Sunday, March 29, 2009
The Gardener: Sermon on John 12:20-33
With only two full days left in March here in the Our Neck of the Woods, I finally feel safe saying it: spring may well be on its way. It’s not the warmer weather (though that helps!). It’s not that it’s light out past 6 PM (though I am so enjoying that). The reason I know it’s really spring is the excitement of the gardeners.
I know a gardener. She loves digging in the dirt. Beginning in early February, she waited patiently for a reasonably warm and dry Sunday so that she could do her spring yard clean-up. Three weeks ago, it came, and she spent about five hours raking the remnants of the leaves from last fall, pulling up the remains of the annuals she’d planted last summer, cutting back her clematis almost to the nub, picking up downed branches.
Next, it’s time to get the soil ready. Whether you have a small city garden or a large tract of land in a rural location, the quality of the soil, she tells me, is crucial. So, she spends time with a garden spade and a digging fork turning the soil over, loosening it to a depth of a foot or more, breaking up clumps, removing rocks, making the soil loose and open and aerated.
There’s one more step before planting. To really improve the quality of the soil, you must add fertilizer or compost. It’s one of the lovely paradoxes of planting that the gardener spends all this time clearing and cleaning out the garden, only to turn around and put something back that in other circumstances would be considered waste. The waste of animals and plants is used to gorgeous purpose in a garden. In fact, you might say, nothing is wasted.
Finally, all is ready. When the danger of frost is past (and for us, that’s still quite a few weeks away), the gardener can finally put the plants in the ground, can finally sow the seeds, can finally begin to see just a bit of beauty come out of all that hard work.
And you should see it, in the height of summer. The thickly blooming morning glories vie with the snapdragons, the tiny lobelia spread their carpet along the flowerbed, the pansies intersperse their small bright faces with bold upright asters. In the evening the moonflowers blossom, mysterious and fluffy, only to hide when daybreak comes again. The herbs make the garden a feast for all the sense… inhale deeply, and you’ll sniff wild mint, pungent rosemary, lemon thyme. Everywhere you look, what was just a seed or a seedling blossoms into 30, 60, even a hundred flowers. As the summer goes on, the volunteers from last year’s seeds pop up: a snapdragon elbows its way into the bed of nasturtiums.
But even at the height of summer, the work of the gardener is still not over… A gardener doesn’t simply plant and leave. She steals every moment she can throughout the spring and summer to water, to pinch back, to weed, so that at every moment the garden can be magnificent.
Jesus talked about seeds and gardens so much, you almost have to wonder… did his mother have a lovingly tended patch of ground? Did he grow up digging in the dirt? Did he know the joy of planting a single seed and seeing a dizzying yield of flowers, more than he could count? I wonder. We are doing things a little backwards with today’s passage from John’s gospel, because this conversation Jesus is having with people who want to follow him is taking place after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In other words, in our reading, it’s already Palm Sunday. And Jesus is well aware what he faces… he knows full well that the path he has been on now leads inexorably, inevitably to the cross.
And… he acknowledges this fact. Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” That is such a densely packed sentence. The Son of Man—a title for Jesus that means, simultaneously, the Mortal One, the Human One, and yet, at the same times, indicates someone sent from God for the purpose of a glorious deliverance, a mysterious and otherworldly victory. The Son of Man. It is time for him to be glorified. We who know the ending of the story—after all, we’ve seen the Easter Lily order forms, haven’t we? We know about the Happy Ending, the All’s Well that Ends Well we get to celebrate two Sundays from now. We know about the resurrection. But that is not what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of glory. Jesus is speaking in the code of the fourth gospel. Whenever this gospel, the gospel of John, uses the term “glory,” or “glorify,” it means one specific thing: the moment when Jesus is raised up on the cross. That is his moment of glory. That is what he means. The glory of Jesus, the moment when the Son of Man is to be glorified, is the moment when he is raised up on the cross.
After saying this hard thing, this really unacceptable thing… I say this as someone who generally regards violent death in a negative light… Jesus’ tone changes, a bit, and he speaks in this little agricultural parable, like a gardener talking to other gardeners about the hard work that must precede the harvest. “You know, 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.” Such a calm and serene way to talk about one’s own impending death. But that is what Jesus is talking about. I find this hard to understand, this calm Jesus talking about the necessity of his death.
But in the end, Jesus sees himself as a gardener… and someone else will mistake him for a gardener before the whole story is over… Jesus sees himself as a gardener, and he sees his death as a necessary planting, a hard work that must be done, if he wants to see the harvest.
And he does. The harvest Jesus is hoping for is right here, in this sanctuary. It’s you and me, and little J., about to get very wet and not at all sure why. The harvest Jesus is looking for is the community that is gathered in his name. We are the “much fruit.” We are the ones for whom he considers his death to be a good and necessary thing, the reason he sees the cross as glory. We redefine life on the basis of Jesus’ death. We are drawn to the cross, because through Jesus we see it, ultimately, not as a symbol of torture, but as a sign of love. The cross is a free choice Jesus makes to lift the burden from someone else… in this case, the whole world. Jesus is the single seed that breaks open, giving its life for the sake of the millions and billions of flowers that will inevitably grow from this seed. And we are the millions of flowers, you and me and J. and people of Zimbabwe and Iraq and Johnson City and Detroit and everywhere else his garden has sprung up.
And he is with us still. A good gardener doesn’t simply plant and leave. He remains with us, abides with us every moment, watering, pinching back, weeding, so that at every moment we can come to flower, bear fruit, and even continue planting the seeds of his tender care. That is our call. That is what we do in baptizing Justin into our midst: we plant a seed, and we water it, and we trust that God will bring a gorgeous yield of much fruit. Thanks be to God. Amen.