Here we are, the 5th Sunday of Lent, our theme ever deepening as we approach Easter – deep calls to deep. Deep water, deep forest, deep sky, deep wilderness, deep earth.
Last week we heard the story of how one of the religious leaders, Nicodemus, came to see Jesus in the night, under deep darkness, because he didn’t want anyone to know that he was hanging out with this teacher.
Today, at a subsequent Passover, we have the Greeks who want to see Jesus, during daylight. At first glance we might think that Greeks are “nones,” non-religious. But since it is Passover and they are there, in Jerusalem, we understand that these Greeks are religious – and have heard about this new teacher Jesus. They approach Philip to get an introduction. He is uncertain of the protocol here about bringing in outsiders so he goes to check with his brother Andrew.
The way John unspools the story we see that Jesus reaches a range of people: common people on the path, religious leaders, Greeks and converts. Jesus’ only response to Philip and Andrew is to start teaching about the seed.
Unless a grain of wheat
in the ground,
dead to the world,
it is never any more than a grain of wheat.
This truth about wheat is an invitation to discipleship, to follow in the way that Jesus lives. And Jesus admits how hard it is to choose this way of living. “What will I say: Abba, save me from this hour?”
In the other gospels, Jesus prays and sweats and prays some more in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Take this cup from me.” The writer of John tells it differently. The hesitation, the question, is woven into this time of teaching – and in John there is a response to the question. A voice comes from heaven, at least it sounds like a voice to Jesus. The crowd is confused by the sound. Is it thunder, is it angels? What matters is that to Jesus, it is an affirmation of him and his path.
Gotta love the gospel of John. The writer includes many of the same characters as the other three gospels but coming at it fifty years later, the angles are different. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus hears a voice at his baptism and at the transfiguration. The voice from heaven affirms him as Beloved and Chosen. John – doesn’t even include Jesus’ baptism or transfiguration. (When Michelle preached on the transfiguration story the other week, that was not from John, that was from Mark.) Instead, John combines Jesus’ wavering question about “being saved from this hour” and the mysterious voice from heaven – which seems to give Jesus new energy, new understanding about himself.
The gospels as literature fascinate me: the ways that each of the four texts weave together source material, and create the story with a particular view that the writer wants to share – I keep learning new things. The gospels as theology, I keep learning new things in that way as well – and it is also where I find myself picking fights with mainstream Christianity’s understandings. Especially the way that Jesus’ death so often becomes the focal point.
The truth of what Jesus says about seeds going into the earth, that a seed must die, I don’t pick a fight about this. It is true about seeds and it is true about ourselves as well; we must die to ourselves so that we can keep growing and maturing. We must set the ego aside and find new life in our true and authentic selves. This is an ongoing and never-ending process. Being a conscious human is hard, dropping our seed selves in the earth over and over again.
The theology that I fight with, that so much of Christianity elevates, is the violent, capital punishment of Jesus’ death on the cross, that is then called salvation. This kind of state sponsored, cruel death designed to terrorize is not salvation. It is sin. Women killed in their places of work, children shot in school, the life squeezed out of men on the street, this is sin. On the other hand, the death we choose when we let our seed drop into the ground, when we choose to grow and mature, this can save us. It seems obvious: death imposed in a violent way is not the same as the dropping of a seed into the earth, where the natural processes take place and a plant can grow and bear much fruit.
When it is preached that violent death is the way to bear much fruit, that Jesus’s father/God needed Jesus to die so that we all could live, I have to say ‘no’ to that story, to that theology, to that reasoning. We have to say no to the violent death and yes to the possibilities of life despite death. The process is important here, how Jesus died is wrong. And – the paradox, the miracle, is that despite his cruel death, Jesus’ life bore fruit, bears fruit, brings new life even today. (Deep, too deep for me to make sense of it most days.)
