Sermon; Lent 5B; John 12:20-33 (24)
Last week I began my sermon by relaying a piece of advice from my homiletics professor about preaching on John. That advice, in a word, was, “Don't.” One commentator on John writes, “The Fourth Gospel continues to baffle, enrich, infuriate, and console as it has done for centuries. It has been written about voluminously, but it is preached and taught selectively.”
The Gospel of John is filled with long monologues, cryptic sayings, metaphor, irony, and competing (sometimes contradictory) theologies of who God and Jesus is. For these and other reasons, it's no wonder my professor advised against preaching on John. But here we are. And here I find myself ignoring the professor's advice while also taking note of the commentator and being selective. My selective focus from today's gospel is, as fate would have it, the same as today's bulletin cover – verse 24: 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.”
This is the paradox of Christianity: in order to live, you must die.
We see this in all kinds of ways. When we are baptized, especially as adults, we put to death our old way of being (our old life), and are born into a new way of being (a new life). Our post-baptismal life should reflect that new way of being. We know, of course, that it never fully does, but we are constantly working to live into the baptismal covenant and those baptismal vows.
In this season of Lent, we are reminded that it is not simply a season to be miserable. Lent is not a season of advertising our piety by showing off what we've given up. And it's certainly not a season of giving up something for 40-some days only to return to “normal” after Easter. Instead, Lent should be a season of allowing old ways to die in order to draw nearer to God, to grow into a new life, and to bear holy fruit.
I may have told this story before, but it bears repeating here. When we were in Montana, Joelene and I would visit parishes who were looking for direction or who found themselves at a standstill. One weekend we paid a visit to St. Mark's in Anaconda. Faced with an older, dwindling congregation and no real discernible hope for the future, I asked something along the lines of, “Why are we here?”
One lady answered, “Because we don't want to die.”
To which I replied, “Maybe you've already died and what we're doing here is resurrection.”
St. Mark's is across the street from the Anaconda Jr/Sr High School. They turned their parish hall into a computer lab/learning center, provided food, tutoring, and childcare for teen mothers, and began a vibrant new ministry. The old St. Mark's died and bore much fruit.
One of the things the pandemic has done is forced us to shut down our churches for awhile. As we begin coming out of the pandemic, a colleague of mine here in Maryland is taking the opportunity to “kill off” a few ministries and programs that haven't been fruitful for several years. In their reopening process they are evaluating ministries and programs that “they've always done” to see which ones should continue and which ones they should let go.
Both of these places, Anaconda and here in Maryland, needed to come to terms with a form of death. Both of these places need to recognize that just because you've done something for 10, 20, or 50 years doesn't mean that you must continue doing something. Both of these places needed to recognize that growth always requires a form of death. As the Proper Preface for the funeral service says, “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended.”
For us Christians you would think this would all be self-evident. I mean, we follow a man who died on a cross and rose again. Every Sunday we say, “We look for the resurrection of the dead.” The Eucharistic Prayer we are currently using says, “In him you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.”
Resurrection is the whole point of all of this.
But despite this, Christians are probably some of the worst people at wanting to hang onto things. We have Sunday school flannel pictograms from 1952, just in case we might need them someday. When I was in seminary, we had a Canon 40/41 party: We've Always Done It That Way, and, We've Never Done It That Way Before. The Roman Catholic Church is still getting push-back from the reforms of Vatican II – and that was in 1962. We have people in the Episcopal Church who want to go back to the 1928 BCP. And other denominations have their own group of conservative traditionalists who decry any form of change. For whatever reason, Christians of all stripes want to hold onto the way things have always been.
But doing that, holding onto the way they've always been, isn't growth, it's stagnation. And in light of the resurrection, it might even be called heresy. As one of my favorite quotes goes: The only difference between a rut and a grave is how deep it is and how long you're in it.
We are, hopefully, at the beginning of the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Things are starting to open up again, some places being more cautious than others. The topic du jour is, “Have you been vaccinated yet?” And whole conversations are geared toward where you can get vaccinated and what side effects you've had.
Among those conversations have also been things like, “I can't wait until we get back to normal.” Which is a little like people in the church wishing we could get back to 1957 again.
But I don't want a normal that pays people $7.50/hr and keeps people part-time to avoid paying benefits. I don't want a normal where people need to work 2, 3, or 4 jobs to stay afloat. I don't want a normal where insurance companies dictate who, what, and how medical care is handled. I don't want a normal that keeps minorities “in their place.”
We have an opportunity – personally, socially, and ecclesiastically – to not go back but to move forward. How you move forward personally is up to you. How we move forward socially is up to all of us. In the Church, especially here at Saint John's, we have an opportunity to evaluate what needs to end, what might need to change, and what works well.
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.
Let us never be afraid of what we are losing. Instead, let us look forward to the strengths we share, the opportunities we have, and the new life that lies before us.