hands. This week, maybe showing someone Jesus was intentionally shopping at a local Asian-owned business or speaking up when someone expressed doubt about whether or not the Atlanta shootings were motivated by hate.

Maybe we aren’t going to die to ourselves quite to the extent that Marina the Monk did or Francis or Bonhoeffer.

But that’s okay.

Unlike Lent Madness, it isn’t a competition. There is nothing we have to do other than to say yes to the invitation to come to the party. God’s reign is for all of us. That’s what Jesus promised us.

Maybe our halo isn’t golden, but that doesn’t matter. Jesus promised that wherever he is, there we are, too. Who needs a golden halo with a promise like that?   

ASEPSermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 21, 2021 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas