The Jesus Koans

March 18, 2018
Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33

During Lent, our theme of covenant has taken us in various directions. Michelle shared the Jeremiah text with the children in Children’s Church. Michelle showed them how you can write something on play-doh and somehow it is still contained in the play-doh, even when you smoosh it up and it seems to disappear. God’s covenant is written on our hearts and minds and smooshed in.

We heard how covenant means pointing toward injustices, like the cross, and sometimes the methods we use to point to that injustice get misunderstood. We heard from four people about how covenant is at work in their lives, through vocation, faith community and commitments to family. Last week we heard from Seth Martin that covenant does not mean just affirming and agreeing. Honest questions and struggle, order, disorder and re-order are part of being in covenant.

Today we have this strange scene from Jesus’ life where he seems to say that part of covenant is letting go rather than holding on.

John’s gospel takes us through three Passovers and here in this third Passover some Greeks approach and want to participate in worship. (Has Passover become so commercialized, that even non-Jews come to Jerusalem to celebrate?) The Greeks to the edge of the gathering and speak to Philip.

(In the synoptic gospels, Philip appears only in a list of the disciples – with Bartholomew. But in John’s gospel, Philip shows up four times, usually with Andrew. I don’t know what it means but it intrigues me.

In chapter 1, Philip is the one that introduces skeptical Nathanael to Jesus. In chapter 6, Jesus tests Philip by asking him how they will feed thousands of people on the hillside. Philip fails in his answer; Andrew finds the bread and fish. In chapter 14, Philip is one of the named disciples, along with Thomas and Judas, that don’t quite get what Jesus is talking about.)

Here in chapter 12, Philip is the bridge between the Greeks and Jesus – but first Philip goes to Andrew and together they go to Jesus. We don’t know what they tell Jesus about these Greeks but it sounds like Jesus answers an unasked question.

Jesus’ response is a puzzle – more Buddhist koan than Jewish proverb. (A koan is a paradox used by Buddhist holy people to lead listeners toward enlightenment. A proverb, well, we have a whole book of Proverbs in the bible. They are sometimes biting snippets of advice or obvious truth.) We usually think of Jesus teaching hard or confusing truths through parables. But the gospel of John doesn’t use parables. Instead there are stories of miracles and signs, extensive discourses and an occasional koan-like saying.

unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies,
it remains only a single grain;
but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest.       

A paradox like this is not easily understood. Does this grain connect to the unleavened bread of Passover? These seekers are Greek, not Jewish; maybe Jesus thinks they need to understand more about how Jews think? Planting seeds is common across cultures.

This seems to foreshadow Jesus’ own death. This scene occurs immediately  after Jesus enters Jerusalem, acclaimed with hosannas and palm branches. (I know, next week is Palm Sunday but the lectionary does what it will.) As Jesus approaches his last days is he trying to convince himself, that the grain of wheat must fall to the ground in order to bring new life? He goes on –If you love your life youll lose it; if you hate your life in this world youll keep it for eternal life. Or is he trying to discourage these Greeks. “Get out while you can.”

Maybe farmers can help us understand. Planting seeds is not mournful work. It may be exhausting and back breaking to let go of the seeds as they drop into the ground. But it is also joyful and hopeful and rewarding.

Letting go of your seeds – or your life – takes a whole different kind of strength than holding on. Letting go means that you are trusting that something will grow, that there is more life somewhere, that there is possibility that you have not yet conceived of. (Fist) Letting go of the seed means you are ready to let the seed stop being a trophy and do what it is meant to do, grow into something bigger than the fist that holds it.

It is not easy, that is why it takes strength. It is not quick, it takes time. It is not always obvious, which is why it is a koan, a paradox. It may feel like death, to choose to let go. And I think Jesus is talking about making a choice to let go. This is different than forced planting in unwelcome soil.

As much as we might hope for Christian unity, there is not  unified understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death in Christianity. Jesus’ followers struggled then and we struggle now to understand how his letting go makes a difference then, and now. Liturgical traditions include a koan-like phrase in worship: “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” How can we understand a paradox like that? So we keep telling the story and wrestling with the meaning. We call it atonement and we argue about what that means. And when we are honest, we wonder if what happened to Jesus has any relevance for how we live our lives, what it means to be followers 2000 years later.

