Preached at All Saints Episcopal Church, Austin, TX on 15 April 2014.
It was a slightly overcast morning with a cool morning breezy blowing through the trees. It was the kind of morning that made a person want to spend the rest of the day rooting around in nature, enjoying the scents of the plants, the sounds of the animals, and the cool breezes whipping around you as you drink it all in. The morning invited you to come out of your shell and to dive into the beauty of creation without a second thought. After I finished a cup of coffee on the balcony, I put Shelby on the leash and began walking towards the southeastern corner of the seminary property. Along the way, I met up with my friend Maddie and proceeded to chat about the beautiful morning that had germinated from the evening. All three of us were a little excited.
Finally, we reached our destination – the community garden at the seminary. Though the morning invited a bit of laziness, the three of us were on a mission: we were there to plant the garden for the summer harvest. Slowly but surely, we began to get our bearings and to decide exactly how to go about preparing the beds for new vegetable plants.
The first task was to replenish the beds with some dark, moist, nutrient rich compost that took months to break down into a substance that would help foster new life in the garden beds. Maddie and I set about shuffling compost into the wheelbarrow one heaping shovel at a time while Shelby encouraged us in our work from the shade of a nearby tree. As we worked, the sounds of the birds began to sing around us, and it seemed that life was breaking in. The morning had broken; life swirled around us in the air, in the compost we shoveled, in the beds we replenished, in the shade of the tree. As we worked, more people joined us including some of the kids from around the seminary – all ready to get their hands dirty and to share in the work of the day.
Maddie took some of the plants over to the beds and helped the kids move them from the small plastic containers into the garden beds while I helped my friends Lucy and Tom turn the remaining compost piles to generate even more material for a future planting of the garden.
As we dug into the rotting piles of leaves, vegetables, egg shells, paper bags and other assorted material that makes for great compost, we began to see that new life was happening in the piles of the rotting vegetation. From the death of the plants came an entire ecosystem featuring earthworms, gargantuan grubs, roly polies, beetles, and any number of other insects. The compost bins were not simply a place of death for leftover vegetable scraps; they were a world unto themselves that featured a huge diversity of life once you dug beneath the top surface of the pile. More amazingly, the ecosystem of the compost pile would also help to promote the growth of the vegetable plants that were being nestled away under mounds of the compost in their new homes. Earthworms found themselves in a whole new place with more dirt and compost than a single earthworm could imagine. All of this life burst out of the dead heaps of vegetable scraps and leaves.
In the gospel lesson for this evening Jesus tells us that “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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”
It is a perplexing statement that Jesus gives to us at the beginning of the gospel lesson, and it is a statement that goes straight to the heart of what it means to live the way of the cross: we are to die to the ways of this world in order to live differently.
Jesus is equating himself to the seed that dies, but I also think there is a lesson in here for each of us this evening. The death of a seed is a curious thing, indeed. It is not actually a death that the seed goes through in the germination process.
Instead, the seed sheds its outer coating under the right conditions in order to become something other than a seed. The outer coat is shed when the seed is planted in rich soil and given enough water and oxygen to seek out a new existence within creation. As the outer shell is shed, the seed sends its roots into the earth seeking out the water and minerals necessary for the plant to grow up towards the light. The shoots of the plant slowly push themselves through the earth until at last it breaks through the top layer and finds sunlight beaming down on it granting it warmth and encouragement to reach new heights, to produce new fruits, to live an abundant life.
Perhaps, in one way or another, Jesus’ story is also our own story. Like Jesus, we have to find the courage to let go of that outer shell in order to grow into a new kind of life – a life that attempts to image the life that Jesus teaches us in the Gospel.
In order for us to sink our roots in the life of Jesus and to know the warmth of God’s love, we have to risk letting go of the outer shell that we cling to so tightly; once we learn to let go of that outer shell, we are able to find a new life, but we can only find that new life by going through a curious kind of death — just like a seed when it is planted. We have to let go of the concerns of this world and live into the foolishness of the Gospel.
If we live according to the world and keep our outer shells, we will continue to be dormant seeds that fail to germinate, that fail to spring into a new life that reaches up towards the light and warmth of God.
If, however, we can risk letting go of that outer shell and allow the love of God to enter into our hearts and souls, then we are able to flourish into the person that God planted into creation.
As we make the journey through Holy Week, we are walking our path towards the cross. The path that we are taking this week is full of tension, fear, anxiety, pain, and sadness, but it is a path that we must take in order to find new life. We have to risk going deep into the tortured reality of hanging on a cross for all the world to see in order to celebrate in the glory of the morning that breaks open after the evening. We have to stay here with Jesus, with the light, as He leads us not only to his death but also to our own.
As we make what appears to be a final journey – a journey of ultimate conclusion, we discover that our outer shells break open, and we send our shoots out in search of the light. The journey, though a painful one, is one that yields more bounty than we could imagine in the beginning. It is a journey that leads into the pit of death, and to our great surprise, the death on that cross is THE death that brings forth new life, a new ecosystem, a re-creation.