There’s a little boy named Noah who lives across the street from me. He’s six years old, and he’s in first grade. This summer, he started coming over to my house and ringing the doorbell. “Can I see Sadie?” he’d ask. Sadie is my dog; she’s a little white dog who weighs all of 13 pounds. She’s 14 years old, and she’s lost her hearing. Truth be told, she has never been very friendly to people outside our family, but she’s little, and she looks like a puppy, so she’s intriguing to a young boy.
When Noah first started coming, I thought it was a funny question, “Can I see Sadie?” “Well, here she is,” I thought. “You can see her through the glass door.” But that is, of course, not what Noah had in mind. He wanted to hold her, and he wanted her to nudge him and to play with him. Noah started coming to my house because he wanted to experience my dog.
Last spring, I saw that Rob Bell, an author I admire, was coming to town. He was going to be at the Barnes and Noble close to my house, so I put it on my calendar. That night, there was quite a crowd gathered. All the chairs were taken, so I sat down on the floor and leaned against a bookshelf, eager to soak up the experience. I wanted to buy his book, so I waited in line, and even though I thought it was silly to have my photo taken with him, I handed my phone to the next person in line and memorialized the encounter just like everyone else there did.
Tonight’s reading from John is brief. It starts out by saying some Greeks had come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Passover, and they came to Phillip, one of the disciples of Jesus, and they said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” They were not looking for information about who Jesus was or a belief system that explained his significance. They were seeking an experience with Jesus.
I wonder, do you remember when you first saw Jesus? When you first experienced him?
For me, it was when I was 11 years old and went to Bible camp for the first time. I had grown up in church my whole life, and I was surrounded by people who taught me how to practice faith and who gave me information about the content of the belief we professed. I went to Sunday School and sang in the children’s choir. I sat in the pew with my parents, and I learned to say by heart the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostle’s Creed. And then one day, I noticed a flyer for camp on the bulletin board, and I asked my parents if I could go. I went to camp that summer, and I went again the next summer, and the summer after that, and one more besides.
I don’t know why I asked to go to camp – I’m not sure that I was consciously looking for Jesus – but I know what I found when I got there. I found a community that welcomed me and made me feel like I was part of something bigger. I found a community that asked the questions I was asking. I found a community that sang and told stories about a way of being in the world that depended not on what I could do but on what God had done for me. I found a way of thinking, and encouragement for a way of being in the world, that was less about getting and more about giving. A way of being that emphasized welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and speaking up for those who were on the margins, the ones who were being ostracized.
- I came to see Jesus in the community and in the life that we shared.
- I got formed by the community, and I came to see that to follow Jesus is to follow a pattern of dying and rising – dying to self, and rising to a new way of being in the world.
A few years later, I became a camp counselor and spent three more summers at camp. A few decades later, I began to serve on the Board of Directors for another camp, Green Lake Lutheran Ministries in Spicer.
Like so many expressions of the church, Green Lake is trying to figure out how to be faithful to its mission in this time and place. Like the camp I attended as a kid, its mission is to set the stage for people to see Jesus, to encounter him, and to be changed by him.
The demographics and economics have changed. There are fewer kids in small towns, fewer kids in churches. What we used to do doesn’t work like it used to. We find ourselves looking at numbers and trying to figure out ways to make the columns in the ledger balance so we can continue to live out our mission. Our mission has never been more important than it is now – to form faith in participants in such a way that the Gospel of grace, mercy, love and forgiveness resists impulses of fear, greed, and hatred.
The effect of our congregation’s mission is the same: To connect people with God, each other and their mission in the world, so that the Gospel of grace, mercy, love and forgiveness resists impulses of fear, greed, and hatred.
A year ago, this community was involved in serious discussions about what its future might be. It had become apparent that numbers were declining, and it was only a matter of years before this community gathered at Minnetonka Boulevard would no longer be able to sustain itself. And so you asked, “What’s important here?” It wasn’t just that there’s a group of people here that you like to spend time with, even though you do enjoy each other. It was about the nature of the community – it’s a group of people who have come together to experience Jesus and to welcome others to that experience:
- to find Jesus in the bread and the wine, and the Word of God,
- to work together to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a world where refugees still long for a home, where the poor still need to be fed, where fear and hatred raise their angry voices.
- It’s a community in which we get fed and then from which we get sent out in the world to be the body of Jesus.
As you worked through that conversation, you already knew that death and resurrection are the heart of our Christian faith, that dying and rising is the pattern that gets repeated over and over. And so you came to the decision to consolidate with another congregation, Bethlehem Lutheran on Lyndale Av in Minneapolis. You discerned that autonomy and control were less important than your commitment to the mission of Jesus.
In tonight’s Gospel reading, we don’t know if the Greeks who came looking for Jesus got what they came for; we don’t know if they saw him and experienced him. But in John’s Gospel, their question sets in motion Jesus’ path. Jesus looks toward the cross and says: Now is the time, and he tells a little parable to help them understand.
“Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, hidden and seemingly dead to the world,” he says, “it is never more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.” (John 12:24-25, MSG)
The meaning of the parable is less apparent to us since we no longer live in an agrarian society. A few years ago, my family went to my mom and dad’s farm for Thanksgiving, and in the course of the visit, my dad asked us to him help plant some grass seed in a portion of a field that wasn’t going to be used for crops. As he broadcast the seed on the ground, I questioned his wisdom and said, “Dad, it’s too cold for grass to grow now.” He looked at me and shook his head saying, “Kris, this is the way seeds work. They lie dormant until the conditions are right. When there’s enough water and enough warmth in the spring, the outer shell will soften, and the seed will set down roots in the earth and then sprout and grow. In the meantime, the seeds are ready and waiting.”
When Jesus died, the seed that had already been planted began to sprout and grow. His life and mission were reborn in the church. The one seed was fruitful; the one seed became many. Although it has looked different in all the ages of two millennia, the church has continued to share his mission of grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness.
It is of course not easy. To follow Jesus is to follow a pattern of dying and rising – dying to self, and rising to a new way of being in the world.
David Lose has noted that the point of faith in Jesus isn’t just about having faith, or finding comfort, or satisfying our spiritual desires. The point of following Jesus is to be drawn more deeply into the kingdom of God; that’s what happens when we love and serve and sacrifice on behalf of those around us.
Today is Commitment Sunday when all of us are invited to make a commitment to this community with our finances. This year, my husband Dave and I are increasing our gift to camp, and we’re increasing our offerings to this community. The mission that we share is important; we want to be part of it.
But in all honesty, God doesn’t need our money; God asks for what it represents – our hearts, our loyalty, and most of all our trust. And that involves dying just a bit to ourselves – our desires, our fears, and our quest for control.
Julian of Norwich, a mystic and a theologian from the Middle Ages, once wrote, “If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love.”
That is the heart of the Christian faith. The God who is revealed in Jesus is known in his life, death, and resurrection. As counter-intuitive as it is, we know there’s an alternative to the fear and greed that we see in our culture. It’s found in the pattern of dying and rising again.
It’s not enough to know about Jesus; we wish to see him, to experience him, just as the Greeks did who came to see Jesus in the story of John. So…as much as a young boy wants to see and experience a little white dog as I mentioned at the beginning…and as much as an aspiring preacher wants to be in the presence of a real writer…We wish to see Jesus, to know him, to trust him, and to be formed in his image. Our lives depend on it, and so does the life of the world. And so we say, “Come, Lord Jesus, and meet us here tonight.” Amen.