Sermon March 18, 2018
Fallen Grain of Wheat
When I was much younger, I had a beautiful little book Hope for the Flowers. It’s one of those nice fairy tales for adults like The Giving Tree. Hope for the Flowers, in case you are not familiar with it, is a story of a caterpillar named Stripe who thinks there should be more to life than just eating. He discovers a pillar made of hundreds of caterpillars trying to reach the sky. He joins in to see what’s in the sky, not knowing that he has the destiny of becoming a butterfly. Some caterpillars fall from the pillar and die, having chased the wrong dream. In the end, thanks to his mate called Yellow, Stripe figures out his destiny and makes a scary journey into his cocoon. He learns that he has to go through death to be reborn as a butterfly. It has a happy ending with Stripe and Yellow reuniting as butterflies.
In today’s gospel story, Jesus teaches something similar. Greeks who were known for their intellectual curiosity sought Jesus out, and Jesus tells his followers about his destiny. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified”, he says. You may not realize it hearing Jesus say it, but for his original audience, what he is saying here is very chocking. Remember, his original followers followed him because they believed that he was the promised Messiah. This Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for is a powerful political leader who would free them from foreign oppressions and re-establish them as God’s chosen people. The term Son of Man comes from the Book of Daniel chapter 7. The Book of Daniel is set during the Babylonian exile period. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, and Persians that oppressed the Jews were so cruel and savage that they had to use a wild beast imagery to portray their enemies. So, if you read about “lion with eagle’s wings” or “bear with the three ribs between it’s teeth”, know that it’s about the brutality of Israel’s oppressors. The term Son of Man came to be because the new leader that God would send to save God’s people was thought to be a gentle and humane leader, as opposed to the beast-like enemies. This is why the promised Messiah is called Son of Man. To his followers who expect him to be a powerful political deliverer, Jesus has to teach that the glory of which he speaks is not the glory they are expecting. His glory will not be on this earth. On this earth, he will have to die on the cross, by which time, a lot of his followers will run away in fear and think their cause lost.
Here, Jesus teaches the paradox that one has to die to gain life. Think of a grain of wheat, or any seeds for that matter. If you keep the seeds safely somewhere, nothing will happen. Life does not happen. They have to be buried underground to be reborn as whatever plant or fruit they were destined to be, and we gain life. Caterpillars have to go into the darkness of a cocoon to be reborn as butterflies. We gain life, a different life than caterpillars. Think of human history, including but not limited to Church history. There were brave men and women who gave their life for noble causes. In dying, they inspired the living about bravery, loving and serving others, and standing up for what one believes in. Church history has a lot of martyrs who spread faith with their bravery. Their brave death inspired more and more people into the Kingdom of God. I am also remembering Father Maximilian Kolbe who, while detained in Auschwitz, volunteered to die instead of a family man. He was put in the starvation bunker. Usually, those about to die this long and painful death usually lose humanity, but Father Maximilian comforted them and led them in prayers. This Father wouldn’t die, so the Nazis had to inject him with poison in the end. Do you think the man whose life was saved by the sacrifice of this priest could have lived a selfish life? Could you? Wouldn’t you spend the rest of your life trying to make his sacrifice worth it with a life of humble service? This is how great men and women create life by laying down theirs.
But as I mentioned before, we do not live in a time and place where we have to risk our safety and lives to be Christians. Then how may we lay down our lives so we may gain life? We can sacrifice our personal desires and ambitions to be the workers of God’s kingdom. By laying down our greed and personal desires, we can be involved in life-giving services, giving hope and life to those who are marginalized.
The Jeremiah text we read today speaks of God making covenant with Israel. Covenant? What Covenant? Didn’t God already make a covenant with Israel hundreds of years before the exile and the prophet Jeremiah? You’re right; the covenant happened during the time of Abraham and offspring, and after the Exodus with the Ten Commandments in the desert. But this covenant of which Jeremiah speaks is different from the original one. Long time before Jeremiah, God made a covenant with the Israelites and promised to bless them IF (and only if) they abide by God’s commandments. Where did this covenant lead the people? Disobedience leading to endless foreign invasions and exile. Now ‘tis the time of exile and prophets of God preaching their people that they should repent and come back to God. This prophet is proclaiming the covenant of God, but this time, God’s law will be written in the people’s hearts, so they will not break it like before.
Think of what we have been reflecting on lately; God’s Spirit, walking with God, etc. This bit about writing God’s law in the people’s hearts reminds us of the Holy Spirit that is within us and guiding us daily. This law of God written in the hearts of God’s people, this Spirit of God that is in us and living with us, will inspire us to lay down our personal ambitions and greed so that we might be involved in hope-giving and life-giving ministry. Remember the caterpillar that lays down its life as a caterpillar to be reborn as a butterfly. Remember Jesus’ teaching about being the salt of the earth; salt melts into different food items and “die” to prevent them from going bad. Also remember the seeds that “die” and are buried in the ground for a new life to be born and grow. During this Lent, let us hear and feel the Spirit in us inspiring us to live a life-giving life. Let us be the grains of wheat and foster life. Let us be salt and make the world healthy and alive. May God’s Spirit living in us guide us to a life of hope-giving and life-giving services.
Rev. Sunny Kim