Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Down on the Farm: Stuck in the Mud

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 13:1-9.  This series was based on a series created by Rev. Adam Hamilton.

Once upon I time I worked for a non-profit group that built low income housing using environmentally sustainable building materials.  As one of our projects, we built a demonstration house out of straw bales on the Navajo reservation for an 86 year-old woman.  In order to help prepare for that, I borrowed my dad’s pick-up and picked up a 15 foot trailer in Gallup, along with a full load of straw bales and headed out to the building site.  I pulled the truck up to where we thought would be the easiest place to unload the bales and once I stopped, the truck and trailer promptly sank into the sand with the weight of the straw.  After we got the bales unloaded we then tried to get the truck out, and try as we might it didn’t want to go.  The tires just spun and we got more stuck. Eventually we were able to get the truck and the trailer out of the sand with the help of two other trucks with four-wheel-drive who were able to pull me out.   I’m sure it’s an experience that many of you have had, whether it’s sand, or more likely mud, or something else, where no matter what you do you can’t get out and you spin and spin your wheels and wait for something or someone else to help pull you out.  Being stuck in the mud could be a metaphor for the human condition.

Today we begin a new sermon series looking at lessons that we can learn from life on the farm and I am indebted to Adam Hamilton for the idea.  This should be an interesting experience as I, a city slicker, try and talk with you about what we can learn from an agricultural life.  Although the house I grew up in was surrounded by agriculture, there was a cotton field a half block from the house, and orange groves less than a mile away, our agriculture was limited to a small garden in the side yard, and all that I can really remember about that, besides having to pull weeds, is the big green caterpillars that loved to attack the tomato plants, and the only thing I grow now is hair, and I obviously can’t even do a very good job at that anymore.  So I’ve spent a lot of time recently trolling the extension programs of different universities around the country trying to learn a thing or two, and have talked with some of you about what it is that you do, and I may have learned just enough to make me dangerous.

Today we start by looking at soil, and mud.  Now I thought that the way we were going this year that I might have to explain to everyone what mud was, what it looked like and how it was made, but I thank God that we go enough rain this week that mud can actually be a reality in our lives.  What I hope to do as we work our way through this series is to discuss some of the keys to living a Christian life that can be found not only through life on the farm, but through the agricultural stories we find in scripture, and we find them throughout scripture.  In the second chapter of Genesis, which is the second telling of the creation story, which is very different than the first story found in genesis 1, but we are told that “the Lord God planted a garden in Eden in the east.”  God planted a garden.  God is a gardener.  Later in the book of Isaiah we are told that God had a fertile hill and he dug it and cleared it of stones and then planted the best vines in it and built a watchtower.  Metaphorically we are supposed to know that the vines in this story are Israel and the watchtower is the Temple, but once again God is portrayed as a gardener.  This story from Isaiah is reworked into what is known as the parable of the wicked tenants which we find Jesus telling in Matthew, Mark and Luke, in, just like in Isaiah, God plants a vineyard and does everything necessary to get the vineyard.

But it’s not just these stories, the New Testament and in particular, Jesus’ parables use lots of agricultural metaphors, because they would have readily been understood by the audience he was talking to.  Even if they happened to live in one of the metropolitan areas you can be assured that they still had connections to the country and the growing of food.  Even within this country, it wasn’t very long that most people still had a connection to a farm, but that’s certainly not the case anymore.  Few people are connected to soil, or even know people who are connected to the soil, I know that’s not the case here, but it’s true in most places, even if we went into Clovis.

We buy our fruits and vegetables from stores, we don’t grow them ourselves, and if you’ve tasted something that’s come right out of the garden you know there is a difference.  Tomatoes, green beans, or corn all taste different when they are picked at the height of freshness.  Most of what we buy in the store was picked before it was fully ripe in order to travel hundreds, or more than likely thousands of miles, to get to the grocery store shelves.  It looks good, but it’s not as good as it could be.  Now I am not telling you that you need to go out and grow your own food, although you’ll be better off if you do, nor is this an invitation to flood me with all the vegetables you’ve grown in your own gardens.  There are lots of reasons why people don’t have their own gardens, and the biggest reason is that it takes a lot of work.  Just the amount of time you put into makes it more cost effective to buy it from the store.  But boy does fresh grown corn taste so much better.

