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Seeds of Compassion

“Seeds of Compassion”

March 17, 2024 Cobleskill United Methodist Church, Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

John 12:20-33

Fifth Sunday of Lent

John 12:20-33

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew, then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 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. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say: ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30 Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people[a] to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

This is a dill seed.  It grows on a stalk like this.  Dill is an herb with a really lovely, delicate flavor.  Its seeds aren’t really edible, but they also give off the flavor and sometimes we use them when we make pickles.  But if you let a dill plant grow until it gets to this point with its seeds, and then if you leave it alone even longer, the seeds will eventually scatter.  

I learned this not the first year I planted dill, but the year after.  What began as a little corner of my herb garden where I’d planted a small dill plant, turned the following year into a dill forest that towered over everything else all throughout the entire garden.   The dill was growing everywhere.

I didn’t mind at all.  I love dill.  I cut bunches of it and dried it in our house and we had dill all winter.  But what to do with the seeds?  If one small plant had produced this much spread from one year to the next, surely all the seeds produced by this forest of dill should not just be scattered to the wind to grow in the grass and get mown down.  So June and I decided to carefully harvest all of the seeds.  

And it made a giant bowl full.  That Christmas we had an idea. Not being much of annual Christmas card senders, it seemed like a good year to do something different.  We put a small handful of seeds into tiny bags and we taped them onto cards that we sent to all of our faraway friends and family.  It was like our giant dill forest was blowing its seeds far and wide.  

For months and years afterward people kept telling us, “we planted your dill seeds and they grew well!”  Now I’m sure not everyone planted them and I’m sure they didn’t all grow well.  But it was fun to think about spreading seeds through the mail near and far from our Cobleskill dill plants.  

Seed metaphors show up fairly often in Jesus’ teachings.   What do you think it is about seeds?  

  • They’re small but have a big potential.  

  • They represent life.  

  • They can lie dormant for years and then, in the right conditions, spring into life.  

  • They do their best work in the dark.

  • And, finally, and perhaps most relevant to our story today, the seed has to undergo a change in order for it to grow and spread.   

Jesus was a wise teacher.  He knew the power of seeds.  And what we heard today from the Gospel of John was Jesus’ last public teaching.  With Holy Week beginning next Sunday, the end is in sight.  A change is coming. “The hour has come,” Jesus says.  And we may assume Jesus means the hour has come for him to die.  But instead Jesus says the hour has come for him to be glorified.  And then he uses a seed metaphor.  

V. 24 “…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.”

What?  Unless the seed gets buried by the darkness of the earth and transforms, it is still just a seed.  But if it lets the darkness change it.  If it leaves its old self behind, something new sprouts up.  In other words, Jesus says: 

v. 25 “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 

What we may see as suffering, Jesus sees as transformation.  And he’s not just talking about himself any more.  Any life that is freed from self-centered isolation can transform into generosity and compassion for the flourishing of the greater whole.  

Compassion literally means to suffer together. It is the desire to see someone else’s suffering and join them in it.  And you know what that requires, putting something of yourself down so that you have the capacity to help carry the load.  It’s like a seed.  A small but mighty action where we put our own needs aside so that we can be with someone else in their darkness.  And what always happens, is that when we enter that darkness alongside those who suffer, we are changed.  We begin to understand what it means to truly live.  And sometimes, oftentimes, the situation is itself transformed.  

There’s a psychologist named Dacher Keltner, who has been studying the compassion instinct in humans.  He found that mammals, all mammals, have a unique survival mechanism. The only way this species survives is because we are biologically wired in our vagus nerve, deep inside our brainstem, to respond to the cries of our children.  And not just our own children.  We are primally wired to respond to distress signals from the vulnerable.  It’s what has allowed our new generations to survive and it's fundamentally part of who we are as living beings.  

So why is compassion something we need to practice in this fifth week of Lent?  Why do we need to add it to our color wheel of spiritual practices if it’s something that comes so naturally?  This is why: even though it’s part of our human nature to respond to the cries of the vulnerable, we have become really good at figuring out ways to deny and ignore this core part of our humanity.  So good in fact, that if anything has the power to help our species decline, it will be our willful ignoring of our compassionate instinct.  

We don’t have to look very hard to see this trend.  How much easier it is to ignore the suffering of others, to pretend like it’s too far away for us to hear, to assume someone else is attending to it, or even, sometimes to use it for our own gain?  

But if compassion means meeting someone in their suffering and allowing ourselves to be changed in the process, then we cannot rely solely on our instincts.  We must accept that it also takes bravery.  Just like our children sang.  It will take bravery and it will take practice.  

So, what are some ways we can practice compassion this week?   

  • First, today is UMCOR Sunday.  You might remember that two weeks ago we took a “Love your Neighbor” offering.  We raised $600 in one day’s offering.  That’s amazing.  And we promptly sent this money directly toward International Disaster relief where the United Methodist Committee on Relief is working for short term and long-term solutions for justice in hurting places around the world. Today is the Sunday when we, as a body of congregations across the globe, collect an offering to cover UMCOR’s administrative costs.  We do this separately so that 100% of what we raise on other occasions can go directly to the need.  I invite you to find the envelope in your pew and give what you can.

  • Volunteering for Operation: Home Repair.  This time of service to our neighbors is coming up July 8-19.  We take part in critical home repairs for neighbors unable to live safely. Consider committing to this mission project by volunteering.

  • Homework sheet found in your bulletin!

Holy Week begins next week.  And I’ll be honest and say this is not always an easy time to be a Christian.  This whole part of our Christian faith, this part where Jesus, our Savior, goes through unspeakable pain and suffering, and eventually dies at the hands of people who he loved and longed to help, is really difficult.  But if we look at it through what Jesus is saying today, we see something different.  The cross is actually an act of divine subversion.  They thought they were killing him, but really they were making possible the “lifting up” of something better.  They thought they were burying him in a grave, but really they were planting him like a seed. And this is how compassion works.  We enter the darkness alongside those who are suffering and together with God’s grace, something new rises.

Grace and Peace to you.

Pastor Anna

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