The gospel reading for this week records Jesus saying,
“I assure you that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it can only be a single seed. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever.” (John 12:24-25)
The text reminds me of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic “A Wrinkle in Time” – the young adult fiction recently made into a major motion picture.
Meg, the young protagonist in the novel, has answered the call to rescue her father and also little brother, Charles Wallace, from the grip of Evil itself. It finally comes to her that the only weapon she has which the evil IT does not have, is love.
That was what she had that IT did not have.
She had Mrs. Whatsit’s love, and her father’s, and her mother’s, and the real Charles Wallace’s love, and the twins’, and Aunt Beast’s.
And she had her love for them.
But how could she use it? What was she meant to do?
If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.
But she could love Charles Wallace.
She could stand there and love Charles Wallace. (P. 228-229)
Even if that meant that she died herself…
Meg knew her limits and her weaknesses. She had the capacity to love, but not enough to love away all that was evil in the universe. In our faith tradition, we know that only Jesus was able to do that fully as he points the way to that in our text.
Even so, Meg was called to risk her life for the sake of the life of another.
Today’s gospel reading is more easily illustrated in books and movies than in our real lives, though we surely see how Jesus’ own life is a perfect example of seed dying, being buried in the ground, and bearing much fruit. It’s a beautiful image, yes?
But here’s the thing. Jesus is not simply speaking of his own death. He is instructing his followers. “Those who love their lives will lose them, and those who hate their lives in this world will keep them forever.” We are also called to die. To despise and let go of these lives that we love.
For us – Christians who live in freedom and relative comfort – this is a difficult concept. Because our own lives are rarely at risk for true religious persecution or extreme physical danger, we often try to make sense of it in one of two ways – spiritual or theoretical. When we spiritualize these instructions, we reduce the mandate to die to self-improvement strategies. We think we’ve done the dying when we’ve become a little more loving or kind or patient or self-controlled. We’ve also understood this concept to be theoretical — why, we don’t really have to die… we just need to be willing to do so on the off chance that a situation might present itself.
I don’t think Jesus is speaking in oversimplified spiritual or theoretical terms here. The text is located near the end of Jesus’ life, and we read it today near the end of an entire holy season – Lent – devoted to dying. My impression is that Jesus took this dying stuff pretty seriously.
Throughout this season we have used some thematic emphases that have been moving us through the dying process.
In week #1 we were called to Environmental Justice… to put to death all the ways in which we abuse and harm the earth and her creatures.
In week #2 we were called to Racial Justice… to put to death all our faulty and sinful attitudes, assumptions, and actions toward persons of color.
In week #3 we were called to heal exploitation and exclusion based on Gender & Sexuality… to put to death the ways in which we hurt people by labeling them or limiting them based gender & sexuality.
Last week #4 we were called to overcome a Culture of Violence… to put to death the ways in which we hurt others verbally and physically instead of loving them as God loves them.
This week we are called to overcome a Culture of Greed… to put to death our own personal tendencies to be tight-fisted, to put to death our assumptions about wealth and poverty, to put to death the ways in which we participate and perpetuate systems that allow a few to accumulate gross riches and keep others poor.
All this dying that Jesus calls us to is real dying. And it’s not the pretty, peaceful, die-in-your-sleep-and-wake-up-in-glory kind. It is the painful, hanging-on-a-cross-suffocating kind. It is agony to put to death the attitudes and assumptions on which we’ve built our entire lives. It is ugly to look at the ways in which we’ve hurt others and deceived ourselves. It is emotional to let go of everything we’ve been taught and believed to be true. But, the only way to resurrection is through crucifixion.
This is the cost of the cross.
On this day when we consider the cost of the cross, we are called to overcome a culture of greed.
We have the gospel text which speaks of seeds dying, falling to the ground, and bearing much fruit, as well as losing our lives in this world in order to find them for eternity.
I have to admit… I was struggling to connect the scripture with the theme until late in the week. While waiting in airports and flying, I picked up a book that I started to read but didn’t finish several months ago, and I’ve been plowing through it since Thursday.
“A World of Three Zeros: The New Economics of Zero Poverty, Zero Unemployment, and Zero Net Carbon Emissions,” by the Nobel Peace Prize winning economist, Muhammad Yunus, is fascinating.
In this book Yunus asserts that a World of Three Zeros is actually possible… that poverty, unemployment, and carbon emissions are human problems with human solutions. He is not a proponent of socialism or communism, and he is not a wealth redistributionist or progressive taxationist.
He begins by naming the inherent flaws and problems with our present economic system. At the core we find personal profit or gain — indifference towards others that breeds greed, exploitation, and selfishness. And he asks readers to consider whether they really want to live in a world where selfishness is the highest virtue. (p. 11)
That is a question worth pondering, yes?
According to him, “a fundamental change in the way we think about economics is necessary.”(p. 8) In other words, something has to die. He calls for us to put to death our assumptions about personal profit and unbridled selfishness so that a new economic engine might be born — one that embraces social businesses based on selflessness, that replaces the assumption that people are simply job seekers with the notion that all people are entrepreneurs, and that redesigns the financial system to make it work efficiently for the people at the bottom.
He doesn’t say it exactly this way, but his theories prioritize human dignity and the inherent worth of every individual. This economic vision of his sounds very much like the way of Jesus. He speaks of “a new economic system designed to truly serve the needs of real human beings, creating a world in which everyone has the opportunity to fulfill his or her creative potential.” (p. 16) Not only does he cast a vision for a more just economy and thus, a more just world, he outlines attainable ways of getting there — harnessing both the entrepreneurial spirit, energy, and creativity of young people and the extensive wisdom, skills, and resources of post-workforce people (he hates the term ‘retired’).
I should also note that attainable does not necessarily equate with easy or comfortable. When old systems die to make way for new, it’s painful.
I’m nearly finished with the book now – one more section to go. And I’m considering ways in which I contribute to and perpetuate an economic system that benefits me and people like me but excludes and even harms others. These things are hard to think about, and changing my assumptions and habits are even harder. Parts of me will have to die.
But, I’m hopeful that if the seeds of my self-interest and greed die and fall to the ground, one day there will be a harvest of fruit — maybe even a World of Three Zeros. Perhaps you share this hope, too.
Jesus calls us to new life. And it will cost us our lives — the comfortable ones we’ve come to love. Jesus beckons us to lose them now so that we might keep them for eternity.
THE TIME HAS COME
by Andrew King
The time is here: be lifted, Human One,
to glorify the God whose rule is love;
the hour of sacrifice is why you’ve come.
Now may we hear the voice that speaks above!
The time is ripe: be planted, Faithful Seed,
to be the grain that life abundant gives.
Teach us the death-to-self that is our need —
that willingness to serve is how to live.
The time is now: shine out, O Lord of Light
into our hearts, into the shadowed earth;
show us the way to love; give us the sight
that sees in every soul eternal worth.
The time has come: be lifted, Holy One,
to draw all people to your saving grace;
as children of your light may we become
the ones who share your love through time and space.