I’ve personally never thought of planting seeds as killing them, or letting them die, as Jesus says. But in my lifetime, I’ve never been dependent upon my plants. If the garden fails (assuming I even planted one this year) I go to the grocery store. Some here are farmers or grew up on farms. The image may be more vivid for you. But, really, to get a sense of what Jesus is saying, we have to think about food and not having enough of it. We have to think about what we call today “food insecurity.” In Jesus’ day—and for most people through most of human history—food is scarce. In an advanced agrarian society, like Jesus’ world, the season of planting was a time for necessary risk. We have grains of wheat, now. We can use it for food, now. But, that’ll be it. We’ll exhaust the wheat. Or, we can plant it. We can bury it in dirt and hope that water, sunlight, and good temperatures facilitate growth, and that diseases and swarms of insects do not devour. Now, we know that’s what we have to do. It’s the only way to have enough food going forward. It’s still a little nerve wracking if this is the source of food for you, and there is no reserve, no grocery store, no food bank. You hope for a crop. You hope that burying the wheat will pay off with wheat growing healthy and abundantly.
In our journey of faith, there are times when we face necessary risk. There are times when, like Jesus, we are deeply troubled by the Spirit’s call and must decide on a course of action knowing full well we could take a different course that would work great at least right now. These moments are different for everybody. The gospel today tells us that these moments happen in God.
God is triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, by whatever names they are known to us, exist from eternity, each being a distinct person yet only one God. This is not a confusing statement we make to prank newcomers to the faith; it’s rooted in scripture and our experience of God, and it claims something about God. The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg argues that the doctrine of the trinity claims that faith is at the very core of God. The Father is God, rightful ruler of the universe. Now, yes, God can be God in whatever way God wants, but if past behavior is any indication of future behavior God creates a world in which people can worship other things as god. Whatever is of ultimate importance to us is god to us. For some of us, money is the almighty. For some of us, safety and security are the almighty. For some of us, consuming goods and services is the almighty. For some of us, a creature—a person, who can do no wrong—is the almighty. Those aren’t God the Father; we’re worshiping them, though. So God the Father sends God the Son to make clear who is in charge. God the Father hands over everything there is about being God in the hands of God the Son, and God the Father makes the Father’s being God entirely dependent on what Jesus of Nazareth does. The Father risks everything. In today’s gospel’s terms, God the Father falls into the earth and dies, at least for a while, dies to being God, trusting that the Son will not misuse this or steal this.
The Son, for his part, preaches the glory of God. In John’s gospel and in the book of Hebrews, it is clear that Jesus is God from eternity, is the Son of the Father, and possesses power and knowledge beyond our understanding. He could look at being God the way we might look at the car when dad loans us the keys, and say, “Dude, I’m taking this thing and I’m not looking back!” But that is not the Son’s mission. The Son, in John and in Hebrews, preaches the glory of God the Father. His miracles are astounding: “This is all about my father.” He feeds the hungry and they try to make him king: “This was all about my father.” People start coming from other lands to meet him: “Time to glorify the Father.” Jesus lives, and heals, and feeds, and teaches, and breaks down barriers, not for his glory but for the glory of his Father. He serves and calls us to serve. He lives this mission and takes this mission to the cross and to the grave, differentiating himself from the Father and showing himself to be the Son. The Son falls into the earth and dies. He risks everything, trusting that the Holy Spirit will raise him.
She does, of course. The Holy Spirit comes, sent by the Father, and raises the Son to vindicate him, and gives us faith that Jesus is the Son. The Holy Spirit could just leave him there in the grave, say, “Forget it; this is my time to shine.” But instead she falls into the earth. She raises the Son and proclaims to all of us, “This is God. This is who we are.” God has faith. The faith the three persons of the trinity have in each other is in the very being of God. And the faith that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have in each other is the faith we have in God. The Spirit gives it to us. We have faith in God because God wants us to have the faith that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have in each other. God puts that faith inside of us, writes it on our hearts as Jeremiah prophesies.
By God’s own faith, we may follow Jesus. By God’s own faith we may fall into the earth, as it were. We may take our grains of wheat—the things we need to survive, the things that make us “us,” everything there is about being us—and we may place these things in God’s care. By God’s own faith, we may say, “God, as tempting as it is to eat the wheat today, we will bury it in the earth and let it grow and let it flourish.”
That grain of wheat bears much fruit when we provide gifts to the Christian Food Pantry. That’s food—that’s what Jesus is talking about when he says a grain of wheat bears much fruit. (And, yes, I know that our gifts also include laundry detergent and toilet paper, but play along.) We let go of something that we could’ve eaten. I could’ve held onto that, maybe cooked that for dinner. Instead I’ve let the kids carry it to the Table and I’ve let the pantry volunteers haul it out of my sight, and I will never see it again. But a family will eat. Someone made in God’s image—someone who could’ve been me—will get to live. That is fruit that could not be borne without a grain of wheat falling into the earth.
That grain of wheat bears much fruit when we give toward God’s mission. The work we do is costly. When we look at the ministry here—children singing and playing and learning about God and living in loving community with one another—that doesn’t just happen, anywhere; we have…we’ll call them slightly older children of God caring for one another through Stephen Ministry, musicians praising God in song, educators praising God through teaching, the baptized praising God by speaking truth to power in our neighborhoods…You want to talk about food insecurity. Right now, in Valparaiso, at Thomas Jefferson Elementary, sixty percent of the children receive a free or reduced lunch. The city average at all schools is forty percent. Forty percent of kids depend on the schools comping their meals. God only knows what they do on weekends or holidays. Try going to those in power—even if you may be one of those with some power—and saying that you don’t think this is okay that so many residents can’t afford to eat. That’s a risk. You lay it all out there.
And that’s just one issue. There’s a lot, more than any one of us can do. Just yesterday I was meeting with folks who were working on how to get the city to meet its own stated goals for what citizens should expect, and each of those six areas looked terribly important, but this six-foot guy with a hammer in one hand and a guitar in the other had already cornered me and said we were working on housing. The temptation is strong to say, “It is just one grain of wheat. I’m not seeing what difference I would make. I could just keep this….” By God’s own faith, we can plant the seed. By God’s own faith we can let go of a portion of what God has given us. As Father, Son, and Holy Spirit trust each other, so we can trust Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and hope for the harvest to come.
We have what we have because Jesus fell into the earth and bore much fruit. We want so badly to exert some sort of control over life. It’s why we pick false gods. You know, if consuming is my god, I can control what I’m consuming—God looks like stuff I like to buy. But we have what we have only because it is God’s nature to hand over what God has. There may be times when I look at the bank account and look at the house and think, “Really, God? This is your stuff? I would’ve thought your stuff would’ve been nicer.” God’s got other stuff. This is the bit of God’s stuff you’ve got right now. For reasons that I don’t understand, God trusts us with portions of God’s creation. (If I were God, I would say, “People, forget it. I don’t trust you. Stay off my stuff.” God has yet to take my advice on anything.) God trusts each of us with whatever portion of God’s kingdom we have, and God asks us to use that portion to trust God.
We have the grains of wheat, now, because Jesus bears much fruit. And now is that season of planting.