One of the first books I ever bought for myself was the paperback Pocket Books edition of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, the narrative of the Jewish teenager and her family who spent the years 1942 to l944 in hiding from the Nazis in a house in Amsterdam. It was published in the fifties and cost, I think, 35 cents. I was in sixth grade when I got it, and I quickly read it from cover to cover. I think it spoke to me then for a couple of reasons. It was written by someone close to me in age. And the elementary school I attended in Beverly Hills, California was almost entirely Jewish. So the account of a Jewish teenager’s hiding from the Nazis was bound to be a compelling read when World War II was still a fresh memory.
Last week Kathy and I were in Amsterdam for a couple of days on our way back from visiting some cathedrals in England. We spent Thursday morning at the Anne Frank house and museum and found the experience both sobering and ennobling. How could any regime declare someone like Anne Frank its enemy? And how could a young woman who loved movies and theater and the outdoors spend two years locked away from them and still declare that she found hope for humanity? The Anne Frank house raises more questions than any museum can answer.
And then there is the fact of the confinement itself. As we were leaving, Kathy admitted that she had begun to feel claustrophobic after about a half an hour in that small, narrow, blacked-out space. I agreed. The Frank family couldn’t look out a window in daytime. They couldn’t make any noise. They were packed in like sardines. The whole place gave me the creeps.
And yet I found myself cheered by some of the house’s human touches. There were decorations on the walls and magazine photos of movie stars in Anne’s bedroom. There was a ladder leading to an attic skylight through which the children could look at the treetops, the birds, and the sky. A place like the Anne Frank house sends two contradictory messages at once: people are no good, and people are better than you could ever think they might be.
As we make our way through Lent toward Holy Week and Easter, those two messages assert themselves today in our scriptures. We human beings are a mess. And yet we witness moments of human depth and compassion that show us what we might be on our way, with God’s help, to becoming. A bit about each.
Our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah [Jeremiah 31:31–34] expresses both the prophet’s and God’s frustrations with the human community. Yet for Jeremiah, God’s solution to human cussedness is not destruction but rather a total remaking of the human person. As Jeremiah puts it:
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. [Jeremiah 31:33]
You and I resist God’s will for us because we see it as something external to ourselves, something imposed on us from the outside. Human nature is broken. We fall for things we should avoid, and we shun the ones that give us life. God’s solution to our resistance is a compassionate one. God isn’t going to muscle us into obedience. God is going to remake us so that we will love what is good and true and right. As another prophet, Ezekiel, says, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” [Ezekiel 36: 26] God will put a new heart and a new spirit within us. God will heal and remake us into the people we were created to be.
In today’s Gospel [John 12: 20-3] Jesus gives us an inkling of how this might work:
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. [John 12:24]
Jesus often used agricultural figures to express spiritual truths. In this instance he turned to the seed, that mysterious package of life and energy at which the ancients marveled. How could such a tiny thing produce a mustard plant or a tree? And why did you have to bury them in the ground in order for them to fulfill their purpose and spring to life?
For Jesus, the seed was the perfect image of the way that new heart and new spirit worked in the human person. We must die in order to live. We must experience pain and loss and grief in order to be open to the full radiance of what God offers us. The mysterious connection of suffering, death, and rebirth is central to all great religions. It is the enigma that confounds our intelligence yet confirms our experience. We never fully live until we have died. We never know what grace and love and acceptance and forgiveness are until we have found ourselves in need of them.
This Gospel passage about the seed dying was the text for Oscar Romero’s final sermon, delivered just moments before he was shot by Salvadoran death squads on March 24, 1980—twenty-five years ago this Tuesday. Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador who was grieved by the government’s violence against the people and abuses of human rights. Toward the end of the sermon he said this:
Those who surrender to the service of the poor through the love of Christ will live like the grain of wheat that dies…The harvest comes because of the grain that dies… We know that every effort to improve society, above all when society is so full of injustice and sin, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us. [Oscar Romero, March 24, 1980]
Earlier this year, Pope Francis declared Archbishop Romero a martyr for the faith, clearing the way for his beatification and possible sainthood. Oscar Romero died resisting tyranny and standing with the poor and oppressed. Anne Frank died an anonymous Holocaust victim. Both of them have become symbols of the depth and power of human hope. The harvest of which Jesus speaks is the fulfillment of that new heart the prophets promise. It’s not only that we have to die to ourselves to be open to the liberating love and forgiveness of God. It’s also that in taking on the plight and suffering of others we become like that grain of wheat that dies so that all may be born.
Toward the end of her Diary, Anne Frank says this:
It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart…I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more— July 15, 1944
People are no good. People are better than you could ever think they might be. Anne Frank and Oscar Romero suffered and died at the hands of human beings, and yet they are witnesses to the power of human goodness and hope. They are like the seed that dies so that we all might be reborn. Their lives and stories enact the depth of what Lent, Holy Week, and Easter are all about. Jesus gives himself that we may have life, and he empowers us to do the same.
If the Christian religion means anything at all, we see it on offer this morning. God really does intend to write the law on our hearts. God really does mean to remake us into those who love what God commands and desire what God promises. God really does help us make sense of our world and our suffering by showing us what those new hearts will mean for us. God does that by sending us witnesses—a German teenager in Holland finding her voice and her spirit in captivity, a formerly carreerist archbishop becoming a martyr for compassion and justice—witnesses who show us the heights of what we are capable.
I pray that no one in this cathedral this morning ever has to face what Anne Frank, or Oscar Romero, or Jesus himself faced. But I know that life will dole out its challenges and traumas, its gifts and blessings, to all of us in one way or another before we depart. May we face into those challenges and blessings with the new heart the prophets promise, so that we may, like Jesus, become seeds of life in a harvest that will bear the fruit that can change both us and the world. Amen.