Being Seeds, Planting Seeds: Ministry in Trust and Hope - Stephanie Crumley-Effinger

This message was delivered by Stephanie Crumley-Effinger, Director of Supervised Ministry, ESR, on the occasion of the 2011 Baccalaureate worship.

Readings:

Scripture: John 12:20-24 NRSV

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  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.”

Excerpts from letters of George Fox

From Epistle 189  .  .  . wait and not matter the weather, storms, winds, hail, rain when you are to sow the Seed, nor the rough ground that is to be tilled.  For the [farmer] waits patiently after the Seed is sown. There is a winter before the summer comes . . .

From Epistle 275  . . . all come into the vineyard of God to labor in the Light  . . . and in the Truth and Power of God . . .  Some are breakers of clods in the vineyards. Some are weeders. Some are cutting off brambles and bushes, fitting the ground and cutting up the roots with the heavenly axe, for the Seed. Some are harrowing in. Some are gathering and laying up the riches.  So, you see, here are merchants, plowmen, harrowers, weeders, reapers, threshers in God’s vineyard: yet none are to find fault with [one] another, but everyone laboring in their own places, praising the Lord, looking to him for their wages, their heavenly penny of life from the Lord of Life . . .

(The Power of the Lord is Over All: The Pastoral Letters of George Fox,

edited and introduced by T. Canby Jones, 1989, Friends United Press,

 pages 144-145 and268-270 )

“ . . . 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.” 

This spring I have been watching the result of seeds dying so as to bear fruit.  In mid-February, I had surgery and then about six weeks mostly spent recovering from it.  About 10 days after I got home from the hospital, my nephew Gabriel came over to visit, and I enlisted his help in my becoming a small-time marigold farmer.  Very small-time.  I gave Gabe a shallow round plastic container, about the size of a medium pizza pan, and we went out onto my front porch where there are several flower pots with dirt in them from last summer’s flowers. 

In my state of weak inability to do much of anything except sit up for short periods of time, I sat on a chair on the porch and directed Gabe in putting about an inch and a half of dirt in the plastic container and leveling it. We went back in the house and he fetched me another flower pot, this one full of dried-out marigold flowers from last summer that I had put in there when I dead-headed the plants.  (Hold it up.)  I crumbled several of them and scattered the seeds over the dirt.  Then I sprinkled some dirt over the seeds and watered them.  Gabe set the container in a patch of sun on the kitchen floor near the side door, and the waiting began.  A few days later the first slender green shoots appeared, and I called Gabe to announce “The marigolds are coming up!” Some of them emerged with the shell of the seed on top like a little hat.

Every day for the rest of my convalescence, which felt like a long unproductive time, and most of the days since, I have enjoyed checking on the progress of my miniature marigold farm, keeping it watered and being sure to pick up the container whenever our baby friend Prestynn came over, since little kids love to mess with dirt!  The sprouts have gone from being tiny and spindly, to having several leaves and now the leaves have assumed the recognizable spiky marigold shape.  I don’t know if they will actually bring forth flowers, but it is immensely satisfying to have seen them develop even this far.

Later I transplanted the seedlings to some deeper containers with more dirt so that the roots would have room to grow, and I brought one of those with me today.  When I transplanted the seedlings it stirred up the dirt enough that a few more seeds sprouted, so there are marigold plants at different stages in the container.  One of the dried-out flower heads had not gotten completely broken up when I crumbled it, and a set of seedlings were growing close together out of the husk of the flower base.

 While a marigold seed isn’t precisely a grain of wheat, my adventures with marigold farming connect me to this story of Jesus talking about his forthcoming death. I am sure that the Greek people who had come to meet him, and the disciples Andrew and Philip who served as go-betweens, were taken aback when the Teacher offered these startling words, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  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.”

The various gospels portray Jesus preparing his followers for his death in an almost matter-of-fact way.  It seems unreal and overly calm.  Even the depiction of his prayer asking that the cup be taken from him seems too low-key for someone facing death.

The 1970’s rock opera Jesus Christ, Superstar treats this very differently in the song “Gethsemane”, a musical midrash in which composer Andrew Lloyd Webber portrays Jesus struggling painfully with the idea of his approaching death. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2cCuadivpE   Jesus articulates fears and doubts, saying “I’m not as sure as when we started – then I was inspired, now I’m sad and tired.  I want to know, my God, I’d want to see, my God, Why should I die?”  He questions God at length, asking, “Would I be more noticed than I ever was before? Would the things I’ve said and done matter any more? Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?”  Jesus laments and argues, “Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die!” Wearing himself out with emotion andgrief, he wonders “Why am I scared to finish what I started – what you started – I didn’t start it!” The song concludes with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus voicing a reluctant acceptance –

               “God, Thy will is hard, but you hold every card.

               I will drink your cup of poison, nail me to your cross, and break me;

               bleed me, beat me, kill me, take me – now –  before I change my mind.”

While my theology differs from that expressed in this verse, I deeply appreciate the way this song draws us into the sense of Jesus’s dilemma as he sought to be faithful to his ministry, even though death would be the consequence of his faithfulness.  The image of a grain of wheat falling into the earth and dying so that it could bear fruit is given a vividness regarding what the “dying” part signified.

So why, on the occasion of our joyously celebrating the approaching graduation of the ESR class of 2011, am I drawn to talking about death as the gateway to new life?

