March 22, 2015

Lent 5 Year B

Long before “The Lord of the Rings” was a movie franchise, it was a literary one, the fantasy world created by J. R. R. Tolkien.  Tolkien was not just a great fantasy writer, he was also a university professor and a medieval scholar.  During the First World War, a young Tolkien served in the trenches with the British army, and that experience is said to have had a major impact on his life and his fiction.  During World War Two, while Britain struggled against the Axis powers, Tolkien, wrote these words to his son Christopher:

"I sometimes feel appalled at the thought of the sum total of human misery all over the world at the present moment: the millions parted, fretting, wasting in unprofitable days--quite apart from torture, pain, death, bereavement, injustice.  If anguish were visible, almost the whole of this benighted planet would be enveloped in a dense dark vapor, shrouded from the amazed vision of the heavens! 

And the products of it all will be mainly evil--historically considered.  But the historic vision is, of course, not the only one.  All things and all deeds have a value in themselves, apart from their 'causes' and 'effects.'  No man can estimate what is really happening in the light of eternity.  All we do know, and that to a large extent by direct experience, is that evil labors with vast power and perpetual success--in vain: preparing the soil for unexpected good to spout in.”

Tolkien describes the powerful work of evil as amounting to a preparation of soil, a preparation of soil where unexpected good will sprout.

Tolkien talks about soil and Jesus talks about seed.  Hear again the words from today's gospel: "The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Most certainly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit." 

From a solitary seed, Jesus tells us, much fruit will come forth.  Unexpected good will sprout.

Both what Tolkien says and what Jesus says amount to statements of faith.  They point to what is beyond our ordinary experience and transform that experience.

In the case of Jesus, he looks ahead to what will soon happen to him.  Like a single seed, he will be buried in the earth.  He will die to his solitariness and be raised up, not only in his own glorified body, but in the lives and bodies of his followers.  His enemies will think him dead, but he will be raised to a life more abundant than before, and become the Christ of countless places and countless peoples.

Tolkien tells us of how, strangely, it is evil that prepares the soil.  There was much evil when Jesus was put in the grave.  Religious and political power had conspired to kill him.  Men had disowned their discipleship by betraying him, deserting him, denying him.  The machinery of evil had spit out its product: a corpse, a body left without life, and endeavored to lose that body in the dark soil of its own misdeeds.  In Tolkien's language, the machinery of evil had labored with vast power and, with reason, had anticipated perpetual success, but this was not to be.

Jesus looks ahead to his resurrection.  But this resurrection outside Jerusalem is not some final triumph for him alone.  It provides the basis for what Tolkien says about the sprouting of unexpected good from the soil over which evil has labored.

Tolkien speaks in universal terms:  the sprouting of unexpected good is a deep law of life.  The most potent example of this is the one that turns Lent into Easter and announces an inclusive harvest when time will be no more.  To catch a glimpse of these things requires the eyes of faith.

Next Sunday is the Sunday of the Passion, when we hear about the seed's death and burial.  Throughout Holy Week, the same song is sung in a variety of keys.  During those dark days, we feel how rich the soil is which evil has prepared.  Then comes the Sunday when unexpected good sprouts out of this dark, rich soil over which evil has labored with vast power and--seemingly--perpetual success.

Today we hear it all by anticipation in what Tolkien writes to his son about the soil, and in what Jesus tells us about himself, the seed.

Yet Jesus does not rest content with declaring that in the soil the seed will sprout.  He speaks of much fruit, an abundant harvest.  He speaks of being lifted from the earth, like a plant reaching heavenward, and thus drawing all people to himself.  This is a promise, and it is a reliable one.

It's normal enough to believe in the force of gravity.  We see it demonstrated all the time, and sometimes we are the demonstration! There is also a gravity that is moral and spiritual that drags us downward into alienation and death, into that soil over which evil has labored with vast power and--seemingly--perpetual success.  It is normal enough to believe in this gravitational force.  We see it demonstrated all the time, and sometimes we are the demonstration.

But by faith we recognize another force at work, the power of resurrection, a moral and spiritual force that draws us up from the dark soil of death, away from the grip of evil, in order that we may walk with Christ now.  The power of resurrection is at work in the saints, in all who claim the faith of Jesus.  We recognize it at work in the world now, not just in the life to come.

This power turns to its own holy purpose the soil over which evil has labored with vast power and--seemingly--perpetual success.  From that soil sprouts unexpected good.

This is the hope and the promise with which we enter into the passion of our Lord. This is the hope and promise with which we enter into the passion of our lives as well.