March 8, Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 1:8-14; Psalm 137:1-6; Mark 4:26-32
Perhaps my favorite springtime scene happens in the raisin vineyards of central California. In the winter months, the vines are bare and the air is gray with fog. During this cold, the farmers go through the vineyards and prune the vines, thinning the wild, woody growth reaching out in every direction, having long ago dropped their green-to-gold coats of leaves. After pruning, they wrap the still supple wood around miles of wire, tying the vines in neat rows, acre after acre. They look so lifeless, so artificial. Like someone has begun the framing of a very odd building, running delicate trusses in long lines, covering acres with their imagined roof only five feet high!
But now, in springtime, that image is shattered! Those fine dark beams are suddenly exploding with bright lime-green leaves, almost neon against the dark wood. The leaves pop out all over and by summer they have shown us that tying them to wires will not hold them back. Vines run out over the dirt and between the rows until they must finally be chopped back before harvest can begin. Life is out of control. Those dark vines with bright green leaves beginning to take over is a sure sign of spring, an assurance that life is still pre-eminent over dormancy.
Not life over death – we get ahead of ourselves with that conclusion. That is for Easter. Besides, my father, the farmer, got really annoyed when preachers misused the farming metaphors. I can just hear him at Sunday dinner – but the vines aren’t dead. It just takes a quick look under the bark to be sure. No, rather in winter, life pulls inside safe places, to protect itself from bitterness, yet ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Today, on the Seder plate, appears that same burst of fresh green. It proclaims the truth that life, while it may go under cover for a time to protect itself, is ready at a moment’s notice to explode again in verdant lushness. This is hope.
Yet it is dipped in tears – perhaps a symbol of the dormant seasons, when life seems gone out of us. But life is still life. And its nature is to come back to the surface, to upset all human attempts to force it into a mold. Just observe that tree planted near the sidewalk make rock chips of the cement! It is not the nature of life to lay down and die! Play dead, maybe, but not die!
The green herbs, dipped in tears, symbolize hope for a totally rebuilt life. Renewal, rejuvenation, restoration. These are all words used to describe taking something old, and giving it new life and meaning. I was just reading in the Southeast Examiner, an article about the renovation of Washington High School. While it had a glorious past, educating numerous notable students and winning many athletic awards, it became a deserted empty shell of a place. For many, it was too iconic to demolish, but what could it be? After many years of disuse, it was sold to a company which specialized in historic preservation projects. Now the building is getting a complete make-over, from the inside out. New businesses of all sorts are finding a home there – and as I look at the list of current tenants, it seems to specialize in locally-grown, entrepreneurial enterprises. It has been given new life, and has even become an incubator – to keep giving new life. Only a stone’s throw from its inception as an education center, an incubator for young lives.
Washington High School is a beautiful illustration of the meaning of the Karpas – the green herbs dipped in tears. It had a beautiful life as a launching pad for young people, then it was dipped in tears. Losing it’s purpose. Being abandoned to decay. But like the greens of the earth, it came back, to give life again, for a whole new clientele. It was dormant, but now it has new growth.
For God, the work of renewal is a full time job. God calls people out of dormancy and dilapidation into fullness of life. Every day, and in every way a God of creation can think of, God teases life out of stubborn, hardening souls.
God had made a covenant, a betrothal, with his people. Just because they were in Egypt as slaves didn’t mean they had forgotten God, nor that God had forgotten them. Overwhelmed by circumstances, perhaps they found themselves in a dormant state, with no leader, exhausted, nothing left to give. The needed rehab! Big time!
That is why God took them out into the desert: to sand off the cracking paint of slavery, give them a new foundation of Law, a new coat of paint born of tender compassion, and a glow of hope in the promised land yet to come.
The Karpas (Hebrew for “greens” or “vegetable”) is full of symbolic meaning. It is one element on the Seder plate which seems to be open for all kinds of interpretation. One Jewish teacher says of the green herb:
We’re doing everything we can to spark questions from the children. If they say, “Hey mom and dad! The table is all set for a grand dinner. Aren’t we supposed to eat real food now? Why just this little itty-bitty piece of vegetable?” — then you know you’re doing things right.
What do you answer them? You say, “We’re doing this so you will ask questions.” And if they say, “So what’s the answer?” — just repeat, “We’re doing this so you will ask questions.” That’s the best answer. Because you can’t learn if you don’t ask questions. And the first thing to learn is that not all questions have answers.
