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Seeds of Death, Seeds of Life

Updated: Apr 25

"What I’m about to tell you is true. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only one seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." John 20:24

I've been thinking a lot about death and life of late.  Perhaps it's because it's Spring and the salmon are returning upstream to spawn and die. their bodies will fertilize the soil as the new life flows back to the sea. Perhaps it's because of the tenderness in the lives of so many around us. Perhaps it's because of the world and the ways in which war and famine and all of the human-made deaths are surrounded by life springing forth - goslings and baby foxes, gardens and flowering trees with their ever-present pollen this time of year. Perhaps it is because life is all about the in-breathing and out-breathing of all beings, the foundation upon which all creation rests.

Gargoyle in St Catherine's Kerk in Utrecht, NL

I've been thinking a lot about death and life and pondering the “Parable of the Sower,” and getting ready to plant this year's garden. As I re-read this parable, I find that the story has far less to do with the "Sower" and more to do with the soil and the seed and the ever-present life-and-death cycles of an agrarian worldview from which this story came. Jesus was always talking in agrarian metaphor.

“A farmer went out to plant his seed. He scattered the seed on the ground. Some fell on a path. Birds came and ate it up. Some seed fell on rocky places, where there wasn’t much soil. The plants came up quickly, because the soil wasn’t deep. When the sun came up, it burned the plants. They dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorns. The thorns grew up and crowded out the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It produced a crop 100, 60 or 30 times more than what was planted. Whoever has ears should listen.” Matthew 13:3b-9

I've been thinking a lot about death and life and ways that churches are going through a cycle of change, of death, and (hopefully) rebirth. I have been thinking about the ways seeds of life are being planted in this post-pandemic, post-Christendom, post-religious world; seeds that I know will fall on the barren paths as well as in good soil, fall in rocky land as well as the briar patch. When I look at this moment in time through the two-thousand-year lens of Christianity I can relax in the assurance that God is always planting seeds of life in seasons that feel like all there is are seeds of death.

When I was in the Netherlands over vacation it was amazing to see the old churches - the oude kerks - some of which date back to the 10th and 11th centuries.  It was interesting for me to see how these buildings have changed over nearly a millennia. (Check out Naarden, a Dutch Star Fort Town.) In their earliest forms they would have been simple structures gathering a community within the town. As the rise of cathedral architecture happened, church buildings became very ornate structures with all of the Catholic iconography, statuary, and artwork employed to teach the people in the community their stories of faith.

During the Protestant reformation, and after the Bible had been translated into the common language, these structures were often stripped of all ornamentation, all that symbolized to this new form of Christianity the worshiping idols and not God. There are even paintings (see one at the end) from the period depicting the very act of pulling down statues and the whitewashing the artwork from the churches in Haarlem and Amsterdam. (Check out the Amsterdam Oude Kerk here.)

Detail in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, NL

As I looked at the paintings of the stripping of these churches, I imagined it felt like death to those who were part of the Catholic communities that predated the Reformers.  We think of these historic churches as constant, unchanging, and yet many in the Netherlands and the rest of Europe are now pubs and art galleries, office spaces and performance venues.  Those that still host a faith community often include a museum as well. Many have foundations and organizations created to preserve the buildings for their historic significance.  The steeples remain but the buildings have found a new life as places of commerce, entertainment, and housing.

I know for those who see the conversion of sacred spaces into pubs, condos, offices, and other non-religious activities it feels like death and not life.  (Did you know that many of the beautiful stone walls in England were made from Catholic churches that were dismantled during the Protestant revolution?)  Before moving to Maui in 2019, I work on a project to convert a former Catholic church into a Co-Working space with a cafe and food pantry, affordable housing and a culinary program for unemployed people. Even though my project failed, the building was converted into low-income apartments and the Catholic community moved their food pantry to a new and much better space in town. A few families were given the chance for a better life and the worshipping community joined another parish not too far down the road. The seeds of death for some were the seeds of life for others.

All of this history tells me that God always has seeds of life to plant in us as individuals and as communities. I am reminded that we are always being invited to attend to the soil that is our hearts and minds, soil that allows life to spring forth from what may feel like death. As sure as the salmon going back upstream, we know that death is necessary for life to be possible. And the pain of death, the pain of loss is also part of the journey. But that is only a small part of the story.

The resurrected Jesus shows his grief-stricken friends his hands and side, the very wounds that caused his physical death, to say that there is more than the out-breathing, more than the painful ending of a dream, a movement, a life. Jesus showed them his scars to show them that something new, something good, something tangible could be born from his death. He showed them that the seeds of life were now in them, that they were now responsible for the harvest. They were now charged with fishing and farming and shepherding their seeds of life so we, two thousand years later, could do the same for generations to come.

“Come and follow me,” Jesus said. “I will send you out to fish for people.” Matthew 4:19

No matter the future, may we be good Shepherds, fine Fisher People, and superb Sowers of love and justice, trusting that in the seeds of death rest the seeds of life.

In gratitude and hope,

Pastor Robin

Here are some more pictures from my trip to the Netherlands. Enjoy!

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Janet K
Janet K

I love this, and my introduction to a spiritual life was by observing the cycles of nature as a child growing up on a farm. I knew that there had to be a grand plan.

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