Fronds and Seeds

Passage: John 12:9-26
Date: April 9, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, delved into the icy tundra of Longyearbyen on Spitsbergen, Norway, is a 1,000-square-meters-large space that holds millions of seeds representing over 900,000 varieties of food crops. While it is not the only seed vault in the world, it is the largest, created by the Norwegian government in 2008 for the purpose of having one very secure seed vault that would house all the varieties of plant seeds on earth, because many smaller vaults have been threatened or destroyed by war or changing politics. ( )

Time Magazine ran an article about the seed vault this past week, and the author writes this: “In an age of heightened geopolitical tensions and uncertainty, the Svalbard vault is an unusual and hopeful exercise in international cooperation for the good of humankind. Any organization or country can send seeds to it, and there are no restrictions because of politics or the requirements of diplomacy. Red wooden boxes from North Korea sit alongside black boxes from the U.S. Over on the next aisle, boxes of seeds from Ukraine sit atop seeds from Russia. ‘The seeds don’t care that there are North Korean seeds and South Korean seeds in the same aisle,’ [one administrator] says. ‘They are cold and safe up there, and that’s all that really matters.’” (

While planning ahead is good, and while I laud the efforts of all who support the seed bank, a seed cold and safe up above the arctic circle doesn’t do much good in the here and now. As Jesus reminds us, it remains a single seed. But if it falls into the ground and dies….

It is Palm Sunday, the beginning of the week when we remember that like the seed, like the grain of wheat, Jesus went down into the dust and died, so that he might bring life. His words create a striking image and form a familiar phrase. That seed captures the nature of sacrifice.

I often wonder about the nature of sacrifice. The roots of the word mean “to make sacred.” Perhaps making a sacrifice is the highest of human valor. I think about parents sacrificing their own meal so that their children can eat. I think about soldiers in platoons sacrificing their own lives so that their comrades will live. I think about those people and wonder what makes them able to enter into scarcity or death for the sake of someone else?

If you know the person you make the sacrifice for, maybe it is because of love. If you don’t know the person, maybe you make the sacrifice because of some ideal: for your country, for freedom, for the future. One thing that all who sacrifice have in common is this: someone who has power gives up that power for the sake of the powerless. A parent might have the power of food. A soldier might have the power of being in the right place at the right time. Jesus had the power of God.

If Jesus had not fallen to the ground in death, how would things be different? Would there be another route to salvation? There is debate among Christians about the nature of all the things that happened in Holy Week. Was it all divinely ordained? Was humanity so utterly stained and filthy that God wanted to kill us off, and instead, Jesus stepped in and was killed instead? That’s one idea. It’s not one I think much of, to tell you the truth. There’s not a lot of love in that God, and not a lot of hope for humanity.

At the other end of things, some believe it was all about human politics and power. Jesus threatened the religious authorities by challenging their long held beliefs, and Jesus mocked Rome by claiming that he, and not Caesar, was lord. So he was found guilty in a rigged trial and executed by the state as a common criminal. Historically, that makes sense. But it lacks something of the divine, something that would enable the death of an innocent man to create a spiritual force that still shapes the world today.

But why did Jesus go so willingly into all of this? At any time, he could have stopped talking, stopped making these outrageous claims. He could have run away, gone into hiding. He could have remained that single grain of wheat, and not done anything to incite the authorities, played it safe. He could have called down those legions of angels that his heavenly Father had. But he didn’t. He walked, eyes wide open, into the accusations and the sentence. He sacrificed himself. For what?

For us? For the likes of you and me? For the likes of his fellow peasants who lived so sparsely under Roman oppression? For the future? Did he die so that we might have this religion of Christianity?

I’ve been thinking about the nature of sacrifice this week too as I’ve read and been horrified by the events in Syria, so I think it’s important to note the difference between the death of innocent people and the death of one willing to make a sacrifice. I still cannot look at the images of the victims of the sarin attack. It breaks my heart into a million tiny pieces. That father with the twin babies…. They were sacrificed for reasons I do not fully understand. They were sacrificed for something that had to do with power. The one in power made no sacrifice that hurt him, that cost him. Those poor people were powerless to stop it.

As we think about power and sacrifice, as we think about the power of individuals and nations, we look too to the beginning of today’s story, to Jesus, with all of his power, entering the city of Jerusalem, the capital of what was once the kingdom of Israel.

Jesus enters this city for the last time, walking eyes wide open toward his death, and he is greeted by the crowd of followers who wave palm branches. That’s what they did back then in Israel – they waved palm branches as a sign of national pride, the way we might wave miniature American flags at a Fourth of July parade. They waved palms, an age-old symbol of the kingdom of Israel, because their king was entering his city. Rome used palms too, to signify military victory. Maybe the followers of Jesus who waved their palm branches at him that day did so not only to hail their king but also to thumb their noses at Rome.

They sweep in their king with branches of palm, a hope that indeed Jesus was coming into his own to win. They had expectations of their messiah, that he would conquer the oppressor with military might. It’s all there in that story and its symbols: victory, nation, power.

And Jesus will have none of it. He is there to make a sacrifice, not to win. He comes in peace, not in power. He will die; he will not survive.

That is the hard part of the story: that Jesus comes in peace to sacrifice himself.

Every year when the Palm Sunday service is over we collect whatever palms are still lying about. Usually I stick them in a corner of my office. I let them dry out. They get brown and brittle. Once that happens, I put them in a bag or a box until a few days before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, when these dried out old palm branches are burned and sifted and become the ashes which mark our foreheads for the Lenten journey.

It seems appropriate that this symbol of victory and nation becomes the symbol of humility and sacrifice. When we mark the foreheads of the congregation with ashes in the shape of the cross, we say these words: remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies….

But this year I’d like to do something different with the palms. Frankly, it doesn’t take many palms to make enough ashes for a decade’s worth of Ash Wednesdays. We’re covered for a good long while.

I invite you, instead, to take a palm branch with you as you leave today, or if there aren’t enough full branches, to tear off a single leaf from a branch. Take it with you as you leave today. Think about those places near you that are in need of peace and healing. Think about those places that have been torn apart by violence or fear or hate, even here in Portland. Think about those places near you where there has been an innocent victim. Think about a place where there has been a death you mourn to this day or where a hurt happened that still pricks your heart.

Take your branch or your leaf to that place, and leave it there, a small testament to Holy Week, to the powers of the world butting up against the power and love of God. And as you leave it there, say a prayer, or say this prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

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.