Planted In The Now
Rev. Robert Woodruff
It is pretty clear that Jesus loved to use seed, plant, and fruit imagery for his pedagogy. Examples abound in the gospels. “I am the vine and you are the branches,” he proclaims. He compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed that in time will grow from the tiniest of seeds into an impressive, full-bodied bush. And we may recall the parable of the sower. The one in which Jesus talks about a person sowing seeds onto different types of soil. He asserts that the impact of the growth of those seeds is directly proportionate to the quality of the soil upon which they fall. Jesus goes on in the passage to interpret that the seeds are the word of God, and the different types of soils are varying descriptions of the hearts of those who hear the word.
He makes it clear that the seed will only grow if the soil is good and maintains proper depth. That parable appears only in the synoptic Gospels, which are Matthew, Mark and Luke, but not John. But John does not hesitate to chime in with a seedy story. In the Gospel lesson that Dolores and I read, Jesus shares yet another parable about seeds growing into plants with the hope of bearing fruit. But this passage is not a gluten-free teaching, because Jesus plumbs the depths of spiritual truth by referring to a grain of wheat. And in it, he does not suggest that we go against the grain.
By way of context, this is a watershed moment in John’s Gospel. You may have noticed that the passage begins: “Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the feast.” This is the first point in John’s Gospel that we hear about non-Jewish folks in the text. The scripture that immediately precedes our passage is Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem or what we will celebrate next week—better known as Palm Sunday. The occasion of the passage is the festival of Passover, a distinctively Jewish festival, and appearing at the scene are those of another cultural background. This passage is an important reminder of the important reality of Christianity, that unlike many religions that are more ethnically based, Jesus reveals Good News with universal scope.
But his good news takes a perplexing turn. Jesus touches on one of, if not the deepest truths of contained in scripture. Referencing a grain of wheat, he posits the notion that his followers, in order to experience abundant life, must be born again. Not necessarily in the sense that we think of these days with the term “born- again,” Christian. But there is a sense that that which is in us, that prevents us from loving God, neighbor and self with a whole heart, needs to die. Whatever that may be, must be pruned from our lives. We need to let go of it. The plant imagery is helpful. It is a Lenten lesson about life, that we learn only a week and a half before Jesus meets his earthly fate at the cross. And it is one we grow to understand more when we come to greater understand the implications of spiritually dying and letting go.
Near the end of Wallace Stegnar’s novel Crossing to Safety, there is a scene in which Sally, a victim of polio since childhood, is in a tiny chapel somewhere in Italy, staring at Peiro della Francesca’s painting of the resurrected Christ. On the left the painting depicts a barren landscape with naked trees reaching toward a darkening sky. To the right the landscape is alive with foliage, houses, and bursts of sunlight. Between these scenes of barren death and vibrant life Francesca places the resurrected Christ, with one foot still in the tomb, as if still in the act of stepping out. In Christ’s right hand is a staff holding a flag of victory. On his left hand and left foot, the holes from the nails are still apparent. His side shows the wound from the soldier’s spear, still dripping drops of blood.
Sally’s husband and the friends who are sharing their Italian vacation had looked casually at the painting and moved on. Sally, however, lingers by the painting, transfixed by the face of Francesca’s Christ. Despite the golden halo over his head and the flag of victory in his hand, Jesus’ eyes betray a memory of pain. Sally’s husband wondered at first what it was about this painting that so occupied his wife’s attention. Gazing at her as she was propped up before the painting on her crutches, his eyes returned again to the face of Christ. Gradually he saw the truth that stared at them both in the eyes of this one who only moments before had been horribly dead. The truth of the resurrected Christ, he now saw, is that “those who have been dead understand things that will never be understood by those who have only lived” (Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety, pp. 274-275, as quoted in Eugene
Bay’s sermon, “For This We Have Jesus”)
You may recall that our theme for Lent is living in the now—a spiritual undertaking that can be immensely difficult. Because living in the now means letting go of a grip on the past or the future. Author Eckhart Tolle, in his book The Power of Now, writes that living in the know: “is the real spiritual awakening, when something emerges from within you that is deeper than who you thought you were. So, the person is still there, but one could almost say that something more powerful shines through the person.”
