Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, March 25, 2012. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, All Saints Parish, Brookline, MA.
|Jeremiah 31:31-34||Hebrews 5:5-10|
|Psalm 51:1-13||John 12:20-33|
Being willing to die and bear fruit
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
The last time I stood in this pulpit was eight years ago, and what a joy it is to return to this beautiful space, to look out at so many familiar faces, and to enjoy the company of those who discovered All Saints sometime after my family and I headed out to western Massachusetts. I bring greetings from Grace Church in Amherst, and I want to thank your rector, my friend and colleague David Killian, as well as Marianne Evett and the Adult Education Committee, for asking me to come this weekend.
Our Lenten season of prayer and self-examination invites us to bring before God our deepening concern about the health of God’s precious, unrepeatable, fragile Creation. We just experienced what’s being called “the winter that never was.” 1 You noticed that, right? Winter 2012 will go down as the fourth warmest winter on record for the contiguous United States, according to the National Climatic Center. 2 And now, with a mixture of pleasure and uneasiness, we’re experiencing a spring that seems ready to catapult us into a very early summer. The decade from 2000 to 2010 was the warmest on record, and 2005 and 2010 tied for the hottest years ever recorded. 3 We know that heat-trapping gases are accumulating in the atmosphere, mostly because of the burning of fossil fuels, and those gases are driving the Earth’s climate beyond the relatively stable range within which human civilization developed over the past 10,000 years. On average, the Earth has already warmed about one degree worldwide, and the Earth’s temperature is not only rising — it’s rising increasingly fast. Already we are starting to experience the extreme weather events — droughts, floods, and storms — that are associated with an unstable climate. A new study shows that since 2006, four out of five Americans have been affected by weather-related disasters. 4 Immediately I think of the unprecedented heat and downpours that New England endured last year, the tornadoes that took down areas in towns near my house, the hurricane that blew through with its drenching rains, and the weird and massive snowstorm in late October that leveled trees and knocked out our heat and electricity for five days.
I mean — come on! I’ve been thinking about climate change for years, but now it’s starting to get personal. I’m noticing its effects not as a distant possibility in a far off place in the far off future, but as something that is affecting me, and the people I love, right here, right now. Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben puts it like this in his recent book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet: global warming is not just a future threat. It is, he writes, “no longer a threat at all. It’s our reality. We’ve changed the planet, changed it in large and fundamental ways… Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen.” 5
Am I the only one who experiences a certain disquiet as we contemplate this new reality? I don’t think so. When it comes to the climate crisis, many of us feel a sense of urgency. As Christians, we long to know how to face the peril of this moment with all the wisdom, courage, and resilience that a loving God can give us. We want to find a way of life and a way of being that enable us not only to live skillfully in the present, but also to look ahead to the future with confidence and hope. Like the unnamed Greeks in today’s Gospel story from John, “we wish to see Jesus” (John 12:21). We want to move out of our inertia, denial, and fear. We want to offer the world — and our children, and our children’s children — more than a shrug of hopelessness or a sigh of resignation. We want to see with the eyes of Christ, to feel with the heart of Christ, to serve with the hands of Christ, and to share with God in the great work of restoring all people and all creation to unity with God and each other in Christ. 6
How do we do that? Today’s Gospel gives us a place to begin. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). This saying of Jesus was so basic to his mission that it shows up in all four Gospels, and twice in Luke (Matthew 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:23-24, Luke 17:33). There is a death we have to die, if we want to save our life — a life we have to lose, if we want to be truly alive.
What needs to die, in order for us to be fully alive? What do we need to relinquish and let go — to drop, to renounce, to stop doing — if we want to create a sustainable human presence on the earth and to become fruitful again? Well, we might start by critiquing our economic system and what the bishops of the Episcopal Church denounce as “unparalleled corporate greed” and “rampant consumerism.” 7 An economy that is sustainable over time is one that honors the gift of Creation and its intricate web of life; it is one that would be sustainable well beyond the lives of our grandchildren. But depending on non-renewable energy and non-renewable resources is by definition unsustainable. Gobbling up resources faster than the planet can replenish them is by definition unsustainable. Producing a killing level of greenhouse gases is by definition unsustainable.
We hear a lot of talk these days about the value of energy independence, 8 but the big problem is not just our country’s reliance on foreign oil, but its reliance on oil, period. The planet’s atmosphere doesn’t care about the source of the oil that we burn. As far as the atmosphere is concerned, it doesn’t matter if the oil we extract comes from the deserts of Saudi Arabia, the tar sands of Canada, or from the bottom of the deep blue sea. What matters is whether or not it gets extracted and burned, for once burned, it releases greenhouse gases that heat up the atmosphere and destabilize the climate. Surely dependence on fossil fuels is one thing that needs to die if we want to create a life-giving society. Like Jesus’ grain of wheat that needs to fall into the earth in order to give life, fossil fuels need very literally to stay in the ground. As Christians we should be advocating for clean, safe, renewable energy, and for economic systems that are sustainable and just, and that don’t tear apart the very fabric of life upon which human beings and all other creatures depend.
So we can hear Jesus’ words as a challenge to social and economic structures that need to be transformed. “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
We can hear these words on a personal level, too. Are we anything like that isolated grain of wheat that refuses to let itself fall into the earth and die? Maybe we’ve developed a hard shell that keeps us isolated and apart, so that we stand in our own little kingdom and are estranged from the people around us. Maybe our lives are closed in on our small ego-self and its insistent ambitions and needs. Maybe we race through the day clenched by anxiety or stress, fearful and holding tight, too busy to see what we’re doing and to let go in love. Maybe we simply feel small — that our lives can’t possibly make a difference, and that essentially we’re on our own. All kinds of things can close us in on ourselves – pride or fear, arrogance or shame. Many of us suffer from the illusion that we are completely separate from each other and that our identity stops with our own skin.
Well, here comes Jesus, telling us not to live like that isolated grain of wheat but to go ahead and die – die to yourself, die to your worries, die to your fear, your judgments, and your shame, and give yourself away in love. Even die to who you think you are. You’re not who you think. God has a larger identity in store for you. And it is waiting for you, right here, right now! Let God break open that hard shell of yours! Step out of your smaller self and into your true, free self in God! We might have to cry when that happens, for it can hurt when we open ourselves in love; and we might have to laugh when that happens, for it brings joy when we give ourselves fully to each moment, with nothing held back. We might have to dance when that happens, and we might have to co-create new ways of living with other people and with nature and with all other creatures.
When our hardened hearts break open – when we die to the habit of self-absorption and self-promotion, and live no longer for ourselves – we begin to perceive and to care about the needs of the world around us. It can start with small things – starting a compost pile or a community garden, buying from local stores, getting an energy audit, or renewing a commitment to recycling more and driving less. This church has led the way in modeling how parish buildings can be made energy-efficient, and maybe there are similar changes we can make in the buildings where we live and work. But there is larger battle on our hands as we struggle to turn back the forces that are driving climate change. Now is the time to throw ourselves into building a diverse, grassroots, bold, visionary, hope-filled, hands-on, feet-on-the-ground, shoulder-to-the-wheel political and social movement that can transform the society in which we live. I am happy to say that Bill McKibben will come to Cambridge one month from now for a “Healing Earth” vigil, dinner, and talk sponsored by Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries, 9 an event linked with Earth Day. and I hope you’ll be there.
There are so many ways that our lives can bear fruit! As we move through this last week of Lent and head with Jesus toward the cross, we look for what needs to die in the social systems around us and what in our own lives needs to die, so that new life can spring up among us and within us.
It is you for whom Christ came into the world, you for whom he died, you whom he now would fill with his presence and his Spirit. Soon we will share the bread and wine of the Eucharist, given to us by God in Christ with such tenderness and at such great cost. We will gather at that holy table, as we always do, so that everything in us and around us can be lifted up and blessed — not only the bread and the wine, but also we ourselves, and the whole creation, every leaf of it and every speck of sand. Sharing the Eucharist helps us to perceive not only our own belovedness, our own blessedness in God, but also the fact that everyone is beloved, everyone is blessed. Everyone and everything is part of a sacred whole, and everyone is kin. In the strength of the blessed and broken bread, and of the blessed and poured-out wine, we dare to hope that human beings will respond with grateful hearts, and come to treat the world not as an object to exploit, but as a gift to receive, as something perishable and precious. We dare to hope that we will become at last who we were made to be, a blessing on the earth.
1. David A. Gabel, “Reflecting on the Winter that Never Was,” www.enn.com
2. Heidi Cullen, “Spring Gets Ahead of Itself,” www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/opinion/spring-gets-ahead-of-itself.html
5. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Times Book, 2010, p. xiii and book jacket. Italics in original.
6. Bishop Ian T. Douglas gave me this re-statement of the Church’s mission, which improves on the one found in The Book of Common Prayer (p. 855, online at http://www.bcponline.org/Misc/catechism.htm#AutoNumber20).
7. “A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of the Episcopal Church” meeting in Hendersonville, North Carolina, March 13-18, 2009 to the Church and our partners in mission throughout the world. [http://www.episcopalchurch.org/79901_106036_ENG_HTM.htm]
8. Clifford Kraus and Eric Lipton, “U.S. Inches Toward Goal of Energy Independence,” New York Times, March 22, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/23/business/energy-environment/inching-toward-energy-independence-in-america.html