20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very 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. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.
27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say — ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.
So. This passage is a doozy for me - especially where I’m at this week. And I tried to get all outside of myself and just say something disconnected from me and what’s going on that you’d all find acceptable -- you know, the right combination of funny and entertaining and insightful and theologically nourishing -- but I just couldn’t. It just wouldn’t ring true. It would be a tinny sound. Hollow and harsh. It’d be a sugar rush, waxy Twizzlers or starchy white bread, but nothing to sustain you through the week. And from my side, there’d be no integrity; I’d have cheated you.
This passage is a doozy for me because of all this talk about death.
All this talk about how the body and this world is bad, but the spirit, and the eternal, next world is so much better.
how do you read this passage when you really wouldn’t mind calling it quits, breaking up the band, selling the farm, kick the bucket, and packing it in?
I read it and felt betrayed by Jesus. “You’re supposed to give me hope,” I said to him, “Not encourage me to do something that I pay my shrink every week and pop all these pills every day to avoid.”
See, I’ve got this galumphing, furry black dog — a common metaphor for depression. (In previous sermons, I’ve named him Karl.) Karl, the big black dog, sleeps at the end of my bed, and once in awhile I stroke his ears and entertain despair, entertain cave dwelling and cheetos and soap opera couch sitting and vampire novels, and then I can usually lull him back to sleep and go on with my day.
But lately, Karl has been barking, nipping at my heels, drooling on my pillow, and sometimes, snarling his big white teeth right in front of my face.
So, I ask a friend, “How do you preach this?
How does someone with a pet Karl preach something like this?
I just don’t know how to say, ‘dying isn’t so bad because new growth comes,’ when I really wouldn’t mind dying all that much.”
And this friend, this friend who has the most annoying knack of cutting straight to the heart of me, making me cry awkward ugly tears in awkward public places, says to me,
“That’s not dying. That’s quitting.”
And I'm wiping the tears with the stretched out sleeves of my wool sweater.
And then an old man starts staring at me as he puts sugar in his coffee at Starbucks. “Why yes, sir, all those kittens and food pictures and Justin Beiber memes on Facebook really are that emotional for me. So go back to your SweetnLow. Nothing to see here.”
And then, my friend’s back:
“Don’t quit, stupid.” My friend says. “Die.”
Wait, what? What does that even mean?
“Don’t quit. Die.” ?
“Ok, I’m already blubbering into my latte,” I say to him. “Hit me with it,
How do we die without dying?”
“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.” he says.
Well that’s annoying. Quoting Jesus. Bringing out the cliches and the cross-stitched decorative pillows.
What am I supposed to do with that?
And I don’t want to admit that I think I know what he means.
But that it just sounds scary and ugly and difficult. And dark. And lonely.
It’s a letting go. And that is terrifying.
Because these things - sadness, fear, anger, self-hatred, all the pain that we carry with us, have become really good friends.
At least for me, they’ve cemented themselves firmly into my sense of self. Who would I be if I didn’t carry these things around? I’d be nothing. Stripped naked. It’d be a little bit like starting over from scratch. It’d be a little bit like dying. A smoldering forest. The seed, buried alive.
“But be the seed,”
Jesus says. Be the seed that has to open itself up all weak and vulnerable deep under the soil in order to germinate and grow.
Be the forest that needs a devastating fire so that new growth can come. Be the Lodgepole Pines whose cones wait for the intense heat of the fire so it can drop its seeds.
Be the new moon.
So what is dying? What is losing your life to gain it?
I’m not sure.
But I think it has something to do with letting go. With sitting in the darkness. With transformation. It’s starting over with nothing but the charred remains of all you thought you needed. It’s feeling all the feels. It’s freeing Karl and letting him run wild in the woods.
And boy is that hard. Because Karl is warm and comfortable. He’s persuasive and manipulative. He wants to convince me to quit. To give up. To succumb. To let the grain of wheat rot on the stalk, instead of fall to the earth. And I have no idea who I’ll be without that big fluffy dog licking my face in the morning and jumping up on me and scratching my shoulders at night. I’ll have to start over.
I’ll be a forest after the fire. The germinating seed deep in the ground.
This space will feel like death.
Your soul will be troubled.
You’ll want to hear the voice of God, and all you’ll hear is thunder.
Maybe you’ll cry in a Starbucks.
And maybe, just maybe, a little bit like Jesus hanging on a cross, a little bit like how a grain of wheat falls to the earth, not quitting, but dying,
maybe, just maybe, this - dying seeds and smoldering forests and dark new moons - maybe this is how God is glorified?