GOLDEN GRAINS OF WHEAT The Rev. Brian E. Backstrand Easter Day 2015
In the middle of the Lenten Season, I got word of the death of Wayne Carver. Wayne lived for much of his adult life in the town of Northfield, Minnesota which goes by the motto: Home of Colleges, Cows and Contentment. Wayne fought in WW II in the Battle of the Bulge; after the war he earned a degree from Kenyon College in Ohio and then came to Northfield in 1954. For thirty-eight years, he taught at Carleton College and made a huge, incalculable contribution to both the education and the personal humanity of generation after generation of students at Carleton. I took several classes from him and our daughter Brenna, near the end of his career, took a class as well.
When I got the news of his death, I was surrounded by darkness, my mind flooded with random memories of Wayne and I felt the weight of his loss. His death marked not only one of the great presences at the College (he was the best teacher I ever had) but also he took with him a good deal of knowledge of the institution in which he served. His sense of humor, modeled after his great idol, Mark Twain, always turned up in odd and important moments. One colleague described his teaching methods as sly. All I know is that he planted a lot of seeds. In the classroom, he was the sower who went out to sow.
As you listen to me this morning somewhat selfishly speaking of this important presence in my life, I know that you also can in the book of memory finger the pages and find the names of so many others. Persons in your family (some of them no doubt this morning remembered by flowers), important influences, good friends. Some like Wayne’s passing are recent. Others are to be found only in the corridors of time. But we know who they are. We know the contributions that they have made to our own lives.
As the news of Wayne’s death was published on the website, one of Wayne’s colleagues in the English department, Bob Tisdale, in outlining some of the facets of Wayne as person and professor, commented the he was “one of the giants in the earth.”
This was a telling reference that would be understood by many in the Northfield community as well as the extended communities both of Carleton and St. Olaf. St Olaf is a Lutheran school with deep Norwegian connections. Giants in the Earth is a reference to the novel of Norweigan immigrants written by O. E. Rolvaag and it is well known. Rolvaag taught at St. Olaf and Giants in the Earth is his novel about pioneer life on the high plains. This morning I would like to speak of Easter power in terms of Rolvaag’s story about the great sacrifices of those early pioneers.
In the first wave, many came from Scandinavia – moving onto the high plains where they built sod huts far from anything they had ever known. All that they would ever have of their former life they packed into steamer trunks that now seem so small. It was a long journey and often they came late, just as winter closed in. There in the depths of winter, they would struggle to survive, struggle to keep their animals alive, struggle to hang on to some remnant of their own personal identity in the bitter cold and the howling wind. I think of women, unpacking their small trunks with so little of their former life stowed, taking things out and looking and remembering. My own grandparents had such a trunk. In the novel, Beret, the wife of Per Hansa struggles to keep herself from insanity even as her husband battled the inhospitality of the plains.
If Wayne Carver was a teacher who planted seeds in the classroom, Per Hansa in Rolvaag’s novel was planting the real stuff, gleaming golden seeds of wheat. Per Hansa almost died in one of the blizzards of the first winter on the high plains of the Dakotas and now there he was shooing away his two young sons out on the land where by hand he was sowing wheat.
It was very early in the spring and he was working hard to get the seeding done before any of his neighbors. He was trying to get it right and he hadn’t done it much. Then a neighbor came over and told him that he was a fool, an idiot to be sowing seed so early. You’re plumb crazy man and I don’t mind telling you so. …The ground isn’t half dry enough. Why…there’s a foot of frost in the ground. But on and on he sowed – half exultant, half afraid
Today on this Easter morning Per Hansa’s sowing of the gleaming seeds of wheat reminds me of Paul’s great chapter on the resurrection. We read a portion of it in the second lesson this morning: I Corinthians 15. Inspiring stuff that I encourage you to visit or revisit in the Easter season. Well, eventually, past our reading, Paul gets down to speaking of wheat and of other seeds:
But some will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen and to each kind of seed its own body.
Per Hansa sowed four acres of wheat by hand in the early spring. And then it rained. And then the air turned cold and snowed. He did not sleep that night. Rolvaag writes Out in the field, under the snow, lay all that priceless wheat, smothered to death and frozen as hard as flint. Twenty-five bushels and all that work – gone. As he opened the door that morning, saw two feet of snow covering the ground and felt the bitter cold stinging his face, he has an irrestible impulse to fling himself down in the snowdrift and cry like a baby! Instead he went to bed, refused breakfast, refused the concerned solicitations of his wife, Beret. It lasted for days. And then he went out to look.
We all know what death looks like. We know what it feels like. Today we will let Per Hansa, Norweigan sailor turned into farmer, tell us what it looks like.
Reaching the field, he fell on his knees, dug into the soil, and picked up the first kernel he came across; he laid it in the palm of his left hand and turned it over and over with the forefinger of his right; the seed was black with clammy dirt, which clung tightly to it. Slowly and carefully he picked off the particles of soil—and there it lay, a pale little thing, grayish-white and dirty, the golden sheen … entirely gone, the magic departed, the seed cold and dead.
Again and again he dug. Again and again he found the seed, cold and dead. It was over. Wayne’s death, the death of the important people in your lives, the dead seed in Per Hansa’s wheat field – it is all the same. And it is hard to believe that anything past death can come to life.
This week hopefully all of us have journeyed with Jesus. Stretched our minds and our spirits towards the cross. From the standpoint of history the death of Jesus is hardly noted beyond the proclamation of the scriptures. Only two historians—Josephus and Tacitus—record the event. It is a singular seed of wheat and we must understand that when the women came with their spices to anoint the body certainly they must have been prepared to find the body of our Lord to be like a dead and exhausted seed, in the words of Rolvaag, a pale thing, grayish-white and dirty, … the magic departed, the seed cold and dead. But what did they find? They found instead a young man, they found his words He has been raised; he is not here. And they found something else, they found terror and amazement that –the Gospel of Mark tells us— seized them. And they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.
He has been in bed for days, this Per Hansa. He has wasted twenty-five bushels of precious wheat. This may be the end. There may not be enough food for family and for livestock. In his bed he is lying there, day after day, thinking It has all begun to rot.
But in the depths of our spiritual winter, in the depths of depression and discouragement, in the depths when we lack faith and would abandon it, in the depths when death surrounds us in one form or another with its blackness – in the depths there comes this renewing force, this power, this Easter presence. And one day it came to Per Hansa.
Suddenly a violent stamping of feet sounded outside; someone came running up, with another close at his heels. Ole jerked the door open, took one leap and landed in the middle of the floor. The boy was wide-eyed with excitement. “Per Hansa”, he cried, calling his father by name. “The wheat is up!” Then he took another leap and stood leaning over the bed. “The wheat is up, I say!
He got up trembling in every limb, and rushed to the field and, there, stood spellbound. “His whole body shook; tears came to his eyes, so that he found it difficult to see clearly.
… Over the whole field tiny shoots were quivering in the warm sunshine.”
How do you see Easter? How do you image resurrection? Listen, the Apostle Paul says, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye…. For this perishable body must put on imperishability and this mortal body must put on immortality.
Easter 2015 — The sun is up. Winter is past. The cross is empty and the stone, rolled away, reveals an empty tomb. Women are filled with wonder and terror—all at once.
And the seeds? Whatever they are, they are sprouting new life. The wheat is up. Jesus is about to appear to His followers.