Dying to Self

  • Bearing the Fruit of Love

    field 5297329 1920Message for Lent 5 on John 12:20-33 given on March 21, 2021 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, TX. This sermon and all worship videos can be seen on YouTube.

    The Greeks are in Jerusalem for the Passover festival and they have heard about a new teacher named Jesus. They find one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip, and say to him, “Sir we wish to see Jesus.” What a great request – who wouldn’t want to see Jesus? After all, he has declared that he is not just a wise teacher, but he is the very embodiment of God. If I had never met Jesus, I would want to see that as well!

    Philip, thinking that this is a great way to expand the circle of disciples, goes to Andrew and tells him that a group of potential followers are wanting to see Jesus. Andrew takes up the mission and finds Jesus and tells him. At this point, we would expect Jesus to welcome these worldly disciples to his movement and describe the rights and responsibilities of being his follower. But that is not what Jesus does. Instead he tells a very strange parable about a grain of wheat that must die.

    What an odd response to such a straightforward request! But Jesus never wants us to simply see him; he wants us to know him. When we truly know Jesus, we not only recognize him for who he is, we also take on his mission that he summed up so eloquently back in Chapter 3: For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, his unique and only begotten Son, his one and only Son, so that all those who believe in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.

    When we behold God’s very self, the great “I AM,” Yahweh, in the person of Jesus, we are joined his mission to save the world. For he came not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through him.

    Jesus tells his parable to let us know that he did not come to save the world through conquest and earthly methods; rather, the Son of Man comes to save the world like a single grain of wheat. “Very truly, I tell you, 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.”

    A grain of wheat. How on earth is Jesus going to save the whole world like a tiny grain of wheat? Those of you have lived on a farm or are avid gardeners will understand this more readily. You cannot feed anyone with one grain, or even a whole head of wheat. If we save that one grain of wheat and do nothing with it, it is useless. But when that one grain falls to the ground and dies, it springs back to life as a new plant, producing up to 110 new grains! Plant those 110 grains, and you are up to 12,000; by the third harvest of replanted seeds you are up to 1.3 million grains of wheat. Very quickly you are talking about enough wheat to feed the whole world! All because one seed fell to the ground and died in order to bear much fruit.

    This is how the Son of Man loves and saves the world. Not through domination, but by letting go, by dying, sacrificing. He will fall to the ground and sink below, so that his death will bear much fruit. And where is this fruit? We are the fruit. Bringing a few Greeks along builds the kingdom by addition; Jesus builds His kingdom by exponential growth. And like Jesus we produce a million-fold when we are willing to be planted and bear fruit as well. Jesus calls us to follow him to bear more fruit so the world can experience God’s love through us. Jesus’ death is a transfer of power—like a seed into a new plant—a transfer of the Spirit’s power from him to his followers, so that we can be filled with the power of his life, his love, his forgiveness, so that the whole world can be loved and fed and freed for an eternal relationship with God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

    That is the mission that God calls each of us to—deeply rooted in our relationship to Jesus, for us in order to share God’s salvation with the world. Jesus clearly states, “those who love their life lose it”—if we love only ourselves to the exclusion of bearing the fruit of God’s love in the world—we become a single grain that is not planted. We are of no use to God’s mission and thus we have lost our purpose. But, “those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” This does not mean we hate ourselves or the life God has given us so we can go to heaven—it means we are wheat, willing to be planted, and bear fruit for God’s Kingdom. We participate with Christ in loving the world, not with conquest, but by letting go, by dying to ourselves, by sacrificing earthly desires and values in order to bear the fruit of service in the world God so loves. We can live out this mission by:

    • Dying to our ego and starting a relationship with someone with whom we have absolutely nothing in common to bear the fruit of love and understanding.
    • Dying to our need to be right and humbly look for Christ in the person we can’t stand, asking God to help us find a way to work them or forgive them to bear the fruit of love.
    • Dying to our self-importance or busy-ness, and as soon as we are vaccinated, visit someone who cannot get out and does not have many visitors—someone who is sick, homebound, in a nursing home, or jail, to bear the fruit of love.

    The Greeks wanted to see Jesus. And like them, so do we. But Jesus sees so much more in us. He sees not only those who will look at and know him, but who will take up his mission to share his love and mercy with the world. Jesus wants us to move from seeing him as God, the great, “I AM” in the flesh to being him and embodying his love in our own flesh. Jesus sees us as disciples who can go from seeing to being; to being the bearers of John 3:16—through Jesus, we become participants with the great “I AM” in the world! God wants to love the entire world through us, each just a single grain of wheat, but through Christ’s power, able to produce 100 and 1,000 and even a million-fold of love for the kingdom. This is the vision we embrace, when we not only see who Jesus is, but join his mission to save the world that God so loves.

