[Sermon preached on Sunday, March 18, 2018 (Lent V, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis MN]
[The audio of the sermon can be heard on the Word Made FRESH Podcast.]
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.
John 12:24 (NRSV)
I ran into a crisis of faith a few years ago, and I am only just now coming to appreciate it because I have had some time to process it and sit with it. After finishing my first year of seminary I came to see that the incredibly deep questioning caused by a formal theological education is meant deconstruct our systems of faith in order to help us build it again. In some ways, it is a manufactured experience that many people have any way. We all face challenges that cause us to question what we have come to know about God. Twelve months of seminary was just enough time to watch the pieces of my fragile faith fall into a million pieces with little to no hope that I could ever pick up the pieces again.
I couldn’t bring myself to believe the things the church had taught me to believe. Keep in mind, I was raised in an Evangelically-flavored-black-Baptist tradition. The Bible was literal and there was no room for doubt and questioning. There was only surety. I tried to conjure up the surety my faith demanded of me, but the amount of energy it took to do that was not sustainable. Soon, the tiny fractures in my faith became wide, uncrossable chasms. It was hanging on by a thread, so it didn’t take much questioning for it to simply all fall apart.
This is how I walked into the Episcopal Church – a young man who attended church purely out of habit but for whom the fire of faith had long been diminished. The first time someone handed me a prayer book, I was glad that other people had found faithful words when my own were scattered and lost. I said prayers I didn’t quite understand, said a Creed I’m not sure I believed, and engaged in a ritual I didn’t get from an intellectual level.
But when I knelt down at the altar to receive the bread and wine, for the first time in a long time, the posture of my body matched the posture of my soul – waiting, willing, receptive, and hungry. That alignment released something in me, and for the first time I felt a sense of peace and fulfillment that I hadn’t felt for a long time. And one I have only felt a few times sense.
Dr. Renita Weems, a writer, Biblical scholar, and minister, writes extensively about what she calls “the long silence between intimacies, the interminable pause between words, the immeasurable seconds between pauses, the quiet between epiphanies, the hush after ecstasy, the listening for God.” This is where we spend most of our lives. It’s why we can get so weirded out when people talk about their transformative religious experiences – because, at least for some of us, there a deep sense of shame that we don’t have them all the time, if at all.
But a never ending spiritual experience is simply not how faith works. Our work is traveling through those in-between times, growing, stumbling, blessing, and mumbling along the way. That is what it means to live a life of faith – not that we live in surety and certainty all the time, but that you commit to this journey whatever might come.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is confronted by some Greek visitors who want to see him. It is obvious that his fame has spread, so naturally folks want to come to verify what all the fuss is about. Philip and Andrew go to Jesus and tell him that some visitors are looking for him and Jesus is all: “FINALLY! I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR THIS!” The visiting Greeks have come looking for a sign and, for once, Jesus isn’t shy about giving them one, just not in the form they are thinking. Instead of some miracle, Jesus tells them that the sign that he is who he says he is is that after he dies, his movement will grow. He is the seed planted by God into the darkess of the human condition in order to renew and recreate the world.
Now, I am no botanist and I only fancy myself an amateur gardener at best, but I do know that seeds oftentimes bear no resemblance to what comes out of the ground. I also know that, no matter how much sun, water, fertilizer, and expertise one has, it’s all a matter of chance anyway. No farmer is ever assured of a harvest. The bank on hope.
When I think of how Jesus responds to the Greeks, I find it fascinating that God has chosen to respond to the world’s brokenness and pain with hope. God sends Jesus into the world in hopes that, by leaning into the system hard enough to break it, what arises from the shattered forms of the previous world is something altogether new and different. Hatred, division, and despair no longer have the same power because we live in a new world, a world shot-through with holiness and saturated with the spirit of Christ who has ascended into heaven that he might fill all things. All that is waiting is for us to awaken to that reality and to partner with God to build the world that echoes that truth.
This past week I had the amazing opportunity to attend the 2018 Evangelism Matters Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. It was an amazing opportunity to learn and share, connect with old colleagues and build new relationships, engage in challenging conversations, and to have some good beer. But I also got to hang out a bit with the Rev. Stephanie Spellers, the Canon to the Presiding Bishop for Evangelism and Reconciliation. I have long admired Canon Spellers for her creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, but during this trip she became sort of like a big sister to me. We sat down to have a rather difficult conversation about something that happened during the conference but wound up talking about vocation and priesthood and its challenges. We both came away admitting what we feel to be true: God doesn’t call people to ordained ministry because they are such good and holy people. Perhaps God calls us because we are so terrible at this thing called faith that we need vows and structure to hold us accountable. We need reminders to pray even when we don’t want to or think we have the time to, because the communities we serve need our prayers. We need promises and vows to bind us to the spiritual life because many of us are so fickle that we’d walk away otherwise. I believe the same is true for all of us. We need regular reminders to set aside time for God, not because every time is this moment of spiritual ecstasy, but because each time we pray, leave open the possibility for awakening. Each prayer is a hope for awakening, an opportunity to open ourselves to the possibility of deeper belief.
I have learned to see faith as an amazing exercise in hope. Each time I pray, I plant another seed into God’s fertile ground, believing that it will bear fruit. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t. What matters is that I am practicing hope, a resource in short supply these days. And here’s the thing that I’ve learned, even in moments when my own hope is in short supply, I am still called to plant and to pray. Why? Because, that’s what the spiritual life is – the disciple of faith, hope, and love even we find our own storehouses running empty. We practice faith, hope, and love until we feel them and known them.
It is hard to convince people that this is the path to peace in a society that seems addicted to instant gratification. The slow-brewed fruits of faith aren’t grasped overnight, but over a lifetime of planting and hoping, planting and hoping, planting and hoping. Every now and then, a shoot peaks up through the dirt and we are reminded that beauty and grace are possible even in those in-between moments.
 Renita Weems. Listening for God (New York: Touchstone, 1999), p. 25.