First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer
September 2, 2018
Scripture: John 12:24-26
Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.
I’ve shared how easily distracted I am in a book store—I can walk into Barnes n Noble and I’m like a distracted dog—squirrels are everywhere. The squirrel a week ago was an article in the New York Times entitled “Metamorphosis of the Western Soul.” The subtitle just as intriguing: Humans want to get along and get ahead. And they will become whoever they need to be in order to do so.
Is that true? Would I become whoever I need to be in order to get along and get ahead?
It’s Labor Day weekend… Labor Day Weekend seems more about vacation and the end of summer, but the inception of Labor Day began with strife. Workers felt imprisoned by the institutions for which they worked, and eventually their resentment turned into anger. Our history books gloss over the bloody origin of Labor Day— over worked railway employees went on strike in Chicago, then other strikes spread across the United States as workers felt the only way to affect change for a reduction in work hours was to go on strike to get the attention of those in power who were economically comfortable.
And that leads us to the point to consider today— how can we learn from Jesus how to bring about change?
I often am asked why I left the military. Imagine being part of an institution where you saw the devastating effects of destructive policies that disregarded survivors of sexual assault. Seven years as a chaplain listening to heart-wrenching narratives from those who had been raped; seven years of talking to leadership; seven years of advocating for survivors… my voice had little impact. It took getting out of the military, helping with a documentary and serving on a Department of Defense civilian committee to begin to see change happen. Some believe you have to work within a system to change it. You hope change will happen, and you stay in the organization waiting, and waiting and waiting. My personal experience says that once in a system, you are institutionalized by that system.
The Gospel of John reveals that Jesus lived a life as a Jew; however, he was not institutionally compromised by Judaic laws. Jesus was working within the institution of Judaism, and yet teaching a new understanding. The context of our Scripture reading involves a bunch of people from Greece who are in Jerusalem for the fated Passover that leads to the death of Jesus. The Greeks want to see Jesus, so they talk to some of the disciples who tell Jesus about the request. Jesus replies, “Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”
Jesus confronts paradigms of Judaism while embracing a universal understanding of living that breaks free from a constrained world view and he envisions a creative one. Sometimes we get stuck in our way of thinking. The quiz that you heard during children’s time— preschoolers correctly answer the questions more than 90% of “professionals.” Letting go of rigid thinking isn’t such a bad thing. Jesus challenges a way of thinking in a system regimented by the rigid laws found in Deuteronomy, and yet he understands the necessity of tradition and policies for order and discipline. When we read this Scripture story thinking that the life purpose for Jesus is to die for our sins, then we hear his words thinking about resurrection and salvation. But what if we hear his words from that of a wisdom perspective? I believe we are then awakened to understanding that not everything is certain no matter how many rules we construct to bring order to life. I like how the Feasting on the Word Commentary views this verse. It reads, “And so Jesus says that some things we are familiar with need to die in order for new life to arise; the work of the Spirit will not be contained in set patterns; and so the call goes out—who will be involved?”1
Who will be involved? One of my favorite parables about fulfilling our destiny doesn’t come from Darth Vader, but from a book entitled Lost Christianity that was told in another book I read entitled Wisdom Way of Knowing, and I’ve revised it a little:
Once upon a time, in a not-so-faraway land, there was a kingdom of acorns – a community of acorns nestled at the foot of a grand old oak tree.
Since the citizens of this kingdom were modern, and fully Westernized acorns, they went about their lives with purposeful energy. Some were midlife, Baby-Boomer acorns, and they engaged in a lot of self-help courses. There were seminars called “Getting All You Can out of Your Shell” and “How to React to Getting Stepped On.” There were retreats and spas for oiling and polishing those shells and various acornopathic therapies to enhance longevity and well-being.
Some were Generation X and Millennial acorns, attending workshops on financial planning and rolling their young acorn offsprings to drama camp and Defense Against the Squirrels training. Some acorns lamented the wind had taken their offspring off to college.
There were woundedness and recovery groups for acorns who had been bruised in their original fall from the tree. Overall, though, as long as the grand old oak tree sheltered a majority of them, life went on without disruption.
