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Below, you’ll find Andy’s reflection and Steve’s prayers for this week.
You can find this week’s Children’s Time video here.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Scripture: John 12: 23-36
Music: Come Touch Our Hearts; By the Well a Thirsty Woman
Musician: (hymn recordings)
As a suburbanite – who has everything I could possibly need or want at arms-length virtually all the time – I realize that I don’t always hear in Jesus’ teachings the risk involved in his teachings. When he says that a grain of wheat must fall into the ground and die in order for grain to grow, I think, “Sure, that sounds right to me.”
When Jesus said this to his followers, they likely heard it differently. People who live on the land survive on what they grow and share. If there isn’t enough rain, crops don’t yield as much and returns are poor. If locusts destroy the crop, families don’t eat. Jesus’ parables about sowers and seeds were likely much more visceral for his first listeners.
Of course, you don’t have to be a farmer to understand that today’s image of the grain of wheat is about more than wheat. The author of John’s Gospel makes it clear that he’s talking about the death that he will undergo, and how he believes it will transform the way people see and understand God. If Jesus were to live to a ripe old age, offering wise agricultural aphorisms, and dying peacefully in his sleep, what would that demonstrate of the nature of sacrifice, of God’s self-giving love, of the risk and loss that are an intimate part of life, of forgiveness as the currency in God’s economy of grace?
This parable of dying and rising also speaks to his followers of the pattern of their lives. We know that our growth includes transformation: from what was to what is to what will be; the cycle of childhood, adulthood and spending-four-months-of-the-year-in-Florida-hood; education, work, retirement; living with parents, living on our own, creating a home for ourselves and even others. In order for each stage to unfold, the previous stage must end.
Endings and beginnings aren’t always easy. I remember the point at which I realized I could never again go into my room in the house I grew up in. I watch with fondness as Jonathan and Margaret grow and also feel some sadness at the time now passed. And yet, in leaving home I also found my partner and my calling as a father. As the kids grow, we take delight in their becoming their own persons and discovering the world for themselves.
At each stage, we take with us what we have learned, what we need, what we value; and we leave behind what no longer works for us, old habits or ways of thinking that have, perhaps, held us back. If you’ve ever read through an old diary, or maybe caught up with an old friend you haven’t seen in years, you know what it feels like to encounter your former self, to wonder at how you’ve changed, and perhaps to imagine what else might be in store.
This year, we’ve all had a lot of time to reflect in this way. This year has been hard, in many ways we can name and in others that we likely can’t. The effects of this long hibernation aren’t yet fully known, but as we emerge from it, we are all faced with an opportunity that comes rarely in the history of the world. We have an opportunity to answer a simple, yet very challenging question: who do we want to be? Or, to use Jesus’ image of the dying grain of wheat bearing fruit: what might we be prepared to let go of, and how might we flourish again?
At least one response came from an unexpected source for me this week: the former governor of the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, Mark Carney. He’s published a book called Value(s), in which he reflects critically on what he calls our gradual shift from having a market economy to being a market society. Increasingly, he writes, the value of what we do and even who we are is equated with a monetary value, which has come to govern the whole of life from healthcare and education, to public safety and environmental protection.
Oscar Wilde once quipped that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Carney echoes this, arguing that there is good evidence to suggest that when markets valuation extends into human relationships and civic practices, their character changes. He cites the example of the different ways blood donations are collected in the US and the UK. In the US, blood donations are paid for, and remain consistently lower than in the UK, where they aren’t; a small example of market mechanisms replacing compassion and altruism with consumerism.
What really drew my attention was the story that serves as the foundation for his critique. A few years ago, Carney was part of a gathering of leaders in public policy, business, academics, and charity workers gathered at the Vatican to discuss the future of the market system. Pope Francis surprised the group by joining them for lunch and sharing with them a parable.
