I recently spent a day of retreat at Emery House. I sat in a simple hut deep in the woods – and all day long I watched the gently falling leaves. It was a beautiful and melancholy experience. Those falling leaves seemed to pick up the feelings at this time of the year: a sense of letting go and of loss. A time to remember. In church we remember all Saints. We remember on All Souls Day our loved ones who have passed away. This past week we have remembered those who lost their lives in war.
A couple of days ago in London at the Royal Albert Hall there was the annual Festival of Remembrance. I love to watch it, because of what happens at the end. After all the music and the singing, the huge crowd stands in silence as a million poppies fall, gently and silently – in remembrance of all who died in war – “we will remember them.” I love that moment – with that strange mixture of sadness, yet of hope. As the autumn leaves fall, and as the poppies fall there is sadness, but something else – a sweet sorrow. Solomon in his wisdom, put it like this: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction. But they are at peace.” (Wisdom 3:1-3)
But there is I think more going on at this melancholy time of year than just remembering those who have died. There is something about this season of falling leaves and bare trees which speaks profoundly to our souls and invites us to also experience a dying. “For unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn 12:24)
What do those enigmatic words of Jesus mean?
I think there is a clue in the reading from the Gospel of Luke we have just heard: the story of the rich young man. He comes up to Jesus and asks how he might inherit eternal life. He rattles off all the commandments that he has kept: he’s full of self-righteousness, and full of money. And Jesus looks at him in all his fullness and says to him, “You lack one thing – sell all that you have, and give the money to the poor.” (Lk 18:22)
The man asked for life – eternal life – and Jesus replied by saying – if you want life, you have to die first. Just as the tree needs to let go of its leaves in order to have room for new life and growth – so the rich man had to first shed his self-righteousness and wealth, to leave room to be filled with the fullness of God.
And each season of fall reminds us again of Jesus’ invitation to us to an autumnal experience of letting go and of dying – if we want to truly live, and be filled with the fullness of God.
It is the pattern of dying and being reborn, of crucifixion and resurrection, which lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. It’s the pattern at work in all the saints. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians wrote, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things.” (Phil 3:8)
And so with the rich young man, Jesus was saying to him, with great love, that if you don’t empty yourself, I can’t fill you – there’s no room!
So when Jesus looks at you and me, with great love, and longs to fill us with his life, who does he see? Does he see someone too full already? It could be just too much stuff: possessions can suffocate us, possess us. Or we may be so overwhelmed by busy-ness that we cannot attend to the things of God.
Or maybe God can’t find room to fill you, because you are filled with anger, or resentment, or an inability to forgive – emotions that can consume us and overwhelm us. Imagine Jesus looking at you with love, and saying gently, “let it go, let it go.” Let it fall away like the autumn leaves.
At times we may feel the burden of sin. Things we have done or said in the past which still haunt us and fill us with guilt or remorse. There’s a wonderful line in our Rule which says, “We cannot keep pace with the Risen Christ, who goes before us if we are encumbered by guilt.” I love the image of Jesus running ahead of us and looking back and saying, ‘Come on!’ And we say, “I can’t keep up! I’m weighed down by guilt, or my possessions, my anger, my resentment, my fear…!’
And Jesus saying, ‘Let me forgive you. Let me take the weight off you. Let them go, and become light and free … and come follow me.’
I love this time of year – the season of fall. Things seem to be falling and dying. But Solomon knew a deeper mystery: “In the eyes of the foolish,” he said, “they seemed to have died.” And we who follow Jesus know a deeper mystery. We know that those bare trees, which seem so dead, are just waiting silently and expectantly for the mystery of spring and the glorious bursting forth of new life.
And so with us. Jesus calls us every day to live into that mystery in our own lives. To let die all that does not give me life. To empty myself of all that weighs me down: possessions, anxieties, resentments, sins: whatever it is that stops me following Jesus.
Let it go. Learn from those gently falling leaves. And let it go.
John 18:1 – 19:42
Our efforts cultivating the fruit of the earth were modest at best, because growing up in Brooklyn meant not have having much gardening space. In our backyard, we had a few small rectangles of soil in which to plant our hopes for fresh vegetables and herbs. We experimented with everything from eggplants to pumpkins, but what I remember most is the tomato plants tended by my father and grandfather, taller than me at the time and filled with beautiful ripe tomatoes. That such a prodigious crop could come from so tiny a handful of seeds never ceased to amaze me. And after we had planted the seeds for next season, I waited with a mixture of hope and awe for what seemed like a miracle, new tomato plants rising from the ground in which the seeds were buried.
Nowadays, many of us who live in cities don’t consider anything about our food very miraculous, and we probably aren’t familiar with placing all our faith in a seed. But the lives of our ancestors, certainly in Jesus’ time, were intimately woven with nature’s cycles of death and new life. The fruit of each plant gives its life for the rich potential of its seeds, and each seed itself must die so to bring forth new growth.