One day in the midst of this kingdom there suddenly appeared a knotty little stranger, who apparently dropped “out of the blue” by a passing jaybird. He was odd: cap-less and dirty, making an immediate negative impression on his fellow acorns. And crouched beneath the grand old oak tree, he stammered out a strange and wild tale. Pointing upward at the tree, he spoke to all that would listen to him, and said, “We…are…that!”
1 Jarvis, Cynthia. Feasting on the Gospels-John Vol. 2. Kindle Location 3063. Westminster John Knox Press.
Delusional thinking, obviously, the other acorns concluded.
But, one or two of them continued to engage him in conversation: “Please tell us, how would we become that tree?” “Well,” said he, pointing downward, “it has something to do with going into the ground… and cracking open the shell.” “Insane,” they responded. “Totally morbid! Why, then we wouldn’t be acorns anymore!”
When we avoid death, we avoid life. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains a single grain, but if it dies, it shall yield a rich harvest.” This Scripture passage usually is read during Lent, and so we are focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus and possibly miss the transformational journey and the spiritual understanding of death and resurrection. We miss the message that we must break our shell and become an oak tree. Breaking our shell is when the spiritual journey really begins. Each one of us as individuals live on Earth –we go about our lives making choices. When we apply to college or to a job, we submit a resume that results from the choices we make. But all of that is our acorn selves. Within the acorn is a much more vibrant self that is reborn when we let go of our shell. We die to self. And so we ask ourselves, are we still living in the container? Or as the other Gospel writers attribute to Jesus—we go about life creating the wineskin, but are not yet drinking the intoxicating wine. No one puts new wine into old wineskins.
When we can crack open and go into the ground of our being, a world of growth and possibility opens before us. But how do we “crack open”— how do we let go and surrender to the person the Divine creates us to be?
The answer will be different for each of us. Each one of us has attachments that really keep us in our shell and possibly lead to a feeling of getting stuck in life. For me, I’ve come to recognize that the military ingrained in me that sitting doing nothing is a waste of time. Therefore, the idea of stopping to meditate did not fit the paradigm I was trained to follow. It’s taken years to realize that a dedicated time of openness and stillness, call it mediation or contemplation, provides the foundation on which to listen to the voice of God, our Creator. When we commit to engaging in silence, solitude and stillness, I think we can better discern our desires for change.
Whenever I hear this passage about a grain of wheat, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes that paraphrase the words of Jesus– “Get busy living or get busy dying” from Shawshank Redemption. The main character is in prison but realizes he can break free, and in doing so brings hope to others. When work feels like a prison, it is time to break free and crack open the shell.
The narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures captures the human pattern of defeat and restoration, enslavement and liberation, exile and return. Jesus models this counter-intuitive wisdom that we really don’t know life until we know death. I think this past week we witnessed a politician being honored because he dedicated his life to changing institutions— John McCain as a civilian had a tremendous impact on military policy— much more so than had he stayed in the Navy and achieved the rank of admiral. Are change agents like McCain really an endangered species? The desire to change an institution, or family member, or work place, or situation at school… whether you believe you have to stay in the system or not, the change must first happen within your heart. That is what Jesus is saying: Until we let go and break our shell, no change will happen in our lives. How does that happen? Through surrender. Letting go of the desire to control or seek power. Letting go of the desire for affirmation or affection. Letting go of the desire for safety and security. Until surrender occurs, we are stuck in our acorn selves. Which means no change occurs. No becoming our authentic self. No becoming an oak tree.
We really don’t know life until we know death. That pretty much sums up the teachings of Jesus in the verses surrounding this part of John’s Gospel. I know it’s easy to just keep going on in our Westernized way and being transformed by the culture of our institutions. We can be the acorns that go along with institutional policies. That want to stay nestled under the oak tree of privilege. I can become whomever I need to be in order to get along and get ahead. The life of Jesus reminds us that there is another way. We can discover our organic God-made selves. May we trust the process of letting go and get busy living by dying to what imprisons us.