Sermon: Call to be Wheat .. or, 1001 Ways to Die
When Megan and I were planning the liturgy for today and deciding who would do what, she was happy and quick to design the bulletin cover and agree to light the candles. She was just as quick to say she didn’t want to do anything that would involve speaking or reading in front of people. I don’t think she used these words, but it was something akin to “I’d die if I had to do that – I’d die of embarrassment or fear or something just as bad.”
So I didn’t ask her to do anything like that. I didn’t want her to die, until someone wiser than me in the ways of leadership development and in the ways of her daughter said to me, “Just tell her what you want her to do.” So I did. And she did it. And did well. And we all benefitted from it.
Sometimes we have to let ourselves die – whether of embarrassment, fear or anything else just as bad, and let ourselves die to the fear of the dying, in order for new life to emerge and for ourselves to have a part in.
On June 10, 1925 when 8000 people were gathered at Mutual Street Arena in Toronto for the worship service to celebrate the newly inaugurated United Church of Canada, they heard a sermon on our reading for today, and on the holy wisdom of dying for the sake of allowing new life to emerge and grow.
The 8000 people were members of what to that point had been Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches across Canada, and together they were letting go of their old and separate identities to open a way for God’s work to flourish in new ways and with new strength in their time. They were finding a way into what they believed God was doing and wanted to be doing, by being willing to die to what they were used to being. As Rev. S.P. Rose said in that inaugural sermon, the challenge was to be willing to die in order to “enter into a larger life,” because the grain of wheat that does not die will perish.
So the message and practice of dying to allow new and good life to emerge, is part of who we are right from our beginning. It’s been spoken into our spiritual DNA.
But that still doesn’t make it any easier to live out. The challenge to die takes different forms at different times and in different situations, and at times it can be very difficult.
In the context of individual United churches, for some United Church members today it means accepting the death of their congregation – either simply disbanding, or maybe amalgamating or combining in another way with one or more other congregations for the sake of new and more vital ministry and mission together. In situations like this, the grain of wheat that does not die but tries to stay as it is, will perish. But the dying can still be hard.
In the context of the United Church as a whole, this may be what the Comprehensive Review is all about. The proposal that’s been worked on for three or four years and that’s going to General Council this summer is for a smaller, leaner United Church with fewer levels of government and oversight, less paid staff beyond the congregational level, and hopefully more resources to support those individual congregations that really have a vision and passion for God’s new work. Sometimes – and maybe it’s now, the outer shell of our life as God’s people – as good as it’s been for us for 90 years, now has to be cracked open and let go of, so the new life within can emerge and really grow. And that can be hard.
In the context of Canadian society and the United Church’s place in it, maybe the life-giving dying we’re called to, is to let go of the feeling we had in 1925 of being especially and uniquely called by God to be the guiding conscience of the emerging country of Canada. That was one of the major reasons for Church Union, and the United Church has always tried to live up that call. Canada has no less need now than it did then for a soul and a spiritual conscience, but maybe it’s time to die to that feeling of our specialness or uniqueness in that call, to recognize that there are other religious voices and traditions that now are equally part of our country’s conscience and soul, and to die to any lingering feelings of exclusiveness and superiority so we can work more intentionally and humbly as partners with others. As Rev. Rose challenged the United Church in 1925, the grain of wheat that remains alone and unmixed with others in the soil of its day, will shrivel and perish.
And speaking of soil, and to return to Environment Sunday and our call to care for the goodness of Earth that God has created, in that context how can we not see in the teaching about the grain of wheat’s willingness to die for the sake of a greater harvest, an encouragement to us as human beings – as individuals and as a species, to die to some of our practices and attitudes, to give Earth and all life on it a chance to live well and into the future.
Today more and more doesn’t it seem that our choice is either to continue to grow as a noxious weed on the face of the Earth – inserting ourselves into every nook and cranny of Earth, taking over and dominating its life, or to learn to be good wheat and wheat seeds – accepting along with others the necessity of dying to our own desires, limiting who we are and what we do and maybe even where we go for the sake of a good future for all of life.
It’s a dying to self that happens in all kinds of ways – both little and big, both relatively easy and very hard.
It can be as simple and quick as a Girl Guide dedicating an afternoon to designing a bulletin cover for her church’s worship service on Environment Sunday, instead of watching TV or just relaxing … or as complex as a global network of scientists, engineers, economists and politicians honestly working to design a fossil-fuel-free economy and society, as hard and professionally suicidal as it may seem at times to work in that direction.
It could be someone agreeing to read Scripture because it’s a way of encouraging and reaching out to others, even though they die of fright and embarrassment every time they do it … or it could be a variety of churches and other communities of faith working together in reading the signs of the times and offering good and holy wisdom to the wider community, even though it means stepping outside their shell and committing themselves to something bigger than just their own survival.
It could be something as simple as walking forward to light a candle to begin a worship service … or as complicated and demanding as learning to lighten your own footprint on Earth, and to enlighten your children and grand-children about alternate ways of living for the good and well-being of all, even though it means dying to many of our society’s notions of success and what makes for a happy life, and exposing yourself perhaps to ridicule and embarrassment.
There’s some form of dying, some kind of letting go, some form of self-denial for the sake of the greater good in all these things. And it’s the fear of dying that can hold us back.
Almost 40 years in theology school – in a class on the theology of John Calvin, the professor said one day that all spirituality – all spiritual practice, whether private prayer and devotions or public worship and ritual, is about learning to die.
At the time I thought he meant that our faith and our spiritual life are about preparing for the day at the end of our life when we will finally die, to be able to die that one day in such a way that when we leave this Earth we can be assured of going once and for all to heaven.
Now, I wonder if it means that spirituality – all true spiritual practice, is about learning to die all through our life in the 1001 ways that will leave the Earth a better place, the way God intends and hopes for it to be, and for ourselves to have a true and good part in it.
“Unless a grain of wheat is sown into the earth and dies to its own little self, it will shrivel and perish; but if it dies to its own little self, it bears much fruit and will be part of a great and good harvest.”
I have a feeling it will take a lifetime for me to really know and do what that means. But what else is life for?