“A Grain of Wheat” – 3/25/12 – Jer. 31:31-34; John 12:20-33

Two years ago Xavier University hosted an evening town hall forum with Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, and Wes Jackson.  These three men are longtime friends and elders of sustainable agriculture.  Well before farmer’s markets, organic, and locavore were in our vocabulary, these guys were doing it.  It’s not often that you can get three self-proclaimed old curmudgeons together to talk and have it fill out a whole side of the Cintas Center, but there’s something about what these three wise men have been working for their whole lives that resonates.

One of the things I remember from the evening is Wendell Berry saying he doesn’t trust any screen that he can’t see through.  He has a few screen doors at his house, but no computer.  As much as we admire him, this is one of the areas where few others are following his lead.

Something else I remember was a vertical banner that Wes Jackson rolled out for everyone to see.  It had images of two plants, showing their growth above ground, as well as their root systems in the earth.  The first plant, he told us, was wheat like that grown by most farmers these days, a descendant of wild wheat grass that grew in the near east before it started to be domesticated by early farmers.  The root structure extended one to two feet into the ground.  The second image was wheat being grown by Wes Jackson and his colleagues at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.  This root structure extended 10-12 feet into the ground a dwarfed in size the other wheat on the banner.

(This is a different image than the one he showed us, but illustrates a similar point)

Wheat is an annual plant.  Growing in the wild its fragile ears, when ripe, easily shatter, allowing all the small seeds to be scattered by the wind and settle in the soil where they will lie dormant until the coming spring when they shoot up to produce a whole new crop of seeds.  At some point in history, about 10,000 years ago, perhaps occurring first in the southeast part of modern day Turkey, people starting being more intentional about selecting the bigger seeds to replant themselves, and selecting plants where the seeds stay attached to the ear longer.  This allowed people to gather the seed before it blew away – a bigger, more nutritious grain.  It called for more human labor to cultivate, harvest and replant, but wheat became a basis for the creation of towns and cities and, as we call them, civilizations, with a surplus of grain able to be stored for a bigger population.  “Wheat is (now) grown on more land area than any other commercial crop and is (considered) the most important staple food for humans,” topping corn and rice. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat)   After generations of selecting wheat with these traits of bigger, tougher grain, domesticated wheat could no longer reseed itself like its wild ancestor.  It needs us to do this work.  For the last ten millennia, humans and wheat have been co-evolving, now each dependent on the other for survival.  Bread, made from wheat, has become a metaphor for food itself.  Give us this day our daily bread.

Because wheat production requires heavy inputs and causes erosion of vital topsoil, Wes Jackson’s project is an attempt to develop a perennial grain, requiring no working the soil and replanting – coming back to life each season on its own, like a tree.  The Land Institute and other researchers believe this is one of the keys to sustainable living, especially for subsistence farmers around the world.  It will take some years to do this without artificial genetic modification, crossing hearty annual wheat with perreniel wheatgrass, doing the same kind of natural selective breeding and planting that our ancestors have done over the millennia.  They’re making progress.  Stay tuned.

In John 12, Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain: but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

It’s an unexpected image, because, unlike the other gospels, in John Jesus is not a teller of parables.  Read Matthew, Mark, or Luke, and Jesus is constantly pointing his listeners to the world of nature and agriculture.  A sower went out to sow.  And as she sowed, some seed fell on the path, other seed fell on rocky ground, other seed fell among thorns, and other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, an abundant harvest.  The kingdom of heaven is like someone who sowed good seed in his field, but while everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.  The farmer decided to let the plants grow up together and wait until harvest to decide what would be tossed out and what would be harvested.  The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, which grows and becomes a tree so that birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

None of these parables show up in John.  Only this statement about a grain of wheat falling into the earth, dying, and bearing much fruit, which, depending on how you define parable, may or may not even qualify.  The statement in John does not reference the kingdom of God, but is about Jesus himself and, if you so choose, about you, about us, about anyone who would come walk in the Jesus way.  “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 (life abundant and eternal).  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am there my servant will be also.”

When our Bible study group – Kevin Augsburger, Keith Lehman, Lisa and Chris Land, and Steve Herbold – was looking at this passage last Sunday, it was this word hate that gave us the biggest pause in our conversation.  We’re not used to the idea of Jesus teaching us to be haters!  Love God with all your being, Love your enemy, love your neighbor as yourself, but hate your life.  Sometimes when English translations don’t sound quite right, it’s helpful to look back at the original biblical language.  A quick glance reveals that the Greek word used here translated “hate,” really means…”hate.”    Hmmm.

Although some of us felt that it’s too easy to hate our lives.  We struggle to accept ourselves as we are.  The real challenge is to love life.

It’s provocative language, and, if it was intended to disrupt and disorient, it was effective, as it gave us great pause asking what it is we’re actually supposed to hate.

