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Jeremiah 31:31-34, from the Common English Bible
John 12:20-33, from the Common English Bible
I don’t know about you, but if I were introduced to someone at a party—or if, say, I got to meet a beloved author at a book signing, or shake hands with a powerful politician working a rope line—and that person immediately launched into some mumbo jumbo about death and dying, loving and losing, being buried and bearing fruit . . .
I don’t know about you, but I think I might be a little confused.
I just wanted to see Jesus.
You see, Jesus, I was just hoping some of your healing mojo would rub off on me.
You see, I just wanted to know for myself if everything I’ve heard about you is true.
You see, I wanted to ask you if Lazarus was really dead when you called him out of that tomb, all stinky and shrouded.
You see, I wanted to find out if you might be the one we’ve been waiting for. I heard about what you did in the temple, and I was hoping the Romans would be next. I wanted to share some of your glory—you do know that everyone is talking about you, don’t you?
You see, Jesus, I wanted to you to work a little of your holy magic on me. God feels so far away—but you are right here, and so I wanted to come close.
Oh, Jesus, I’m not really sure what I want. Sometimes I feel so small and alone. My life is so difficult. Sometimes I think that good, little people like me don’t stand a chance against the evil powers of this world.
I guess what I really wanted, Jesus, was for you to fix me and my life—or at least to tell me how.
Instead, you’re talking about seeds? Instead, you want me to hate my life? And after saying all that, you expect me to follow you?
I don’t know about you, but I could imagine feeling and thinking all those things, if not actually saying them. I could imagine walking away—not quickly, but with the slow, plodding movements of someone crushed by disappointment and uncertain as to what to do next. I could imagine being angry with myself for getting my hopes up, for letting myself believe.
But then—well, I would like to think that I would keep thinking about what he had said, that I would lie awake at night trying to puzzle it out. I would think about seeds and how they have to die and crack open before than can grow. I would try to put myself in Jesus’ shoes and wonder why he would say such a thing.
And then later—after they killed him, and all—I might find myself wondering if he had known the end was near. If he really had been trying to help me. If he had been trying to boil down the good news, to synthesize all the love, to telegraph God’s dream for the world, all in one simple, universal image: that of a seed.
I’m not going to lie to you: It would be a bit of a stretch. I mean, I would have never thought of myself as a seed before. Right? I mean, who does that?
But there is a certain mysterious logic to it. Right?
I would like to think I would remember that old Mexican proverb, the one that goes: They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.
Actually, I wouldn’t know it was a Mexican proverb until I did a little research. For a while I had been seeing versions of it on signs at all the protest marches I went to. Because there was so much injustice, there were many marches. It was because the powers we marched against seemed so overwhelming and the odds so strongly stacked against us that protestors had begun thinking—consciously or not—about what it would mean to lose the struggle. Even as they marched in defiance and hope, they never stopped thinking about the possibility of defeat; they were realists, after all. But they believed right would triumph, eventually.
And so they kept making signs and banners. They held them high at the women’s marches. They carried them proudly in Charlottesville, and then carried them weeping after Charlottesville. They carried those seed signs in Parkland, Florida, and I’m guessing they’ll carry them again this Saturday in countless marches against gun violence.
They tried to bury us, the signs said. They didn’t know we were seeds.
Go ahead, the signs implied. Fire us, arrest us, deport us, defeat us, imprison us—kill us, even. But you will not be rid of us. We will be back, and there will be more of us than ever before.
It occurred to me thatthe powerful people of the world probably do not think of themselves as seeds. Only the oppressed and persecuted, only those whose lives are a constant struggle for justice would do that. Only the poor and left out would find hope in the prospect of burial. Only those with faith in something stronger than death would be able to think beyond that final fall into the dark dirt.
Only the very son of God, while preparing to surrender his own life, while staring death in the face and grieving all he would leave behind, would think to give his followers such a beautiful and lasting gift: the image of a seed and, in that image, the gospel truth that a certain kind of death must come before new life can be born, and the resurrection truth that letting go can seed a mighty harvest.
They didn’t try to bury him; they did bury him.
But like a seed, he came up out of the ground. Like seeds that are loved and cared for, collected and preserved and shared, watered and watched over, his life goes on and on and on and on.
I remember one of his offspring, the Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero. On March 24, 1980, he was preaching on this same hard saying of Jesus.
“You have just heard in Christ’s gospel,” Romero said, “that one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and that those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives, while those who out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others will live, live like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently. If it did not die,” the archbishop continued, “it would remain alone. The harvest comes about only because it dies, allowing itself to be sacrificed in the earth and destroyed. Only by undoing itself does it produce the harvest.” 1
Romero had known something about getting involved in the risks that history demands. He had seen El Salvador’s National Guard and death squads tighten their grip on his country, massacring the poor and those who served them. The day before he preached about the grain of wheat “allowing itself to be sacrificed in the earth,” he had preached directly to the National Guard. “In the name of this suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous,” he had said. “I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression!”
The next evening, he spoke of the “spirit of giving and of sacrifice.” And “as he finished his homily and began to walk towards the altar” 2 to celebrate communion, he was gunned down.
They buried him, but he was a seed. His example of nonviolent Christian solidarity with the poor lives on, and later this year or early next year the Roman Catholic Church will make him a saint.
I think about this, and I think about other seeds we have known: not only the martyrs, but also the saints among us, our owned loved ones.
I can feel myself starting to fall down a rabbit hole. But then I realize that Jesus wasn’t talking about death; he was talking about life. He wasn’t talking about martyrs and saints; he was talking about us. He was talking about me. He was talking about you.
I, too, am like a grain of wheat. Your life, too, can be a seed. Our lives, too, can bear much fruit.
But first we have to let go of the things that get in the way. We have to give up everything that excludes anyone from God’s vision of life abundant. We need to sacrifice our complicity with systems of oppression. We need to love God and the well-being of all God’s children more than we love power, wealth, and our own comfort. We need to die to our self-serving isolation and open our hearts to life in community with others. We need to love healing and freedom more than resentment and regret. We need to bury all that baggage we’ve been lugging around. We need to love our enemies instead of loving to hate them. We need to trust so completely in the as-yet-unseen glory of God’s reign that we’re willing to subvert the rulers of this world. We need to follow the Jesus way instead of our way.
Now is the time.
So let us fall, willingly and lovingly, into the rich earth. May all that is not life-giving be dead and buried. Because we are seeds.
Behold, spring is coming. Even now the ground of our hearts softens and opens to allow new life to burst forth.