The past few weeks, I have been moved to tears seeing the number of people who, because of their covenant with their families and communities – and God, have let go and planted their little seed in hopes it will grow. One week I attended Catholic Day of Action and watched as nuns and other Catholics sang in the senate rotunda as they were led away by Capitol Police. Their covenant to their immigrant friends and neighbors and God’s welcome to the stranger was stronger than their fear of letting go.

The next week it was Rabbis and Imams and Pastors knocking on Representative Ryan’s door to protest unjust immigration practices and policies. When the door was not opened, letting go looked like prayer and song and sitting down in the hallway of congress until they were arrested

Days after that teenagers, who should have been in school, blocked the entrance to Senator McConnell’s office. They shouted their protests for common sense gun reform laws, as they were arrested in front of dozens of cameras.

What is the point of making the Capitol Police work so hard? All these people are led out in handcuffs, pay their $50 and rejoin their communities in short order. How does it make any difference at all?

To me, these arrests are small seeds of hope planted in the halls of power. These faithful people are letting go of their small seeds of persistent truth, praying they will take root and grow. As they are arrested, these faithful lose their freedom as a way to show their love of freedom. These brave souls, whether they are Jesus followers or not, understand the Jesus koan – Those who love their life lose it. Unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields much fruit.

As I have watched the devotion and commitment of these faithful in person and on line, small seeds have been planted in me. I find myself wondering when it might be time for me to participate in civil disobedience. Ecclesial disobedience almost comes naturally to me at this point – but civil disobedience is another thing altogether. Am I ready to take this step of faith with a community of committed people? Am I ready to lose my freedom in order to gain it? I am open to your counsel, encouragement and caution.

Civil disobedience is a rather big “letting go” that looms in my life right now.
Where are the places in your life that you might “let go?”
What can it look like as a congregation to let go?

Each fall our congregational leaders meet to reflect on the year past and look ahead to what might be. In the fall of 2015, six months after our re-instatement to full membership in Allegheny Conference, Church council and Pastorate met for our day long working retreat. At the end of the day, the faithful, brave and wise leaders of this congregation said we need to let go. Instead of holding tight to expectations of what or who we should be now as a congregation, the council and pastorate said we need a year of active waiting and listening. They asked us to let go and be present, let go and be alert to what was growing in us. The council and pastorate literally planted seeds at the end of that day, not knowing what would grow but hoping and expecting that something would sprout.

Out of this letting go and being alert, grew the refugee support committee, the re-claiming of our sanctuary congregation status. Letting go allowed room for new energy, new creativity and new growth.

It is hard to let go of expectations, of what we think is best. It is hard to let go of what we think God wants, whether that is for ourselves, our family, career, the congregation, the conference, the country.

At the pinnacle of his ministry Jesus makes the choice to let go. He does not try to keep building or expand his donor base. He walks right into the arms of the Romans when everyone, Jews and Greeks, are in Jerusalem. He does not try to defend himself. He makes it his choice to be planted.

And it is clear that he is conflicted. Even as Jesus speaks these koans about life and death, he is overcome by the implications  of what he is saying.

Now my soul is troubled.
What will I say: Abba, save me from this hour?
But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour.
Abba, glorify your name.

And then Jesus hears affirmation from God about this choice.  I have glorified it and I will glorify it again. The crowd hears thunder or maybe angels. What Jesus hears is enough for him.

It is hard to choose letting go over holding tight. Letting the seed fall to the ground means taking the risk that the seed might not germinate. There might be no growth at all, no eventual fruit. Will we have let go for nothing?

Letting go takes strength and courage and humility. Letting go is a choice for unknown possibility that we have not yet imagined.

Perhaps it is time to let go of this koan and let it do its work in us and through us.

unless a grain of wheat falls onto the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

 God give us strength, courage, humility and wisdom to live into this koan.