Seth Patterson March 18, 2018
Scripture John 12:24–30
About a year ago, when I was still pretty new to Plymouth, I sat in the Youth Room with our senior high class. They were a small group of intelligent, loving, committed teenagers, and I really liked meeting with them weekly. We had good conversations that were often political and/or social in nature. On this particular morning, one person said something like: “There is so much wrong in our world!” To which everyone else nodded. Sensing a possible need, I suggested that we spend the next bit of time naming everything that they see that is wrong with the world. Everything. As you can imagine, and quite unfortunately, this took quite a while. They bravely and passionately offered up everything they were afraid of, everything they saw as broken, everything they felt powerless about. The conversation was at times slow and delicate, as if naming the issues would invite them to open the door and walk in. Other times, it was boisterous with their righteous anger beginning to fill the room. All in all, it was an honest conversation. These young people saw clearly and were attempting to demand answers.
When the deluge of societal, political and institutional problems subsided, I asked the group what gave them hope. Everything they said was true, so what gives them hope? What gets them up in the morning and drives them forward? How do you stand up when all of this gets so heavy and pushes us down? There was silence. A loooooong silence. An uncomfortably long silence. Then someone started to laugh. Just a chuckle, really. And others start to laugh along. It started tentatively and uncomfortably but rolled into something genuine. My question was never answered.
Or maybe the laughter was the answer. Maybe the ability to laugh was something that gave them hope. In many ways, they spoke as if the world were collapsing around them and they could do almost nothing about it. It was bigger and older than they were. So, what could they do? They can still laugh. This laughter cannot be taken from them. It doesn’t necessarily solve anything, but it is wholly theirs. No matter what, it left me in awe. I felt wonderment and curiosity at and with these excellent young people.
In the scripture passage, the author of the book of John has Jesus foretelling his own death. (This is the fifth Sunday in Lent, remember, so ’tis the season for death foretelling.) There is a lot here that one could try and make meaning from: a promise of eternal life; an affirmation that whoever follows Jesus will be honored by God; Jesus is not hiding from his impending death but walking straight into it with open eyes; the voice of God publicly giving glory to Jesus in a thunderous way. This is a dense passage with many options of things that can be wrestled with and questioned. And all of them are worthy of inquiry to someone in their search for meaning. But I only want to play with one line this morning: Very truly, I tell you, 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.
Jesus is of course talking about himself. He is but a single grain of wheat, and if he doesn’t die, he remains a single-grain of wheat. But if he dies, then much fruit can be borne, so much more is possible. But like so much in this collection of collections called the Bible, it can be about much more than the first literal or metaphorical interpretation. What if, in addition to this being about Jesus’ literal death, it is also about the idea of letting go generally? Jesus is telling himself that to let go, to walk straight into the pain and fear of death, will be somehow worthwhile. If he can let go of his life, then yet unimagined things can be borne. Maybe we are being told that if we let go of things, if we stop holding onto things with a clenched fist, that the fertile ground of possibilities can then be seen. It is only by death (metaphorical or real), by the letting go of things that feel precious and sacred, that we can allow growth and new fruit to be borne.
Okay, that makes some sense, right? Death and life, loss and gain are understandable parts of our world and our lives. We may not like it—we don’t have to like it—but we know it to be true. When Jesus died, previously unimagined things were unleashed upon our world: some were holy, loving and hope-giving, while others were broken, self-involved and fear-based. Had he held onto his own life, had he not been able to let go, nothing that he imagined happening would have occurred. Change was made more possible because of the letting go.
But letting go is hard, I find myself saying to myself. And I find myself trying to justify holding onto things: predictability is safer; certain beliefs (like peace, justice, love and compassion) need to be held onto with all of our might; if I don’t hold firm, then who will? Our Buddhist friends remind us that the world is impermanent and change is inevitable, so why should I worry about what I am holding onto? And this makes sense and likely has some truth to it. I am not saying we shouldn’t hold onto things, just that by holding onto them for the sake of holding them stops new possibilities from being borne. If we hold too tightly, then our imagination cannot propel us into something else.
Imagination? What does imagination have to do with this, you might be asking yourself. How did we leap from the impending death of Jesus, the letting go of our clenched fists, to imagination? Good question, silent minds of the congregation! What I am wondering is if imagination can bring us to willingly unclench our fists, to choose to let go of certain things. We must be able to imagine what could be, what might be possible, what fruit could be borne by the loss of something we hold to be important. Imagination certainly does not make the loss of the thing any less difficult, but it certainly can help us make meaning out of it. Jesus certainly did not feel any less pain as he was being killed, but his imagination of what could be possible after his death may have given him some strength and fortitude.
What cultivates our imaginations? What are the essential needs in order to have a rich imagination? The list may be long, but it seems to me that wonder, awe and curiosity all need to be on that list. Having wonder and awe at the world we see (and don’t see) percolates our imaginations. Being curious about the world we experience (and don’t experience) is fuel for our imaginations. As Suzy Kassem says in the poem read earlier in the service: The greater your curiosity, the more you will wander. The more you wander, the greater the wonder. The more you quench your thirst for wonder, the more you drink from the cup of life. Curiosity and wonder may loosen our grips on what we think we know and allow us to imagine something different, imagine what could be. If I let this grain of wheat die, I wonder what will happen. I am in awe of the circle of life and death. Imagine what is possible.
