Text: John 12:20-33
One of the things in the back of my mind this Lent has been wondering whether we are having too much fun. It can be one of the more somber times of year, but this Praying with Creation theme has been lively. Personally, it’s not every week I get to use some of the sermon prep time to brush up on the history of the domestication of cattle, or look at images of ancient cave paintings or a huge cute kitten painted on the remaining wall of a bombed out building. The fact that various children want to come up and play with our worship visuals only confirms that there is an underlying stream of joyfulness going on. It’s good inviting all these creatures and elements of creation into our hermeneutical community. Last week Mark even managed to find a way to make serpents welcome guests, teaching us their wisdom, with their need to shed their outer skin, which doesn’t grow, to make room for the rest of their continuously growing selves. Throw in insightful daily devotionals from different members, a wildly successful comforter knotting party, and a much deserved party celebrating Paul Swartzentruber’s long service to the congregation, and the season has been an all-around good time.
And now, on cue with the official arrival of spring, warming weather, and the annual time of inflated aspirations that this year we will plant our best garden ever and it will be awesome, we turn our attention toward seeds.
It doesn’t take long reading into John’s gospel to recognize that John is…different than the other three gospels. Among John’s many differences is that one of Jesus’ main teaching styles, the telling of parables, is all but absent. Those earthy teachings that draw wisdom from the natural world. John – What happened to the parables?
In chapter 12, we get something that at least sounds parable-like. Jesus says: “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 other gospels record a parable that Jesus told in which a sower goes out to sow seeds, a familiar scene in rural Galilee, broadcasting them far and wide as they would. The seed fell on different types of soil, a hardened path; shallow rocky soil; and soil engulfed in thorns. But other seed fell on good, rich soil and produced a strong stalk with heads of grain yielding 30, 60, 100 times what was sewn. In Monday’s devotional Pete Yoder informed us that a healthy soybean seed that he plants this spring will multiply 66 times, and a kernel of corn a staggering 700 times.
The most common interpretation of this parable invites us to identify with the different soils. Are we so hardened like the path that the seed of the Spirit can’t get in? Do we lack depth needed for the seed to take firm root? Are there thorny things in our lives like worries and ego and greed that choke out the seed? Or are we becoming good and healthy soil, so that seeds of love, and mercy, and justice, grow and flourish, and multiply?
In John, there is a subtle but important shift in focus – not on the soil, but on the seed itself, and the need for a seed, in order to be what it needs to be in the world, must die, must give up its own substance, in order to produce new life.
Consider the seed.
It’s remarkable that if we look down the street, or in our backyard, or at the landscape of a metro park or wooded area, that just about every plant we’re looking at used to be a seed at some point, either directly or in its lineage. Try a thought experiment: imagine one of those scenes, and allow every tree and bush and flower to shrink down to the ground until it’s just a singular seed, barely visible from even just a few feet away, and then let everything grow back to how it looks now. Each seed is no more. It has gone into the earth and died, and what we see now is the result of it having given itself up to other forces at work through it.
Seeds are so vital to life that different countries are now creating seedbanks, heavily secured storage units, to preserve seeds of threatened plants. About 30 miles outside London is the Millennium Seed Bank. A Smithsonian article notes that “Dozens of shipments arrive weekly from every corner of the globe—seeds air-freighted from far-flung locations: the deserts of Kyrgyzstan, the Dominican Republic’s tropical valleys, the alpine meadows of China, the plains of Oklahoma. In more than 50 countries, hundreds of researchers are engaged in one of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of field science: The goal is to collect 25 percent of the planet’s 400,000 plant species by 2020.”
The seeds are stored at about -4 degrees Fahrenheit which can preserve them for up to 500 years. Another facility in Norway has copies of seeds from this and other banks around the world, like some kind of external hard drive in case the main system crashes.
In my brief searching I didn’t find anywhere this was happening on a large scale in the US, although it very well could be, and could make sense to divert some of our Homeland Security dollars away from patting people down at airports toward preserving the birthers of photosynthesis on which all life depends for its security. The first week of Lent we considered the fictional but true story of Noah’s Ark, and here is an example of present day Noahs gathering arks full of seeds.
When Jesus says these words in John 12 he is at the peak of popularity, achieving rock star status. The words before the reading from today come out of the mouth of the Pharisees, who say to one another, “Look, the whole world has gone after him.” As if to prove the point, John goes directly on to say that some Greeks come to Philip, one of the disciples, and want to see Jesus. In the New Testament Greeks is another word for Gentiles, which is another word for not Jews, which basically means everyone else. So Philip and Andrew come and tell Jesus that these representatives from everyone else want to see him. Jesus responds, “The hour has come for the Human One 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.”
