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Putting in the seed

The following sermon was preached by Joan L. Beck, Cornelsen Director of Spiritual Formation and Pastor to the Community, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Tuesday, April 19, 2011.


John 12:20-36

As for You, how Love burns through the Putting in the Seed, so for us, please! Amen.

What time is it? A person can tell these things by calendar or clock, but there is also an organic way to tell time. When I have been outside running errands on foot, I have seen what time of year it is now. It is the time of year when the yellow forsythia bushes and the yellow daffodils are blooming side by side. This same time happens also in Oregon, where I come from, although the same moment may come a month to six weeks earlier there than it does here:

What time is it? Jesus and his companions have gone up to the Passover festival in Jerusalem. Some Greeks approach Philip about wanting to see Jesus; Philip is from Bethsaida, a Greek-speaking area in Palestine.  Philip tells Andrew, Philip and Andrew tell Jesus, and Jesus instantly knows that it is time. “The hour has come,” he says, “for the Son-of-Man to be glorified.”

It was not the time when his mother had approached him in Cana of Bethany about needing wine at the wedding feast. It was not his hour when he had been teaching in the temple at the festival of Booths when he offered his listeners rivers of living water and the light of the world that would stream from himself (ch. 7:30, 8:20). But now it is his time, when the disciple Jews and the Gentile Greeks, and who knows who all else, will be blooming side by side in one community of faith. “God so loved the world….” (3:16)

The Greeks want to “see Jesus,” and the vision Jesus offers them is unexpected. What he says and what he will do as he is “glorified” will be scandal to the Greeks and foolishness to the Jews. It will seem to be wrong. It won’t seem to be enough. Doesn’t Jesus know that the problems of this world are fierce and intractable? In the face of poverty, the economy, violence, pollution, the health care crisis, and all manner of social and personal ills and challenges, Jesus talks about seeds. About a single, solitary seed. He says: 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.

We know both too much and too little to grasp Jesus’ word picture here. We know that a seed of wheat or any other seed does not actually die when it falls or is planted in the soil. Our science has advanced beyond the simple observations that Palestinian peasants could make. A seed doesn’t “die” in the ground, it comes out of dormancy. Unless we stop to think about it, we know too much science to wonder at the image of the seed.

We also know too little of what Palestinian peasants knew, what farmers still know, and so we miss the wonder of the grace of God in another way. When have we ever consciously depended upon a seed to grow and yield its fruit?  When have we ever put our seeds in the earth with fear and trembling? When have we ever known hunger if the rains didn’t come, or if the seeds rotted in the ground instead of sprouting, or if the heat scorched and stunted the plants before the harvest ripened?  Our gardens have been hobbies for us rather than necessities and partners in our sustenance. When Jesus’ image speaks of the death of the seed planted in the ground and its miraculous turn to produce new life, we do not have in our memory banks the farm stories of hunger and toil, amazement  and gratitude, to properly interpret his words.

And when God’s gift of new life turns on the death of Jesus who has been planted in our world, where is our awe?  Where is our need? “The cross of the Christ [this Human One who is God among us] marks, in a decisive and irrevocable way, the unconditional participation of God in the life of the world, [it is] the concretization of God’s love for the world, [it is] the commitment of God to the fulfillment of creation’s promise.” (DJ Hall, The Cross in Our Context, 35) “The Friday event must be seen as the culmination of the movement of the Creator toward the creation.” (39) “…as Christ’s final word from his cross announces, ‘it is finished’: nothing greater by way of divine compassion and solidarity could be achieved or imagined.” (41)

It is the purpose of Christ, the seed buried in the ground of our world, to bear much fruit.  A seed contains in itself a plant embryo that will grow into a root and a shoot, with a cotyledon to nourish this early growth. Given its burial in the ground, given the dark and the right temperature for germination, a “switch” inside the seed will go on. Given 14 days at 40 degrees, for example, that mechanism goes on, but if the temperature is at 20 degrees, the mechanism stays off. There is also a thin coat around the seed that protects the oxygen from coming in prematurely. But when the dormant seed is planted in the ground, for 14 days at 40 degrees, and its growth mechanism goes on, the seed takes in water and expands, the seed coat is broken, and the seed begins to mature and produce sugar and protein. Then out come the little roots and little shoots, and the seed is growing, the plant is growing. The plant is growing, its leaves develop the ability to synthesize carbon dioxide and water through the energy of sunlight to form food for the plant and food for the animals, and this food also sustains the production of a new generation of seeds. (many details thanks to Ed Markquart, Sermons from Seatle)

We—like those who have gone before us and those who will come after—are the new generations of seeds. “The way in which dying yields life is now applied to disciples” (Kysar) as Jesus says: Those who love their life lose it, and those who let go of 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. (vv. 25-26)

With a new life photosynthesized from the death of our Savior, we are being ripened for the same tasks as his: Refreshing the parched with the Living Water. Feeding the hungry with the Bread of Life. Befriending all who walk in the Light of the World. Scattering ourselves as seed for the sake of God’s harvest.

Yesterday I thought of this text and of this task as I sat with Ishaya and Joy Gajere. They are from Nigeria; Ishaya is a Ph.D. student here. Just a few hours earlier they had learned that their son had been shot and killed in Nigeria. Their country is experiencing political and religious unrest following an election. A military truck drove down the street and soldiers fired randomly at the people who happened to be there just when Jeremiah, the third of four sons, 17 years old, was leaving school. The Gajeres’ congregation and the seminary are contributing funds to send these grieving parents home as soon as possible. Yesterday afternoon, after all this had been set in motion, we were just sitting with them.

Yet not “just” sitting. When I got to their apartment, roommates were already there. People from their church were already there. Registrar Pat Bartley was already there, and she had brought food. Soon Linda Thomas and her daughter were there. As we sat in the living room that became as dark as soil as the evening came, we held and comforted the mother. We held and comforted the father. We ate together. We prayed.

Jesus was the seed that brought us there. Because he fell into our earth and died, his death bore much fruit in the circle of disciples who came out to sit with the Gajeres. And the prayer spoken by the pastor of their Nigerian church was that this unthinkable, unacceptable murder of the young man might somehow become fruitful in the providence of God. All the disciples, including the shocked and sorrowing parents, said, “Yes, Lord. Bear much fruit.”

What time is it? Time for our Love to burn in the planting of the “smooth bean and wrinkled pea” just when the “white / Soft petals have fallen from the apple tree.” Time for love to burn “on through the watching for that early birth/ When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,/ The study seedling with arched body comes/ Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.” (poem by Robert Frost) Time for us and our generation to die and rise with the Seed who becomes the Bread of Life for the world.

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