St. Thomas Evangelical Lutheran Church

3800 East Third Street

Bloomington, Indiana 47401

(812) 332-5252

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (March 22, 2015)

Liturgical Color: Purple

Reverende Doctor Lyle E. McKee

The Three Sisters

Grace to you and peace from our loving God, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The context for today's story from John seems a bit out of place on this Fifth Sunday in Lent. Next Sunday, of course, is Palm/Passion Sunday, when we hear the story of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem just days before he is tried and crucified.

And yet, today, we read from the words of Jesus to some of the disciples after he had entered the city. The entry is recorded in this same chapter 12 of John, beginning at verse 12. Our reading today begins at verse 20. So we'll need to think a bit backwards as we hear these words.

And odd ones they are:

Jesus answered them, 'The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 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. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.' (vv. 23-26)

Yes, we have heard similar things throughout this season. That's understandable, since this too takes the form of a prediction of Jesus' death yet to come.

But today, we get something more. Jesus speaks of seeds dying so that they bear fruit. He looks to his death, but he also looks beyond it to hope. And then, Jesus seemingly continues that train of thought with hyperbolic language of death and hatred for this life, calling us to invest our lives in something beyond what we can see. And then, there is talk of service and discipleship, which results from lives that are given over to Christ's way.

We have talked a lot about much of this over the past few weeks, from many perspectives. Today, let's center in on the line about wheat.

To tell you the truth, I couldn't help but think about our "Back 40" project when I read this sentence: "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." Words about seeds and fruit from the lips of our Lord call to mind the many conversations and considerable work that have blended into a beginning for our expanded community garden, building on the great work done by many—including campus ministry folks—over the past several years.

That old garden, which was about thirty by fifty feet, is being enlarged to about one hundred by one hundred fifty feet. In recent weeks, we have gained permission from the Planning Department to move forward with our plans. We have set the posts for corners and entrance gates. Some of the line posts are in place. Yesterday, a group of us actually started building some raised beds, which when completed will define a labyrinth. And we're preparing to install hydrants. By the way, it's really fortunate that we can hook those up to the water meter that's still available at the back property from the old Youth House that flooded and became unusable eleven years ago.

We'll be providing places for members of the congregation and folks from the community to plant seeds, to grow food—to bear fruit. How can we not hear echoes of today's words from our Lord about seeds, dying, and bearing fruit? Our garden will also be a place of more direct spiritual benefit, with space for conversation and opportunities for contemplation, meditation, and prayer.

I hope you'll go have a look at the progress. And perhaps you'll sign up for a bed or two in order to grow some food this year—and give some to MCUM to help feed those in need. You may even be interested in attending the planning meeting that follows the 11:00 worship service this morning in rooms 16 and 17.

By the way, you may not be aware that our friends from Guatemala who will be here at the end of next month will do some planting of seeds along with us. We had hoped that they could bring some of their native seeds with them, but we found that there are laws preventing that. So, we're providing seeds that are as close as we could find to the ones they grow in Guatemala. And we will plant them together while they're here. Hopefully we can learn from one another about gardening and farming practices too.

I hope too that we may learn something about the Guatemalan traditions that blend faith and agriculture. Native American faith is linked closely with the land, and it's a link we would do well to establish more vitally in our practice of faith here in the United States. Clearly, the many agricultural and botanical allusions by Jesus in scripture, including the one this morning, demonstrate how land and faith were intimately linked for him.

The seeds we will plant together are known as the "Three Sisters." They are corn, beans, and squash. Those among us who have travelled to Guatemala to visit our Sister Parish will recognize those foods as the core of their diet. Corn tortillas are present at every meal, and beans and squash make regular appearances.

What you may not know about the "Three Sisters" is that they represent an ancient practice that has profound connections to religion.

According to Native American legend that extends throughout the Americas, corn, beans, and squash are three inseparable sisters who only grow and thrive together. The widespread tradition of inter-planting corn, beans, and squash in the same mounds is a sophisticated, sustainable system that provided long-term soil fertility and a healthy diet to generations. On our delegation to Guatemala in 2009, we visited a large field that was planted in this way. It was beautiful, as well as productive—in the San Andreas Itzapa area of Guatemala.

Growing a Three Sisters garden will be a wonderful way for us to feel more connected to our Sister Parish and to the history of the Americas, regardless of our ancestry.

Corn, beans, and squash were among the first important crops to be domesticated by ancient Mesoamerican societies. Corn was the primary crop, providing more calories of energy per acre than any other. According to Three Sisters legends, corn must grow in community with other crops rather than on its own. It needs the beneficial company and aide of its companions. The fertility is rooted in community, not unlike our practice of coming together to form congregations for the sake of fruitfully extending the gospel.

Here's how the Three Sisters community works. Corn provides a natural pole for bean vines to climb. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, improving the overall fertility of the plot by providing nitrogen in the following years. Bean vines also help stabilize the corn plants, making them less vulnerable to blowing over in the wind. Shallow-rooted squash vines become living mulch, shading emerging weeds and preventing soil moisture from evaporating, thereby improving the chances of survival in dry years. Spiny squash plants also help discourage predators from approaching the corn and beans. The large amount of crop residue from this planting combination can be incorporated back into the soil at the end of the season, helping to build up organic matter and improve soil structure.

Corn, beans, and squash also complement each other nutritionally. Corn provides carbohydrates, the dried beans are rich in protein, balancing the lack of necessary amino acids in corn. Finally, squash yields both vitamins from the fruit and healthful oil from the seeds.

Native Americans kept this system in place for centuries without the modern conceptual vocabulary we use today, such as soil nitrogen and vitamins. Their legends, with religious meaning, kept the knowledge alive. And in this part of the world, certain signs would help to determine the proper time for planting. It might have been when the Canada geese fly north or when the dogwood leaves reach the size of a squirrel's ear. It might be fun for us to look for such signs so that we can watch for them in future years and see how accurate they are as indicators of good planting times.

We have all heard or read stories of the benefits of the agricultural practices of Native Americans for early European settlers. They likely would never have survived without the gift of the Three Sisters, which is part of the story behind our Thanksgiving celebrations. Celebrating the importance of these gifts, not only to the Pilgrims but also to civilizations around the globe that readily adopted these New World crops, adds meaning to our modern gardening practices. And it will add meaning to our expanded community garden here at St. Thomas.

Seeds, gardening, the Three Sisters, community, and faith blend together and strengthen one another. I am amazed, for example, that the several flats of seeds that Marie and I planted in our greenhouse a week ago yesterday have nearly all sprouted. I am astounded at the potential energy stored in those seeds, some of them almost too small to see.

It makes me think that Jesus was telling his disciples and us that our lives are bundles of potential energy, like seeds. If we invest them properly, bury them with Christ or drown them in the waters of baptism, that potential energy is released. It bursts forth with the green shoots, leaves, stems, and the fruits of loving service, faithful community, mutual support and enrichment, and prayerful engagement with a troubled world.

Like the Three Sisters, a three-strand cord is not easily broken. There is profound strength and support in the many-stranded community we have here in Christ Jesus, in the one who gives his all that we might gain all. When we gather together, worship, sing, work, and serve, we experience the power of the seed. We know foretastes of God's holy kingdom. And we learn to know the certain hope of what eternal life is all about.

Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time to celebrate the Passover Feast, made with the fruits of grass and vine. Here Jesus' words about seeds that are planted turn the disaster of his death into the promise of a harvest in which everyone will be gathered, all will be fed, and true joy may be known.

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.


May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord unto eternal life. Amen.



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