The days and weeks have been busy working with my editor Karen Hodges Miller with last-minute adjustments to my new novel, Accidental Saviors, in preparation for its printing and release. I thought I’d piggy-back on my preaching this past Sunday at All Hallows’ Episcopal Church just up the street from my home in Wyncote by using the sermon as my post this week.
The message is specifically Christian, of course. But, like any of the good news Jesus proclaimed, I think these reflections on John 12:20-33 are applicable for anyone. So, whether you are Christian, Jewish, None or Other, I hope that you are edified today.
Text: John 12:23-26
Do you know what an oxymoron is? Notice, I didn’t say “moron.” I think if Rex Tillerson had used the word oxymoron to describe the President instead of moron, he might still be the Secretary of State.
In any case. We use oxymorons all the time. It’s a statement that contains two ideas which seem at first glance to be diametrically opposed, but taken together, add up to a sentence that is eminently true. For example, Charlie Brown’s favorite slogan is “Good grief!” None of us really enjoys grief. But grieving someone or something we have lost really is “good”, isn’t it? Good for our emotions, and only fitting when we and a loved one are cut off.
We may have seen a hilarious video on America’s Funniest Videos, and commented to the others in the room, “That was seriously funny.” Well, which was it, funny, or serious? Both, of course. Extremely sidesplitting.
I am writing my second novel since my retirement three years ago. The other day, my editor said to me, “Jack, less is more.” I knew what she meant, even though on the surface her statement is totally counter-intuitive. Just as I did when she gave the following oxymoronic advice concerning marketing the book: “You’ve got to spend money to make money.”
The content of the Christian faith is full of oxymorons and paradoxes. Now, for people like myself who enjoy the cleverness and playfulness of oxymorons, they make the Christian faith interesting and attractive. But for others who are tired of scratching their heads trying to figure out the logic of oxymorons and paradoxes, the fact that the Christian is practically built on the foundation of a series of oxymorons uttered by Jesus renders Christianity too perplexing and illogical for them.
In today’s gospel lesson in John, Jesus is at his oxymoronic best. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” he says, “it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Jesus agriculturally-oriented original audience knew experientially exactly what he meant. After a seed is planted, nothing appears for a long time, perhaps many months, and it’s logical to conclude that the seed has died. But come the spring here in the northern hemisphere, a rich harvest of wheat appears. Sudden life comes from death.
Then, Jesus proceeds to articulate the most profound, quintessential oxymoron in the Christian faith: “Those who love their life, lose it, and those who hate their lives in this world—that is, those who place a higher priority on clinging to the things of this life—will keep it for eternal life.” If you want to save your life, in other words, you can’t attach yourself to it too tightly. If you want life with a capital “L”, then you must share your life. Don’t be overly protective of your time or energy or other resources on which you depend for life. That’s not life as Jesus defines it. Real Life happens, Jesus says, when we give away our time and energy and resources for the sake of the Gospel to others. To gain is to lose, and to give away is to receive.” Talk about a mystifying oxymoron.
It’s precisely this puzzling oxymoron that is encapsulated in the famous Prayer of St. Francis: “O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
The well-known Lutheran pastor and theologian in Germany during the Second World War, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, paraphrased Jesus’ oxymoron in the baldest, starkest way possible. He wrote, “When Christ calls a man to follow him, he bids him come and die.? Perhaps I ought to bring the statement up to date by using inclusive language: “When Christ calls a person to follow him as his disciple, he bids him or her to come and die.”
In many places and on many occasions in the gospels, Jesus tells his listeners that one cannot follow him, be like him, or be his disciple, if one is not prepared to “pick up the cross.” In other words, to die. To die biologically eventually, of course. But, while still in this life, to die many times…to many things. To myself. To my own will. Rather, Jesus says, “Thy will be done, Father, not mine.”
To die to our culture’s conventional wisdom that my life is all about me, that we get most satisfaction in life, as Sinatra and Elvis and so many others sang, by living it “my way.” Rather, Jesus says, “I came not to be served, but to serve.”
To die to the Old Adam or Old Eve which was drowned in the waters of our baptism, and which we drown once again each day as we arise and remember our baptism.
To die to regarding people from a distorted, often prejudiced, judgmental, self-righteous human perspective, and rise to seeing others beneath the surface as God sees them.
To be a follower of Jesus today, or in any age, for that matter, requires a certain level of maturity and what author Daniel Goleman called “emotional intelligence”. Picking up a cross and dying to our former way of seeing and thinking and doing—repentance, in other words—is not for the immature or weak of heart. The former president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mount Airy, Dr. David Lose, paraphrased Jesus’ remark that he is “the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free,” in this way: “Yes, indeed, the truth will make you free; but first, it will make you miserable.”
Think of your own lives for a moment. Isn’t it true that any maturing you have experienced in your life is usually the result of some kind of error of judgment, one kind of failure or another, or a slip or fall from grace? It’s been that way in my life. I don’t go out of my way to make mistakes, or fail at something, or trip and fall in life. But, I’ve surely experienced all three. I’ve been blindsided and lost a job; I’ve discovered dysfunction within my family; and, not every dream I have had for my life has come true. But, to quote a cliché, I’m a better man because of them. I’m a deeper, more mature, more committed Christian because of them.
St. Paul, perhaps, said it best in his oxymoron. “It is when I am weak that I am strong.” That’s because, he says, when he himself is at the end of his rope, he finally stops doing life his way, but looks to his God for direction and the strength to continue in God’s way. As the Franciscan priest and psychologist Father Richard Rohr puts in his phenomenal book, Falling Upward, “The way up in life is the way down.” As Jesus implied, “Those who are last in life really do have a head start in moving toward first, and those who spend too much time and energy being first all the time seldom get there.”
Perhaps your congregation, Christian, Jewish or otherwise, is like the congregation where my wife and I belong, in bemoaning that there are very few young people in your pews. There are probably many reasons why they aren’t. But at least one, I think, is that the young haven’t had sufficient time or opportunity yet to make many life-altering mistakes, or experience real failure, or have their dreams or ideals shattered. They may not have suffered profound loss yet.
I think of a song composed by the late ex-Beatle John Lennon before his 25th birthday in 1965. “Help, I need somebody. Help, not just anybody. Help!…When I was young, so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way.” The highly successful John Lennon, needing help? Yes. By 1965, he had discovered the essential hollowness of all the Beatles’ success. After such success at such a young age, what’s left? He felt trapped in life: trapped in a loveless marriage with his first wife Cynthia; trapped in the chaotic, relentless schedule and pressures of life as a Beatle. He fell, in other words, for one of the first times in his life. So, he continues the song: “But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured. Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors. Help!”
I wonder, what might have transpired, how might John Lennon been transformed, if someone credible had been by his side to be a Christ to him, to listen to him, take him seriously as a human being, to empathize with his being down, which is precisely the prerequisite condition to be raised up to a new life, a new abundant life, freely given to him by Christ. Might he who went on to describe himself in another song as a “Nowhere Man, sitting in his nowhere land,” have been found? AMEN
Until the next time, live this unique day of opportunity to the fullest.