Lent 5: Life out of death

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, "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. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. (John 12:20-26)
cups 2
"cups 2" by john_the_revelator on flickr
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.”

The first image that comes to mind when I hear this is my third grade science classroom. I can see the windows in the back of the classroom, and a whole line-up of Styrofoam cups sitting on the windowsill. I can see my own cup, with my name written in my own wobbly third grade handwriting. My cup held a few inches of potting soil, and a thumbprint down the center where I had pushed my lima bean down beneath the dirt. Planting the seed took all of five minutes, and the longest part of that had been waiting in line to get my cup filled with dirt. Planting the seed was quick work. Waiting for it to grow was the hard part.

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.”

I think that part of what Jesus is doing in today’s gospel is speaking to the parts of our souls that have experienced grief and death. His words sound like an exhortation – lose your life that you may receive new life – but I think that they are actually a word of empathy and hope. In today’s gospel, Jesus gives a nod to the human experience, to all of those times that we feel buried, to all of those times that we experience physical, spiritual, or emotional deaths around us.

At some point, each of us is that little seed, buried in the earth, broken and tired and keenly aware of the big deaths and the little deaths in our lives and in the world. In the last month, we have buried long-time and long-loved members of our congregation. There are people sitting here in the pews who have known the pain of the unexpected loss of a job. There are women who have lost pregnancies or who fear losing them. There are families struggling under the weight of financial insecurity. There are those who know the grief that comes with moving away from a place you love. And there are too many of us who know the gravity of sudden illness and of chronic illness and of terminal illness.

Amidst all of the goodness that we experience day by day, we each also have our broken moments and experiences of death – big or little deaths – that can make us feel as small and forgotten as a seed buried beneath the ground. And so Jesus uses this image of a seed buried in earth and rising up from the earth to remind us of his own death and resurrection, and of God’s ongoing work of resurrection in our lives, even in the midst of darkness or death.

We are quickly moving toward Holy Week, and the three days where we remember Jesus’ last hours. On Good Friday, we will hear again the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. And on Good Friday, we would do well to remember that when Jesus died on the cross, he died a real death. A deep death. A permanent death. The disciples didn’t look up at the cross and say “oh well, Jesus only appears to be dead, but no biggie, because the resurrection is right around the corner.” They looked at the cross and grieved, because Jesus died. And they fled the scene in fear, because they were scared for their own lives, that they too might be arrested and put to death. Everything about the situation was fear and death and hopelessness and heart-wrenching watching and waiting, and the grim sense, deep down, that all was lost.

We know, like the disciples, that after we bury our dead or bury our dreams or bury our expectations, we then move into a time of waiting. Waiting for the return of hope. Waiting for the cloud to lift. Waiting for goodness and joy to be restored. Waiting for the energy to move forward from our brokenness or pain or uncertainty. Whenever we are buried like that seed, whenever we feel broken, we look for signs up hope up ahead, but in the meantime, we wait. And the waiting is the hardest part.

Kathryn Matthew Huey, a pastor and writer, likens this space of grief and waiting to the Saturday space between Good Friday and Easter. She says,
Holy Saturday has been called ‘the longest of days,’ a day of waiting, a not-yet, in-between time that in many ways describes our own lives….Our lives are not all about Good Friday or all about Easter Sunday. [But rather, we live in a Saturday space where] we know suffering and abandonment, exile and loss, and we face death, our own and the deaths of those we love. We know ourselves as sinners, and our lives as broken. And we also taste forgiveness, we taste hope, and we taste new life, we catch sight of it here and there, get word of it, listen and wait and hope...we remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, and yet we know ourselves also as bound for glory...pain and hope, dying and rising again...all humankind waiting, waiting, here in the unresolved, waiting...and we understand a little more why faith is best described as trust. (Sermon Seeds, March 25, 2012)
We live most of our lives between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. We see brokenness and taste death, and even though we know that Christ is risen, we live each day in this space between death and new life. And every time we experience disappointment or grief, we are cast anew into this waiting space, where we often doubt and question and try to make sense of this brokenness.

I don’t have a particularly satisfying answer for you or for anyone as to why bad things happen to good people. I can talk about the reality of brokenness and sin in our world, but I can’t explain it. And I believe in a good God – a really truly good God – which means that that I can’t subscribe to the notion that bad things in life happen for a reason, or that they are a part of God’s plan. But what I do believe, firmly believe, is that in the space of death, God brings resurrection and new life. In the dark and waiting space of bad things, God can and does cause good things to happen.

What makes the resurrection so powerful is that God sprung up life where the disciples and the women only expected to see death. I think the true power of Christ’s resurrection lies in this element of beautiful surprise – the shocking experience of stumbling upon life when all we could see was death. Just as in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth out of a formless void, Christ’s resurrection assures us that God continues to create life, even out of the darkness of death.

After just a few days’ waiting, something started happening in those little Styrofoam cups in my third grade science classroom. Tiny little green shoots started to press up, defying gravity, unhindered by the weight of the soil. And in another two days, the shoots had grown taller than the lip of the cup, and sprouted leaves, and bent themselves toward the sun. The seeds that we had buried, as good as dead, rose up again.

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.”

Our mid-week Lenten discussion group has been talking about various images that we associate with baptism. In a recent discussion, we talked about the image of baptism as burying. We read these verses from Romans 6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

We are seeds, buried beneath the earth. And we are God’s chosen, buried beneath the waters of baptism. From this soil, from this water, God brings resurrection. Even in the waiting times, when we are between grief and hope, we can touch this water and remember God’s promise to us, and cling to our faith while we wait for new life to break forth.

Anne Lamott, in her essay “Good Friday World” says,
I believe in the resurrection, in Jesus’, and in ours. The trees, so stark and gray last month, suddenly went up as if in flame, but instead in blossoms and leaves – poof! Like someone opening an umbrella. It’s often hard to find such dramatic evidence of rebirth and hope in our daily lives….I am going to try to pay attention to the spring, and look up at the hectic trees. Amid the smashing and crashing and terrible silences [in our world], the trees are in blossom, and it’s soft and warm and bright. I am going to close my eyes and listen. During the children’s sermon last Sunday, the pastor asked the kids to close their eyes for a moment – to give themselves a time-out – and then asked them what they had heard. They heard birds and radios, dogs barking, cars, and one boy said, “I hear the water at the edge of things.” I am going to listen for the water at the edge of things today. (from Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith)
This is my prayer for you, today. For you, for me, and for the world. That we can come to the font, and listen to the water at the edge of things, and remember that no matter the weight of the soil that buries us, no matter the depth of the water that drowns us, out of these dark and covered places, spring appears, and bean shoots sprout up from Styrofoam cups, and fields of grain grow up tall, and in all of this, even in the midst of death, we can know life.

No comments:

Post a Comment