    Reflection Questions:

    • The disciples bring the Greeks to see Jesus which is adding believers; Jesus’ response is to talk about planting seeds, which is to build disciples by multiplication. One seed brings in or produces 114 new ones. How does this change how we think about evangelism?

    • As a Christian community, how do we make disciples who make disciples?

    • What is it about your relationship with Jesus that has made a difference in your life? When have you experienced God in your life? Being able to briefly share those experiences with someone who is struggling is part of being an evangelist in daily life. Have you had this kind of opportunity to share your faith? What holds you back from trying if the opportunity presents itself with someone who is struggling? Can you ask God for an opportunity to help bear this kind of love in the world?

    • Dying to ourselves can include letting go of our ego, our sense of superiority, being right, and a sense of our separateness from the well-being of others. What part of dying to self is hardest for you or what does it mean for you to die to yourself?

    • What does it mean for you to bear Christ’s love in the world? Who or what in the world is it most challenging for you to love? How might you ask God to help you in loving that situation or “those people?”

    • Have you thought of yourself as going from seeing Christ to being Christ? Who has been Christ for you? Has anyone told you that you have been Christ or a sign of God’s love for them? Pray about what it means to be in the ELCA, whose motto is: “God’s work Our hands” and what this means for you to be filled with the power of Christ in your daily life, in everything you do.

    Image by RENE RAUSCHENBERGER from Pixabay 

  • Embracing Darkness & The Solar Eclipse

    blogpic Embracing Darkness and the Solar EclipseIt was a thrilling moment to view the total solar eclipse from the stairs off the deck in my own backyard. With my special viewing glasses, I looked up at the sun at 1:18 PM Central Standard Time, and saw total darkness. This moment of mid-day night didn’t last very long, reminding me of John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” When Jesus was crucified, the daylight turned to darkness, but like this eclipse, the darkness did not overcome God’s power to save and bring life and light where there was once only death.

    Isn’t it amazing how God uses the creation to reinforce and remind us of eternal truths—the darkness is momentary while God’s love and light are constant and eternal; the caterpillar enters the pupa of apparent death and emerges in a bodily transformation and resurrection; the seed falls to the ground and dies and yet it rises again to bear much fruit; our energy—whether in daily life or healing from a trauma—ebbs and flows like the tide, waxes and wanes like the moon, moves forward and inches back before surging forward again, like a flower reaching for the sun.

    It’s easy to forget that in the darkness, in the resting, in the letting go, God does her best work! That is when God is working out something new in us—and God must do it in secret, during the “dark night of the soul” because if we knew what God was up to, we would grab control of the process, and manipulate the outcome! 

    The eclipse reminds us to linger in the darkness, to savor the silence, to embrace the shadow—for the light is coming, the resurrection is afoot, transformation is unfolding, for God is working in secret and in silence to create us anew. Hold fast to the promise and patterns of God, for the dawn always follows the night.

    Photo Credit: Rick Fienberg, exlipse.aas.org

  • Letting Go

    blogpic LetGodA Sermon based on John 3:1-17 for the Second Sunday in Lent; Lutheran Church of theAtonement, Florissant, MO

    It was 1988. My husband, Dan, and I became good friends when we met in seminary because we were otherwise involved in or recovering from other relationships. About a year later, we were both free to date, but still only good friends. I would drop subtle hints to get him to ask me out. Things like, “Dan, we should go on a date” or the even more subtle, “Dan, I think we should get married.” He would laugh and say, “oh, no, we’re too much alike, it would never work.”

    Well, he was not picking up what I was putting, so after awhile, I thought I’d better accept that I was going to be single for the rest of my life. I was about to become ordained and move to my first call in Detroit, MI. I’d seen the statistics about how a woman’s chance of marrying dropped like a rock after they become a pastor. So I said, “Well, God, it’s just going to be me and you in urban ministry, and it’s going to be ok. I’m going to trust that you’ll be with me and give me what I need to follow this call.” I had a sense of peace.

    About 2 weeks later, guess what happened? Dan called and, as if it was his idea, asked me out on a real date. The rest, as they say, is history.

    In 2008, I sent my book, Motherhood Calling to several publishers. I wanted that sense of accomplishment and recognition, to prove that I was a worthy writer, a good Mom and pastor. All I got were rejection letters, or no response at all.

