Being sifted like wheat
Years ago, my dad planted winter wheat in the garden as a cover crop. Cover crops are meant to be turned into the ground once they mature, creating richer soil for the food you intend to grow in the warmer months. When the winter wheat matured and the heads of the grain ripened, I asked if I could harvest them. I was an early student of anthropology and archaeology, and wanted to try to hand grind te grain to see what that chore was like for people who did not have the privilege of buying flour from the grocery store-ready ground for our convenience.
I harvested the heads, pulling each head apart for the individual grain. I realized quickly that harvesting grain is not a simple affair. The wheat had to be peeled away from the chaff, the dry membrane that protected the grain during its growth. Once hulled , I had to separate the wheat berries from the chaff. Once separated, the wheat had to be ground. And all I had were my own two hands, and a couple of heavy stones that I had appropriated for that purpose. It was a lot harder to sift that wheat than I had anticipated. Getting from a harvested head of grain to a handful of flour takes some hard work if there is no machinery around to assist.
In the end, I was able to accomplish what I had set out to do. I learned that you had to be careful not to put too much pressure on the grain as you broke the chaff away from the berry, to avoid cracking the berry. I learned to sit upwind from the basket I used to toss the wheat and chaff into the air, allowing the chaff to blow away while the heavier wheat falls back to earth in order to avoid being covered by the chaff. I learned that you had to be careful just which two stones you chose to grind the flour: too hard and the wheat goes to dust; too soft and you wind up with bits of stone in the flour. Through trial and more than a bit of error, I wound up with about two cups of flour at the end of that experiment, and a deep and abiding love of being able to go to the store and purchase a bag of the miller's art. My own efforts? Grist, if you will, for future spiritual reflection.
And that reflection brings us to today. Jesus tells the disciples that the tempter has petitioned for the right to test them. They are to be sifted like wheat. Even as Jesus faces his own passion experience, the disciples are told that they, too, will have to go through a human version of what wheat goes through as it is prepared for use. This in the face of being told that one of them will betray him, that they will be scattered...all during the conclusion of their Passover celebration. It must have been so had to hear, and harder still to understand. I don't think any of them really understood, not until Jesus and Peter lock gazes when Jesus is in custody and after Peter has denied him for the third time. As the cock crowed, so Peter becomes aware of the "sifting" that the community around Jesus will face as a matter of course as it makes it way in the world.
Moses knew that sifting, I am sure. As he climbs the Pisgah slope of Mount Horeb, he knows that this last trip with God will be his last on this earth. He knows that he will be allowed to see, and not to enter, the Promised Land. His last task is to let go of the people, and release them to God's guidance and Joshua's leadership. All that trial and conflict, all that grace, comes to a head for him. His work is done, because the work of the community is beginning...and if we have learned anything from Deuteronomy, it is that the sifting of Israel is going to continue. To be sifted like wheat: not something we would seek out, and yet for us to grow into the full stature God intends for us as people of faith it is a necessity. It is that rubbing, breaking, tossing and grinding that takes us from raw product to the bread that is blessed, broken and given to the world. That is the bread that feeds and sustains us all in our walk with Christ.