They were gladiola bulbs, and a wedding present; part of a whole assortment of perennials and annuals we’d received soon after Lisa and I were married. We’d planted them in the backyard of the little house where we were living, and enjoyed watching them grow – back then, as now, I actually knew very little about flowers, and even less about what it takes to make them flourish, but I still remember how beautiful they were; moreover, given that we were newlyweds at the time, they served as a small but elegant way of making a place to live a home. Eventually, however, it came time for us to move. As ministers are wont to have happen, I received a call to serve a church in another town, and so Lisa dug up the gladiola bulbs so that we could take them with us and replant them in the yard of our new home the following spring.
The only problem was that in the several months between the time we dug them up and they made it back into the soil, those bulbs took a beating that would make any horticulturist shudder! The bulbs had initially been put in a paper bag and stored in a cool cellar for the winter. Somewhere along the line, however, that bag was moved to a shelf near a wood furnace, where it got a steady dose of hot and dry blasts emanating from wood-fired heat! And that was only the beginning; in short, throughout the winter that followed, those bulbs were trampled on, tossed about and generally, if accidentally abused. By the time spring had arrived, we were all agreed that the gladiolas had pretty much had it.
At this point, I was ready to toss them out with the rest of the brush. Lisa, however, was undaunted, and determinedly planted those beleaguered bulbs along the side of our new house. Then, we waited; and as the slow promise of spring in Maine finally began to be fulfilled that year, day after day went by with sun and rain, warm days and cool nights… and nothing happened! In fact, several weeks had gone by, and still no gladiolas were growing!
But still we waited; until finally, well into June by now, Lisa gave up. One afternoon, having reluctantly decided to plant something else in the space she’d reserved for the gladiolas, she dug into the ground and pulled up the bulbs she’d planted there weeks before, only to discover, much to our surprise and amazement, that those bulbs had taken root in the soil after all! Though we hadn’t yet seen evidence of it, the gladiolas were growing very nicely, thank you very much. Not even the certain death of the previous winter could keep those bulbs from springing to life and growing sunward. The gladiolas did, in fact, grow and bloom that summer, and for several more to come.
Each year on this Lenten journey as I draw near to Holy Week and recall the dark and somber events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, I inevitably think a great deal about those gladiola bulbs. For these are the times that our “patience for faith,” if you will, is tested; the time when you and I as followers of Jesus Christ have to go beyond our expectations of him and how we prefer to see him, and truly come to grips with who Jesus really is and what he has come to do; and for me, as it is for most of us, I suspect, that’s a very difficult thing.
It’s one thing, after all, to be a follower of Jesus when it’s all about being “fishers of people,” when light and life and love are the predominant themes of the day; quite another when walking with Jesus means coming to the cross, and then standing helplessly at the foot of that cross as he hangs there dying. It’s very easy to imagine ourselves standing with the crowd on the streets of Jerusalem, shouting out our hosannas to the King of Kings; but not so much to consider that we might well have been a part of that very same group, now a mob calling for his execution. In all honesty, we’d much prefer that Jesus remain the sweet and tiny child in the Bethlehem manger; or if he must become an adult, then most certainly he should always stay the teacher and healer of Galilee, the kind and gentle friend who dined with the poor and outcast, and who gathered children around him. And truth be told, for much of the church year, we can almost get away with viewing him only in those guises.
But no… come Holy Week we are forced to see him for who he really is: Jesus Christ, the crucified; the sacred head now wounded; the sacrificial lamb of God; the suffering servant who is the atonement for sin, yours and mine; the one, who as the old hymn puts it, bore the dreadful curse for our souls; the Savior who has died for you and for me… and, well, I don’t know about you, but as I consider all this and gaze upon the real Jesus, it’s heavy and sobering and all… well, too much! And even as one who shepherds congregations through this time, I have to confess that here are moments I wonder why can’t we just skip to Easter, moving from celebration to celebration in the church and keeping this matter of following Jesus simple and easy!
That, of course, would be missing the point.
What is it that Ann Weems, that wonderful poet and worship leader writes about discipleship? “I’d rather hear the singing than the weeping,” she says, “I’d rather see the healing than the violence, I’d rather feel the pleasure than the pain… but,” (and here’s the central point) “discipleship means sometimes it’s going to rain in my face.” Or, to put it another way, in our biblical faith, we know that the day must come for the “Son of Man to be glorified,” and that glory comes on the cross. As Jesus himself said it, “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.”(John 12:23-24)
Holy Week is a reminder to us all that at the center of our faith is divine sacrifice, and if we are to truly know and celebrate the joy of Easter resurrection, we must first face and endure the agony and death of the cross on Good Friday. And for anyone who would follow Jesus as his disciple, it is difficult; for in watching our teacher and friend as he is betrayed, deserted, arrested, beaten and mocked; scourged and spat upon; and finally nailed upon and left hanging on a wooden cross to die a slow, painful and truly excruciating death, we must also see ourselves in that cross’ shadow. For we are the reason Jesus is there; it is us for whom this sacrifice is made.
So as much as so many of us would like to avoid it altogether, as Christians we must come to Good Friday and face Jesus’ death on the cross. But in the face of this, there is truly good news, and it’s that no death will ever keep our Lord from rising. The seed will die, without question; but though we may not see evidence of it right away, that death will bear much fruit, in much the same manner as those horribly beleaguered gladiola bulbs, bruised, beaten and utterly defeated, and yet somehow still bloomed! So it was for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who died on the cross, and yet who conquered death; who was bruised, beaten and utterly defeated in every worldly sense, and yet who triumphed and opened the gates of life everlasting. And the glory of it all is that it was ever and always God’s plan for our very redemption and for our renewal as persons; it was always intended for you and me to live together as the whole body of Christ; always meant for this hurting world to brought to healing and to life both abundant and eternal.
In a few days it’ll be Palm Sunday, and as in many churches this week, at East Church we’ll mark the occasion with palm fronds, a processional led by our kids, and by singing “The Palms.” (Of course we will; what other song will do but “The Palms!”) But then Holy Week will begin, and as we pause to remember the night and day of betrayal and desertion, that’s when the journey will become unthinkably difficult. But that journey will not be taken alone, but in the company of Christ himself, who will lead us, with divine grace and infinite love, from life through death into the life that glorious and everlasting.
And however difficult it may be to walk, that will be more than enough for the way.
c. 2014 Rev. Michael W. Lowry