Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
On the boulevard, just beyond our front yard our family put up three garden boxes last year – three little raised beds to grow flowers and vegetables in the summer. Just before the ground hardened at the beginning of this winter, at the advice of a master gardener, I planted a liberal sprinkling of winter rye, which I will till under to add nutrients and biomass back to the soil when it sprouts this spring. As the snows receded on the boulevard this week, I found myself standing over those boxes staring at the black soil, willing the first blade to burst above the ground, hoping, almost irrationally, for new life in the midst of death. But, while Spring is on our minds, and perhaps even on the calendar, winter still holds sway. The seed that lies hidden in the ground is still hidden. It is not yet the hour for death to be overcome.
Death is a difficult thing. In many ways, it is a trope we tell that death is one of the only certain things we know about life. It is, in an interesting twist, one of the facts of life. It is both sure and certain, and there is nothing yet in our power to stop it or overcome it. So it is that when death comes into view for us, when it crosses our mind or forces its way into our lives and our communities, it has a power unlike any other. We are held in its thrall – unable to easily shift our gaze or redirect our attention – try though we might. And, it is to all manner of fear and grief that our mind turns when we are confronted by the immovable rock of death. So we will do just about anything to avoid the pain and sadness and the debilitating fear of death. Our culture is a testament to our ability to find new ways to distract ourselves from the reality of death, numb ourselves to its pain, and delay its inevitability.
Perhaps no other part of our culture celebrates this denial better than our fascination with and allegiance to guns. With guns the nations have been subdued and their resources stolen. With guns we defend our ill-gotten goods. With guns we stave off death. With guns we live into an illusion of invincibility. With guns we are the masters of our own universe – the heroes of our own stories.
In the same way we are fascinated with money and the things it can buy or work and the prestige it can bring us. We are so committed to these things, in our culture, that we will go to great lengths to preserve them rather than come face to face with our own mortality. This is the way of the world. And, in this morning’s gospel, Jesus picks up the theme echoed through John, that the power of the world, the power of death, is going to be judged and cast out.
“Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out” he says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
While the world seems held in thrall by the power of death, Jesus, particularly in John’s gospel, seems almost immune to it. In fact, if there is a criticism of John’s gospel, it is that Jesus appears too aloof from worldly concerns. Death seems to be a distraction. But, perhaps there is a good reason for that. Like the other gospels, John’s community has encountered the resurrection, the intrusion of new life into a world dominated by the story of death. This disruption has caused an inversion of everything they know and hold tru. It is as if they are looking back on the experiences and stories of Jesus and finding there one who was confident in the story he was a part of. Almost as if he knew the ending, and what came after the ending.
You see, of all the ways that we seek to inoculate ourselves from the power of death, perhaps the most tragic is the way in which we try so hard to author our own story. Writer and poet and activist Parker Palmer spends a lot of his time exploring the ways in which we are not so much authors of our own stories as participants in a story greater than ourselves. Such an understanding seems quite akin to Jesus’ self-understanding in today’s gospel. To find such a story, Palmer says, he must “let go of the wheel for a while”. In that way, he continues “I might learn more about ‘the story I’m in, the one that keeps telling me.’”
You see, that’s the thing – in order to find ourselves caught up in the story as Jesus does, in order to no longer be held in the thrall of death and its power in the world, we must be like the grain of wheat, we must be willing to die to self, to fall into the ground, let go of the wheel, relinquish our need to tell our own story, and instead, let it tell us.
This past week our men’s group gathered for conversation on a Tuesday night as we do once a month, and we shared stories from our lives, stories that shaped and defined us and helped us become the people we are today. I was struck by how many of the most powerful and transformative stories were stories of letting go – letting go of ambition, of autonomy, of power, of identity – and how new life sprang forth as a result – a better understanding of self, a deeper sense of mission, a life freer from fear and worry. Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it bears no fruit.
We cannot see through the veil of death to what lies on the other side. But, we can see the new life that even now springs forth when we let go of our lives, when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and open to others, when we stop telling the story and instead let it tell us.
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 don’t want to die. But, I do want to bear fruit. I do want to let the story of Christ begin to tell me. Perhaps you do too. And, these things might seem irreconcilable. So as I have wrestled this week with this passage, I’ve been praying too for grace to let go. And, perhaps instead of an exhortation to all of us to go forth in mission and ministry, perhaps I could encourage us to do the same, to continue to pray that we would be able to let our lives go and so bear fruit. So, I’ll close with this prayer by poet and pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes – something he wrote for this week:
I let my
in the soil
I entrust myself
to the spring
I let the
break the husk
of the me of me
and life comes forth
I let my
seed of me