14 Aug 2016
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain.” And, of course, we know that; we know how seeds die and grow. In fact, we count on it. If those little grains of wheat don’t do their thing and die, we’re not going to have any bread on our table, or crackers, or pizza, or Frosted Mini-Wheats.
All that delicious goodness depends on those grains of wheat falling to the ground and dying. There’s no other way for it to happen. Those wheat grains have to “give in.” They have to give into the idea of being stuck in the dirt; in the dark, wet earth; exposed to worms and bugs, the sting of fertilizer and the stench of manure. They have to give into that, unpleasant as it may be.
Of course, the fruit of “giving in” are all those fresh wheat fields, “amber waves of grain,” which yield an abundance of life and food. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain.” Life depends on letting go; it depends on “giving in” to what has to be done, even if the prospects look grim.
Now, Jesus says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing.” And we might immediately think of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit, the community of disciples set aflame with love for God and others. We think of the birth of the Church. The fire of the Holy Spirit is a life-giving, empowering, constructive force. Jesus came to “set the earth on fire” with the Spirit of exuberance and joy. Yes! . . . and no.
He also came to cause division. He came to overturn peoples’ attempts at peace and happiness. This was prophesied by Simeon when the infant Jesus was presented at the Temple [Lk 2:34-35]. He said the child was to be “the cause of the falling of many in Israel.” The “fire” Jesus brings to the earth is a fire of . . . destruction; a Spirit of tearing down and separating, a Spirit of confusion. And that fire is directed right at the human race.
That certainly doesn’t match the image we usually have of Jesus. After all, he’s supposed to be the “Prince of Peace,” the “Lord of Love;” “Friend to sinners,” and “Hope of all the earth.” He’s supposed to be a nice guy. I mean, when was the last time you saw a statue or a painting of Jesus being mean to somebody? I would guess: Probably never.
And so, what do we do? What do we do when Jesus starts talking about this destructive fire, and being a force of division; a force that even pits family members against one another? What do we do? Well, we ignore it.
When the Prophet Jeremiah came to Jerusalem with God’s message, people didn’t like him. They were having a good time there in Jerusalem; they had things under control. Their enemies, the Babylonians, were pounding on their doors. But the people were secure in themselves. They knew if they fought hard enough, they would win.
But then Jeremiah came and told them to “give in” to their enemy. And that was “demoralizing” to the soldiers. All he ever talked about was the “ruin,” the inevitable destruction of the people. “Give in,” he told the people. And so, people didn’t like him. They rejected his message and they threw him into the cistern to get rid of him. It was a rather drastic way to ignore his message.
Of course, the same thing happened to Jesus. Remember the scene where Jesus is trying to convince the crowds of people that his Body is true food, and his Blood is true drink? Remember that most people said, in so many words, “This guy’s nuts!” And so, they went back to their lives and ignored his message. And it still happens today, even among Catholics.
How many of the faithful refuse to call the Body and Blood of Christ what it is? ‘We’ll just call it bread and wine, because that’s safe. We know what bread and wine are; but Body and Blood? No, that’s too weird, we don’t want to go there. So we’ll just ignore what Jesus said and say what’s comfortable for us.’
Another way we might ignore Jesus is to make him into our image; to pick and choose those parts of Jesus that resonate with us—and ignore the rest. Jesus is gentle and forgiving; he’s also demanding and sometimes harsh. Jesus doesn’t condemn anyone; he is a friend to all. But he also “calls it like he sees it,” and is a friend only to those who want his friendship.
People liked Jesus. Until he started getting too radical; until his words upset the applecart too much . . . then he was crucified.
And so, what do we do? What do we do when Jesus starts talking about this destructive fire he’s come to spread over the earth? What do we do when calls himself a force of division; a force that even pits family members against one another? What do we do? Do we ignore him, or do we take him seriously?
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain.” Jesus is trying to make sure that we, too, “fall to the ground and die.” He’s trying to shove us in the dirt . . . not to be mean, but to ensure that we will have real life; that we’ll grow and become the children of God we’re made to be. And in that, I imagine, most parents know what he’s doing.
Now, I’m not a parent, but I do have a little dog. And about a month ago, I was taking my dog—his name’s Elliott—I was taking Elliott to the vet. And we got there, and he was just shaking all over he was so nervous. But he had to get some shots. So I stayed with him, and when it was all done, he was fine. Of course, I didn’t want to see him all nervous and afraid, but we had to do what we had to do—for his health; for his good.
Jesus shoves us in the dirt, like a grain of wheat; he takes us to the vet all nervous and shaking; he makes us do chores around the house and makes us follow rules, like a parent does for a child . . . for our own good, for our health and well-being. There will be “peace on earth,” but there’s going to be darkness and shaking and a lot of chores to do before we get there. The grain of wheat will bear fruit, but first it has to die. The Resurrection will come, but not without the Cross.
And Jesus sends the fire of his Spirit to make sure that anything that gets in the way of life, is destroyed. He comes to tear down pride. He comes to demolish gluttony and selfishness. He comes to obliterate our false ideas of what makes for peace and happiness. He comes to destroy ignorance, arrogance, self-righteousness, and especially that hardness of heart which makes people enemies instead of friends. Jesus sends his fire to make sure that everything that gets in the way of life is destroyed. And how he wishes the whole world was blazing with that fire!
What a sight it would be! Wouldn’t it be beautiful to take a match to . . . all the politics in Church life—to sit there and watch it all burn up. Or what about our preoccupations with money and business in the Church? What about the disinterest there is between youth and elders? What if we could set fire to all the infighting that goes on in the Church . . . wouldn’t it be beautiful to watch it all burn up.
And what would arise from the ashes? A new life; a life built on the demise of what needed to go. And a better life, too; a life built on all the good stuff the fire wasn’t meant to touch. In the end, it’s all good. But first we have to believe that Jesus is right—that there’s some stuff in our lives, in our church, in our hearts which needs to go.
The voice of Jeremiah still speaks loud and clear today: “Give in!” Whether you’re a youth, a parent, an elder, stop clinging to whatever makes you fearful, or prideful, or hesitant to love. “Give in,” Jeremiah would say, “and stop clinging to what’s not good for you.” Give in to the destructive fire of God’s love, so that all’s that left is . . . goodness, life, and charity.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain.” And unless we die to whatever separates us, we, too will each be just single grains—shoved in the dirt of our worlds, refusing to open up to the light of the Sun. “Give in,” Jeremiah says. “Give in,” Jesus says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, not for peace, but for destruction.”
Of course, if that message is too hard, we can always go to another parish, to another denomination. We can always tune out the message. But the message will remain: Give in. Give in to God’s blazing, life-giving Will.