One reason is that over the years of your time at ESR, you seniors have experienced this in a variety of ways.  The journey of your studenthood, of learning and formation for ministry, involved moments and perhaps even long periods, of various forms of loss and, even, of death.  Old ways of understanding, comfortable patterns of knowing, some relationships with important people, have had to change or have been lost, in order to make way for new forms of knowing, ways of practicing faithfulness, of relating, being, doing ministry. You have known much joy and sense of accomplishment, but you have also known grief and loss.  Some of your lives as “seed” have had to die in order to make way for the fruit of what God is doing in and with you. It has not been easy to break out of the hard shell that coats the inner part of the seed, so as to allow the tender seedling to emerge. We, your faculty and staff and fellow students, families and friends, who are on this journey with you, have watched, at times with a sense of real helplessness, when at some points you struggled and flailed around in this process. And we have rejoiced with you when you have come through a period of such struggle to new light and life.

“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.” Part of what we have sought to encourage, nurture, and uphold is the envisioning of what else is possible for this broken world of ours, and the steadfast commitment to being God’s faithful people, living into the peaceable kingdom now, providing leadership of different kinds in response to the needs of the world. Sometimes your hearts have broken as you have looked at the challenges which you feel called to address in ministry.  That is part of what it means to have the single grain of oneself die so as to bear much fruit. And I promise that it will happen again, because to seek to live in the kingdom of God means that we are called to imagine things that do not now exist, and to face opposition from a world that is not always ready for the new life to which Jesus called people.

Author Brian McLarenin his book A New Kind of Christianity, writes eloquently of the connection among dying, new life, and God’s kingdom:

               Jesus’s death and resurrection . . . are a paradigmatic summons to participation and anticipation. True, the transformed future desired by God isn’t achieved by human effort, strategy, or wisdom apart from God. But neither is it achieved by God working apart from humanity .  .  .  No, a better future comes as we join Jesus first in dying (metaphorically by dying to our pride, our agendas, our schedules, our terms, or literally [by dying] through martyrdom as witnesses for God’s kingdom and justice), and then in rising, through the mysterious but real power of God. In this cruciform way, we participate in the ongoing work of God, and we anticipate its ultimate success.                     (pp. 200-201) 

So in addition to being seeds, we plant seeds.  This image came through powerfully in the quotes from George Fox’s letters that Vivian read.  We “are breakers of clods in the vineyards . . . weeders . . . Some  . . . cutting off brambles and bushes, fitting the ground and cutting up the roots with the heavenly axe, for the Seed.” We don’t do ministry out of certainty of particular results.  Just like regular farmers, we invest in our crop without being certain that it will come through the exigencies of weather, insects, etc.   We invest in ministry in faith and hope, in trust that even when we can’t see the results of what we are doing, as often we cannot, that it is worth doing. 

The hymn “That Cause Can Neither Be Lost Nor Stayed” expresses these themes exquisitely.  It is on page 264 of the hymnal, and to lead us into the final part of the message I invite anyone who wish to do so to remain seated and sing it with me a cappella, and whoever doesn’t want to sing is welcome just to sit and listen.

“That Cause Can Neither Be Lost Nor Stayed”

1. That cause can neither be lost nor stayed

Which takes the course of what God has made;

And is not trusting in walls and towers,

But slowly growing from seeds to flowers.

2.     Each noble service that has been wrought

Was first conceived as a fruitful thought;

Each worthy cause with a future glorious

By quietly growing becomes victorious.

3.      Thereby itself like a tree it shows;

That high it reaches as deep it grows

And when the storms are its branches shaking,

It deeper root in the soil is taking.

4.     Be then no more by a storm dismayed,

For by it the full-grown seeds are laid;

And thought the tree by its might it shatters,

What then, if thousands of seeds it scatters?

(Worship in Song: A Friends Hymnal, Friend General Conference, 1996

Words: Kristian Ostergaard, trans. from the Danish by J. C. Aaberg.

Music: J. Nellemann [Danish folk tune])

We invest in God’s possibilities, trusting that more is happening than is visible to our eyes, and that even when something wonderful meets its death, seeds of new possibilities are scattered in life-giving ways. And when there are tangible positive results, we celebrate them and hang onto them as sustenance and encouragement for the days when we don’t know if we make a difference at all.

Like Jesus, we do this as part of God’s work that is much bigger than our individual role, and yet needs our particular contribution. In the words of theologian Jurgen Moltmann

               We live in an unjust, hostile, and divided world. We live and suffer in an ongoing struggle for power. We must therefore take sides with the poor, the weak, and the victims of violence, if we want to work for a universal redemption and anticipate the coming liberating and healing justice of God. God’s justice is first of all for the victims of sin, and then thereby also for the slaves of sin, to overcome sin on both sides. The liberation of the oppressed is the first option and includes as the second option also the healing of the oppressors.  For overcoming the power of sin and evil we need liberation on both sides.  It is God’s own action in history to take sides of the victims and to redeem the perpetrators from their violence through this partisanship. 

(Jurgen Moltmann

from “The Final Judgment: Sunrise of Christ’s Liberating Justice,” Anglican Theological Review 89/4 (2007): 565-76,

per McLaren, p. 286, footnote 18.33)

In ministry we seek to participate in what God has gotten underway, not try to do it by ourselves. We don’t do ministry because we are enough or have enough or know all that is needed or are assured of the results for which we hope.  We offer what we have in hope, and trust that more will be supplied.  We seek to be part of what God is doing in the lives of individuals and groups among whom we minister, of actions of God that began before us and will continue after us, rather than thinking that we can supply all of what is needed.  We are seeds and we plant seeds and we seek to follow the Seed for the sake of the beloved community, the peaceable kingdom, the reign of God.

Finally, as we move into waiting worship, I invite you to ponder this picture set created by ESR alumna Melanie Weidner, entitled “Unless It Dies”. It, too, portrays death leading to new life, as here a peach becomes the seedling of a new tree.

http://listenforjoy.com/art/unlessitdies.html

What do you notice as you look at this series of pictures?

Does one of the images particularly resonate with you? 

As you think about yourself this evening, where might you be within this story? 

What might be dying within you and what might be sprouting into new life?