Here is a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B:
Unless A Grain Falls…
A Sermon on John 12:9-36 and Philippians 2:5-11
The hour was upon Jesus. The showdown between Jesus and the authorities was at hand. “It’s out of control!” the Pharisees said as they watched the crowd that went to meet Jesus on Palm Sunday. “The whole world is going after him!” People were eager to see Jesus, and eager to see Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.
The authorities considered Jesus a grave threat to national and religious security. The raising of Lazarus had clinched their resolve: Jesus must die. As Caiaphas the high priest put it, “Better this one man die than the whole nation be destroyed.”
Why couldn’t the spiritual leaders of the people of God recognize and welcome the Son of God? It boils down to this: they didn’t want to let go. They didn’t want to open up to a fresh word from God. They didn’t want to let go of insider status. Knowing that the Roman authorities quickly pounced on any source of unrest, the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees didn’t want to risk the “working arrangements” they had with the Romans. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! It was in the interest of the leaders in Jerusalem to secure the status quo. And, they declared, it was also in the national interest. The status quo is where the powerful stay in power, the comfortable stay comfortable, the Romans stay satisfied, and the dead stay dead! Lazarus would have to be put to death, too, of course!
The whole world was beginning to go after Jesus, and in today’s lesson, two from the “world,” two Greeks asked Philip to help them see Jesus.
Knowing what the authorities were plotting, Jesus used the coming of the Greeks as an occasion to teach. He told a parable to illumine the meaning of what was about to happen. This is the parable: “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 grain is a seed, and this is how God designed seeds to work: a protective outside helps the seed to survive until it reaches its destination. But then the outside must break open. The seed must die in its present form, so that new life can come forth. Life comes out of death.
If a seed is never sown, it stays self contained, closed up. Then it dries up. It crumbles and passes away. There is no fruit. Life stops.
Jesus said that the way of the seed is his way: letting go, being broken open, dying. The result of Jesus’ death will be new life for many. Out of great loss will come great gain: the whole world will be drawn into God’s embrace.
And, Jesus added, the way of the seed is the way for any who want to be my servants. If you truly want to live fruitful lives, letting go, dying is the way. Unless a grain falls and dies, it will never bear fruit.
Letting go has always been the way of faith for God’s people. Abraham and Sarah let go of their home and everything familiar in order to journey with God. God promised them great fruitfulness if they would let go, and after many years, God kept that promise.
In order to travel to the Promised Land, the people of Israel had to let go of the life they knew in Egypt, and embrace the struggle and uncertainty of journeying through the wilderness. A poor widow was asked to let go of her last bit of meal, and her last measure of oil in order to feed the prophet of God. She let go, and she was sustained as well.
Jesus’ first disciples let go of their families and their livelihoods to travel with him. All through scripture the story of faithfulness is a story of letting go.
This is quite a contrast to what worldly wisdom teaches. Worldly wisdom says grab, grasp and hold on. Get what you need for you and yours to be secure, and don’t let go. Grab what you want! Minimize pain, struggle and cost. Eliminate it if you can.
This way is also in the Bible. It is the way of the snake. Remember the snake? It told humanity to reach out and grab the fruit that would make them like God. What better security could they want? You can be like God! You can be in control! It looked good and nourishing. But it was the way of death.
Don’t let go! This was the way of the people in charge, Jesus’ opponents. And it is the way of death.
The story of the Franklin Expedition is a vivid illustration of what can happen when people refuse to let go. Intent on finding the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic, Sir John Franklin and 138 men set sail in 1845 aboard two three masted ships. With great fanfare they embarked on a journey that they expected to last two to three years. (Story told by Pamela Mott from Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, in Sermon Mall, April 2003 issue.)
Here are some of the supplies they carried with them: a twelve-day supply of coal, and the uniform of Her Majesty’s Navy, which included only an overcoat. They carried an organ that played 50 tunes, a 1200 volume library, heavy china place settings for the men, cut glass goblets, and heavy sterling flatware engraved with the initials of the family crest of each of the officers.
Two or three months into the expedition, a British whaling captain was the last to see the men of the Franklin party alive. He had found them in high spirits. For the next twenty years search parties found well-preserved bodies and skeletons in the frozen Arctic Sea.
The ships were frozen into the ice for the winter. When supplies ran low, the men evidently decided to walk for help. This was why their bodies were found scattered.
What do you think they took with them? They took a lifeboat and put in it the organ that played fifty tunes, some books, some china, and some flatware, and tried to drag it all across the ice with them. They must have thought that they had an image to maintain. The men of the Franklin Expedition chose to cling to the things and habits of their old life, and it killed them. Unless the grain falls and dies, unless you let go of life, you will lose it.
It’s easy to see what Sir John and his crew needed to let go of. But what about us, people who love Jesus, who want to follow his way, who want to be planted in this world and who want to be fruitful? Sometimes it’s hard to know what to let go of. What’s more, who looks forward to the adjustment and pain that goes along with letting go? It is indeed a dying. But unless the grain falls and opens and dies, then…
We can’t avoid this prayer: Lord, what must we let go of? What encumbrances would you have us lay aside? What in our lives and in this church’s life is getting in your way?
What could it be? For some, it could mean letting go of the need to look good in others’ eyes, in order to focus on a calling that is plain and humble. Letting go could mean letting go of the need to feel secure and comfortable 100% of the time, or the need to always have things done our way. If people come into this fellowship, for example, with different or challenging ideas, and we truly want them to stay, we will go through an adjustment. No question. Are we willing?
Sometimes people come with problems that cause discomfort. I read about a young woman with intellectual disabilities who went to a Palm Sunday service at a church with a very orderly and dignified atmosphere like ours. At some point in the service, (end of sermon?) this young woman got up and took one of the palm branches that decorated the sanctuary and cheered for Jesus. The minister did not loose his cool, but worked it into the service. He called the woman by name and told the congregation, she is showing us what praise is all about. Are we prepared to love people like her, and to cope with what is different or unexpected? Remember, unless the seed falls and opens and dies…
And yes, sometimes letting go does mean letting go of things. “Look at these things, God. Is any thing getting in the way of your work?” Each congregation has to ask that. It is good to cherish the church house and its contents. It is not good to make preserving the building the mission of the church. Every “thing” and the very building itself is to be yielded into God’s hands.
Jesus Christ let himself be planted, he let go of his body, he let go of his life, and he accepted death, so that many could live. He put himself into human hands, just as he puts this bread and cup into our hands. He obeyed God to the death, even death on a cross, and God raised him. Christ’s way is the way of the cross, and the way of the seed. Unless the seed falls and dies, it stays a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Many seeds are clinging to our maple tree at home right now. They look like tiny propellers. God designed them let go of the branches, allowing the wind carry them to their destination. If even one of them falls into the ground and dies, a new tree will grow. In its branches the birds of the air can make their nests.
Let go. And may the wind of God’s Holy Spirit carry us to our destination.