The other night, I happened to catch a small part of a TV program about “voluntourism.” It’s a relatively new idea, in which people pay to go somewhere – like Haiti or rural Africa – and offer to help to make a difference for a week or two. In one story I saw, a middle-aged white American woman was holding an African infant and interacting with the child. Later, the woman said to the camera, “I was singing Twinkle, twinkle, little star over and over again. The child and the child’s mother had no idea what I was saying. But the mother was delighted that I was able to take her child and help her stop crying.”
In another scene, two women were talking about the diaper rash on the babies they saw. They commented that the children were wearing only rags. When they returned, they would bring cloth diapers and soap and teach hygiene to the mothers.
When these women made arrangements to travel to Africa to serve as volunteers, I’m sure they had no idea that they would end up singing to a crying baby, or planning to return to teach mothers about diaper hygiene, but the joy of doing so was shining through their eyes. We can only imagine what the African mothers they encountered were thinking about these American women.
In today’s gospel reading, some people who speak Greek – which probably means they were Jews from an area far from Jerusalem – want to see Jesus. They approach the disciples and ask for an opportunity to meet Jesus. By this time, however, Jesus has tunnel vision. He has no time for private interviews with new people. His eye is on the cross and the mission after it.
“If a seed doesn’t die and fall to the ground, it can never sprout and grow and produce fruit. In the same way, I must die and be buried, and be raised from the dead, so I can give you all the gift of eternal life. The same goes for all of you. If you hold onto the things you have in this life, you can never have access to the good things God has for you if you let go of what you already have. You must give yourselves away in order to really live.”
Every time Jesus tells the disciples he will die and be raised, they always focus on the dying part. They don’t understand the “being raised” part, so they don’t spend much time thinking about it. They don’t want Jesus to die. It’s that simple.
We like to hold onto what we have, even if it isn’t much. We don’t trust God to replace what we have with something much better. And we hear these words from Jesus as losing something, giving up something. We don’t hear the other part, the getting something even better part. Jesus is clear. If we give up something, we will gain even more. And, we will bear God’s kind of fruit. We often don’t know when we are bearing fruit, because we are looking in the wrong place for it.
Bearing fruit may seem like the girl with a bucket. Several times a day, the girl walks from her house to the nearby stream to get water for household tasks: cooking, bathing, cleaning, laundry. The bucket has a hole in it, so it takes her longer than it takes other children to get enough water for each task. She has to make more trips to the stream to fill the water barrel.
One day, the girl was feeling sad about how long it took her to carry the water. “I could be helping you more, Mother, if I had a bucket without a hole in it.” But the girl’s mother smiled and turned the girl around. “Just look at the side of the path where you walk. What do you see there?” “Just some weeds,” the girl pouted. The mother told her daughter, “Those are not just some weeds. Those are beautiful daisies, which would not be blooming there if your bucket didn’t leak water out onto them every time you brought water to the house.”
We like to know that what we are doing produces the right kind of fruit, and enough fruit to matter, according to our method of judgment. We like to use tally marks: I gave away 500 flyers and only 2 people came to our event; I give 25% of my income to the church; I’m not any good at doing churchy things, so I won’t even try.
But, God has different ideas of how much fruit and what kind of fruit we are expected to produce. In order to see what we are able to produce, we must allow ourselves to be used by God. We may instantly see the produce of our seed-planting. It may also take years for us to see how the seed we have planted takes root and sprouts and grows into fruit. Most of the time, we never know what fruit God has produced through our seed-planting.
Helping people come to faith in Jesus, or to join our congregation is one kind of fruit. Or perhaps the fruit God asks us to produce is welcoming strangers, or visiting the homebound, or teaching about Jesus, or feeding hungry people, or caring for the sick. We may never know the fruits of our labors, because the results are not so visible. We also may never know the fruits of our labors because we are looking in the wrong place for them.
The water-carrying girl never noticed the daisies she watered with every bucket she carried. The women volunteers in the video I mentioned did not know when they left home that the simple gifts of singing to babies, and washing babies’ bottoms could make such a difference. The fruit they bore had long-lasting impacts on their own lives and the lives of the African families they encountered.
As you look back in your own lives, what seeds did others plant in you? Who told you the stories of Jesus? Who took you to Sunday school? Who forgave you when you deserved punishment? Who sat with you and prayed with you during a time of trouble or sadness? Who laughed with you in times of joy? Who invited you to do service in Jesus’ name? Who served you in Jesus’ name? Who loved you unconditionally?
What seeds do you know you have planted in others? With whom have you shared the stories of Jesus? Who did you take to Sunday school? Who have you forgiven even they did not deserve forgiveness? When have you sat and prayed with someone in a time of trouble or sadness? With whom have you laughed in a time of joy? Whom have you invited to do service in Jesus’ name? Whom have you loved unconditionally?
What seeds do you hope you have planted? It is only in giving ourselves away that we plant lasting seeds, and obtain for ourselves a long-lasting relationship with Jesus.
Please pray with me: Jesus you died for us, even though we would prefer that you never had to die. Plant your seeds in and through us, so that all may know your deep love for us. Amen