The following is an excerpt from last Sundays homily at Holy Covenant Evangelical Orthodox Church, Saskatoon, Canada. It has been edited to better fit a blog context.
We are in the thick of Lent and maybe you like me, have failed in some of your Lenten rule? Lent makes me very aware of just how limited my own strength is. The Lenten journey presents me with a fact that I would like to ignore, I can’t make it on my own. I will fail if I try to succeed in my own strength. In my self reliance I will eventually find a very definite end, namely the same end as someone who dies alone.
The mysterious paradox of Lent is that it is a bright journey that leads to our death. It is the embrace of darkness, the walls closing in. We draw close to the things we do not want to confront. We face the monsters we tucked away in days past. All death is certain, and Lent brings us there. It is the most glorious road you can walk on and yet there is only promise of certain defeat. Christ knew that His death was drawing near. He speaks about this in the gospel of St John (Chapter 12); “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.”
Speaking of grain. When was the last time you took the time to bake something. Maybe a nice focaccia or some shortbread cookies? Maybe a nice forrest cake? I’m not very talented when it comes to baking but my great grandma used to be. She had her own bakery in Jonkoping, Sweden. There she would bake all kinds of heavenly tasting dainties. When I was a kid, great grandma had retired since long but she would still bake and bake in her kitchen at home. We, me and my siblings, would peek our heads into her apartment when we visited grandma and grandpa and we wold visit her in her kitchen. She would feed us both baked and non baked goods from her “overloaded-with-dough table”. The house always smelled like 10 million fresh cinnamon buns. Great grandmas name is Gerda and she lived as an “earthling” for 101 years. The final years she didn’t bake much but her apartment still smelled of fresh made buns, cookies and rolls. (My personal favourite was “Vita Grisar”.) The smell lingered. It was a sweet smell. Not only because of all the different things going into the oven but maybe more because that the smell reminded me and all of us of a life of making others happy, a life of service. A life of early mornings, open doors and big smiles.
Great grandma Gerdas life carried on in her children one of them being my grandpa Birger. And in their children one of them being my mom and then in me as well. Great grandma Gerda’s body eventually went into the ground but she lives on in her children and children children in many ways, her recipes being used by us to this day. In death, her legacy was multiplied. She didn’t remain alone. She offered her life back to others. She didn’t withhold her gifts and talents, she shared them. I, we have lots to learn from her. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” She faced certain death, as we all shall do, but life found another way. It was not the end. Not for her recipes nor herself.
It is easy to get stuck in a rut. It is easy to accept the lie that we have to do the same things over and over to be able to make it through life. It is easy to guard our trusted routines and habits against anything that would potentially upset them. We find comfort in the familiar. We find solace in the things we can control. But death is not familiar, it is foreign to us. It is the ultimate unknown. We can not control death. It often comes like a thief in the night. When Christ is speaking about the grain of wheat in John chapter 12 , it is death He is facing. I’m paraphrasing from the chapter: “He who loves his carefully laid out routines, plans and agendas will loose them. He who hates his inability to offer everything back to God will receive this ability for eternity.” What do you think? It is this Jesus is saying and if it is, what does that mean? We will all die, the question becomes, will we multiply giving life to others while still alive or will we die alone? Will we bake the bread from the grains that have been planted in us by the ones who has gone before us?
As a church here in Saskatoon, Canada, we are getting to be comfortable where we are and with what we believe. After much toil and different upsets we are now in a place of some confidence. Many of us are middle age, has found a role in the work force. A career is staked out and under way. Others are settled into a good retirement. Children are growing and some houses might even be close to be paid of. In short, we are getting comfortable and not much will be able to upset or change our comfortably set up life. Eventually we will retire, maybe early and then we will look for things to do. Funny how life works. First we are so caught up in the “rat-race” of work life that we don’t know how to find time to do everything we must do. Later when we are find ourselves in the place we worked for to be in, retirement, we sometimes don’t know what to do with time. Some parents, and now I speak about general society, work so much that their relationship with their children suffers and so when they get old their children do not want to visit. They die alone. The one that does not spend his or her life for others often, in a very real sense, dies alone. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.”
We often believe that we can keep the grain as it is and still eat the loaf. We tend to believe that we can keep the cookie we baked as well as eating it. We sometimes believe that we can be a part of Christ without following Him to the cross. That we are somehow exempt from having to enter the same path as Christ as long as we “understand the truth about Him”. We can not understand the truth about Christ unless we become a part of Him, because He is Truth. I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that Christ took away death all together for us, He did not, but He transformed death. It is exactly this notion that we can avoid our cross and our death altogether that Christ warns us about. He, Himself did not want to go into that dark night as the poet writes. He also, asked His Father to remove the cup from Him, but not according to His own will but according to the Fathers will. We often forget that second part. We stop at, Lord, please remove the cup because I don’t want to die. If we say that we are a part of Him then it would makes sense if we not only find ourselves in circumstances similar to the ones Jesus found Himself in but as Jesus Himself says, “where I am there My servant will be also.”
Where did He find Himself? Instructing, building relationship and teaching the disciples. He ate with the ones that did not fulfill the social norm. He listens and healed the broken and helpless. He welcomed children. He spent time with His Father. He faced His appointed task head on with unwavering faith of Gods love for Him. He poured His life out for the benefit of many. He is the seed that fell into the ground to later bring new life. As His body we are bound to do the same. We all must die. We must be buried. But it is not the end. Our body is made new. The more we die to sin, the earlier we lay of these burdens, the more life God is able to launch into the world through us. Sin accumulates space in our inner being, to the point of not leaving any room for good things and life to happen. The Holy Spirit can not move in us if there already is a houseful of dirt. We must bring those things to Jesus, we must leave them on the cross to die, so that we can be set free. So that we can bake and share the bread and plant more grain.
Maybe Jesus found His way into the kitchen to bake the occasional loaf of bread as well? Maybe He also enjoyed a bun made by someone in His family? I don’t know. What I do know is that Jesus Himself is the bread of life. He is the grain that fell into the ground and died. He also rose from the grave and is know present in the bread we are eating today in the sacrament of the Eucharist. A small grain, producing many loafs of bread, for eternity. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.”
During this last part of Lent I encourage you to examine yourself when you approach the bread and the wine, the precious body and blood of Christ. What seeds or ideas in our life needs to die so that they may be transformed and restored to the benefit of many? What blocks us from producing much grain? Resentments? Controlling others? Belittling? Addictions? Fear? Shame? What do we need to let go of? Find your answer and offer it to Jesus in the holy bread and wine. He will transform sin and death into tools, tools that we can use to overcome the evil one with. Jesus did not take death away per se and so we continue to struggle, but He did transform it inside out, into life by Who He is.