Lent 5 / Year B
The Ohio Mart is a yearly fall festival held in Akron a few blocks from where I grew up. Venders of all sorts come from all over the Buckeye State to pedal their wares. And speaking of buckeyes and boyhood, one year my friends and I got the idea we could sell the little brown nuts at the mart for 25¢ a pop. So we hopped on our bikes and scoured most of the northwest portion of the city; hitting up every buckeye tree we knew of and finding others along the way. When all was said and done, we had filled fives grocery bags with buckeyes, which, if our plans had hatched, would have netted enough money to put each of us through college. Well, my parents popped our balloon by telling us no one was going to give us a quarter for something they could pick up off the ground themselves (a fatal flaw in our business model, to be sure). So the bags of buckeyes got shoved into a corner of our garage where they sat unattended over the course of the winter.
We had a little tradition in our house known as “The Spring Cleaning of the Garage.” I had forgotten all about my fall collecting spree, but when they got uncovered, the bags, which had soaked up water, were falling apart and everyone agreed it was my responsibility to clean up the rotting mess. Well, it turns out, of the hundreds and hundreds of buckeyes that spent a cold, dark, damp winter in our garage, one managed to sprout. I planted it in a random location in a flower bed and by the end of the summer it had grown enough it needed a more permanent home. After a couple of years, it became apparent the space was not going to be sufficient for the tree, so I moved it again. That little seed, which began its journey in a bag in a corner of our garage and was transplanted twice, eventually became the largest tree in the neighborhood. Had I not picked it up from where it fell, most likely it would have ended up as little more than a mid-winter snack for a squirrel.
In today’s gospel reading we find Jesus just days from being arrested and crucified. He seems ready to discuss what is about to happen, but no one seems to understand what he is talking about. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains a single grain,” he says. “But if it dies it bears much fruit.” When it comes to seeds, we get it. But when it comes to how we live our lives, it touches on one of life’s great paradoxes: The more you assert yourself, the less you produce. The more you let go, focus on what lies beyond you, and look to God to work through you, the more your life will be of benefit to others. Live for yourself alone and your will be limited. Learn to let go and live for something bigger than yourself and you will play a role in some amazing things.
Every seed has within it an embryo, which, though tiny, contains the potential for greatness (given the right conditions to support it). Each embryo has an “on” and “off” switch. The “on” switch only gets activated after the seed has been in the ground for forty days at a temperature of 40°. Any colder than this and the switch stays at “off.” Technically, we should describe this state as being “dormant”, but for all intents and purposes the seed is dead unless something outside of it acts upon it.
Every seed is also encased with an outer coating to protect it from premature exposure to outside elements. Once the temperature is right and the “on” switch is activated, the coating begins to break down. This allows water and oxygen to interact with the embryo, producing proteins and sugars. The embryo begins to break open, sending shoots downward (which become roots) and upward (which becomes a sprout). This life-force truly is a miracle of God’s design and, like my buckeye tree, grows to yield more fruit than anyone would ever dare to imagine.
According to Jesus, what is true of a seed is also true of the spiritual life. Each of us has an “off” switch and an “on” switch, neither of which we have any control over. The spiritual life is not a matter of saying to oneself, “I have to try to be a better person” or any of its other sibling and cousin expressions which put the onus on you to make yourself into something you are not. Like a seed, each of us has tremendous potential. And like the seed, none of us can harness our potential without dying to self and allowing God to take over.
When I first got into the ministry as a lay person doing youth work I had a very high opinion of myself. I thought I was talented, charismatic, educated, knowledgeable, articulate, interesting, holy, and blessed (among other things). Life has a way of bringing us up short and teaching us the painful lesson we are not all that. The teachings come time and again through small setbacks and every now and then as a devasting and humbling failure. But if we understand the meaning of these lessons we begin to learn the importance of dying to self in order to allow something better and beyond us to live in and through us.
In a thousand different ways life will teach you that you are not the center of the universe. It will beckon you to forsake your self-centeredness, your preoccupation with success, and your obsession with what others think of you. Life will try to lead you to the truth so beautifully articulated by the Prayer of St. Francis: it is better to console than to be consoled, to understand than to be understood, to love than to be loved, for it is in giving we receive, in pardoning we are pardoned, and it is in dying we begin to open ourselves to eternal life. When we live for self alone the switch to a better life is on “off”, but when we die to self it gets flipped to “on”. Amazing things begin to happen through us, but not because of us.
And, according to Jesus, all of this figurative dying is a foretaste of the literal experience of death… that moment when our body no longer will have life in it. While the switch may be flipped to “off”, through the saving action of the Resurrected Christ we are assured this is not at all the end, only a transition. And if you had never seen a buckeye before and I handed one to you, you would have no idea the gigantic and fruitful tree it one day could become. It is the same for us with the life to come. St. Paul wrote this to the Church in Corinth: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no heart has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Cor. 2:9). Praise be to God this new and glorious existence beyond imaging is now the reality experience by all those we love, but see no longer. One day we will have a share and portion in it as well. Until then, we focus on letting go in order to live in this world for something bigger and better than ourselves.