“Our meal will be accompanied by wine, and wine is many things. It has a bouquet, colour and richness of taste that all complement the food. It has alcohol that can enliven the mind and enrich the senses. At the end of our feast, we will have grappa. Grappa is one thing: alcohol. Grappa is wine distilled. Likewise, humanity is many things – passionate, curious, rational, altruistic, creative, self-interested. But the market is one thing: self-interest. The market is humanity distilled. Your job is to turn the grappa back into wine, to turn the market back into humanity. This isn’t theology. This is reality. This is the truth.”
I need to add an aside here. This week, the Vatican released a statement reinforcing its condemnation of same sex unions. This was disappointing, to say the least, and perhaps a little unexpected given that Pope Francis has, in the past, seemed to be moving in a different direction. Yet, in a way, it also serves to underscore that everyone, even the Bishop of Rome, can learn from Jesus that some things must die – including archaic ideas about sexuality – in order for God’s abundant and unconditional love to flourish and live.
The church is called, in fact, always to evaluate its priorities, and to seek ways to relinquish self-interest in favour of the dignity and flourishing of others. This is the example of Christ – the way of self-giving love. “Where I am,” says Jesus, “there will my servant be also.” When we look at our society and our practices, we are called to see where Jesus is. His ministry was to seek out the lost and lonely, the forgotten and the oppressed, the poor and the broken. Where are they today? That is where we must be also: serving, mending, restoring.
Where is the cross lifted up in our midst? In an environment groaning for relief; in systems that grant privilege to some at the expense of many more; in countless places where ignorance and want rule the day. That is where we are called to gather, to watch and pray, to listen and to act.
The call to restore our humanity – our created image in love – isn’t just the responsibility of policy makers, business leaders and public thinkers. We are called to live in ways that accord with our values; as Jeremiah puts it, with the law of love written on our hearts.
To die and rise is to give priority to our relationships with each other, loving our neighbours as ourselves. And that requires that we relinquish the things that hold us captive, like self-interest, pride, and fear, in favour of our humanity: mercy, kindness, forgiveness. When we cast aside the weight we do not need, we find ourselves free to take up the those things that bring life to us, and to all. Amen.
God of hope, God of light, God of new growth, help us to open our eyes to see how you bring about new life even in the midst of the troubles that we face.
Our souls are troubled for these are challenging times; it is as if death and darkness surround us. Your word today reminds us that for new life to emerge we must let go of old ways so we can be renewed. Through the darkness, your presence sustains and strengthens us; not just in this moment but in all of the times to come as we notice light and warmth and new life.
These are times rife with the struggle of understanding why difficult things are happening to others and our own selves. Yet through this Lenten time, your presence offers us hope and the promise of renewal. For, you understand our fears; you support and guide us; and give us courage to face the challenges before us.
Loving God, in this time of uncertainty when there is much to be anxious about, we pray for the world you love. Send your Spirit anew to guide countries, communities and individuals in response to COVID-19. Bless the work of medical researchers and frontline health care workers in these stressful times.
Bless those helping to deliver vaccines. Grant us patience and help calm our fears as we wait for our turn and for those close to us and the billions around the globe who need the protection that a simple needle can offer.
Send your healing Spirit to bring peace with justice to the troubled places, we remember the people of Myanmar, Syria, of Palestine and Israel.
Bring care and comfort to those who have been hurt in conflict,
wisdom to those who offer leadership in their communities,
and courage to those who advocate for the most vulnerable.
We pray for mutual respect to grow between peoples who look at each other with suspicion and among people who have experienced painful histories with each other; we think especially of Canada’s difficult history and ongoing problems between governments and Indigenous communities. Open our hearts and minds to those whose situations and concerns we don’t understand and bring your gift of reconciliation to all.
Send your healing Spirit to people we know and the earth you love.
We remember before you all who grieve…
relationships marked by tension…
those facing difficulty at work or finding work…
concerns about the environment we depend on…
We pray for the continuing ministry of our church in our neighbourhood and around the world.
As we prepare to celebrate Easter and Christ’s resurrection, help us plan safely and creatively.
Send your healing Spirit to raise our hearts and our hopes with the promise of new life in Christ.
Restore to us the joy of your presence.
We ask these things through our brother Jesus, who teaches us to pray:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name,
thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.