SERMON Lent 5 St. Monica’s Episcopal Church, Naples 3/18/18
Dying to the old, so the new might emerge
Jesus said, “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.” If you have ever planted a garden from seed, you understand the concept of a small seed becoming a huge plant. In a way, a seed loses to its seed-like identity and is transformed by water and soil, into something more than it was before. However, if a seed is not planted, and if the water does not begin the transformation, it remains as it was, and never reaching its full potential.
Jesus is telling his first disciples and us that new life does not happen in a static environment, but rather it requires change. For change to take place, we must be willing to adapt and allow new life to emerge. We do not like change. We will hold on tightly to the things that we believe define us, which are often those things that make us feel comfortable. Jesus teaches us that we only experience the life he has in store for us, when die to our old selves. In other words, when we with faith let go, God makes things new. Have you ever made a decision, only when you were in discomfort, or you were forced to come face to face to new realities?
The little church that could
Two years ago, one of my responsibilities in my last call was to assist congregations, who were seeking to explore fresh ways and new mission approaches to revitalize their ministry. I was working with one particular church, located north of the Sunshine Bridge that had been experiencing decline for many years. In the late 1950’s this little community was a part of the post WWII boom of new neighborhoods springing up all around South Florida. Things changed though a few years ago, because neighborhood changed, and without the people of God even noticing. Many of the families that had once lived in this suburban area fled further out, when the landscape and makeup of the city began to shift.
This new reality and subsequent decline in membership came as quite a surprise to that congregation, and it brought great anxiety, as they saw their pews begin to empty on Sunday. Things around them had changed, but they had failed to adapt. What had once been a thriving, growing, risk-taking community was now a mere shadow of what God was truly calling them to be. This true story may sound a bit foreboding, but the truth of the matter is there is always great hope, even when things change. Why, because God promises to make things new. There is Good News, even in the midst of this kind of fear and anxiety that is, if we are willing to release the hold we have on our old selves, because the fear of change keeps us from that which, we are being called to become.
Greeks wanted to see Jesus
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” People outside the Jewish community were being drawn to the new Rabbi Jesus. The Greeks were considered outsiders to the Jewish community, but they wanted to see Jesus, which was quite shocking to his closest disciples. Imagine for just a moment being Phillip or Andrew, when all these outsiders decide they want to get in on the action. Put yourself in their shoes, when all the “Johnny-come-latelies” arrive to worship at the festival and yet, you have been with Jesus from the beginning. You become a little nervous about these strangers coming to meet the Lord, changing things, and messing with their world.
Phillip was so distraught over his fear of something new happening, which did not include the insiders, he ran and grabbed Andrew and then the two of them ran to the Lord. When they arrived, Jesus calmly and directly answered their anxiety with a parable about seeds, a story veiled in allegory and metaphor. They probably rolled their eyes, looked at each other and said, “Here we go again, another useless parable.” Jesus tried to teach them, by telling them to drop their preconceived notions about this new community of disciples, and whom they thought was welcome and who was not. Jesus said and I paraphrase, “if we die to ourselves and our own personal desires, and our own comfort becomes less important than allowing Christ to live in and through us, we will find a life that is everlasting.”
Conversion is what Jesus is talking about. Leaving behind that which we were, in order to embrace that which we are becoming is what Our Lord is talking about when he speaks of “dying to self.” Jane Tomaine in her book, “St. Benedict’s Toolbox: The Nuts and Bolts of Everyday Benedictine Living” wrote, “Over time . . . conversions bring us to a different place. We become a different person.” New possibilities, never before considered experiences, personal transformation does not happen when we are immovable, entrenched, stuck in the status quo, when we are comfortable, or when we are lethargic. We usually change through discomfort.
Life and Death and Life again …
If you have faced challenges in this life, it is very likely you have emerged on the other side of that experience a new person. If you have left a place a career to accept a new position, you may have died to your old identity, and you have emerged on the other side with a new vocation. If you have left a home that you loved, you may have endured a death of identity, only to emerge in a new place and a new life. We transform when in discomfort. Being a follower of Jesus does not mean we will have a life of comfort. We have to remember that Jesus was a change agent, a transformer, a reformer, a “turn-upside down the tables” mover and shaker, and the full revelation of God in the flesh. Jesus changed things up! He made the blind see, the lame to walk, the broken hearted to rejoice, and the mourners to celebrate.
So, following Jesus is not does not guarantee arriving at a particular state of being, only to remain there unmoved? Following Jesus means we are always changing and transforming, while facing circumstances in which, we will most likely fall down and have to get back up again. When we live life in Christ, we like Our Lord, must look into the face of failure and change, and even death, and say, “Your power is defeated,” because we believe new life is on the other side, and we will walk this faith together in community. Transformation happens in community. I believe our world needs authentic, changing, and welcoming community just like here at St. Monica’s. Like the Greeks who came to see Jesus, there is a movement in our nation, there is bubbling movement of people who really want and need to see Jesus.
Show People Jesus
People are beginning once again to test the waters of faith, and people may be dropping into our church, hoping to get a glimpse of the Master’s face, in the faces of his followers. Are we ready for that? I believe we all have friends, especially today, who live with lives of uncertainty, despair, fear, and ambiguity. If we were to truly listen to them, I believe they may be saying to us (and without words), “I want to see Jesus. I want to see alive in you this Good News of faith, in the promises of God you claim.” You see, we the church will be the only lens through which others will see Jesus today.
If we are to remain a reflection of the Master’s face, in the years to come, we must be willing to shrug off our desire for “business as usual.” Like Jesus, we must be willing to adapt, to be nimble, and to be willing to change. That little church north of the bridge that I mentioned earlier is still alive and transforming today. They have experienced a renewed hope and a new focus serving their neighbors around them.
They have partnered with a local school, a local motorcycle club, and they are exploring new mission ventures, inviting their neighbors to do mission together. They are reaching beyond their own four walls to change the lives of their neighbors. They have died to their old selves, so the new life the Spirit is infusing in them is becoming incarnate through them. Jesus is planting seeds in his church today.
Now, like our sisters and brothers 100+ miles up the road, when newcomers come to their doors saying, “We wish to see Jesus,” all the visitors have to do is look into the eyes of those inside. They have been transformed, changed, renewed, and they are bearing much fruit. Like them, we too are being transformed. When our friends come to our community and say, “St. Monica’s, we wish to see Jesus,” we can say with confidence, “My friend, he is right here transforming and making new, each and every one of us. Please join us in this wild and wooly adventure.”