    My Mom died in 2012 and one afternoon a couple years ago, I was standing in my kitchen missing her terribly. I got down the cookbook that she put together, which includes family pictures and poems that wrote. I hugged the cookbook to my chest and thought, “I’m so grateful she spent the time putting this together, because cooking from it is so comforting to me now that she’s gone.” It was like scales falling from eyes, when I realized that’s the only reason to try and publish my book, so my kids have these stories when I’m gone. Who cares if anyone else reads or even likes it?

    Guess what happened? 8 years after my first attempt, my book was published.

    Are you noticing a pattern here? New life comes once we die to our ego and let go of control, but we resist this process mightily. Our need for control, for programs, projects, plans and preferred outcomes layered with our American flair for rugged individualism makes it hard for us to die to self.

    Nicodemus, the Pharisee in John chapter 3, is also resisting letting go of his hard-earned status, education and power. As a religious leader, he wants to know if his position, authority, and religious framework is worthy, is right, and of God. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night under the cover of darkness—as a Pharisee, he can’t be seen asking religious questions—his area of expertise—to an uneducated Galilean peasant, even one who does miracles, like Jesus.

    The darkness of night in the Gospel of John, however, also symbolizes spiritual misunderstanding or unbelief. Nicodemus’s spiritual confusion is made clear in his conversation with Jesus who speaks of being “born again.” Nicodemus cannot fathom how such a thing is possible. He can think only in concrete physical terms—returning to his mother’s womb—but Jesus is talking about a spiritual re-birth, of letting go and being born from above—born of water and the Spirit.

    For some of our evangelical sisters and brothers, to be “born again” is an experience of conversion—a moment where Jesus’ love and forgiveness were first felt and made real. For those of us who are raised in the faith, being “born again of water and the Spirit” begins with our Baptism into Christ, but in neither instance, is it a one-time event. Similar to the pattern I began to see in my own life, to be “born again” is a life-long process that we go through again and again and again. Professor Karoline Lewis at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN defines being born again, as “recognizing that your entire existence is dependent on God, and through your relationship with Jesus, to trust God for everything that you need.”

    Nicodemus was right about Jesus in verse 3, “Rabbi…no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” God’s presence is right in front of Nicodemus in Jesus. Jesus asks him, "how he can be a religious leaders and not understand spiritual re-birth?" But like us, Nicodemus resists letting go and dying to self and to his supposed religious superiority.

    The question implied at the end of the story is, "Will Nicodemus let go of his ego and allow himself to fall into a trusting relationship with Jesus? Will Nicodemus die to his position, power, and privilege, and affirm that his entire existence is dependent on God?"

    This is the question that the season of Lent asks all of us. We’re invited into the Paschal mystery that Jesus lived—of dying and rising anew—for this is the pattern of our own life, with each new day, each new difficulty, each new goal and each new pursuit. We resist it because we have to let go before we see what comes next, before we know what being born again will look like.

    Letting go of ego needs and expectations, agendas and control, always precedes receiving something new; that is the paschal mystery—death always precedes resurrection and God is in all of it. That’s the hard part for us—to trust that God is with us even in death—the small deaths we experience as we grow older, and the big death at the end of our life.

    Dying to self is the only way we allow ourselves to fall into trusting that our entire existence depends on God, and Jesus will provide everything we need. Whatever we're tightly clinging to, whatever we are resisting—that is where God is nudging us to let go, so we can be spiritually re-born from above, and deepen our trust in Christ Jesus.

    Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that it might be saved through him.

    When my Mom died, my whole family was gathered around her bed in the ICU to turn off the machines and the medicines keeping her alive. She had been alert just a few hours before. We did the Service of Confession and Forgiveness with her pastor, and sang her favorite hymns. When that last medicine was turned down, my mom died very quickly. It was excruciatingly painful to let her go, but as she was born into eternal life, I was also born again.

    For suddenly I could see and understand who she really was that I couldn’t grasp while she was alive. Despite illness, mental confusion, pain and physical distress, she held on. She held on and waited for us to be ready to let her go. With a persistent, patient, unfailing love and a strength we didn’t fathom she had, my mom hung on and took care of us in her dying as only a mom can.

    God’s love in Jesus Christ is like my mom’s—waiting, hanging on, holding out for us to be ready to let go. Jesus waits with a patient, persistent, unfailing love and strength we cannot fathom or imagine, until we let go.

    While he hung dying on the cross, Jesus waited for Nicodemus to be ready. Down the hill, he saw Nicodemus coming to him, now in the daylight—no longer confused, but as a devoted disciple who trusts him.

    John 19 says Nicodemus was weighed down with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to join Joseph of Arimathea in anointing and wrapping Jesus body for burial in the tomb.

    Nicodemus didn’t know that resurrection was coming, but he let go anyway. Nicodemus was born again into a love and trust he couldn’t fathom or imagine. And so are we.