Breaking Out of Our Shells

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My grandmother Meme would walk through her garden, twisting the ends off some plants, clipping the tips off others, and dragging the water hose alongside her. I would follow her around the backyard, watching her almost conduct this environment like some sort of orchestra. The birds were all there too, because she kept corn out under the Cypress tree at all times. One of my favorite things was to stop and explore the Touch-Me-Nots by the old birdbath. There, surrounding the old concrete post were piles of plants, with their orangey-red flowers. I would sit down next to them, reach out, and just barely brush the seeds with my fingers when—-POP—-they would explode open, sending the seed bouncing along the ground.

My other grandfather grew lots of vegetables. They had a fairly large garden with a tractor, and we would help them plant seeds when the time came in the Spring. My favorite time was when we planted corn, because I thought the seeds were so amazing.

We would reach down and dig holes with our hands in the brown dirt. It would be warm from the sun, but cooler the deeper you dug. We weren’t supposed to dig too deep, but just deep enough. After we dug, my grandfather would come past, reach into the paper bag, and drop around three corn seeds into each hole. I was intrigued because the corn I ate was yellow, while the seeds we planted were pretty much hot pink. I would have sworn they could glow in the dark.

How does a strange hot pink seed transform into a stalk bearing sweet yellow corn that is best eaten outside on the porch with sweet tea in the heat of Summer?

I tell you, unless a grain of whet falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

***

Maybe Jesus wasn’t a farmer. As I researched and reflected on today’s Gospel text, I found several folks who noticed that Jesus was mistaken with his agricultural parable.

I noticed it too, thinking back to both my grandparents’ gardens and my undergrad biology classes: a seed won’t grow if it dies. If it dies, it is dead…

As with so many of Jesus’ parables and images, we’re going to have to dig a little deeper.

In our world, we think of death as a precise moment. The reality is that it is a process, a sometimes lengthy process, with stages and pauses. Before I was a parish priest, I spent two years working as a chaplain in a hospice inpatient unit, and I journeyed with some 800 patients and their families as they experienced death and the complex, sometimes grief-ridden but often serene and beautiful experience that it is.

We on the staff had a short-hand way of describing where someone was on their journey: “Are they actively dying” was the main indicator that their time of transition was drawing near.

Of all the things I carry with me from my time there, I give thanks for the holy, sacred vigils most of all…of sitting by the bedside and watching and waiting…

Doctors give a “time of death” but this is a medical notation for legal reasons. Someone is declared dead one moment when they were alive the moment before. I always think of the “time of death” as more of an indication that something profound has happened in this space rather than a concrete, precise event. A light switch is not necessarily turned off immediately.

I think Jesus is pointing to something so radically profound… Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains a single grain…

And, I think of the Eucharistic Prayer during a Funeral here, that point where we recognize that something profound has happened in this space, when we say, “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended…”(BCP 382).

So, yes, one can read this Gospel text and come to the conclusion that Jesus is mistaken, that he mixed up his metaphor. But, I don’t think he did…

***

I learned a lot from my grandparents about gardening, about planting seeds and tending the plants that grow from them.

The scientific definition of what happens when seeds are planted and then grow is, of course, germination. The seed, the germ, sprouts and grows—through a remarkable process—into a plant which, in turn, bears whatever fruit or seed is its function to make.

It’s a wonderful image to explore during Lent, and also on the third day of Spring…this wonderful juxtaposition of seed planting, of dying, and of growth.

I’m going to read you a definition I found of germination, and I want you to close your eyes. As I read this scientific definition, I want you to feel the metaphor found within it. Let’s see if we can do this…let what is a definition flow through you and teach you…

“Germination can be thought of in a general sense as anything expanding into greater being from a small existence” (Wikipedia….of all places, right?)

“anything expanding into greater being from a small existence…” Wow.

Now, if you’re up for it, I want to take this definition and put it in conversation with what Jesus is teaching us….

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and germinates, it remains just a single grain; but, if it germinates, it expands into greater being from a small existence and bears much fruit.

I think this is extraordinary what Jesus is telling us, what he is inviting us to do, to be…

Suddenly, maybe our hearts are being opened as we can make connections in our own lives, in our parish, in our community… What connections are you making now?

***

As the Church, we are always being invited into a “greater being.” This is our call from Christ, as his Body in the world, a Body that itself has grown from the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who was born among us, lived among us, and experienced death, burial, and resurrection…

This seed of Jesus Christ, planted in the tomb, takes root in each of our hearts and in the heart of our community… and it has the chance to grow, “expanding into greater being from a small existence.”

But, here, we see the fullness of Jesus teaching, when he describes how this growth occurs—under what conditions.

Barbara Damrosch, in her wonderful book The Garden Primer, tells us that “Every plant has an optimum temperature for germination.”

Every plant has optimum conditions that must be met in order for the seed to germinate and grow into the fullness of life intended for it.

Jesus tells what our optimum conditions are, what is required of us: Those who love their life must lose it…

The optimum conditions required for us to bear fruit is to be willing to lay down our own lives, to lay aside our ambitions, our greed, our pride…to become aware of our ego-tendencies. To be aware of those ways in which we grasp too tightly to “our ways of doing things,” ways that may very well be cutting off the life-giving breath of the Spirit.

We are called to be open to having our soil tilled, broken open, watered, kissed by the sun, vulnerable, willing….nurtured, enriched, fertilized…

When we open our hearts to this in-breaking Spirit of God, we do indeed break out of our shells, and our roots sink deep into the life of Christ…

And who knows what will happen…

 

Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Lent V, Year B
John 12:20-33
March 22, 2015

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