Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

The readings for this day can be found here. This sermon was preached at All Saints Church in Worcester.

John Chapman was born not too far north of here, just outside of Leominster, in 1774. You may know him as “Johnny Appleseed.” He planted seeds all over New York and Pennsylvania and into the Ohio River Valley and beyond to Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan.

What you may not know is that he was a faithful Christian who envisioned a wilderness blossoming with apple trees—providing beauty and the wonderful smell of apple blossoms and ultimately a fruitful harvest that leads to hot apple cider and homemade apple pies. He saw his work as ministry – as a calling.

There are connections for me with his ministry and the season of Lent. First and most obviously, there is the very Biblical metaphor of a wilderness that blooms with new life. But this metaphor of planting seeds is also so central to the teaching of Jesus. His ministry reminds us (or at least reminds me) that all we need is contained in the smallest of seeds, and that our work—our ministries—our vocations—are about planting those seeds.

Think about the vocation of teaching—which is always about far more than conveying information about the Civil War or the square root of 49. It’s about planting seeds that have the potential to change lives. Every human encounter holds within it the power to heal and to transform.

Think of all the seeds Jesus talks about. He says the Reign of God is like a mustard seed that begins even smaller than the apple seed but then grows into a great bush to provide shade and shelter for the birds of the sky. He speaks of ministry as the planting of seeds: the gospel is planted in people in the same way that a farmer sows seeds, and for various reasons only some of them ever grow to fruition.

In today’s gospel Jesus is using the image of a seed as an image of resurrection of the body. He is preparing his disciples for his dying, and ultimately for their own dying as well. It’s a metaphor St. Paul will also pick up on to speak about resurrection. So Jesus says: “very truly I tell you, 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.”

Deep within a tiny seed you can barely see lie the possibilities of full and abundant life: of not only fragrant blossoms, but of a bountiful harvest. That is a great mystery that we miss in a society where apples from all over the world are available 365 days a year at the grocery store.

Only a few of us are as connected to the land as people were in the time of Jesus (or for that matter in the eighteenth century in this part of the world when Johnny Appleseed was doing his thing.) I readily admit that with my two brown thumbs I am not one of them. But each October, around Columbus Day weekend my family is often in Southern Vermont. One of our favorite things to do is to attend an heirloom apple tasting at the Scott Farm in Dummerston, Vermont. There you realize when you taste a crisp apple on a cool fall day that that God is good, and that what we get in the grocery store in March is a cheap imitation.

If we aren’t careful we can skip over metaphors like this without pondering their deep and hidden and mystical meanings. Jesus insists that you find life when you lose it; that when things die they are really in the midst of a process of transformation and that new possibilities too wondrous to imagine are already emerging.

Do you believe this, All Saints? Do you believe that when things die they are already beginning to be transformed and that new possibilities too wondrous to imagine are already emerging for those who have eyes to see?

Our Lenten journey has brought us in safety to this new day. A week from now we will walk through the holiest week in the Christian calendar, the journey from Palm Sunday to the empty tomb. On Good Friday we will contemplate the meaning of Christ’s death and passion.

How is Christ’s death a saving act? How is it that life can come from such a death? These are questions that point to a great mystery and no one sermon or liturgy can hold all the answers any more than a film that tries to capture the passion of the Christ can do so. But I think the seed that holds within it the possibility of beauty and abundant life is as good a place as any to start.

Do you know that the Fourth Gospel does not focus as the synoptics do on the suffering of Jesus? Rather, from beginning to end, the Cross reveals to the mystical eye of the beloved disciple the-love-of- God-made-flesh—the Incarnate Word that has come into the world to reveal the Father’s love for the world, in order to save the world. The gospel we heard today surely lies behind the collect for mission that is used in the daily office, at Morning Prayer. Remember it?
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, for the honor of your name. Amen.
John’s mystical gospel focuses on the outstretched arms of a loving God, arms that embrace not only the church—not only the faithful—but the whole world. Or as we heard Jesus saying in today’s gospel reading: "…when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself.”

It’s interesting that in the most ancient manuscripts it isn’t even all people—even if that’s what we read today. It’s just all: all things, all the world, all creation. All the cosmos. What happens at Calvary changes the world and restores it to blessing again. In that event, God’s glory is revealed. It’s an odd notion; how we can behold the hard wood of the cross and in it see God being glorified?

One of the hardest questions that a parent or church school teacher will ever get asked by a child is about why Jesus had to die on the cross. It is tempting to resort to big theological words, to try to explain the various theologies of atonement. But maybe like that book about how everything we needed to know we learned in kindergarten, maybe it’s true to say that everything we need to know about God we learned in church school. We just have to come back to it again and again with open eyes and listening ears.

We say grace at my house over every evening meal. When my kids were little we often sang grace – my kids are both accomplished tenors and I like to think they identified that gift at the supper table. We had a repertoire of sung graces but one of our favorites went like this:

          Oh, the Lord’s been good to me,
          And so I thank the Lord:
          For giving me, the things I need,
          The sun and the rain and the apple seed;
          Oh, the Lord’s been good to me.

Good old Johnny Appleseed knew that when a seed dies, it has the potential to become what it is meant for in the first place. When it goes into the ground and the good Lord gives sun and rain it bears fruit and the only response is gratitude.  

In the cross of Christ we see the culmination of Jesus’ life and ministry. We see why he came into the world in the first place: to make the love of God manifest—even unto death, so that the world might live.

Notice where this gospel reading today began: some Greeks come to Philip and Andrew because they want to see Jesus. The attentive listener to John’s narrative will recall that this is where it all started, way back in chapter one of John’s Gospel, when these disciples were invited to “come and see.” They now, in turn, are extending that invitation to others: to these Greeks and to all the world. Come and see

The Greeks wish to see Jesus. What follows seems like a non-sequitor. But in truth it is very much an answer not only to those Greeks but to all of us. If you want to see Jesus, then pay attention to the world around you.

  • Pay attention to the trees and your gardens and to the life that will soon be emerging again from a sleeping earth. Now the green blade rises…
  • Pay attention to those who are willing to lose their lives in service to Christ around the world. Talk with David or Beatrice Kayigwa about the martyrs of Uganda who stood up to Idi Amin.
  • Pay attention to all those places where people choose to live as servants rather than lord it over others including in this parish where people have “stepped up” in the midst of big challenges.
  • Pay attention to all those places where love and charity is palpable. Because there, God is being glorified. Because there the Christ is being revealed. Because there Easter, in all of its wonder, is already beginning to unfold.