“Death on the Way to Life” Psalm 119:9-16
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL John 12:20-33
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Rev. Sean Weston
If I were to summarize my sermon from last week, I would say this: in order to change our ways, to have better relationships with ourselves and one another and God we need to face the tough stuff in ourselves and our communities that we usually bury deep down. I wasn’t wrong, I don’t think. But I was unsettled after preaching that sermon. It felt like something was missing. As the week went on I realized that I had really preached only the first half of the change process. After all, change doesn’t come magically after facing difficult things. That must happen, but it takes more than that. Change comes when we allow something to die – part of ourselves, a way of relating to others, a way of seeing God or the world – in order to allow something new to grow. Even good change requires us to let go of something. As Jesus said in John’s gospel right before facing his death, “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.”
Plato, the Greek philosopher who lived a few hundred years before Jesus, tells a story about people resisting good change that we now call the parable of the cave. There is a group of people imprisoned in a cave below the earth, wearing chains on their neck, hands, and feet. Because of the way they are imprisoned they can only look straight ahead. One man manages to get free, and starts climbing out of the cave, seeing the sun for the first time and discovering that they had lived under the real world. First fearful and pained by the sun’s blinding light, the man wishes to return. When his eyes adjust, thought, he realizes that the world above is better than the world below, and returns to set the other prisoners free. He goes back to the cave, and finds himself blinded once more – this time by the darkness. Seeing his blindness and believing that following him would lead to the same, they protect themselves by killing him and staying in the cave.
If you’ve ever tried to help a friend or family member improve their situation and been met by nothing but fierce resistance, you have window into understanding why the prisoners would wish to remain in chains. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, the saying goes. All of us have ways of thinking and patterns that are not good for us, and so does every group of people, from a congregation to a country. To be told that there are different ways of doing things, that there are different ways of being a human, this is scary stuff. We may not like our current situation, but at least we know it. We may not like the dysfunction in our family, but we know how to manage it: who to carefully step around, which estranged person to never mention, whose offensive comments to tolerate, whose poorly made thanksgiving food to choke down lest their fragile ego be offended. We may not like it, but we know how to make it work. We may not like the dysfunction in our governments but we know how to live with it, how to make it work – at least those of us who are privileged enough to do so. Suggest more changes than a few tweaks here and there and see how well it’s received.
Once you start thinking about actually changing things – well, hearts begin to race, tensions blow up, and nobody knows what to do. Most of us can’t even imagine anything different. Better the devil you know….
When some Greeks came up to some of the disciples saying they wanted to see Jesus, they may not have known what they were in for. Just like most anything else Jesus says, especially during the season of Lent, the things we hear Jesus saying this morning are not words that would have been well received. “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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” In John’s gospel, the word “hate” means “reject” – usually talking about the things the world does to Jesus and his followers. To want to hold on to your life in a cruel world, to want to protect yourself from pain and change, to want to hold on to the seed rather than let it fall to the ground – this all makes sense. But that’s not much of a life, Jesus says, holding on to what you have when something so much better could be on the way. Real life, true life, abundant and eternal life comes from letting the seed fall to the ground even when you don’t know what will come next.
For Jesus, that meant facing his own death, trusting that something even greater would come of it. He is honest about the difficulty he faces: “Now my soul is troubled,” he says. But he will face the difficulty, he will not ask to be saved from what is next. He will face it, asking that his doing so glorifies God’s name. As Jesus shares this, a voice comes from heaven to affirm Jesus’ choice. Just like a seed falling to the ground is not the end but the beginning, his death is the beginning of something new and better.
“Now is the judgment of this world,” Jesus says, “now the ruler of the world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” His death will be terrifying and painful, and he knows this. But he also knows that it is not the end, he knows what we will remind ourselves on Easter Sunday, that God brings new life from death and destruction. Jesus knows that his death is not a judgment of him but a judgment of the world and its horrid cruelty. Jesus knows that in the end, people will be drawn to him, not driven away. In the end, his death will expose the brutality of the Roman world and draw together a people – the church – who believed that a new way of life, even a new world was possible even if they couldn’t see it yet – and that this world was worth everything they could give. Everything.
Those that killed Jesus are much like those prisoners who wanted to protect themselves in their cave. They couldn’t bear a call to change, even if the change was better than how things were.
Maybe in your life, you are 100% happy with the state of all of your relationships. Maybe you don’t have any unhealthy patterns, maybe your family doesn’t have any dysfunction. Maybe every group you are a part of is perfectly loving. Maybe you don’t see any problems in the world around you, nothing that calls for change. If that’s the case, well, I’m not sure why you’re here!
If, however, you realize that some change is in order, you will soon also realize somewhere in you that something will have to die for new life to take hold. You may have no idea what that new life might look like and look for any way to justify things staying the same. You may be terrified of what you might have to let go of. You may be terrified of the inevitable pain that will come, the rocky situations, the hard conversations. And you will be in good company, not only with one another but with a savior whose soul was troubled by what he needed to do even though he knew it would make things better for everyone. The good news is that you don’t have to be without fear. You just have to keep going. You have to allow the seed to fall to the ground.
Gil Rendle is a specialist in change theory – studying how change happens and what it is like for people. He focuses on change in religious communities but I think what he says applies to lots of different kinds of change. He says that the change process is like a roller coaster with eight stages. I’ll explain the roller coaster using the example of somebody deciding to confront a harmful family member:
- Feeling unsettled – “this is scary”
- Denying & Resisting – “I shouldn’t do this. Things are ok now.”
- Facing the Present Situation – “Things have to change but I’m terrified”
- Letting Go into the Unknown – “I don’t know what’s next & that’s okay”
- Envisioning the Desired Future – “what if family gatherings weren’t always so miserable?”
- Exploring Next Options – “Here are the ways I can do this”
- Committing to Action – “I am going to confront their behavior”
- Integrating the Change – “I will no longer allow people in my family to hurt others”
The decisive moment in true change and transformation doesn’t come at the end of the process, when there is a sense of hope and way forward. No, the decisive moment comes in the middle, when we are facing reality and feeling the most sense of loss and pain and fear, before we can see the good things that come from the change. This is a decision point – do you retreat and try to preserve what you are used to, no matter how unhealthy? Or you decide to stick with the change, even though you don’t yet see the light at the end of the tunnel? It is only if you do, if you step into the unknown and put one foot in front of the other, that a sense of hope and possibility will emerge.
I don’t know what kind of changes you’re going through in your life. I’d guess each of you is going through change or another. Whatever it is, I’d guess that there are some pretty scary things about it, there are times you want to turn back to the past, to the life that you know how to handle. You may not yet see the light at the end of the tunnel. As we look at the next year at Lyonsville, it is a time of change, exploring new patterns, new ways of relating to each other, new ways of being together as church. I imagine the drive to retreat to the familiar is strong sometimes. A sense of hope about the future may sometimes be hard to find in this in-between place.
When Jesus was preparing for his death, choosing to let the seed fall to the ground so that it could bear fruit, Easter had not yet come. None of his disciples knew what would come next. All they could do, if they wanted to see this Jesus, if they wanted to be with him, if they wanted the most abundant and eternal life they could find, was to stick with it. To put one foot in front of the other. Little did they know the amazing things that would come next, on the other side of the hardest experience of their lives. Little did they know that God was drawing them closer, and that God would never, ever let them go.
Little do we know, either, what amazing things God has next for us. May we, too, learn to embrace the change in our lives, push through the fear, and stick with it. May we allow God to draw us nearer, and never forget that God will never let us go. May we too experience the surprises God offers on the other side – more than we could ask for imagine.