Monday, July 17, 2017

The Church as the Humus of Heaven: Jesus' Parable of the Sower and Some Wendell Berry, Too


(A Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

There is a well-known Wendell Berry poem that has hung in my office for nearly 10 years. The title of the poem, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front. 

A portion of it reads: 

Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequioas. 
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant, 
that you will not live to harvest. 
Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years

Practice resurrection. 

I am far from a farmer and have a very faint green thumb- my greatest claim to a harvest being the six peppers I grew on our front porch and used in my southwest omelet a few years ago.  Eggs compliments of Wegmans. Seeds from Target. Yet there is something intriguing about not only the agrarian imagery of this poem, but also the very title. Farming framed as a revolt, a sustainable movement of subversion.  The farmer is marked as one gone mad, celebrated for raising unconventional questions, investing in the next generation, putting faith in a slow yet emerging process, and prioritizing sowing in such a way that the fullness of the harvest will out live even the farmer. 

Wendell Berry is an environmental activist, novelist, and prophetic poet who continues to live in simplicity with his wife in rural Kentucky.  His writings have captured the imaginations and underscored movements of change for generations. And Wendell Berry is known for his agrarian imagery. 

He’s in good company. 

While since the industrial revolution we have preferred machines, devices, and factories, the bulk of human history, and even most of the world still today, identified with fields, farms, and living off the land. Jesus was not exempt. It doesn’t take long to see that, in many ways, Jesus was a first-century rendition of Wendell Berry whose pithy statements were laced with references to grain and the harvest, reaping and sowing, wheat and chaff, mustard seeds and invasive plants. These were far from tame motifs, they were culturally relevant nuances of God’s kingdom intended to grow a movement of change called discipleship. 

Jesus’ use of the agrarian world and all its organic metaphors underscore God’s dreams for the world that come by way of a slow yet urgent process with a harvest not only for this generation, but also the generation to come. This mode of divine activity called the gospel is beautiful and frustrating, intentional and local, nourishing yet demanding, even requiring the ability to adapt and evolve in light of changes in conditions.  At it’s core, Jesus’ leaning on this imagery reminds us that the gospel, God’s Way in the World, requires our on-going participation and ability to dig our hands deep into the soil of this world God so loves. 

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in today’s parable, the first of many Jesus would tell to frame his budding movement called in Matthew’s Gospel, the kingdom of heaven. In fact, today’s Gospel story is so central to Jesus’ teachings that it is the only one he actually unpacks and explains for his disciples.

This makes it so much easier for the visiting preacher.

Matthew locates Jesus as seated seaside where he addresses the massive crowds outside of the home. “Listen!” Jesus shouts to those on the beach. "This message is for you, every last one of you.”

Much like the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus announced blessings to those most ignored and dismissed, Jesus again casts wide the net of God’s welcome.  "There was this sower of seeds who had gone mad, scattering seeds here, there, and everywhere- liberally tossing possibilities for new life everywhere this sower went.”

I was reading this parable with fellow leaders of the Presbytery the other day when one of the pastors raised a shared point of frustration, one possibly whispered down the lane by those on the shore that day two millennia ago. 

“This seems to be a pretty irresponsible farming practice,” she said. "A wise sower would have surveyed the land and known that this particular seed falling on a path, in the rocks, or among thorns wouldn’t work. They would have limited their planting to the good soil from the get go.”

That would work with conventional planting, sure. But if we know anything about Jesus and the kingdom of heaven he announced, it is less linked to convention and more reflective of madness. As Paul would say in 1 Corinthians, “the gospel is foolishness to those who believe.” 

Matthew’s inference is clear: Jesus is the Mad Sower of Seeds of this great liberation front called the kingdom of heaven. This Sower shows no judgment or partiality, in many ways his grace is frivolous, overly generous, and borderline insane.  

Which is good news, for the seeds of the gospel have been liberally scattered throughout the generations and to virtually every corner of the earth. The seeds have even been scattered so freely and without hesitation that they have been planted in each of us here today.  The Psalmist says it this way, “Your wagon tracks overflow with richness…”(Psalm 65:11).

The question for us, is what kind of soil will we be? 

Will we dare enable the seeds of God’s Word of love and generosity, welcome and hospitality, justice and commitment to those frequently labeled as other to burry deep within the soil of our individual lives, take root in our communities of faith, and sprout a harvest of hope and possibility in the neighborhoods we call home?

Will we dare look beyond the walls of our buildings to see that this Sower of Seeds is scattering fertile possibilities within the hearts and minds of our neighbors and in the communities our churches were first planted within?

Will we become like that two-inches of humus beneath the tree that is able to nourish a rooted discipleship able to withstand all that seeks to slow the growth of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven?

These were the questions posed to those on that first-century beach. These are the critical questions posed to us today. 