The passage in Jeremiah 31 expands the conversation:

NRSV Jeremiah 31:31-34 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. 32 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, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 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. 34 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.

Covenant has been a theme of our Lent.  This is the forth covenant that we have encountered in this short amount of time.

The first covenant is with Noah, all of his descendants for all time, and all living creatures.  God covenants to set aside the war bow against creation and never again flood the earth with water.  It creates the possibility for all of life to flourish on the planet and the human side of the covenant is to be fruitful and multiply – biologically and in creative and spiritual livelihood, to create a thriving community out of the wreckage of the former world.  The sign of the covenant is the colorful bow that appears in the clouds.

The second covenant has a more narrow focus, with one family, Abraham and Sarah.  They are commanded to be blameless – a rather challenging call – and God promises to bless them with many descendants who will be a blessing to all the earth.  The sign of the covenant is that all males are to be circumcised.

The third covenant is with Moses and the Israelites at Mt. Sinai.  Here God calls out a specific community who are to witness to God’s saving ways of righteousness and justice.  The stone tablets of the commandments, and the Torah are the sign of this covenant, a way of being holy and set apart, identifying with YHWH, who rescues the oppressed and liberates communities.

This fourth covenant does not have an outward sign.  No bow in the clouds, no circumcision, no tablets of stone.  Instead, it gets at the root of what makes us fully alive.  It’s a new covenant.  The ways of God get written on the human heart, seared into our conscience, programmed into our hardware.

Although Jeremiah addresses this to the house of Israel and Judah, the early followers of Jesus came to see this new covenant as being available to all humanity, Jew or Gentile.  Everyone is in one this.  “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”  We wondered if this could also mean all the way from the least likely to know about God to the most likely.  We all know the Lord in our inmost being, even if we don’t know that we know.

We wondered how this actually happens.  What does it actually look like, or feel like, to have God’s laws written on our hearts?

One of my questions is: Is this enough?  Is it enough to have this coming from the inside of our being?  Now that we have done away with the outward signs – the circumcision, the stone tablets, the temple.  For low-church Protestants the list is longer – the sacraments, the cathedrals, the icons, the saints – the images and communal practices that surround us that constantly teach us who we are and remind us of our story.  Do we have enough of these in our lives?  Do we have enough outward signs of the covenant?  The cross, communion, the liturgy, church, baptism.  The outward signs can never do it all just in themselves, but some of us are visual learners.

As a small personal testimony, this is one of the main reasons why I wear this dove cross necklace on Sunday mornings.  To remind me who I am and who we are.  We are ministers of peace, and, I don’t know about you, but I need signs that witness to this.

And yet, the new covenant is this internal, soul reality.

In these days when we are discovering the genetic coding of living things, there’s an interesting connection between the new covenant of Jeremiah and the grain of wheat of John.  The new covenant and the grain of wheat operate by way of an internal writing, signs, which direct their process of becoming.  For the kernel of wheat to be able to pass this along to the next generation, there must be a breaking open that occurs.  It must, in a very concrete way, give up its life in order to find it.  That protective shell must be cracked open.  Perhaps we can think of the life that we must hate, surrender, as that shell.  The part that appears to be protecting and guarding us from danger, but which must ultimately be given up if we are to access the life within us.  The kernel falls into the earth, yields to water and heat, swells, breaks, and becomes more of itself, producing what it can’t produce if it falls into the earth and lies there fully contained in itself, sealed off.

The one who loses their life will find it.

This week a pastor friend passed along an archived interview of Henri Nouwen, much-loved spiritual writer who had a prolific career teaching at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.  He ended his successful career earlier than necessary to follow an invitation to come live at a L’arche community home in Toronto and provide direct daily care for mentally and physically disabled adults.  At L’arche he spent his days bathing, dressing, feeding, assisting, and being present with people completely dependent on him.  After the initial shock of going from academic life to this, he began to co-evolve with them as he became ever more dependent on their simple way of being to teach him about God.   Along with the link, my friend wrote, “Talk about losing your life to find it.”  The advantage of the lectionary is that we’re all thinking about the same thing at the same time.

We need signs and outward reminders of who we are.  But religion stripped down to its essence always calls on us, our lives, to be the very sign we are looking for, which always involves a discovery of our innermost true selves.

You’re the sign.  We, in our collective life, are the sign.  This is not primarily a situation of individual self-sacrificing heroes.  Henri Nouwen would have none of that.  It is the way we live together, as a community, as the body of Christ, that is the sign.  How we love and care for each.  How we reach out beyond ourselves.  We live a cruciform life.  The real peace sign isn’t a dove cross or a circle with a dove foot in the middle, it is a community living out the truth of what has been written on their hearts.

The seed, the new covenant, is a mystery.  It has a life of its own.  In these warming days of spring, as we place seeds in the soil and wait patiently for them to come through the surface in the form of new life, we have a parable, living in our backyards and window planters, to ponder.