Some of you will recall that I began an exercise class in January.
The first week I hurt all the time. And I do mean all the time. Oh, it didn’t hit right away. In fact, that first day I drove my hour’s commute to work feeling rather proud of myself and a little smug, thinking I wasn’t in such bad shape after all.
Then I got out of the car and made my way across the parking lot. In spite of my halting gait, I forced myself to take the stairs as I had every day for months and truthfully? I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.
Our instructor that week told us a story that surely rang true with me. She spoke of a friend who hadn’t exercised in years. On a whim she had gone to a work-out at her place of employment and the next day she announced that the kind of pain she was having must mean this kind of exercise couldn’t possibly be good for her. And so she quit.
I get that. I was almost with her. I am fortunate, though, to have been born with a competitive, stubborn streak. And I was even more fortunate to have an instructor who was encouraging and kind. And so I kept going back. Even though I hurt all the time. Even though for a while there every movement, every breath, seemed like dying itself. And yes, even though for the life of me I still can’t find a way to balance on that stability ball. That part’s getting better, but not much.
And so it is this week that we find ourselves thinking about dying as we hear Jesus’ words in our ears today. “Very truly, 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.”
We know the truth of this, of course. Any one of us who has ever covered a seed with earth knows it is so. I expect we experience the truth of it in our lives as well.
I’ve known it in my exercise class. The pain is paying off. I don’t hurt all the time anymore and my clothes are just a little bit looser. It’s been worth the “dying” of dragging myself out of bed at 4:45 a.m. a couple of days a week and putting myself through a kind of voluntary organized torture. It’s been worth it enough so that when it came time to register for the next session I willingly did so, not wanting to go back to where I was before, even if the stability ball is still a challenge. I have, indeed, had to die a little to get to this place where a richer life is mine and now I find I don’t regret it. Those first few weeks, though, when I was 'done in' after the opening stretches I certainly could not have imagined this day would come ....
And it’s true in the rest of our lives as well. We see the proof of this in families where parents give up a whole lot of themselves so that their children might flourish, where children watch out for and occasionally participate in important decisions for parents as age catches up with them, where spouses set aside their own wants or needs to help the other become who they are meant to be. And yes, we see it in congregations where we give up our place in the pew for a newcomer, where we welcome children even when they fuss, when we reach beyond our shyness or our fear to speak to a stranger. In a thousand places and ways we know this to be true. It’s not usually big deaths, of course, but small ones along the way which live out the truth of Jesus’ words over and over again and our 'dying' somehow multiplies and results in life.
And yet. I think I would have quit that exercise class the first week if I hadn’t had an instructor who was kind and encouraging and who consistently showed me what could be. And there certainly wouldn’t be much point in all of this in our life of faith if Jesus himself hadn’t gone before us living and dying and living. Showing us what it looks like, to be sure, but even more than that, being for us resurrection itself. We keep our eyes and heart there of course. Knowing that our small dyings and multiplyings and risings are only a glimmer of what has been and what will yet be. Thanks be to God.
Indeed, maybe in a way this whole walk of faith is a lot like my exercise class. We all show up with our creaking knees and our flabby abs and our too many years of not doing anything like this and we do this together and little by little, starting right where we are as we lift and push and try to keep our balance, we do get stronger. As we die, little by little, we do grow in faith and hope and promise. Only not for ourselves alone. That’s where the parallel ends, of course. This dying is clearly not for our own journeys alone. But for the sake of the other. For the sake of the child, the parent, the grandparent, the neighbor, the stranger: all those who make up the whole community of God’s people and for this world crafted and loved by God. That’s the dying and living that Jesus did. And so it is that’s the dying and living that we are called to as well. Amen.
- What examples of 'dying and living' do you think of when you hear Jesus' words about the need for the seed to go into the earth and die? What have you experienced in your own life? What have you witnessed in the life of your community?
- Is the 'dying' we are called to do voluntary or forced upon us or both? Does it matter? Why or why not?
- Sometimes it takes a lifetime to see how our small deaths lead to life. Can you think of times when looking back you can see resulting growth --- life itself --- that you certainly couldn't see it when you were in the midst of it?