Unless a Grain of Wheat...

Paul Rohde
About this article...
This sermon based on John 12:24 preached at Holden Village.

"Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." John 12:24 (RSV)

Friends in Christ, grace and peace from the God of our planting and rising. Amen.

This Gospel is so gentle, we might miss its absoluteness.

This quiet, simple appreciation of seed stirs memories in me of my Uncle Oscar, filtering the heavy, satin kernels with his strong weathered hands. I'll never forget the spring South Dakota suffered one of its worst droughts. As dust blew across the farmyard I heard my cousin ask, "Dad, are you even going to put the crop in?" Oscar didn't hesitate and with an inflection all his own replied, "ABSOLUTELY! It won't grow in the granary." My uncle loved the wheat and so gave it up every year to the miracle of its fruitfulness: the Gospel's picture of dying and rising,

This Gospel is so absolute, we might miss its gentleness.

Unless a grain of wheat dies...

We talk about relinquishment, but this speaks of absolute relinquishment ... and uncomfortable with absolutes, we let our language grow sloppy. So we say we're trying to relinquish or we're really letting go. We even stack the adverbs up, "We're really, really, really, really letting go ... as if extra adverbs could make it more true or less scary.

My uncle loved the wheat and lived the gentle absoluteness of this Gospel that teaches that seed cannot be "sort of " sown any more than it's really sown. And I believe we all know the Gospel isn't only about wheat.

With gentle absoluteness and absolute gentleness, the Gospel offers the truth: Unless we are grown, we do not live. Unless we die, we cannot bear fruit.

I believe we want to be fruitful. I believe we want to support and be supported, to share the pain, to know and be known in the utter ultimates of life and death. We want to, but in the face of death's utter finality, our faces sometimes turn, our words diminish, and our feet may be paralyzed. We want to be given over to the good work of memory, support, care; but if the fear or pain of letting go stops us, the Gospel knows already, we remain alone. I hear again and again, from people in grief, that one of the hardest parts is never hearing the dead or dying person's name.

Our practices are affected. We say, "We commend to Almighty God ? " but we often do not see the coffin lowered. Cultures we might dismiss as primitive look at us with come combination of pity and scorn for not finishing our work.

We say, "Earth to earth, dust to dust ..." but we often see no dirt. It isn't merely that we can't grow in the granary: the cold, dark, stifled bins are darker than any plot of dirt ever thought of being.

Maybe the metaphor helps us see that not all seeds of every crop germinate. No seeds, no matter the quality, grow without weeds. The sowing is a picture of extravagant practice, of wide sweeping support, of patient, quiet listening for the promised sprouting. It isn't that this Gospel gives one kernel we can know for sure will be what our friends need to hear. It gives us, sows us, each of us and all of us, to a casting to the wind, a planting in the parched, that we might be fruitful.

Certainly the counsel of Morrie in Mitch Albom's little book Tuesdays With Morrie is freeing. Morrie, the consummate professor diagnosed with ALS, decides since his vocation is to be a teacher, he'll now teach people how to die. Mitch, a student from sixteen years before, renews their friendship and records his wise teaching. Morrie connects our capacity to experience fully with our ability to let go. He says most of the time we only start to experience something, then we encounter risk or pain or the fear of risk and pain, so we pull back. Morrie tells his student, "Feel it fully and then let it go." And he further cautions that the unwillingness to do so dooms us to feel only the fear ... and to feel it alone.

In echoes of a Gospel that call us to die that we might live, to let go that we might be fruitful, Morrie claims the best news of all: that this awareness, this fullness of experience and freedom in letting go is not about dying well, it's about living well.

I'd like to tell you of a time I believe I saw it happen. Annette's death was the first time I had the privilege of attending and attempting to minister at the death of someone my own age. The hospital had called----I suppose about two o'clock in the morning. She died around three. Her family had had a few days warning, so relatives had gathered. I drove her young husband home ... and waited as his brothers and sisters awoke from sleep to receive the dreaded news. Each of them embraced him, expressed their sorrow and then in a litany more reliable than a hymnal has ever accomplished said, "I'll make some coffee." One by one they offered sympathy and this simple promise, "I'll make coffee." The coffee was, of course, soon made. And as it was passed each laughed and declined, "Oh, no, I don't drink it myself." Of all who had gathered I alone accepted the blessed brew.

I was moved that each would offer a gift none of them wanted. I learned from them that it is not so much the gift, but the giving, and not even the giving, as much as the giver ? and I call their kind gesture sacramental, because what they gave was not coffee, it was themselves.

I hope they help you hear that finally the Absoluteness of this Gospel is not seed or sowing but SOWER. It is not practice or guidance, but Guide: not the practice nor the fruit of practice, but the One whose very self was sown into the world in the person of Jesus to walk in the dark shadows, to live the power of trust, and to so empower God's love that even the steps toward life's end be living.

In Jesus' name. Amen.

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