Rev. Dr. Helen Svoboda-Barber
“…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. Those who love their life will lose it…” John 12:24b-25
This week, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the idea of a grain of wheat falling to the earth and having to die in order for it to grow life and bear fruit.
We, as a church, are right now that grain of wheat in the earth–split open. Our old way of life, our old way of being together, our old familiar ideas of what church looked like and felt like and did — they are gone.
Those old ways felt comfortable and familiar. They are beloved. They were strong and steady and shelf-stable for long life. They were like a grain of wheat. Hearty. Able to withstand much. Full of potential. But a year into the pandemic? We are no longer that.
All those things we thought were central to church: Gathering in person to worship regularly, partaking of bread and wine weekly, singing together, physically sharing signs of the peace, visiting one another…
SO much of what we thought was central to church is not really the center of church. So much of what we thought was essential is not really essential.
What we thought of as essential was in reality what was easy and comfortable and made sense for our situation. It never was the ONLY way of being church — it was simply ONE way of being church. One way that we were very, very comfortable with.
Over this past year, we have lost our grip on so much which we thought was essential about church–but somehow we have still continued to BE the church.
Now, here we are. We as “church” are in this uncomfortable, messy, not-quite-this/not-quite-that state. We gather online. Or we say our prayers alone, knowing others are saying those same prayers alone too. We have learned that simply gazing at the bread and the wine is a meaningful way to take communion, too. We keep our voices quiet and masked when we see one another in person. And we only sing hymns (perhaps slightly out of tune) when we are at home alone. We share the peace not by hugging or handshakes, but by typing or waving (or like at our recent drive-in Diocesan Convention by honking our horns and flashing our lights). Phone calls, notes and emails have replaced face to face visiting.
And, we have found out, THIS is church.
We have missed what used to be. Oh, how we miss what used to be. And yet, church has not disappeared. Our community has not withered. We are still here, living out our love of God and love of Neighbor in strange and new ways.
Years ago author Phyllis Tickle popularized Bishop Mark Dyer’s notion of the church having Giant Rummage Sales. Dyer studied Christian history and realized that every 500 years or so, the church has a major shift — like a Giant Rummage Sale where all the old stuff goes away, making way for new stuff. These moments in time of the Giant Rummage Sales are relatively short periods of time where everything changes in the church.
It happened first when Constantine converted and Christianity became the dominant religion of the western world. The second Giant Rummage Sale happened when the church split into two major branches: Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity and Western (Roman) Christianity. The third Giant Rummage Sale was the Reformation. And now…there’s our current world.
Dyer and Tickle saw a big change coming for the church even 15 years ago. They didn’t know exactly what it would be or how it would be ushered in, but they were confident that some sort of big changes were afoot.
Big Changes. And you know, in general, we humans are not great lovers of change. We will do a lot to avoid changing.
But the pandemic took away our ability to stay the same. The church began profoundly changing a year ago.
And just like a grain of wheat that has cracked open with new life growing inside it, we too have been cracked open. And we will never be able to fully go back to what we were before. Living through this pandemic — for all of us lucky enough to live through it — will have changed us permanently as individuals. It will also have permanently changed the church.
“The church is changing” is not something we want to hear. “The church is changing” is not something we want to be true. But…The church is changing is our reality.
We were warm and comfortable and safe inside our grain of wheat that was the church. But the grain of wheat has been broken open. Our church has been broken open.
If we try to hold on tightly to what we used to be, we will be stuck within this broken grain of wheat, and we will have no future. But, if we take some time to notice how we have survived this year, how what we are doing now relates to what we have done before, and how we can continue living out love of God and love of Neighbor in different and meaningful ways — well, then, we are in a position to grow.
When a seed breaks open, it’s not obvious what the sprout will look like. From the sprout, it is not obvious what the plant will look like.
Both Christendom as a whole, and St. Luke’s as a congregation, are at the point of being cracked open (just like every other congregation in the world). In this past year, we have lived our lives as a “sprout” rather than as a “seed.” Everything was different and odd and uncomfortable. We were fragile. But we have survived. And in the weeks and months and years to come, our job as a church is to live into who we are becoming — not turn back to who we used to be. We can no longer be just a seed. The shell of who and what we were has done it’s work. It kept us sturdy and safe to this point.
And now, we are a seed cracked open. We are no longer the seed, we are the sprout. And sprouts always, always orient their growth to the Sun. We, at St. Luke’s will orient our growth towards Jesus, the Son.
I do not know what kind of plant we will become. I do not know what St. Luke’s will look like in 20 years or in 5 years or even in 2 years. But I am confident that what we have learned and lived into this year will shape who we become. And I am confident that if we keep our focus fixed on following the Son, we as a church will become more than we ever imagined.
“…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.”