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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Stick Doesn't Work

2015-03-22 The Stick Doesn't Work

Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33


Last Sunday I wasn't here. Looking at the attendance sheets, neither were a lot of you. I was on Spring Break. Well, "break" isn't actually the word I'm looking for. I was a chaperone for the Maryville High School Red Rebel Marching Band bus trip to Universal Theme Park in Orlando. Yes, I volunteered. I went because Emily's in the band and I thought it would be a fun father-daughter memory. Henley went, too. She can fact-check all my stories for you. I didn't see much of her on the bus ride, though. She was in the back at the table with a deck of cards and reflective sunglasses. I don't think she was playing for money. But she did say she came home with a lot of leftover funds.

It truly was a great time. Relaxing? No. But the kids were awesome. Every day was breakfast at seven, then non-stop activity until lights out at 11pm. I didn't ask, but I'm pretty sure the plan was discipline by exhaustion. Kind of like Guantanamo. We had two days at the park(s). Universal is not one, but two theme parks, jammed shoulder to shoulder, with people jammed shoulder to shoulder. I swear you could count the number of benches on one hand. You walk, you stand in line, you ride. You drink non-alcoholic butter beer. You do it again. That's amusement.

And the rides. Everything's a thrill ride now. The thrill of a thrill ride for me is getting off without the operators having to hose the car out. They have roller coasters. Lots of roller coasters. What an outdated name. There is no rolling. There is no coasting. They should call them looper-stupors. Because that's all you do. Loop around until you're in a stupor.

Then, there's the bus. That's the true thrill ride. 11 hours in a bus and you start to see the true nature of humanity. It's like Survivor, except no one leaves. Our bus had a lot of freshmen on it. Ninth graders. In particular, ninth-grade boys. And again, I want to stress, these are good kids. But there was this particular gang of three, boys, good, creative, smart boys, who when they got together were kind of like matches, dynamite, and a pile of Yo Mama jokes. I have to admit, they were pretty funny, with their loud games of, "Would you rather," involving food, body parts, and high-fiving each other every time another imaginary line of grossness was crossed. Do you know the game? The official rules are: "Would you rather" do [disgusting option A] or [disgusting option B]. It made me all nostalgic for being 14 again. The other chaperone and I would look at each other and roll our eyes. It was all fun and games, until someone got hurt.

"Would you rather," took an ugly turn when the suddenly [disgusting option B] started involving people on the bus. As in, "Would you rather" [A], or "sit next to [insert person's name]." Suddenly, I remembered why ninth grade wasn't so fun. I started to get up and go lay down the law. Because, looking at me, you can tell I'm the kind of guy who does that. Why are you laughing? I was ready knock some heads, to put my foot down, to read the riot act, to tell them, "So help me, I will ask this 72 year-old bus driver to pull over at the next safe rest area." I was ready to become, "The Chaperone."

But the female chaperone tapped me on the shoulder and said, "I got this." And what happened next should go into the Band Chaperone Hall of Fame.

She walks up to the boys and says so everybody can hear, "All right, you three stooges. We've all had enough. So here's what we're going to do. You're going to apologize to anyone you've hurt. But more than that, you're going to apologize to every single person on this bus. This is your punishment: You are going to come up with a compliment for every person on this bus. And it's going to be a good compliment. Something heartfelt. Something personal. You may not repeat. Each compliment has to be unique. And I am going to follow behind each of you and listen to what you say, and if I don't like it, you're going to have to come up with another one."

The boys were stunned. "But we don't know everybody on the bus," they said.

"Well, then, you're going to have to get to know them, aren't you?" she countered right back.

This is when things got kind of quiet. Or quiet-er. The boys got pencil and paper and went to each person, and started talking to them. After a while, the chaperone said, "Are you ready?" And one by one, she marched each of the boys down the aisle with their list of compliments. Not all the compliments were super deep. But they were honest. They were kind. And you know what? No one else got teased the rest of the trip.

A little later, another group of kids came up to the female chaperone. They said, "Could we write and give some compliments, too?"

"Well, I guess so. If you want to," she said.

Pure. Simple. Genius.

I could be wrong, but I'm guessing some lives were changed.


Back in the Old Testament, the Prophet Jeremiah tells of God's wrath toward the people of Israel. God's own children had turned against each other. They had turned against him.

Jeremiah says God's word is, "I will utterly destroy them, and make them an object of horror and of hissing, and an everlasting disgrace. And I will banish from them the sound of mirth and the sound of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the sound of the millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste…." Jeremiah 25:9-10

And God sent them into exile, into Babylon. Punishing the children's children for the sins of the parents. God put the foot down.

Did the Old Testament, heavy-handed approach work? For a while. But then the children of God started rolling their eyes and going back to their disobedient, commandment-breaking ways. People never change, you know. No matter how big a stick you carry. God found out that when you put away the stick, people stop listening.

So, in an act of creative genius, God changed his technique.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke….

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Instead of demanding that the disobedient children change their actions, God changed the actors. Instead of beating love into them, God told them to listen to their heartbeats, and hear the love that's already written there.


In this season of Lent, as we're getting ready for Easter – only two weeks away – people start wondering about things. I got a text from a church member last week asking me to explain why Jesus had to die and why we needed the Resurrection.

"Oh yeah," I thought. "I can answer that in a text message."

It took a few hours, and a lot of thinking about the scriptures of this sermon, but I think I've come up with my text message answer.

Why did Jesus have to die and why do we need the Resurrection?

Because the stick doesn't work. The stick doesn't work.

Laying down the law, putting the foot down, knocking heads, threatening, yelling, smiting, kicking people off the bus – doesn't work.

God said, the days are surely coming. The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant… and I will write it on their hearts.

And then after a long, long time, the days came. And Jesus says,

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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.

That sounds kind of confusing if you yank it out of context. But in the covenantal context, it starts to make more sense. In the Old Covenant, God expected people to straighten up and fly right or suffer the consequences. It didn't work so well. So God sent Jesus as the sign and seal of a New Covenant. And in the New Covenant God doesn't thump heads. God changes hearts. God rewrites what's on them.

The gospel lesson concludes with Jesus saying, "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." The final line in the passage is: "He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die."

God picks up the stick and turns it on himself.

In the New Covenant, which the people CAN'T break, God turns the stick on himself in the form of Jesus on two sticks, nailed together, the cross. To draw people to himself, not force them. To show people that hearts can change, lives can change because of good words, because of God's good and final word.


The wheels on the bus go round and round. We're all on this journey together. This long thrill ride of life. We're all crammed into this confined space. It can seem unending, like I-75 through South Georgia, but in truth it passes by really fast. You've got the choice, every single day, how you're going to act, how mature or immature, how kind or unkind you're going to be. You've also got the choice of how to treat those who aren't kind. We can jump up ready to smite the evildoers, or we can work together to find creative ways to read what's written on the hearts of people seated around us.

God says, "The days are surely coming." Yes, they do. They keep coming, and coming, and coming. They can feel unending. They're always unfinished. There's always more to do. God's work is unfinished, too. And that's very good news. Because it means we're not finished, and neither is God. The days are surely still coming. God is still writing his covenant on our hearts. Each new day is a new covenant, a new start on the adventure. This new covenant isn't something done and you either get it or you don't. It's kind of a work in progress. Just like you. Just like we all are.