A great irony in John is that he uses the word ‘glory’ and ‘glorified’ to refer not to some heroic or heavenly exaltation of Jesus, but to Jesus’ suffering death. Basically his glory was something that looked not like victory but defeat. This is most likely not the kind of glory that’s going to make those Greeks, or anyone for that matter, want to be one of Jesus’ groupies.
The glory of the acorn is the oak tree that comes out of it, the acorn cracked open and spent.
It’s a different idea of glory than what runs through contemporary pop culture, although it was refreshing to see last month that the academy award for best original song went to the song titled “Glory” written for the Selma movie. The glory it speaks of is the peaceful persistence of a people for justice in the face of suffering. That song says:
The biggest weapon is to stay peaceful
We sing, our music is the cuts that we bleed through
Somewhere in the dream we had an epiphany
Now we right the wrongs in history
No one can win the war individually
It takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy
Welcome to the story we call victory
Comin’ of the Lord, my eyes have seen the glory
After Jesus speaks of glory and the grain of wheat, he says something else remarkable: “Whoever serves me must follow me. Wherever I am, there will my servant will be also.” Apparently Jesus isn’t just talking about himself, that he alone is that grain of wheat. He’s talking about anyone, Greek or Jew, who follow him. Wherever I am, that’s where you’ll be too. You are a seed. This is confirmed after this when there’s a thunder, or a loud noise, or a voice from heaven, no one’s sure what, and it seems to say, “I have glorified you, and will glorify it again.” Some believed this was a special voice directed just at Jesus, who, since he’s so in tune with God, probably gets these messages all the time. But Jesus says this message wasn’t for him. “This voice has come for you sake, not for mine,” Jesus says. You too are the seed.
One of the genius’ of the Christian tradition, although it’s not unique to Christianity, is to recognize this pattern of death and rebirth that Jesus showed us not just as a biological reality, but as something that we do consciously while we’re still alive. Dying before we die, dying in advance, letting go of ego, the small I, in order to participate in the greater I, the I am, which is the creative subject of all that is. This is the meaning of baptism. This is the part of the Lenten journey which is a little more somber and not necessarily fun or a good time.
We are like a seed. This is where the rubber meets the road for us, or, better yet, where the seed meets the soil. If you want to preserve a seed and keep it from changing, you keep it in the dark, you keep it cold, and you keep it away from water. But if you expose a seed to warmth and water, the protective coating will soften, and expand, and finally split open, and the life within will send deep roots down and a stalk upwards toward the light. But the original seed itself will be gone. It is only in the cracking open, in the vulnerability of being warmed and expanded and split that we become more than just a potential life inside a protective shell.
Mystics and spiritual teachers have observed that there are two ways this happens. Two forces that split open the soul. One is through encountering great love. And the other is through encountering great suffering.
Love is often spoken of in warm and glowing ways, but it also seriously messes with you. When you fall in love, when you commit yourself to loving a partner, when you have a child in your care, or a close friendship, even when you come to love a particular place, love will grab you and not leave you the same person you were before. And it can be this very resistance to the threat that love poses – the threat to rip us open and expose what we would rather guard and shield – that can make relationships so difficult. Love wants to kill you – so watch out. But it’s the kind of death that causes you to produce a harvest of 30,60,100 times more than you would if you resist it. We become more of ourselves when we yield to love, a larger and richer version of our previous self, and we come to see ourselves not merely as the small seed which is on its way out of existence, but as participants in the big life, eternal life Jesus calls it, which is the generative force behind all that is. Love can crack us open if we allow it to.
And suffering can crack us open, even if we don’t want to allow it to. Suffering is one of those mysteries of bodily existence. If nothing else, it’s job security for theologians who each generation keep trying to answer the question of how a powerful and loving God can allow so much suffering in this world. Clearly there are no easy answers, but one of the things we have learned about suffering is that it punctures any protective coating around ourselves we might have thought was preserving us, and forces us to confront our own limitations. This happens whether we are the ones suffering or whether we are accompanying the suffering of another.
In the person of Jesus we see an image of the Divine not as the one who causes suffering, but as the one who shares with us in the solidarity of suffering, and provides redemption out of the pain and chaos that suffering can bring.
We are like seeds. And love and suffering are the ways that one form of us dies, and another life within us rises up in a new form, bearing much fruit. The symbol of the cross is fraught with misuse and misunderstanding, but it beautifully represents the coming together of both love and suffering in a way that promises hope for a resurrected life.
The glory of the grain is head of wheat of it produces, and we are the glory of Christ, who became as nothing for us, and showed us the way to truly live.