That’s a distinctive mark of Jewish education: More than we teach our children how to answer, we teach them how to ask — and how to be patient in their search for answers.
The Seder meal, and the elements on the Seder plate are full of questions. When we finally see the full plate of symbols set out before us, if we are paying attention, we will still wonder – what an odd assortment! What is the meaning of all this?!
Karpas serves as a symbol of the wonderful bounty of vegetables and fruits in the springtime harvest. The bounty of springtime would be cause in itself for a celebration like Passover! We have been getting a taste of life’s celebration in spring this year, for sure!
This abundance also represents the period of Jewish flourishing before the period of Egyptian slavery began. In the Torah, we are told that the Israelites numbered 70 individuals when Jacob and his family descended into Egypt. A few generations later, due to a prodigious birthrate, they consisted of hundreds of thousands. Indeed the people of Israel flourished in Egypt, to the point that the Pharaoh found them a threat. Just like the tree on the edge of the sidewalk, they might soon crumble Egypt’s power by their strength of life.
The Hebrew language is often mined for hidden meanings – in the structure of the letters of the text. In the word Karpas itself, scholars find allusions to the condition of the Israelites in Egypt. Rearranged, the letters spell parech (פרך), the word for “hard labor,” teaching us that joy and sorrow come hand in hand. Or, if read backwards the letters form an acronym of a phrase meaning “600,000 [were enslaved with] spirit-breaking labor.” So the word itself holds the duality of green hope which contains suffering.
If you don’t get that idea from the word itself, the dipping the greens in saltwater makes it obvious. The salt water represents the salty tears that the Hebrews shed in their slavery in Egypt. The people, full of dormant life, were daily being washed in the tears of oppression, the tears of yearning for their life to break out.
This affirmation of the bitter-sweetness of life repeats itself throughout the Seder, as we saw in the combination of bitter herbs and sweet applesauce.
Jesus’ life proclaimed this same Passover message. His people were living through another time of oppression, when life had gone dormant in their souls. His whole ministry seemed to say, “Wake Up! It is springtime! The life of God is springing up all over! Reach out and see, taste, life!” God loves us with arms outstretched. God gives us this wild embrace, even when we aren’t paying attention.
In the parable in Mark 4 of the seeds growing all by themselves, Jesus’ listeners could see themselves as the farmers who are watching the planted field burst into life – in its own time. It is there, happening right beneath our feet. As Jesus’ followers, we are here to nurture the green of holy springtime in all the winters of human despair.
Did you know that seed packets have dates on them? Some seeds lose their potency if they stay in their dormant form too long. Other seeds won’t sprout the first year they are planted. Blooming, too, is conditional. Some plants bloom every year, others, on alternate years. Then there is the century plant, reckoned to bloom only once every hundred years. When I lived in Wells, Nevada, I always thought our lilacs were century plants. If the freeze came too late in spring they didn’t bloom or the little bloom they had disappeared instantly – and this was country where it always snowed on Memorial Day weekend and often on the 4th of July! So our lilacs were like century plants, blooming rarely. Yet, almost everyone had them planted in their yards! One year while I was there, the weather was kind, and I could see why these shrubs were planted in hope of the year of God’s favor! Everywhere were lilacs in every shade of purple and even white! The scent seemed to fill the little town. Their beauty gave life to everyone!
The kingdom seeds, like the lilacs, bloom in God’s good time. We may live in dormancy. We may dip our lives in the tears of yearning now. But still we watch the fields for the green sprouts. We act and we pray all in hope and confidence that the work of God’s life is happening under the surface. And we wait for those first cracks in the sidewalk which say that the kingdom can no longer be contained! Life will win. This is the beginning of the end of oppression. This is the beginning of the end of death.
Hope is not wishful thinking, but the patient watching, and obedient living of the life of God here and now
During the dormant season there are still many things to be done – pruning, tying, planting. These are actions of hope. And so, we engage in actions of hope – when we feed the poor – even though Jesus acknowledged that we would never end poverty – the poor we will always have with us. Yet we feed people as an act of planting kingdom seeds. We do acts of hope when we visit someone who is sick or in prison. We do an act of hope when we pray for an addict to recover, when we pray for an end to cancer. We act in hope when we refuse to return violence for violence, hoping to end the warring madness between human beings. All these are seed-plantings for the final blooming abundance of God’s love and grace.
Today, we are here in our oppression and slavery. Today we dip our life in tears. Today we yearn for more grace and love. With all people at Passover we hope:
Next year in Jerusalem!
Next year in freedom for all!