The Adler Planetarium in Chicago is a wonderful place, full of awe and staggering wonder: 10 million quadrillion stars in the known universe; our universe is 13.8 billion years old; to travel at light speed is to travel 6 trillion miles in a year, and there are things billions of light years away from us; our sun is one of up to 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone; the matter we understand makes up only about 5 percent of the universe (so, 95 percent of everything is unknown); there are about 10,000 planets in the observable universe for every grain of sand on earth. The imagination needed to even begin to conceptualize all of this is staggering. The amount of awe and wonder that these ideas create is immense. My favorite thing to visit at the Adler is a large display that explains the inevitable end to the Big Bang. As we understand it, there are three possible ends to the Big Bang. We know that the universe is still expanding after the initial creation: it will either continue to expand and then rip apart; expand and then slow down and freeze; or expand and then stretch and snap back into the original density. At the bottom of this display, there is an asterisk that says these are the only possibilities—unless our fundamental understanding of gravity is incorrect. Unless our very imagination of what gravity could be is not expansive enough.
We are limited by the scale of our imaginations! We can only guess what will happen next based on the abilities of our imaginations to bring us to possibilities. We only know what we know based on our imaginations’ ability to bring us to new questions and answers. And when we have wonder and we have awe and we have curiosity, our imagination grows. It takes practice and it takes some stretching. It expands and reaches beyond what was previously thought possible. If I don’t have imagination, then all that I can see being borne from the death of a single grain of wheat is another single grain of wheat. But Jesus is reminding us that it can be so much more than that: it can bear much fruit.
But it is hard for me to always have wonder and awe and curiosity. It is hard for me to imagine what could be possible because, as our high schoolers pointed out, there is so much wrong in the world to be concerned about. And on top of that, I have my own worries and fears and anxieties and insecurities and limitations that close down on me and put me in a box of little imagination. It is hard to imagine what could be when all that currently is feels overwhelming. Sometimes just getting through a day can feel like an accomplishment. Some days I don’t even feel like laughing, let alone feel wonderment and curiosity. Some days I am just grasping at reality, and being imaginative is unfathomable.
So, what do we do now? It makes sense that new possibilities can be borne from letting go. It is a great ideal that we approach the world and our lives with wonder, awe and curiosity. Wouldn’t it be great if we could use our imaginations to see beyond what is? But these ideals often feel out of touch with reality, especially our adult perception of reality.
One day I left work quite frustrated. I got on the bus filled with the swirl of these feelings, and I carried them onto the train and then dragged them the few blocks home. That night, Nora had to go to rehearsal, and I got to be home alone with my daughter, Nery. And all I wanted was for her to go to bed so that I could go and sit and stew in my frustrations. But Nery, who was 3 at the time (she is now 4, she will have you know), didn’t understand this. She didn’t care about what I was dragging around with me; she wanted to play. She wanted to read books. She wanted to be with her Papi and feel his presence and love. So, we are sitting on her bed, and she is trying desperately to get me to engage. I am going through the motions, but I wasn’t at all present, and she could sense my distance, I think. So, she stops and looks at me for a long time. Then she says, “Papi, can we laugh?” And, taken aback, I say, “Of course you are able to laugh, laughing is a good thing” (not really feeling that answer at all). So, she starts laughing. I just stare at her, unsure of what is happening. She says, “Come on, Papi, can we laugh?!” And she continues laughing. I decide to play along with forced energy and with a little annoyance. I start to laugh and it is initially fake and sharp. And she starts to laugh harder, and it begins to shift to a genuine laugh, and I start to get tickled watching this 3-year-old make herself laugh, and my laugh begins to change. Shortly, we are both laughing, genuinely laughing. I can no longer sit up, I am laughing so hard. And, like that, all of my frustrations are sloughed off and shed. The problems I was dragging along were released. To be clear, this laughing did not solve any of those problems. None of those issues magically disappeared, but I did stop holding onto them with a clenched fist.
My daughter helped me go through a brief yet profound moment of wonderment. I was in awe of her request. This awe brought me to expand my imagination about what could be possible. I was able to see beyond myself and my frustrations/fears/insecurities. By asking “Can we laugh?” she freed me from the shrunken world that I felt trapped within. “Can we laugh?” brought me to possibilities that I could not have imagined moments before. My little daughter helped me let go of the burdens I was carrying. She didn’t solve them, but she unclenched my fist. That grain of wheat that I was holding onto so tightly, I let it go, and when it died it bore much fruit—fruit that I could not have imagined moments before.
Can we laugh? Can we laugh when the world feels slippery and bumpy and scary and insular and small? Yes, we can, and we should try to! Laughing, feeling joy, is one way to see beyond ourselves. When we see beyond our own stuff we can be in wonder and awe of the world and the lives beyond us, we can see things that pique our curiosity. And when our curiosity is awakened, we can begin to imagine all that might be possible.
We cannot be who we are called to be, we cannot be the hands and voices of God in this world, if we do not have joy, if we do not laugh. Jesus laughed. Those moments were not recorded, but Jesus had to have laughed. In moments of awe, of wonder, of laughter, of joy, the world can re-open and possibilities can reappear. Just like laughing, being serious never fixed everything. But unlike laughing and feeling joy, seriousness does not lend itself to wonder, curiosity and imagination. There may be many ways to unclench our fists and let go, to let something die so that much fruit can be borne, but laughing is a natural release and opening. It is hard to hold tightly when you laugh.
Can we laugh? I hope so, and may we all practice ways to do it more and more easily. Can we laugh? Yes, and I hope it leads to wonderment and imagination and unseen possibilities. Can we laugh? Yes.
May it be so.