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In Chapter 12 of the Gospel of John, Jesus announces, “The hour has come,” and with these words the focus of this gospel shifts.
Knowing that his hour of death is near, Jesus turns his attention to his disciples and tries to explain to them the meaning of his life and imminent death. Jesus begins with this striking image: “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” (12:24).
An arsenal of whiteners and brighteners are found in any home to dispel the long shadows of grime falling across everything we possess
Jesus implies that he is this grain of wheat and thus identifies his incarnation as planting and his death and resurrection as germination and harvesting. One thing in particular intrigues me about this agricultural image: falling into the earth! It does not have positive connotations. Falling connotes loss of position and control, and earth connotes dirt, defilement and death.
We deny our earthy existence. We flush away our “dirt” in bathrooms with flowered air freshener within polite reach. An arsenal of whiteners and brighteners in our homes seek to dispel the long shadows of grime falling across everything we possess. We want to rise above the earth, not fall into it. We want to be sky-walkers, borne aloft by colognes and perfumes, airplanes and air conditioners, reputation and influence, grand theories and eternal ideas. We see more eagles as totems for sport teams than we see worms.
IN THE DIRT
Yet Scripture tells us that in order to follow Jesus we, too, have to fall into earth, not fly into the sky. We are to be “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season” (Psalm 1:3).
Some years ago, I traveled with other professors from theological schools in the United States and Canada to northern Mexico. We spent time with poor laborers who eked out an existence from the earth. I remember meeting a group of men with wizened faces who had spent all their adult lives in huts along a dried-up river bed. From morning till night, they sifted gravel through metal screens. At the end of a day they sold it to a local cement contractor for a few pesos.
We visited an old man who all his working life, had dug clay from a vein in a field outside Hermosillo and pressed it into a single, wooden brick-mold, five bricks at a time. He laid them out in the scorching sun, and when they were dry, he stacked them around a pile of wood and sticks and fired them. The hardened bricks sold for a few pesos apiece to members of the emerging middle class who were building their dream homes in the growing suburbs.
I remember the desperate men, women and children of Poblado Miguel Aleman, a shantytown outside Hermosillo. They picked grapes in the dry and dusty fields of a Mexican desert and earned enough to support their hunger. The underground aquifer that gave what life there was to the region was nearly depleted. The grape vines and the town would soon shrivel up and blow away.
After our time in Mexico, we returned to a motel in Tucson, Arizona, to process our experience. That night I showered, brushed my teeth and slipped between clean sheets for the first time in two weeks.
At some point that night, I had a disturbing vision. I was sitting in my office at the seminary, but my desk and book shelves were bare. Suddenly, a lumbering figure appeared in my doorway. It had the form of a human being but no distinguishing features – no eyes, nose, ears, mouth, fingers or toes. The figure was earthen, and its complexion crusty: a golem. It moved toward me, and I was frozen in fear and confusion. I awoke just before it buried me in its earthen arms.
This vision has stayed with me, and I do not think its interpretation is mysterious. Jesus tells us again and again in the gospels that the broken, the maimed and the poor – the least of these – in our neighborhoods and cities are the soil in which he desires to plant us in order for us to bear fruit. Yet I am afraid to be embraced in the earthen arms of this golem and unsure that I will rise to a life more fruitful and abundant than any I could have imagined. And in this I am not alone.
Tom Boogaart teaches theology at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.
Image: Man with a Hoe, by Jean-François Millet; Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons