This congregation is blessed with a bounty of fine preachers. Our clergy, along with staff and laity bring a wide array of voices and perspectives to this pulpit.
When create the schedule or the rota of preaching for each season, I don’t intentionally try to match up the scriptures with the preacher. I trust that the Holy Spirit will do that work.
Indeed, She does. And with a sense of humor, of course; at least for me.
My beloved Claudia and I have been preparing to move when I retire at the end of the summer. Last week we sold our house and were blessed to find short-term lodging for the duration. Since Christmas we have been packing and giving things away. Meanwhile I keep getting to preach on gospels about losing your life to find it….
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“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
We don’t know who approached Jesus’ follower Philip with that request. And the gospel doesn’t tell whether those unnamed Greeks actually got their wish.
The text says that Jesus “answered” them. Often in the gospels, Jesus answers a provocative question from an antagonist with another question. But here, Jesus’ reply is a metaphorical forecast of the arc of his destiny: from death to resurrection to ascension.
It may seem like a complete non-sequitur, as well as a very dramatic response to a simple request.
So it’s helpful to recall where we are in Jesus’ story.
Although it’s only the twelfth chapter in John, Jesus and his disciples have already come “up to Jerusalem” for the climactic Passover. In the preceding verses Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead provoking the religious authorities to plot to kill him AND Lazarus. Now it is timely for Jesus to share thoughts about his impending death with his disciples.
He casts it in a poignant metaphor of sacrifice: the grain of wheat that must die to “bear fruit”. Indeed, Jesus would die, and his death and resurrection would bear unimaginably abundant fruit.
Still, the fact is that the grain of wheat doesn’t die. Instead, like the caterpillar that becomes a butterfly, the grain is transformed into a new plant. It undergoes a metamorphosis, as Jesus would from his finite life into the eternal one. One key difference: Jesus rose in just three days, while most metamorphoses in nature take longer. For instance, a seed can lie in the ground for a very long time until the conditions are right for it to begin grow.
The central tenet of our faith is that death is not the end: passing from this mortal life, we ourselves rise, somehow, to another. It’s a mystery we’ll discover in the fullness of time.
In the meanwhile, we live in hope and trust. And all through life, we die and rise–again and again. We each have countless, transformative “little deaths” that allow us to grow into the next stage of life. We see it most obviously and joyfully in our children. It seems like some of your children grow an inch a week! When Clara and Shane moved here, their daughter Rosemary was an adorable babe in arms. Every Sunday in church and on Wednesday night children’s choir suppers we have witnessed her gradual transformation. Now, looking back we can see how that baby passed on to make way for the two-year-old (still adorable, of course) who has her own ideas and who marches up to the stage to join the Children’s Choir when they perform.
Parents also have to be in constant transformation to keep up. As children move from diapers to ABCs to AP Organic Chemistry, parents leave behind the skills they needed to care for them at each stage. Children’s progress isn’t always steady, of course: there are moments when a child reverts. I recall a friend’s exasperation when her son had graduated from Rice University. She said, “I never thought I would have a twenty-two year old four-year old.”
Most “little deaths,” like those of a growing child or maturing adult, are a timely part of the natural order. But others are not. They are visited upon us, uninvited and unwelcome: like when a key relationship ends or a job does; when an injury halts a favorite activity; when a dramatic diagnosis derails a life in progress. That is when Jesus’ words really come home and we better grasp what it truly means to “lose your life”.
It’s what happened to The Very Rev. Tracey Lind when she was about sixty. Tracey was in her prime as Dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Cleveland when she began to behave strangely a couple of years ago. Her staff noticed that she was forgetting conversations and details she never would have before. One day at the office she looked in the mirror and did not recognize her own face. Then, she and her beloved spouse Emily Ingalls began to seek medical help. Tracey was diagnosed with early-stage fronto-temporal dementia. It is an incurable, progressive disease.
Tracey retired from Trinity, and for a time she withdrew. Then her call to ministry was transformed. She recognized that the shame and silence around dementia was like the past attitude toward people with cancer or AIDS or domestic violence. She decided to lift the shroud around dementia by sharing her own experience. Today, with the invaluable support of her spouse, she teaches and preaches all over the world on dementia “from the inside out”.
When I heard her speak a few months ago, she began, matter of factly, with a sobering list of losses. Here are some of them: she is an eloquent writer who struggles to find words, a devoted cyclist losing her balance, a guitar player who cannot remember the chords, a sailor who has forgotten the knots.
Then she talked about what she has gained in this transformation, including a closer, stronger partnership with Emily, and an existential experience of her faith. Well known scriptures have new, personal meaning.
She writes powerfully on her blog, “Tracey Lind. Interrupted by God.” Here’s a quote from a sermon she posted:
I have come to understand more profoundly what’s it’s like to sing the blues in the presence of God. … Like many people who receive a terminal diagnosis, I found myself in a season of relief, grief and escape. Both Emily and I played our song of a lament – like a favorite, but broken record – over and over again.
By giving myself permission to acknowledge the devastation that I was feeling, I allowed myself to grieve, lament and begin the process of dying to the life I had always known and being reborn to something new. Through my lament – my crying out to God – through facing my own Good Friday head-on, I came to a new place in myself.
Even though I knew that this wasn’t going to be a fun ride, I wanted and needed to live what I had been preaching for over 30 years: out of pain comes joy, out of brokenness comes wholeness, and out of death comes new life.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Jesus’ lengthy reply to that request was not a non-sequitur.
It was an invitation. If we “wish to see Jesus,” we can follow him. Follow Jesus into the hard places, as Tracey Lind and Emily Ingalls are doing together. Accept the arc of our own destiny. Seek God’s presence and God’s will in each transformation, and glorify God in every resurrection.