Monday, September 21, 2015

Down on the Farm: Stuck in the Mud

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 13:1-9:

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 truck 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.  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 two other trucks with four-wheel-drive were able to pull me out.   I’m sure it’s an experience that many of you have had, whether it’s sand, or snow, or mud, 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.  Being stuck in the mud could be a metaphor for the human condition.

Today we begin a new sermon series looking at how we grow our faith, based on lessons that we can learn from life on the farm, an idea I stole from Rev. Adam Hamilton, and today we begin by looking at soil and mud.  I know that some of you grew up on farms, but I did not.  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 about farming, and may have learned just enough to make me dangerous.

Scripture is full of agricultural stories.  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 started.

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 who first heard them.  Even if they happened to live in one of the metropolitan areas you can be assured that they still had connections to the countryside 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.  We buy our fruits and vegetables from stores, we don’t grow them ourselves, and 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.  If you’ve tasted something that’s come right out of the garden you know there is a difference.

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 often our faith is like those store bought vegetables, they’ve been picked and presented before they were fully ripe, maybe they’ve been sitting there for a little while with little attention paid to them or 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 as many 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 minds, 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 expression 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 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 letting weeds grow up in their faith, perhaps by associating with people and doing things they know they shouldn’t be doing, or they are not tending to their spiritual lives, they are lying fallow, allowing weeds to grow up.  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).  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.

We like to think that we are the good soil, perhaps others are bad, but we’re are clearly good, that the word of God always takes root in us.  But, 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 of wrong soil represent being stuck in the mud, of just spinning our wheels, even when we might pretty it up, to make it look like we’re not actually stuck, or to pretend there is nothing wrong.  But the truth is when we’re stuck, when our wheels are spinning, we can’t get out of it just by ourselves.

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 Dr. Bob Smith, who popularized 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.  In fact, as Gerry Lightwine said several weeks ago, Dr. Bob thought the group should be called the James Group, based on the Book of James, and other scriptural influences.

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 do that, 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, to prepare our hearts and minds, our soil, to be receptive to the Word, the seed, in our lives.  But there is one thing I think that is missed in this story, and that is that the seed is not just sown on the good soil, but it is scattered everywhere, even where the likelihood of it taking root is not great, but God spreads the seed liberally to all the soil, even the hardest and least receptive, but I’m sure all of us have weeds or grass growing up through our concrete, where they are not supposed to be, and like God we are not to deny the word simply because we don’t think it will find any root.

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.  Jesus and the disciples have a mountaintop experience, but they have to come down.  Moses goes to the mountain to encounter God, but he has to come down.  I know Moses wanted to stay there because what happened every time he came down?   He found the Israelites doing what they weren’t supposed to be doing, or he ran into conflict and turmoil. We want to stay on the mountaintop, but the simple reality is 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 which 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 all we do is spin our wheels in the mud and only sink further in.  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 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.

John Wesley, the founder of  Methodism, 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 at the beginning of 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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