Texts: Psalm 51:1-12; John 12:20-26
In December of 1874, the naturalist and writer, John Muir explored the forests of the Yuba River watershed in central California. Muir was a tall, thin man, usually pictured with a bushy beard and a button-up coat. Now, it’s important for us to recognize that, although Muir’s thinking on wilderness preservation and nature was far ahead of his time, his attitudes toward Black and Indigenous people were not. He was retrograde in that way. But Muir’s writing on nature is luminous.
Muir was staying with a friend during his Yuba River excursion. One day a great windstorm swept into the area. Muir tells us that there is always something exciting about the sound of a strong wind in a forest. It flows like water through the trees. It brings scents and ephemera from far off places. The windstorm of 1874’s December was, Muir said, one of the most “beautiful and exhilarating storms I ever enjoyed.” And enjoy it he did. Muir left his friend’s house and began to wonder through the forest watching the effect of the wind in the trees. He saw how they bent, how the great stems pulled at their roots.
Muir wanted to experience more, so he found a tall, sturdy spruce and climbed about 100 feet into the air. He was used to climbing trees to find botanical specimens, so he says it wasn’t hard. He hung on near the top as the tree swayed back and forth. He stayed there for hours. Several years later, he wrote, “never before did I enjoy so noble an exhilaration of motion.” He watched and experienced the wind sweeping and swirling through the landscape. With the air rushing by, it was as though the trees themselves traveled. So Muir wrote one of his most evocative lines: “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees: and [people]; but it never occurred to me until this storm-day, while swinging in the wind,· that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense.”
“We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and people.” Trees are travelers too. What I want to suggest to you today, drawing on the words of Jesus in John chapter 12, is that there is a certain virtue that makes our collective travel through the Milky Way smoother and more productive that it would be otherwise. The Milky Way is the region of the universe in which our home planet exits. It is the address of the entirety of our lives. We may move from one location to another across this blue planet, but that amounts to little more than changing seats in a spaceship.
Different virtues help us succeed in different enterprises. One can hardly succeed in sales without boldness. One cannot do science without attending to details. One cannot staff a front desk without a certain conviviality or friendliness. What I want to suggest today is that our lives will go better with humility. Jesus says such a life will “bear much fruit” or it will be “eternal.” What more could we want out of a life, out of a trip through the Milky Way? So put this sermon in the self-help section.
Let’s look a bit closer at John 12. We read here that Jesus is approached by “some Greeks.” I like that phrase—specific and ambiguous all at the same time. In our context we might say that Jesus was approached by “some New Yorkers.” It’s very specific but also very unclear.
The Greeks wanted to see Jesus, but why? Who were they? They might have been God-fearing gentiles or converts to Judaism. Or, just like if you were approached by “some New Yorkers,” they might have been there to launch a lawsuit. We don’t know. But what is probably the case is that John includes this ambiguous detail to show us that Jesus is about the hit the big-time. He is approached by “some Greeks.” His fame had spread. His reputation was on the rise. He was a person to be sought out and consulted. So, he was approached by “some Greeks.”
Jesus responds by acknowledging that, yes, his time to be “glorified” had come. The time for all to see him for who he was had arrived. And so we almost expect Jesus to say, now that the Greeks are on board, it’s time to storm the citadel. It looks like the hour has come for Jesus to be placed upon the throne. The arc of his career is trending sharply upward.
That’s what it looks like . . . until we run into the “very truly.” Because Jesus doesn’t say, “Let’s storm the citadel.” Jesus says, “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.”
Jesus isn’t primarily making a botanical observation. However, I don’t think the botanical reference is accidental. It is not just a metaphor. The life process of a grain of wheat is an image of a larger truth. This is how things work: life comes through death. Fruitfulness through humility.
Jesus goes on to say this: “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.”
You’ve probably noticed that Jesus doesn’t actually use the word humility here. Jesus does use the word in a similar context in Matthew 23. There he says, “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” In Luke 1 Mary describes all of God’s work this way: lowering the proud, lifting up the humble. In Proverbs 15 Lady Wisdom points out that “humility comes before honor.”
Interestingly enough, the ancient Greeks, their most famous philosophers at least, were not terribly interested in humility. They were interested in honor. Many of the early Christian spiritual leaders, in contrast, saw humility as central trait of character that allows us to avoid the snares of the devil. For them, humility meant having a proper estimation of oneself in relationship to God and our neighbours. Peter tells us to clothe ourselves with humility in dealing with each other (I Peter 5).
In our own time, the environmental philosopher Lisa Gerber says that humility is essential for correcting our relationship to the natural world. She points out that, like most virtues, we can have what looks like too much or too little humility, but both of those come from a preoccupation with the self, making oneself central and the rest small. Thinking too highly or too lowly of ourselves, Gerber says, both come from a failure to see our connections to others, what we give and what we are given.
In our part of the world this is the time of year for collecting maple syrup. The sap runs, as we say, because at this time of the year trees are converting their stored energy from one type to another (starch to sucrose). This process draws in water from the surrounding soil and creates a positive pressure within the tree. Cut a hardwood tree in the early spring and it will bleed. Drill a hole in a sugar maple and it will drain a slightly sweet sap. But it wouldn’t happen without the cold of winter and the accompanying dormancy.
Had Jesus been talking to us directly, he might have said, “Unless a tree shuts down in the fall and submits to the cold, we will have no syrup for our pancakes or sweet maple candy. If it dies, it bears much fruit.”
So, yes, this is the way of things. Jesus observed it in the fields around him. It’s the way of life for those of us traveling through the Milky Way: trees, wheat and people.
You might have thought of this already, but the truth we’re talking about is right there in the words we use: human, humus, and humility. To be humble is to know what it means to be human, to be not a god, but a creature rooted to the soil. The rich life, the abundant life, is found through the way of humility. Flourishing comes through lowly connections.
The difference between ourselves and the trees or the wheat is that we must choose the way of humility. We can try other ways. We can ignore our dependence on the earth. We can think of ourselves as inherently more (or less) valuable than other people. We can hold to our success so tightly that our knuckles crack. We can wall ourselves off from the swaying trees, protect ourselves from all vulnerability. We can cease to be amazed. We can turn off our sense of wonder.
We can, but Jesus warns us not to. The world is built for a different way of being. A way of being that puts our very lives in the context of something bigger—God’s truth, beauty, and goodness—and more concretely, God’s good and beautiful creation. We travel together best when the relationships that link us are woven with humility.
This can all seem very abstract, so let me conclude by reminding us of how the season of Lent begins. It begins with these words: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And when the pastor or the priest says these words, she will often make the sign of the cross. The cross is a sign of humility. And that’s where it all comes together. The story of Jesus, the story of the world and the story of ourselves.
True and Loving God, grow in us this virtue that is so essential to living in-step with your world, the virtue of humility. Amen.
If you’d like to explore any of this more check out the following:
John Muir, “A Windstorm in the Forests of the Yuba,” 1878.
Lisa Gerber, “Standing Humbly Before Nature,” Ethics & Environment (2002)
Steven Bouma-Prediger, Earthkeeping and Character, (Baker Academic, 2020), esp. c. 2.