In many ways and at various parts of my life, I have found myself more able to identify with the first three categories of dirt that Jesus describes than the final harvest. There have been times when I have failed to understand the kingdom and even allowed the birds of doubt, despair, apathy, and fear to swoop in and snatch the seeds of gospel possibility off my pilgrim path. Other times I have been the one whose faith is fickle, like seed falling on rocky ground or among thorns, unwilling to sink my roots deep into expressions of discipleship because it felt too risky, irresponsible, or may cost me my reputation, privilege, job, or financial security. Maybe you find yourself today as though you are merely feeding the birds, among rocky ground, or being choked by thorns of this world.

Hear the good news of the gospel this morning- Jesus continues to scatter the seeds for the harvest among you and your neighbors still. The invitation remains to be that fertile soil whereby a rooted discipleship can sprout, when the Word of God grows within you and flowers expressions of justice and love alongside neighbors near and far.

While Matthew’s gospel certainly speaks to Jesus’ personal invitation to individual discipleship, this parable is also a corporate, communal call. The parable of the sower is a charge to the gathered people of God, namely the church, to scatter as a subversive movement of frivolous love and generosity, a liberation front in the face of all that seeks to snatch, choke, and wither the world God so loves. The parable is a nudge to be the humus of heaven on earth able to reap a rooted discipleship in Jesus- the Mad Sower of God's love, justice, and grace.

As our Presbytery has leaned into our 300th Anniversary we have spent significant time reflecting on our beginnings, when God’s Spirit first scattered seeds in the hearts and minds of the faithful who came to this nation and founded what is the American Presbyterian Church. In each generation, the faithful were challenged to ask unconventional questions, leverage new incarnations of the gospel initially marked as madness, and pray for God’s Spirit to sprout unique expressions of God’s love and justice alongside the numerous congregations in the communities they were called to serve. In many ways, what began three hundred years ago was like the two inches of humus underneath the tree that created the necessary nutrients for the witness of the Presbytery to sustain growth and faithful witness over many generations and in light of the relevant issues of each passing age.

Whether in the midst of the civil rights movement or the AIDS epidemic, slavery or pervasive poverty, racism or immigration, suburban sprawl or the rise of the millennial generation, rapid change in technology and social media or increased violence, churches in this Presbytery for 300 years have been dared to ask, will we as individuals and communities of faith be fertile ground for new possibilities or will we allow the lure of power, privilege, and the institution choke our witness? Will we allow the joy we first found in being called to follow Jesus frame relevant and prophetic work in the world or will we bail the moment discipleship costs us something? Will we understand Christ’s call to rooted discipleship in the midst of our current socio-political context when many are looking for assurance that chaos is not the final victor and the concerns of the elite are not all that matter or will we allow the seeds of God's grace to be snatched up by the birds of doubt, despair, or worse- irrelevance?

Over the course of three hundred years, the faithful of this Presbytery have demonstrated that we indeed are fertile soil with the seeds of our witness rooted in God’s grace made known to us in Jesus Christ. Yes, we have much to confess and more than enough reasons to lament our being complicit throughout history. We also must acknowledge the fertility of our faith that has extended across generations. Churches have been planted by emancipated slaves ordained to ministry; congregations have been launched in immigrant communities and alongside people experiencing chronic homelessness; hospitals, schools, nutrition programs, and Christian camps have been birthed and mentoring ministries developed in at-risk communities; once vibrant churches have discerned a call to close and reshape their structure so to best engage their changing community with the gospel.  One church even opened up their fellowship hall and vacant Sunday school rooms to artists previously incarcerated and now looking to turn their lives around as they impact the next generation through the creation of elaborate murals that envelop the walls of public elementary schools. 

The Sower of Seeds has been at work scattering seeds of resurrection possibility in this presbytery and in many ways we have been fertile soil for rooted discipleship. I say all this not as an ad for our Presbytery, but because such fertility of the faithful sprouted this congregation in sixty years ago.  This is your storied history, too.

My prayer is that we would continue to allow the seeds of God’s word to take root in our individual and corporate discipleship so that God’s Spirit reaps a harvest among us thirty, sixty, and hundred fold. Along the way, I pray we also remember we are neither Sower nor seeds, rather the soil God’s Word is being rooted within as we live into the hope we call the Gospel.  I pray we view our neighbors near and far through the same lens, for God is scattering seeds of goodness and possibility within them, just as well.


I end by recalling the final line of Wendell Berry’s poem. Two simple words: Practice Resurrection. I had never thought about it before, but resurrection is even an agrarian image, new life out of what was once dead. We are only able to practice such resurrection because Jesus, the frivolous Sower of Seeds, has already been raised.  That’s madness. That’ gospel. That’s the root of our discipleship from one generation to the next. Let it sink deep within you as the humus of heaven on earth.  Amen.

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