Transformation (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

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When I was on internship, I served a congregation in northeastern Pennsylvania which was located in an area where farming had once been a major occupation.  By the time I was there, the area was becoming more populated and many of the farms were gone.  But, we still had a number of old farmers in the congregation.

And I’m pretty sure it was there that I remember one of those old farmers speaking with my intern supervisor after today’s Gospel passage was read on Sunday.  And he said something like, “you know, Pastor, it’s not that I want to criticize Jesus, but when you plant a seed it doesn’t die.  If the seed is actually dead, it doesn’t germinate!”

And this is biologically true!  Jesus likely knew this as well.  But the thing is, when a seed falls into the ground, it looks like death.  It feels like death.  And the seed doesn’t return to life the way it used to be.

That’s often the way we experience death.  “Death” is when something is over.  “Death” is when we feel loss.  “Death” is when things will never again be like they used to.

And so it’s understandable to want to avoid death at all costs.  It’s normal not to want to think about it or dwell on it.  And it’s easy to see death as only the end of things.

But Jesus uses this image of the seed in the ground not so much as an image of the end, but as an image of transformation.  Indeed, the seed doesn’t just lay dead in the ground – it springs forth in a new way and in a new time, and it bears the seeds of more new beginnings.

Jesus says these words right before his own death and resurrection.  And he probably uses this image at this moment because he knew that, to his disciples, his own death would look and feel like the end.  It will look and feel like the end of Jesus.  It will look and feel like the end of their movement.  It will maybe even look and feel like the end for each of them.

But in fact, what God was about to do was transformation, not just death. And Jesus wants his disciples – and all of us – to see and experience God’s transformation in our lives, not just to see and feel death.

And that’s hard.  Indeed, it was harder for the disciples than we probably imagine.  Often, when we read the story of Jesus’ death and Resurrection, as we will in the next two weekends, we get tempted to image that the disciples were crushed by Jesus’ death on Good Friday, but then they felt like, “Wow!  Everything is great now!” as soon as Easter Sunday rolled around.

But on Easter Sunday, Jesus came back not as the seed but as the new plant.  Jesus (even his body) was transformed from the way he used to be.  Jesus’ relationship with his disciples was restored, but in a different way from when they used to follow Jesus around the countryside.  And therefore, the Resurrection itself showed that the “seed” of the disciples’ lives wasn’t coming back like it was before either.  Those days were gone, and the Risen Jesus was not only personally transformed – he was also transforming the lives of his disciples into something new that they hadn’t experienced before.

Ironically, the Resurrection itself might have looked and felt like “death,” in that it made clear to the disciples that the way things had been before was over.  And so now, before it all happened, Jesus primed the disciples to begin looking for how God was transforming their lives – and the whole world – instead of just seeing death and the end of something.

This year, as Easter approaches, it feels to many of us like new life is coming!  Spring is in the air.  Vaccinations are increasing.  Schools are starting to return to in-person learning.  And there’s a palpable feel that in the next few months, a way of life that will really feel like “life” will return!

More than a year of social distancing, mask wearing and stay at home orders has felt like a time of death.  And we’re ready for some Resurrection!

But it’s also been clear for some time now that post-pandemic life won’t be just like it was before. Lots of things will change.  Lots of things will be different.  And while it’s been a different experience for each of us, through this time of “death”, many of us have re-assessed what’s really worth our time and effort, and we’ll be living differently than we did before.  Many of us, and our employers, have learned that working from home, at least some of the time, actually can be less stressful and more efficient than simply coming into the office so that we can say we were there.  Many of us have come to appreciate that, while we don’t want to have to live on Zoom, it does have its benefits some of the time…!

Sometimes, we can see and anticipate new life and transformation in these opportunities.  But it will also be the case, even for those of us who will embrace many of these changes, that it will sometimes feel like death.  Because the seed that was isn’t coming back.  And exactly what this new life will bring isn’t clear yet.

Jesus didn’t explain to his first disciples how it would all work out.  And there are no secret or hidden answers we can find by carefully reading the Bible.

But in speaking about the seed in today’s Gospel, Jesus does promise that he is always bringing about transformation, even when all we can see is the end. Jesus is always walking with us to guide us into new ways of living, even and especially when they’re different from what they used to look like.  And Jesus is always working to transform our lives, even and especially when things look and feel like death.