This teaching about seeds that Jesus shares with his listeners reminds me of the signs I often see at protests, in Spanish and English – “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.” John’s gospel may be an inspiration, though the contemporary phrase more likely originates from Dinos Christianopoulos, a Greek poet, who died last year at age 89. He wrote in 1978 – “what didn’t you do to bury me – but you forgot that I was a seed.”
In 2013 the poem was picked up by protesters in Mexico when over 40 students were disappeared. “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.” This poignant line indeed has germinated – from Jesus, to a Greek poet, to protestors in Mexico, to teenage immigrants in the streets of Washington DC. These words give hope when it feels like there is no hope. When it feels like death is inevitable, we are reminded that actually, it is life that is inevitable, even in the midst of violence.
And – it is no excuse for violence. It is no excuse for killing. This is not a poem for those who sit in positions of power, smugly watching the world from their high towers. This is a poem for the brave souls whose only power is relinquishing their fragile seed pods to the deep earth. When all else has failed, when beauty and flowering and fruitfulness have run their courses, the last thing to try is to let go. To let go in trust that there is something else possible, something else that we can’t control but that the earth knows, that God knows.
A few years ago my daughter Cecilia gave the family a stack of books for Christmas; among them was Parable of the Sower by Afrofuturist author, Octavia Butler. Octavia Butler was a black woman telling some prophetic, hard truths through science fiction. She died in 2006 at age 58 so she never got to see how on point her imagination and all her research truly were. (Published in the 1990s, the Parable books include a fascist who is elected US president in 2024 on the slogan Make America Great Again.)
Butler’s Parable books center on Lauren Oya Olamina, a black teenager in California, who lives in the 2020s amidst violence, poverty and turmoil that is a result of global climate change. As part of her struggle to survive, Lauren dares to create a new religion, a new way to think about God, a way that makes more sense to her than what she learned at her preacher father’s church. Lauren begins writing down her thoughts and new understandings, calling them Earthseed: the books of the living.
I have been living with one of the spiritual truths that Lauren writes. I have been testing it out to see how it resonates with the rest of what I know or think I might know. Or perhaps it is less about knowing and more about experience. Lauren writes this:
All that you touch
All that you Change,
The only lasting truth
There is something here that for me resonates with the seed falling into the ground. A seed that falls into the ground changes.
It touches the earth and it slowly changes.
It takes root, it changes.
It sprouts, it changes.
It blooms, and changes.
It produces fruit, more changes.
It wilts, changes.
It dies, changes.
It drops a seed, more changes.
And of course along the way, other plants, creatures, humans might come into contact producing more changes for the seed/plant and those who touch it.
Until this past year, it seemed like we were in constant motion, change all around us, with us. Stopping to be at home, that is change too. What if change is how God works? where God is present? What if instead of grasping onto God as a rock that never changes, we live into touch and change and in this way meet God?
This is hard for me. I am not immediately drawn to this saying because I don’t like change, I resist change. My whole adult life I have lived in the DC area. I have lived in the same house for 25 years, been in the same congregation for 34 years. It’s not that I think change is always death but it not easy, it can seem dangerous. Sameness is just pretty comfortable. And change is inevitable. We touch something and it changes – and we change. Being present in this world means that we are changing, being changed, creating change.
Octavia Butler and Lauren Olamina’s “God is change” opens me in a new way. God is change, the only lasting truth is change, opens me to the words of Jesus in a way that the violence of the cross does not. And change can be threatening and violent in its own way – climate change and immigration come to mind. We are “not saved from this hour.” “The cup is not taken from us” as Jesus hopes. Though with this poetic turn, God is most present with us in the change.
All that you touch
All that you Change,
The only lasting truth
I am pondering ‘seeds’ and ‘change’ as Holy week approaches again this year. I invite you to ponder as well. The seeds that Jesus dropped on the earth, continue to change us, and change the world.
The truth of the matter is,
unless a grain of wheat falls
into the earth and dies,
it remains by itself alone.
But if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.