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A little while ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who is a life and fitness coach. As we were catching up over coffee, she asked me directly how I was doing and what was going on in my life. Now, I know that when a life coach asks you that question, they’re expecting a different answer than maybe your average small-talk scenario where this question might get asked. So I mentioned that I was struggling with achieving a certain goal of mine that I’d set a while back. Fully expecting my life coach friend to come up with a flow chart, way to track progress, etc, I was surprised when she asked me one simple question: “What do you have to say ‘No’ to?” One of the mantras I’ve heard her say over and over again is that in order to say yes to something, you have to say no to something else. In order to get what you truly want, to say yes to your goals, you have to say no to the beliefs and habits that don’t serve your goals. Even though I’d heard her say this many times before, hearing it directed toward me and my own life hit me straight in the gut. The truth was, I already knew what I needed to says ‘No’ to, and I’d been hoping to avoid it. I had been hoping that the answer could be much more Episcopalian in nature, and be of the “both-and” variety. That I could have both my new goal, and my old habits. But it wasn’t. In order to say yes to the goal I had set for myself, I had to say no to a few bad habits that stood in its way.

What do you have to say no to, in order to say yes to something else?

There isn’t room for something new if the old is still lurking around. There isn’t room for truly eating healthfully if you always skip the vegetables. There isn’t room for getting in shape if you only exercise once a week. There isn’t room for starting your own business if you aren’t willing to give up a lot of your free time, savings, and self-doubt. There isn’t room for forgiveness if you’re still nursing grudges.

In order for something new to take hold, something old has to go.

In today’s reading from Jeremiah, the prophet is proclaiming that soon, God will be making a new covenant with God’s people. Soon, God will be doing something new. A covenant where God’s law isn’t studied, or known cerebrally, but known in the heart, acted on instinctually. A covenant of forgiveness and grace. At the time Jeremiah was making this prophesy to the people of Israel, they were in exile in Babylon, displaced from their homeland. And this meant being displaced from the temple, from the holy of holies where God resided, where the covenant lived. They were a people in need of some good news, of some hope that God had not abandoned them to their captors and given up on them. They seem to have had good cause for concern, since they are reminded of their history of straying from the covenant God had made with them – a history of idol worship and injustice. The words of the prophet Jeremiah must have been reassuring to the people who had broken their covenant with God. Not only was God not giving up on them, they were getting a new and improved relationship with God. This new covenant wasn’t just an upgrade of the old one. It had new, fancy, shiny features they were going to have to adapt to. This new covenant was going to write God’s law on their hearts, make God’s law so instinctual that it would no longer have to be taught. But in order to say yes to this new covenant, the people of Israel would have to say no to some old ways of doing things. They would have to adjust to a new way of being in relationship with God, departing from the tradition of countless generations. In short, it wasn’t a both-and situation. They couldn’t have both the old and the new covenant. It was one or the other.

In order for something new to take hold, something old has to go.

In one sense, we are a society that functions, economically, on this idea. Advertisers are constantly telling us we need a new phone, new clothes, new car, new computer… our economy thrives on the concept of “out with the old, and in with the new.” Except we, as people, often don’t. We are much better at “in with the new” than “out with the old.” We buy new clothes, only to have them sit right next to the old ones in the closet. We buy a new computer, holding onto the other one because we’re not ready to get rid of it. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve got laptops dating back to 2003 sitting in my closet!) If cellphone providers and car dealerships didn’t ask for a trade-in at time of purchase, who knows what would happen to our old gadgets. The thing our economy teaches us is that we love the concept of something new. But it doesn’t ask us to consider how we make room for it.

In order for something new to take hold, something old has to go.

But go where?

 Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, a tattooed former alcoholic, has a compelling story of redemption. She describes her journey from Junkie to Jesus as one that was completely against her will. She says, “Getting sober never felt like I had pulled myself up by my own spiritual bootstraps. It felt instead like I was on one path toward self-destruction and God pulled me off of it by the scruff of my collar, me hopelessly kicking and flailing… and then plunked me down on an entirely different path. I was not allowed to die in exchange for working for God.” (Pastrix p. 38) In her own words, following Jesus “is about spiritual physics. Something has to die for something new to live.” (Pastrix, Introduction) She was given, albeit against her will, a new chance at life, but it meant that her drug and alcohol abuse, and the lifestyle that went with it, had to die.

In order for the new to take hold, the old has to go. But unlike life coaching, the Christian faith is not just about developing new habits and letting old things go. It’s about death and life. It’s spiritual physics. In order for something new to live, something also has to die.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about his own death when he says, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The Gospel goes on to say that he said this to explain the kind of death he was to die. What Jesus is saying about his own death is that it’s the kind of death that bears much fruit, that it’s a death that has a greater purpose. He’s trying to tell his disciples that his death would not be the sad, horrible, dreaded thing his disciples were fearing. Death of a loved one is a natural thing to fear. Death by crucifixion was excruciating torture. To think of Jesus, their beloved teacher, dying this way, it’s natural they’d be a bit freaked out. But that wasn’t the end game. What they learned on that Easter morning, and what we know today, is that Jesus death led to new life. It’s spiritual physics. The kind of death that Jesus died is the kind of death that allows for new life to grow.

This passage about the grain of wheat falling to the earth and dying so that it can bear much fruit is one of the most familiar passages of the Bible to me. Growing up in the Armenian Church, it was read at every funeral, memorial service, and anniversary of a person’s death, both a reminder about the meaning of Jesus’ death, and a metaphor for the hope we can have as we grieve the death of our loved ones. I’ll be honest with you – I never found these words holy and reassuring. It always felt like a BS way of dealing with death. Because I never saw the fruit, the new life, springing forth from death. All I saw was grief and emptiness. Most, if not all, of you know that when someone you love dies, you walk through the rest of your life missing a limb. But the Church was right to remind people that this Gospel – that if a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit – this passage is not only about Jesus; it’s also about each one of us. It reminds us of the awful and awesome truth that ours is a faith that stretches far beyond the self-help section, and plunges into the depths of death and life. The Christian faith is more than a belief in Jesus the good teacher; it is hope and trust in a God who went as far as gruesome death and as far as glorious life. It is trust in a God who walks with us in all our dying and all our living, because there is nowhere we can go that God has not already been.

This penitential season of Lent is a time when we can dare to practice the spiritual discipline of examining ourselves and asking the hard question: what part of me has to die so that the God of love can dwell there? What resentments, what addictions, what greed, what anxieties have to die in order to make room for God’s love to grow anew? Every time we celebrate Eucharist here at this altar, we remember Jesus’ words: “drink this, all of you: this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.” The new covenant comes to fruition at this altar and in the person of Jesus Christ.

 When we drink from the cup that Jesus gives, the cup of a new covenant, what kind of forgiveness and grace do we drink? What is put to death by the bread of life and the cup of salvation?

Truly I tell you, if those grains of wheat fall to the earth and die, they will bear fruit. Amen.

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