A Mountain Ash and a
John 12: 20-33
God of old ways dying and new ways being born, we know that only if a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies will it bear much fruit. But we do not know for sure what will come after we die. The uncertainty may make us anxious. If so, we may want to deny death and refuse to break away from our old ways of living and hang on to what we are used to. In this last week of our Lenten journey, we look to your guidance to continue our struggle with difficult life questions. Amen.
Last week, taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather, I was busy working in my garden. Cleaning up dead branches on the ground, I was delighted to see all the crocuses in full bloom. I planted them
deep under the grass both along the walk to the
front door and along a flowerbed under the birch trees in my front yard. Some of you may remember the picture of the
crocuses I sent you last year. They have
spread further again this year and came out almost three weeks earlier than
I spent the whole afternoon last Monday, reinstalling a water fountain on the back patio. I love this fountain a friend gave me last year. It is a simple green vase fountain about two feet high and one foot across. Birds and squirrels love it too. Nocturnal animals like racoons must like it at nights. It looks like a tiny, natural spring. Its ever-flowing water mesmerizes me. Its babbling sound allows me to imagine I am sitting by a brook.
My garden has changed quickly. Just a few weeks ago it was dull, grim and silent. Now it has come alive: it is colourful, noisy and fragrant. I know the plants and trees were not dead, but only waiting. But to my eyes, the dead seem to have come to new life all of a sudden. I feel like my garden has been transformed from death to life. This morning, we have a story about death and life from our religious scriptures.
In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus uses the visit of the Greeks as an opportunity to tell his disciples again what lies ahead for him. He is trying to give them a word of hope by comparing his death to the planting of a seed of wheat.
This seed imagery recalls the parables of sowing found in other Gospels, but here Jesus uses the imagery to interpret his own death. What is significant in this parable is the contrast between remaining solitary and “bearing much fruit.” In John, “fruit” is Jesus’ metaphor for the life of the community of faith.
What follows is, “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life (v.25).” This must be read against the backdrop of Jesus’ death. To love one’s life means to love the values of the world as opposed to Jesus’ teachings; it places one outside the community shaped by Jesus’ gift of his life and leads to the loss of that life (v. 25a).
Jesus continues, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour (v.26).” Similar sayings of the condition for following Jesus, like “taking up the cross,” can be found in other Gospels. Here, however, we find both condition and promise. Since Jesus’ ultimate service is the gift of his life in love, the disciples are called to love as he loves and hence to serve as he serves. In addition, the promise of sharing in his glorification is offered. Jesus and the believer will always remain together as God honours them. Mutual relationship among God, Jesus, and believers is promised.
In today’s passage, John’s understanding of Jesus’ death is unique in saying that Jesus is not a victim at his death, but is in complete control. It is clearly not meant to be understood as the sacrifice necessary to be offered for human guilt and sin as in other Gospels. Jesus’ death is both necessary and life-giving because, as a result of it, community is formed, that is, “much fruit.” Let us remember that, whereas the first Gospel, Mark, was written in the early seventies when the
was destroyed by the Romans, John’s Gospel was written at the end of the first
century when the Christian communities had spread significantly. Thus, it is
not surprising that the connection between Jesus’ death and the life of the
believing community is repeatedly stressed.
I have an old mountain ash in my back yard. One of the big branches came down in a winter storm a few months ago. The main trunks are so rotten that it is in danger of falling over a cable line in another storm; it is time to let it go. I have already cut all the branches, except for a couple of the main trunks. I am going to miss it because it provided me with wonderful shade over the back patio during the summertime. The birds are going to miss it more for its berries. I am planning to plant a native tree, like a Kentucky Coffeetree. The mountain ash will be gone, yet, in a sense, give its life to a Kentucky Coffeetree and its surroundings just like a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies in order to bear much fruit.
Looking back, I wonder if what we have done so far since I came here two years ago is like cutting down my mountain ash and planting a Kentucky Coffeetree. One of the major goals of our interim ministry is to be ready to call a new minister to begin a faith journey anew here at Glen Rhodes. We are excited to hear that our Joint Search Committee is almost ready to recommend to us a candidate for our approval in a congregational meeting soon.
As a congregation, we had experienced a great deal of turmoil since the previous minister left suddenly several years back. As the church’s policy of confidentiality came into play, it was difficult for us to discuss the implications for our ministry. Due to this lack of communication and unresolved hurt feelings, tensions were real and emotions ran high.
From the beginning, I recognized this conflict and we worked on it. I read through the various official documents related to the conflict, including the Pastoral Oversight Committee’s reports on this issue. And I have made an effort to listen to both sides without judgment. I have taken advantage of every opportunity to listen to the people directly involved in the conflict. I have met with those individuals with a single purpose, to listen to their understanding of the conflict. I have met with those who left the congregation, visiting them in their work places or inviting them to my office. Most of them have appreciated the opportunity to tell their stories about what happened and ideas of what should have been done differently. From our experience, we have learned how important it is to be able to speak honestly and respectfully with each other.
Now, we are ready to move on. Things have changed. We are now in quite a different place on our journey. There is no point in repeating the same stories of the past. The past is past. It is time for the old mountain ash to go. It is time to plant a new tree. The only question we may ask ourselves is, “What have we learned from that experience?” Such learning from the past will provide us with rich resources for us to begin the journey anew with an incoming minister and grow together in ministry into the future. Today, we are assured that “bearing much fruit” is possible if a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies.
As we approach the final days of our experience of Lent this year, let us consider what in our lives needs to die in order that fresh growth and a renewed spirit might be born in us. This is no easy, idle question. It involves
deep wrestling with our priorities and hard choices,
not unlike the passion of Jesus’ last days. Strength comes from knowing that
‘resurrection’ or ‘new life’ is the assured outcome of this painful
process. Through our struggles with hard
choices, we will be strengthened to continue our Lenten journey toward . Amen. Jerusalem