Toorak Uniting Church

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To die to live

John 12: 20 – 33
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
9:00am, 2 April 2006

The grain of wheat that didn’t want to die…….
(The conceited wheat grain)

In the field stood an ear of wheat, full of lovely, ripe, yellow grains of wheat. She swayed in the wind together with all the other ears of wheat that were in the field, making a soft rustling sound. The ear softly whispered to her children, the grains: "Children it won’t be long now, I am getting old. My colour is slowly changing to burned orange and I think I am going to die. That doesn’t matter so much, because I will have done my duty when I do. You are here now, and you are now more important than me."

After I die some of you will go to the mill and there you will be ground to fine flour. That may sound like an awful fate, but actually it is not that bad. You’ll be taken to the bakers and he will make bread of you. Human children will enjoy eating it and it will make them grow. And so you will become part of a human child, make it grow and flourish with the nutrients you have to offer. And that is very important.
Others will go into the seed trays. They’ll be sown out next year and disappear underground. They will die, like those of you who will go to the miller to be ground. But much good will come of it. A green shoot will start growing out of your heart and over time you will then become a splendid ear, like me. You will make sure there will be new grains for next year, and the year after. To provide humans with bread and new seeds.

Some time later the mother ear died.

The farmer came with a huge harvester and mowed the field. In the treshing machine the grains were pummelled around so they separated from each other and the stalk. Some were put in a bag to go to the miller. They were ground until they became the finest flour. Then they were taken to the bakers who baked lovely bread with them. And a child ate the bread and grew a little bit taller. They were now a tiny part of the child.
The others were with many, many others in the seed tray.

One of the small grains in the tray however decided it wanted to be different. It thought: I am grateful I didn’t go to the miller. I would have been ground to fine flour by now. And I don’t want to be put in the ground either. I don’t want to die. I want to stay the way I am. And he quietly moved himself off to the farthest corner of the seed tray and hid himself in a crack.

Spring came and the farmer came to collect the grains from the barn for sowing. He sowed every day until the tray was empty and all the grains gone. Only our little grain was still in the tray, hiding, safely in it’s crack in the faraway corner.
So far, so good it thought, I am ok, I am still alive and well!

Summer came and outside new ears of wheat grew. The sun and the rain made sure they grew into large, lovely ears bursting with new grains ready to be harvested when autumn came.

Part of them went to the miller. They were ground to fine flour and used to bake bread. Children ate the bread and grew, just a tiny bit taller.
Another part ended up in the seed tray. Our grain, still hidden in its crack, saw them coming. They looked really fresh and he realised that he looked a bit dry in comparison. But he was safe, and that was the important thing.

Spring came. Again the farmer came and took the grains to sow them out in the field. After the farmer had emptied the tray our little grain was still safely hidden in the crack. Good it thought, I am safe here, I will never have to die…..

In autumn once again the seeding tray was filled with freshly harvested grains. In spring they were sown out once again and again in the autumn fresh grains ended up in the seeding tray……. And again…….. and again…..

By now the difference between the grain in the crack and the others was becoming more and more pronounced. He looked dry and his skin was dull and wrinkled, while the others looked fresh and shiny in comparison. But he had not died! He was still alive!

And once again the farmer came to do the sowing. This time when the tray was empty, the farmers wife offered to give the barn a really good clean. She swept the floor and after she had done that, she decided the seed trays needed a good wipe too. So she took them outside and shook them vigorously until all the dust was gone. The little grain desperately tried to hold on to the tray, but unfortunately by now he had shrunk so much he could not hold on to the sides of the crack. He fell out, onto the sand in the yard and only a short time later the farmer came and trod on him, burying him beneath the sand. The rain came and winter started, he became very wet and very cold.

He thought: Now I will die after all. He started to feel really awful and looked hopefully at his heart to see if a small green shoot would start growing there. But nothing happened. He turned a dirty brown colour instead.

Then the grain died the true death.

Most of us, I think, will have recognised ourselves or at least have felt sympathy for the grain in the story we just read.
Most of us are reluctant to die, and most of us will prefer to hide rather than give ourselves to processes of deep and disturbing change that are sure to alter us forever.
Even if life isn’t one hundred percent fantastic as it is, we still tend to cling to what we know rather than to embark on an adventure into the unknown.

To be taken to the mill knowing you’ll be pummelled and ground until any resemblance to your former self is gone is a daunting process, even if you know you may end up feeding and nurturing after the process has come to its completion.
To be buried in the dark, dank earth, to wait for a shoot of new and promising life to rise from your heart not something that will be lightly undertaken or easily entered into.

We are talking existential change here. Change that reaches the core of one’s being, change that not only alters the outward appearance of things but the most intimate inside of oneself.

It is that kind of change Jesus talks about when he talks about the wheat grain and how it has to die. He talks about his own fate, the journey that lies before him, to the cross and beyond it. And he talks about the journey of those who want to follow him. To be his disciples, to truly live a life of faith, they themselves will have to go through that process of deep and absolute change like grains that die to rise to new and different life.

This is not to exalt suffering, or promote it, it is not even, in any particular way referring to the self avowing Christianity has so diligently promoted over the centuries. It is not about that. To lose one’s life is more than just some unselfish serving of others or abandoning privileges. Sure enough it will probably involve that too, in the end, but what is more important and of more consequence is something else:
to lose one’s life in the way Jesus did means a giving up of all control and certainly and go into something as daunting and uncompromising as death itself trusting that God, somehow, will bring nurture and growth from it.
It is about entering the night with the "thy will be done" of Gethsemane on our lips, and surrender without any reserve or holding back to a process we know will completely and utterly change us.

So far it probably is still theory isn’t it?

To bring it a little bit closer to home I’d like you to think of something that is really daunting or challenging in your life. Something that involves control, or the fear of losing control, something you hesitate to enter into because you are not sure what the outcome may be if you did.

Facing that problem in your marriage that has been gnawing away at your heart for a while but is just too daunting to acknowledge for instance, or talk to the friend you are growing away from because you are too much of a coward to bring up things that have been souring your relationship for a while now. Perhaps it is time for a change of direction at work even if it may involve risking a steady income and good prospects, or maybe there is something else that has made you feel as if you are dying slowly that needs to be shaken out of the seeding tray to find a place to grow.

I also thought of our life as a Church. Aren’t we at time too cautious? Hanging on for dear life and trying to hold on to what does not give life unwilling to trust God will bring makes us grow if we let go?

It is hard isn’t it? To let go, to trust, to surrender to a process that involves such unsettling challenges to our status quo?
In private as well as in our life as a community. Because it seems so much easier, so much more comfortable not to.

The gospel tells us however that real growth and real change only comes after profound and major change. New life is born out of death, light comes out of darkness, growth occurs where all hope seemed lost.

Life, in a biblical sense, is only worth living if it is prepared to die, will only yield more life, be able to nurture and nourish life if it is prepared to surrender itself. If it is prepared to give itself away in trust that somehow, something new will grow, even if we, in our limited understanding can’t see, right away, how and where.

Many grains were ground together for the bread we are breaking. Many grapes were squeezed to make the juice we will drink. We are like those grains: in need of some rigorous processing before we can come to our full potential and be sources of life, light and nourishment in the world.
We are like that bread: brought together to be something that would be beyond us if we were to venture into it on our own. Called to let ourselves be shaped, trusting that God’s hand will give that shaping direction and purpose.
Amen.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2006


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