Often our faith is like those store bought vegetables, they’ve been picked before they were fully ripe, they’ve been waxed up to make them look better than they really are, to put on a good face to the world, and the work has been done predominantly by someone else.  It’s just not as authentic, it’s just not as good as those vegetables that are grown and picked and eaten fresh from the vine, it’s just not as good when it’s not our work that’s gone into making it and tending it and caring for it and reaping the harvest.

A sower went out to sow, or most translations say, a farmer went out to sow, and first he scattered seed on the path, but because it was so well trodden, the earth was so hard, the seed couldn’t penetrate the soil, and the birds ate the seeds.  Next the seeds fell on rocky ground, where the ground was shallow, or maybe it was full a caliche and so the roots couldn’t break through, and they couldn’t get enough nutrients because the calcium carbonate causes the soil to become basic, see I told you I had just enough knowledge to be dangerous, and so when the sun rises they become scorched and wither away because the roots have no depth.  Third the seeds are spread amongst the thorns, but the thorns grow up and choke them, and they die, and finally seeds fall on good soil, where they prosper and flourish bringing about a large harvest.

The soil that is being spoken of here is, of course, our hearts or maybe or souls, and the seed is the word of God.  Sometimes we have a hard exterior which we have put up, often, as protection because we have been hurt in the past and so we create an exterior of steel so that nothing can get in to touch our hearts, including the word of God.  Let anyone with ears listen.  Others have built up that hard shell, but rather than being on the outside for everyone to see, this time it’s on the inside.  Our outward experience might show that nothing is wrong, that we go about our business, but inside we are hard, and so even if the word of God gets into us, it doesn’t penetrate our heart, and then when we are challenged, when something happens, are faith withers up and dies because we have not been penetrated by God’s love, we don’t know into our deepest being that God loves us and that we are sons and daughters of God.  Let anyone with ears listen.  Others are associating with people and doing things they know they shouldn’t be doing, and they drift away, as they so if you lie down with dogs you’re liable to get flees.  There are lots of things which drag us away from God, which allow the weeds to choke out our faith, even Paul said “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Rom 7:19)  But then Paul asks, who will rescue me?  It is God through Jesus Christ.  Let anyone with ears listen.  Then finally there is the soil which is properly tilled, properly prepared which has the right PH balance, all the right nutrients and is completely ready to receive the word.  Let anyone with ears listen.

The simple fact is, we are all of these soil types at different times in our lives, and maybe at different times during the week.  Each one of these types represent being stuck in the mud, and there is only one thing that can pull us out, and that is surrendering, accepting and following Jesus Christ.  If you are familiar with the 12-steps program, the first step is to “admit that we are powerless and that our lives have become unmanageable,” we are stuck in the mud.  The second step is to believe in a power greater than ourselves, who can pull us out of the mud, and the third step is to make the decision to turn our lives over to the care of God.  Bill Wilson and Bob Smith, who created the 12-steps, did not just create them out of thin air, these have been the steps of becoming a disciple of Christ since Jesus called the first disciples on the shore of the sea of Galilee.  The beginning step of being a disciple of Christ, the first thing that we must do is to surrender, accept and learn to follow Christ, to understand that we can’t do it ourselves.  To recognize that we live in mud, that we all fall short of the glory of God, and that to be pulled out, that only something which is greater and more powerful than us can pull us out, and that is Jesus Christ, and the way to have that happen is to surrender, accept and to follow Jesus Christ, to turn our lives over to him.

A husband and wife were driving down a country lane on their way to visit some friends, when they came to a muddy patch in the road and got bogged down.  After a few minutes of trying to get their car out by themselves, they saw a young farmer coming down the lane driving some oxen.  The farmer stopped when he saw the couple and offered to pull the car out of the mud for $50.  The couple accepted and the car was freed in a few minutes.  The man said to the farmer, “I’m so glad you can along to help us, I don’t know what we would have done with you.”  And the farmer said, “well I kind of keep an eye out, you’re the tenth car I’ve helped get out of the mud today.”  The man looked at the farmer and said, “If you’re helping so many people, when do you have time to plough your fields?  Do you do it at night?” and the farmer said, “No. Night is when I put more water in the hole.”

