“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain.”
It seems an apt time to be talking about seasons.
Since moving to New England and observing the church year for the third time here, I’ve started to feel a little sorry for my Southern friends and colleagues. This is true even though I’ve spent the last couple of weeks seeing them on social media in tank tops among flowers on while I’m inside hiding from the thirty-sixth a nor’easter and trying to figure out exactly how one cancels church because of snow (because no one taught me that at seminary – in Atlanta).
What I value about living here, though, is the harsh winter and the perspective that it gives. I’m amazed every single year that I watch this entire land die, be covered in ice and snow and buried — not for a few weeks, but for right at half the year — to be gloriously resurrected in the springtime. During Lent, we cancel church as nor’easters make their way over us, burying everything in snow. During a bad year, this might continue into the season of Easter, but because the festival of Easter in liturgical Christianity is seven weeks long, even the earliest possible Easter in late March will still see the landscape well resurrected before Pentecost in May.
In the South, the flowers bloom in March and sometimes even in February. Where I’m from in south Alabama, the landscape doesn’t even die all the way — most things just go dormant for a few months. My parents’ oak trees keep a lot of their leaves.
Here, everything is officially deceased several times over as we stare at the bare bones of any tree that is not evergreen. We watch the defeated grass sit for months upon months as it all gets covered with ice and snow over and over and then, somehow, when the time is right, it all comes back to life. I find myself appreciating the green and warmth of summer more here than I ever have before.
I tell everyone that my favorite time of year in New England is the summer, when we all have permission to not wear closed-toed shoes or shirts with sleeves or go inside more than is absolutely necessary for however long the summer lasts.
This Sunday, though, there’s still snow outside as Holy Week looms intimidatingly over all clergy and musicians and worship planners like some sort of liturgical Babadook.
This Sunday is the final step before Holy Week in the divine dance of a drama that you sign up for every year by showing up here. Next week we will wave branches and welcome Palm Sunday.
But this Sunday, we’re talking about growing things. I guess in the interest of full disclosure it needs to be said: passages like this are a big reason that lots of people are turned off by John.
The story goes like this: Greeks show up looking for Jesus in a recurring theme in John: “We wish to see Jesus.” “Seeing” in the book of John is tantamount to some sort of enlightenment or revelation. Jesus often invites people to “come and see” – and most recently before this story happens, Jesus was invited to come and see the tomb of Lazarus before raising him from the dead.
So some Greeks wish to see Jesus. Philip and Andrew play a game of telephone before there were telephones, proving that the church has never been totally efficient at communication, eventually communicating to Jesus that someone wants to see him.
Jesus hears that these foreigners want to see him, and he responds with a weird parable about wheat. Weird, isn’t it, how historically great wisdom teachers have been so impractical and downright bizarre in their statements? Normal people say things to them like, “Yo, someone wants to see you,” and they launch off into, “Observe the pine tree!”
We imagine that being one of Jesus’ first disciples would have been some great and romantic adventure where you get to sit at the feet of the Son of God and watch him preach great truths about being human, heal people, and multiply wine and snax. But then you realize that half the time they couldn’t ask him what he wanted for dinner without him giving them some metaphor.
Case in point: this story. Jesus responds to a request to see him with an observation about nature: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it to eternal life.”
I can just imagine the Greeks being like, “DUDE. Who’s dying?! We don’t want to die, we just wanted to chat.”
It’s hard to be sure, but I think the idea was, “You want to see me? Wait until I’m crucified as a criminal. And if you really want to understand, follow me where I go and don’t cling to life, but be willing to die.”
Or, as Ecclesiastes says, to everything there is a season.
Everything in our nature seems to tell us to cling to life above all else. On the one hand, this makes total sense: everything that is alive is bred, over centuries, to stay alive. At our core, we humans are not really any different.
Of course, clinging to life doesn’t make us the kindest creatures. Some of the worst atrocities have been committed in the name of wiping out a people group that is perceived as an existential threat. Whether it is real or imagined, all you have to do in order to justify violence to a minority population is to convince the majority that that population is a threat to the majority.
Jesus came to teach us a better way, but the problem is that kindness doesn’t exactly come with immortality. Following Jesus’ way does not mean that we cannot be hurt. It’s quite the opposite: kindness and nonviolence make us more vulnerable, as we will see as we re-live the story of Jesus during Holy Week.
Note: This does not mean that we can only be passive. It does not mean that those being victimized do not get to stand up for their own worth and dignity.
It does mean that we do not get to destroy people just because we are afraid of them.
It also means that, to reference Ecclesiastes again, everything has a season and a time. As someone said at Wednesday night supper this week, we cannot appreciate or even fully understand great joy without great pain. Being shown grace and forgiveness and love by another person just doesn’t have the same weight without repentance, owning our stuff, and being vulnerable — and that’s hard.
It also means that, even in our capitalist, money-making economy where we are measured by how few days we take off, no one can actually go full speed all the time. I’ve found myself wishing often that being a pastor was like running. You see, I love running, but I cannot run all the time. Taking a day off, or two or three or even a week when I’m injured, doesn’t mean that I don’t love running. Quite the opposite, in fact — it means that I want to continue running for as long as possible. If I decided to run every time I had a spare moment, very soon, I wouldn’t even be able to walk.
I’ve sometimes wished, while watching my colleagues and peers, that working too much as a pastor, or a CEO, or anything really, rendered us incapable of doing the most visible parts of our jobs. What if we had to take time off to take care of ourselves, to lay fallow, to heal and re-grow, or else we wouldn’t be able to do the thing we love anymore?
Rest. Stop growing and advancing and rest. Creation was designed to do it — and so were we. There’s a reason God made Sabbath a thing.
So if your life is decidedly in winter right now: if you find yourself struggling every single day, if things look hopeless and bleak and dead, or if you find yourself just too tired to move, remember that one way or another, spring has to come.
I believe that God is in the business of redeeming all things — hard times, exhaustion, even death itself. I think that that’s a big part of this story that reminds us who we are each and every year.
Every year, someone on social media or elsewhere in my life critiques the sadness of the worship service that is Holy Week, and especially Good Friday. Good Friday is the darkest day of the church year, the one that symbolizes the times in our lives when nothing is okay. The times when a person we love has died and we feel like nothing will ever feel bearable again.
Good Friday is the deep depths of winter, those long nights in December when the sun seems like it barely rises before falling again. Before I moved here, I’d always thought that it always looked like late afternoon in every photo I’d ever seen of December in New England. When I moved here, I realized: it’s because the sun basically never gets all the way up into the sky.
As the shadows lengthen, most people get at least a touch of Seasonal Affective Disorder and we turn on our full spectrum sun lamps and we wait for the light to return.
And there’s no getting to summer without going through that. Just like there’s no high productivity without rest.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain.”
So here we go, one more time, into the breach of Holy Week, and then the Three Days, and then Easter. Whether you’ve lived in New England all your life or not, let nature teach you, because it teaches well in this place. Watch as the snow lays on the fallow ground, cold and bleak, but secretly nourishing and watering the glorious growth of the summer months. As we are taught the story of Jesus in here, let’s watch it also be proclaimed out there, telling us the clear, true message: the darkest seasons are never the end. Spring is coming. Warm days and pleasant spring walks and beers and laughter by the campfire are coming.
And the nor’easters that can’t seem to stay away from us will only help us enjoy the warm days that much more.
And so with that, let us prepare our hearts for Holy Week.
Thanks be to God. Amen.