Fifth Sunday in Lent 2021

The past year of the pandemic has been difficult for our world. In the United States alone, more than 540,00 alone have died according to this morning’s most recent NY Times update. People grieve the lost of loved ones. Even those who have not lost anyone to Covid might grieve other kinds of losses—not being able to see family or missing ordinary activities that used to shape our days and the shape of a year. I miss seeing my family over the holidays, as most live a good 20 hour drive away, and with health issues in the family, we haven’t risked a plane flight this past year. I also miss the small conversations that used to take place in the hallways at work when people could just loiter around the kitchen together while waiting for the microwave or sink, or chat near the copy machine. I miss having friends over for dinner, or going out to a restaurant to talk in a small group with my female friends. I imagine each of us has something to grieve.

At the same time perhaps during a time of more retreat from the ordinary, we have also gained some things. I’ve often wanted more time in the morning to pray and reflect in silence before my day starts and without a commute stuck in traffic, I’ve gained ample space to reflect —since it takes me only a few minutes now to move from breakfast to work. There are parts of life I don’t miss, things I used to do simply because I was supposed to want to do them, and I’m wondering whether I will resume them at all once life returns to normal. Forced simplicity has also led to a greater appreciation of simplicity, simple daily rhythms, like eating a leisurely home cooked lunch with my husband every day, or going on a walk and taking time to watch birds, admire trees, see a squirrel or turkey or a playful dog. I think this will all inform my choices about how to spend time once we are vaccinated and back to a “new normal.”

Socially our world is also going through a time of upheaval where we recognize how much of our social and political world needs transformation. In order to let the evils of racism and white supremacy, poverty and political inequity, mistreatment of the immigrant and guest, in order to make sure that these evils come to an end, there has to be some breaking down of old structures. We as a society have to be willing to let some things that used to be part of our old culture die off, because these things were never life giving, but more like the tomb, for so many people in our society. It’s just that now, we’re finally collectively noticing what others already saw.

The Gospel for today might speak to some of these issues. Jesus speaks of the grain of wheat that has to die before it grows and produces new life. In its most primary sense, the passage is about Jesus himself, his own death and Resurrection. He’s also speaking about the fruitfulness of that death, that with his death there comes redemption from sin, a creative force of liberation and new life with God’s resurrecting power, and real transformation of OUR lives and not only his own.

It’s not just statues and monuments, but so much of the fabric of how our workplaces and civic institutions, our media and popular culture function and are structured that needs transformation. We do see positive transformation in many of these areas but there is more left to do —which also means letting go of some of what’s old, letting die off some of the old, to make room for what’s new. Maybe you can let go of that favorite childhood cartoon that also happens to have a racist character in it, and find something else to watch. Maybe you can give up a spot on that committee, so that someone else can have a seat at the table, and the work of the committee can be more diverse and enriched by a new perspective.

Lent itself is meant to be, in part, a time where we let die those parts of life that aren’t really life giving anymore. Then we await where God might come in to fill in those empty spaces. Maybe it’s a bad habit given up, or maybe it’s the pandemic forcing us to give up so much that we can then recognize what really matters—and what doesn’t. Maybe it’s something that’s a familiar part of culture but that we recognize is also problematic for others who are also part of our human family. Can we let those things go and die off? Do we trust that God will breathe new life into what’s left?

In New England, the ground is still frozen outside and while I can’t plant outdoors yet, I have put in a few seedlings indoors this past week. A little dish of soil with fresh potting soil, moisture, and a little plastic wrap over it to serve as a mini greenhouse sits near the window where I work on my computer. For me, it’s a little hopeful anticipation of spring and of warmer, sunnier, better days ahead. But first there’s a time of waiting.

I wonder whether in this last week of Lent before Palm Sunday when the Passion narrative grabs us and we immerse ourselves in Jesus’s story, and in this time where we also see the light at the end of the pandemic, whether there’s still a bit more to be gained from the in betweenness of waiting.

What seeds do we want to plant? What last things need to be let go of or die off, so that we are ready to join in the Passion and so also the Resurrection? Where is God calling each of us to join with Jesus in letting the grain of wheat die so that God’s creative work can give rise to a bountiful harvest?