Have you ever had a time in which you could clearly feel God’s presence, maybe even heard God speak to you, or sometime when you could say “that was a God moment?”  That’s a mountain top moment, and they are remarkable, but here is the problem with mountaintop experiences, they never go on forever even if we want them to.  When some of the disciples go up on the mountain with Jesus, and he is transfigured with the glory of God, and they see him talking with Moses and Elijah, Peter wants to stay and build three structures, to sort of immortalize the event, because he doesn’t get it.  We can’t stay on the mountain top forever.  Even Moses had to come down off the mountain, and what happened when he did?  Every single time he found the Israelites doing what they weren’t supposed to be doing, or he ran into conflict and turmoil.  I’m sure that Moses would have preferred to remain on the mountaintop, just as we probably would as well, but the simple reality is we don’t live on the mountaintops we live in the valleys, we live in the in betweens, we live in the mud and the muck of everyday ordinary life, and we really have two choices.

We can remain in the mud, wallowing in it, trying to get others as stuck as we are, and there are always people who want to pull you into the mud, or throw mud at you, to get you just as dirty as they are, we all know people like that, so we can choose to remain in the mud, or we can seek to be pulled out.  But if you are stuck in the mud, what is the only thing that can get you out?  It’s someone bigger and more powerful than you, someone who is not already stuck in the mud themselves, just like with my experience on the Navajo reservation when I was stuck, it required two other trucks to pull me out, I couldn’t do it myself.  To get out of the mud of life it requires someone bigger and stronger than we are, it requires someone who has experienced the mud, but who did not get stuck, did not get mired down, but who passed through to the other side in order to be able to pull others out, it requires following Jesus Christ, but in order to do that we must also take on the first step of discipleship and that is to surrender, accept and follow.  If we don’t do those things we’ll never really get out, because if we struggle and fight, which we are all prone to do, then the trip won’t be easy or sometimes might not even be possible.

What we also have to know, and this trips people up all the time, is that just turning our lives over to God, choosing to surrender, accept and follow Christ will not immediately solve all of our problems.  We are not instantaneously lifted out of the mud.  If we have walked 10 miles through the mud in the wrong direction, to be pulled out there is still going to be some mud going in the opposite way back onto the path that God has set for us.  But, when we surrender, accept and follow, then we know that we are in safe hands and that everything will work out right in the end.

Some of you have already heard this story, but I received my call to the  ministry in 1995, but I dismissed it for a long time.  It wasn’t until 1998 that I went to a United Methodist church and began to have a conversation about what it would take and what it would mean to enter the ministry and I began my process.  But even though I had taken that step, I wasn’t still fully committed, I was still trying to do things on my own terms and in my own time.  As I was doing this I had a job I loved, but a boss I couldn’t stand, and one Monday morning as I was driving into work I began praying, which was not my usual practice, because I knew that my boss and I were going to argue when I got in, because that’s all we ever did, and so I prayed to God and said that if I was supposed to be doing something differently, if I was supposed to be going in a different direction, then God was going to have to show me what to do because I had no idea what I was doing anymore.  In other words I surrendered, accepted and choose to follow Christ.

Just as I expected, my boss and I got into an argument and I ended up walking out the door.  It is the only job I’ve walked out on.  But as it turned out, I ended up with a job interview that afternoon with the company that had just been awarded the contract for the revitalization of downtown Albuquerque, which required me to move to Albuquerque, which would allow me to complete my college degree at UNM, my brother moved back to Albuquerque all the way from North Carolina, so we could move into together, and shortly thereafter I met Linda.  So within six months of that prayer, I had a new job, was living in a new city and was dating the person who would become my wife.  Where all of my problems solved?  Of course not, and some of them got worse after that point, but by them getting worse I was forced me to seek help, which them helped me eliminate them, that is I was stuck in the mud, but in order to get out of the mud I had to keep wading through the mud for a while before I was freed.  I’ve been stuck in the mud other times since then, but I know that when I choose to surrender, accept and to follow Jesus Christ that things will get better and I will move into God’s will for my life.  Let anyone with ears listen.

Long before I understood this reality, John Wesley understood this reality, and he composed a covenantal prayer that members of the Methodist movement would say at least once each year.  Typically it was done at the new year, and we did it on New Year’s day this year, but I also think it’s appropriate to say together today as we take our lessons from what we can learn down on the farm about the Christian life, and the first is that the only thing which can get us out of the mud is something bigger and more powerful than we are, and that is Jesus Christ, and that begins when we surrender, accept and learn to follow, so let us pledge this together in Wesley’s covenantal prayer

I am no longer my own, but thine.  Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.  Put me to doing, put me to suffering.  Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee.  Let me be full, let me be empty.  Let me have all things, let me have nothing.  I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.  And now O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, thou art mine and I am thine.  So be it.  And the covenant which I have made on earth let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

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