Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 29, 2009
5Lent2009 John 12 “Unless a Grain of Wheat” March 29, 2009
The Lenten Season’s primary Gospel is John and the metaphor John uses most is the garden. Water is essential to a lush garden. That’s why worshipping communities with a moveable baptismal font do well to place it front and center, and add a lively bubbler if possible to visibly refresh our Lenten Garden.
In addition to water, other images come to mind when we think of a garden: flowers, grass, blossoming trees, birds, roots, soil, worms, and decay. A garden is still a garden even when it’s not in its blooming season – even when it’s past its prime and the petals have fallen off. The decaying days are not without purpose. Decay is essential to ongoing life. The only flowers that don’t decay are those made of plastic or maybe silk, but they don’t come from gardens.
Today’s gospel uses the planting image: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus says this immediately after Mary of Bethany anoints his feet in preparation for burial; and right after Judas criticizes Mary for wasting expensive oil when there are poor people around; and just after a threat is made on Lazarus because he is drawing too much attention to Jesus who had raised him from the dead. These scenes in John look more like a decaying garden than a garden in full bloom.
But it is still the garden, and Jesus the gardener is still very much in charge – even of the decay. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies…” In other words, this is what the grain of wheat is meant to do. It’s not meant to avoid the germinating process. And, according to Jesus, neither are we. We are not to be afraid, not only of the getting our hands dirty, but we are not to be afraid of investing our lives as fully as the grain of wheat is invested in the earth.
Near Rwanda is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Congo has known many years of war. About five years ago, in 2004, a strong effort was exerted by South Africa to work out a peace agreement. Leaders in the Methodist Church in the Congo were asked to help bring one central tribe into the conversation that so far had refused to participate. The leader of the absent tribe had come from the same village as one of the Methodist Bishops so he was asked to go and talk with the tribal leader and encourage him to take part. After much talk the tribal leader said he would participate under one condition. “What was that?” asked the Bishop. “I will only attend these negotiations if you sign a document stating that if any harm comes to me, you agree that you and your family will be killed as well.”
What a predicament this African Bishop’s faith had gotten him into. Seven African nations were at war, but only six had come to the negotiation table. Those six were depending on this Bishop to get the seventh nation involved. The war had gone on far too long and negotiations had never been closer to reality. What was this Bishop to do? What might you have done?
As a Bishop of the church he knew following Jesus meant taking up his cross. He knew this verse about the grain that falls into the earth being the grain that bears fruit. Whether his choice was right or wrong, the Bishop signed the document and the tribal leader came to the negotiating table and the peace agreement was arrived at. It worked out OK, but there were no guarantees. The Bishop took a big risk for the sake of a lot of people.
We may not be put in situations where we have to risk our lives. But sometimes just saying the right thing can be risky. The Book of Esther tells the story of the risks Queen Esther chose to take to try to save the Jewish people the King had made an edict against. Her risk led to success and the Jewish Holiday, Purim, celebrates the consequences of her brave efforts. But she might not have succeeded.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined the Confessing Church in Germany, a movement opposing Hitler, and unlike Esther his efforts cost him his life. There are no guarantees. Now in comparison, what might be asked of us may seem insignificant – like the grandmother among us who responded to her granddaughter’s despairing letter by paying for her to see a therapist and by risking her relationship with her own daughter by urging her to get back involved in the grand-daughter’s life. All worked out well and daughter, mother and granddaughter are again happy. The grandmother’s sacrificial actions were fruitful. But it doesn’t always happen that way. I know from experience that such efforts sometimes seem of no avail. But as Mother Theresa said, “We are called to be faithful, not necessarily successful.”
In these Lenten days we are guided by John’s garden image of dying as the way to fruitfulness. We do well to take time to reflect on John’s metaphors. For instance, when the grain of wheat falls into the earth, it does not instantly bear fruit. Days of darkness, absorbing the nutrients, depending on the sun and rain, are all part of the metaphor. Alexander Shaia suggests that the Gospel of John calls us to “rest in the garden” to “abide and receive” to “stay still and observe” to “stay still and pray” for “A glorious garden must be sensitively tended.” He encourages us to appreciate the soil and the bugs as much as we appreciate the flowers. (Shaia, Beyond the Biography of Jesus: Quadratos Book II, pp. 16, 24.)
In closing, a bit of a story I heard told the other day when I attended a Bat Torah at Temple Beth Israel. It’s the story of The Girl and the Beautiful Bead. It is told in many variations, one of which I share with you today:
“Once upon a time a wise woman crafted beads, strung them onto necklaces and sold them to make a living. Though people loved her beads she was still very poor. One day a beggar came to her door and the woman gave him a basket of food, though she had little for herself. She did not know the beggar was Elijah the prophet come to test the kindness of humankind.
Her home was the thousandth home he had visited, and each one before had offered him nothing, claiming they had nothing to give. But this woman knew that you only truly own what you give away, so she gave, and felt the richer despite her own hunger. Elijah was so grateful for the kindness that he bestowed a secret blessing on the bead the woman had in her hand.
The bead was the most beautiful the woman had ever created. Elijah encouraged her to wear it herself and when she did it gave her the power to know the feelings and thoughts of people she was with. This frightened her at first, but then it pleased her. She was able to help people because she knew what they needed most. If they asked for something, she knew what it was they really needed. If they said they were fine, she’d know what was really on their hearts. People found great comfort being around her because they could sense they were understood.
The small village in which she lived quickly grew with people moving closer to the wise woman, and everyone wore her beads, though none exhibited the same power as hers. The woman should have been happy surrounded by so many admirers and so much business, but she wasn’t. Something was missing. Eventually she took off the bead.
One morning the wise woman woke with a wonderful idea. She ran to the well from which the whole village drew water. She took the bead out of her pocket and ground it up between two stones. Then she sprinkled the dust of it into the well. By the end of the week the whole village had gathered water from that well, and something changed. They all were imbued with a bit of the power of that blessed bead. Now everyone could see into her heart and see the beauty within her. And they wanted to be that way too. The woman could have held onto her bead. It did belong to her, but in letting it go, it multiplied. From then on the woman was truly happy.”
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone, but it if dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus took bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying “Take and eat. This is my body, given for you. Become my body in the world.”
Lent is the Church’s annual retreat for resting and receiving, watching and praying while God’s will is again germinated within and among us. Easter is on its way, but in the mean time, we are blessed in these closing Lenten days by their encouragement that we take time to ask Christ who feeds us, to also show us how we are being called to most fruitfully be broken open for others! Then, like the woman with the bead, we too will be truly happy. Then we will be able to say with poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “This is me, for that I came.” May we let the Gardener have free course among us, in these days and always
+Pastor Peg Schultz-Akerson, to the glory of God
Faith Lutheran Church, Chico, California
+Pastor Peg Schultz-Akerson, to the glory of God
Faith Lutheran Church, Chico, CA