I have shared this account with you once before, but the time seems apropos to revisit it. It is a reflective meditation. I invite you to close your eyes if you wish. And as you do, “Think of a cupboard. It is in the corner of your house and you have not opened it for a long time. Picture it. The paintwork is old, the handle is dusty. You stand facing it, trying to remember what is behind the door, but not quite sure...is it a book from the past, or old files or clothes, or things left over from childhood, or glass jars and rolls of wallpaper kept in a safe place but never needed? Because you cannot quite remember, and because there is time, you stretch out and touch the handle. You open the door. The smell of mustiness meets you instantly. That’s the smell you expected...but the sight is different. The shelves are neatly stacked, stacked with cardboard boxes...the size of shoeboxes...and all are in attractive colors—scarlet and orange and apple green and turquoise, lilac and bronze and deep yellow and silver grey. Such attractive boxes...and each one has a white label...some have writing on them...others have not. You look at the labels...and read the words printed on some of them: major disappointments...says one, broken promises...says another. Lost loves, unresolved conflicts, nagging doubts, biggest failures. There are more yet as you move your eyes along...anger, no encouragement, no thanks, unanswered prayers and secret wishes. Perhaps there are 30 boxes in all...and perhaps 20 or 25 have names on white labels. But some of the labels are blank. You see resting on the shelf a black ink marker and you wonder...you wonder should you? Then you decide to write some other categories on the blank labels. What will you write? What words will ring bells about who has failed you or what you fear or what annoys you? Personal hit-list, chief regret, awkward customers. You stand back and look at the boxes, at the labels you noticed earlier: major disappointments, broken promises, lost loves, unresolved conflicts, nagging doubts, anger, no encouragement, no thanks, secret wishes. And the labels you wrote for yourself... You look at them and sense a weird attractiveness in it all. Maybe these boxes could be of some use...maybe letters could be filed in them...maybe slips of paper...names could be put in them...maybe...maybe. You lift one of the boxes, a scarlet one...it’s empty and light. You reckon you could perhaps take eight or nine in your arms. So you choose which ones you’ll take. You look again at the labels facing you and you choose the ones you want to take. You pile them on your arms...the labels facing you...they come up to your chin...and a bit above...you balance the boxes and with your foot you shut the cupboard. And you’re just thinking about where to put your new discoveries when the front door bell rings. Who could it be? You go to the window to look outside...three houses along, nuns are collecting money for charity...but you can’t see if it is a nun at your door. You can’t see the door. The doorbell rings again. You go to another window...you peer round the boxes and see, on the other side of the street, a little girl crossing the road...she’s running fast...you see her trip...she goes down...and the tears start and you want to help her...but your holding these boxes...and there is someone at the door.
You begin to panic...where will you put them? They’re getting heavier now... awkward to carry. You can’t return them to the cupboard, because you have shut it. You can’t put them in the hall or in the sitting room...What would anyone think if they saw these titles which so attracted you earlier? The door bell rings again...and you feel you have to answer it...it might be important...So, in a sweat you make your way to the door, watching your feet in case you stumble. As you get to it, the bell rings again. Almost in desperation you say...‘It’s open!’
The handle turns and the door swings towards you. But who is standing there you can’t see...because the boxes are between you and the stranger. And just as you feel you are going to panic, a warm reassuring voice says, ‘I’ve come to take your boxes away.’
Then two hands touch yours and relieve you of your burden. And you see going away from you the things that you were so keen to clutch not so long ago... you watch them move away from you...the attractive boxes...with the curiously attractive titles...the disappointments, the letdowns, the hit-list, the poor me’s, the chief regrets you have almost come to cherish.
You do not see the face of the stranger who relieved you of your load...you only see the back. You stare as the stranger walks down the street and into the distance and you would stare longer...but something is pulling at your leg. You look down...and there on the doorstep is a little girl with the skinned knee. You can help her now...your hand are free.” (From He Was in the World: Meditations for Public Worship by John L. Bell)
We may do well to ascribe to the old proverb, “Grow where you are planted.” We are but seeds strewn by the master gardener. And there is no better place to grow than in the now. This is true for individuals as it is for churches. Jesus guided the early church to grow with the gentiles (the foreigners) as part of the community. It is as if the Hebrew church had to hand its boxes off to God that kept them from seeing God’s image in those from other cultures and backgrounds. The “Hebrew only” church concept had to die, that the faith might become universal. On our life journeys, replete with changes, gains and losses, we are called to die to a clinging of those changes, but rather being allowed to grow through them. Oh the pruning that that requires. But oh, the tree that will grow and bear much fruit. And when we come together as a community of faith, oh the orchard.
Queridos hermanos y hermanas, as we journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. As his death inches closer each day, may we realize, just as Sally’s husband did staring at the Francesca painting. The truth that we can only wrap our minds around with faith is that through Jesus’ death, we will be privileged to know dimensions of love that far exceed what we might at first imagine. A love that leads to life—life in abundance.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Palabra de Vida
You will find sermons preached by Rev. Robert Woodruff and guests preachers.