Monday, October 26, 2015

Sowing and Reaping

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was 2 Corinthians 9:6-15:

The last church we served in Massachusett several acre plots interspersed with still operating farms.  For my fellow sports fans, it was were Babe Ruth lived when he was with the Red Sox, and it is also where Shaquille O’Neill lived when he played for the Celtics.  But ever since Martha Stewart began touting the idea of owning your own chickens, lots of former city dwellers have tried to take on the role of gentlemen, or gentlewomen, chicken farmers.
One of those former Bostonians decided he needed to own some chickens for his property and so went to see one of the local farmers.  The farmer told the man he should start small with only a few chickens, but the man was insistent that he needed 100 chicks.  Knowing the mistakes that would be made but wanting to be neighborly in order to avoid future arguments, the farmer said, “You know, chicken farming isn’t easy, but to help you get started, I’ll give you 100 chicks."

The man was thrilled. Two weeks later the farmer dropped by to see how things were going, and the man said, "Not too well. All 100 chicks died." The farmer said, "Oh, I can’t believe that. I’ve never had any trouble with my chickens. I’ll give you 100 more." Another two weeks went by and the farmer stopped by again. The man said, "You’re not going to believe this, but the second 100 chickens died too." Astounded, the farmer asked, "What went wrong?"

The new farmer said, "Well, I’m not sure whether I’m planting them too deep or too close together."

My wife Linda asked me why I was telling so many jokes lately and there are really two reasons.  The first is because there are some really good farmer jokes, and the second is that regardless of whether you remember what else I say; at least you’ll have a good joke to be able to tell this week

Today we conclude our series looked at what lessons we can learn from life on the farm that will help us grow in our spiritual life.  I learned my lesson last week, and so I’m not going to ask you to tell me what the steps are, but the first step was about being stuck in the mud and so to get ourselves out we must accept, surrender and follow Christ.  The second step was to practice the spiritual disciplines every day, especially prayer and scripture readings, in order to keep weeds from growing up and choking out our faith.  The third step is to know that we can’t do it all ourselves, that we require the work of community to help prepare our spiritual crops and most especially to bring in the harvest.  The fourth step is to take the manure in our lives and compost it so that it can bring spiritual health and growth, and to do that we have to turn it over to God every seven days.  The fifth step is to know that in order to bring in the harvest today and for years to come that not only do we have to train the laborers who are working in the fields today, but we have to train and raise up the leaders who will take their place.  And the sixth and final step, also dealing with the harvest, is to know that if we are going to be bringing in the harvest that we are called for that we have sown generously to start.  If we want an abundant harvest, we have to have planted abundantly.

Paul is writing to the Corinthians here about the collection he is taking up among the communities that he has founded in order to take back to support the Christian community in Jerusalem, and what he has to say is enlightening.  Or at least I think it’s enlightening.  The first thing that he says is that there is not an obligation for people to give.  Now that is not to let people off the hook because Paul clearly believes that people should be giving.  But when there is an obligation to give, then there is not a choice.  It’s a requirement.  But we don’t have to give, we get to give.  Paul says we have to make up our own minds, not only about whether to give, but about what to give, so that we are not giving reluctantly or under compulsion.  And we are to do this because, Paul says, God loves a cheerful giver.  It’s really hard to be cheerful about something if you’re being forced to do it.  Every person who is married or been in a relationship where your significant other has forced you to do something knows this reality.  Some of you have heard me say this before, but the Greek word that is being translated as cheerful here, is helios, the same root word from which we get the word hilarious.  It’s a little hard to be hilarious, or to think something is hilarious, if you’re being forced to do it.

But then Paul reminds us why it should be so easy for us to be able to give, to sow liberally, and that is because God provides for us in abundance.  And why? So that we “may share abundantly in every good work.”  Because the seed that is provided is not provided by us, but by God, and the harvest that is provided is not done by us, but by God.  But it also requires our work.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, while he may have planted, and Apollos did the watering, who is that provided the increase, or made it all grow?  It’s God.  But it’s so easy to forget that especially in our culture which pushes and individual and self-effort, so that we think if we have become successful, if we have lots of stuff, if we are admired and respected, it’s because of our hard work, it’s because of what we have done, it’s because we deserve everything that we have earned.  We have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps and everything we have is because of our own work and struggle.

Now hard work is important, but when we think we’ve done it all ourselves we run into the same problem that the rich fool did in the passage we heard a few weeks ago, that it’s all about the self but God is the one who comes and says “what good has that gotten for you, because tonight you’re going to die.”  We never get where we are by ourselves, there are always lots of people who helped us along the way.  We don’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, because we can’t.  As someone who wears boots, if I try and pull myself up by my bootstraps, what’s going to happen?  If I pull hard enough I’m going to flip myself over onto my butt.  We all get pulled up by our own efforts, but also by the efforts and work of others, and most important we get pulled up by God.  Not because we deserve God’s favor because of the work we have done, but simply because God gives freely and generously.  And because we are made in the image of God we are called to give freely and generously as well, and when we do that amazing things begin to happen.

Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, analyzed the earning and giving patterns of more than 30,000 households, and what he found was that households that gave to charity were generally more affluent, all other things being equal.  This was not that those who make the most give the most, but that if two households were identical in education, race, number of kids, occupations, town, is everything was the same, “except that one family gives a hundred dollars more to charity than the second family, then the giving family will earn, on average, three hundred seventy five dollars more income than the non-giving family.”  Those who sow sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.

That does not mean that we give in order to receive, because that’s a good reason to give, even as nice as that tote bag from NPR might be.  If we are giving simply in order to receive, then it’s not really a gift, it’s more of an obligation, either to the person we are giving to, or to God.  Giving is not a quid-pro-quo situation, and yet if we do give, we do also receive, and I believe, and many of you have already heard this, because of how giving changes our relationship with the world and with those around us.  If we are holding on tight to everything, never giving anything out to the world, then we also cannot receive anything back from the world.  If our fist is clenched to hold on then we cannot grasp anything else.  But instead when we open our hand up to the world to give then we are also open up to receive, when we pour some of the water that is in our overflowing cup our to help water the world, then we have more room for new blessings to flow in.  We don’t give in order to receive, we give and as a result we receive.  When we sow generously then we reap generously.

Ralph and Cheryl Broetje are owners of the largest privately owned orchard in the United States.  Consisting of nearly 1 million trees spread across 5500 acres in western Washington, they annually pack 5.5 million boxes of fruit in a 1.1 million square foot packing and storage facility, and employ 700 full-time workers.  What is striking about this business is not only the size, but how they run their operation.  Broetje Orchards gives away roughly 75% of their profits, including 100% of their profits from their cherry orchards, every single year.  One of the reasons I like Ben and Jerry’s is because they give out a portion of their profits too, but they only give away 10%.  Ralph and Cheryl give away nearly 75% which finances outreaching projects not just in Washington, but around the world. but that’s not all.

When they saw that many of their employees where pulling their older children out of school in order to have them watch their younger siblings, they made a commitment to provide quality education, housing and training to all of their employees.  Today they have a housing development which rents 126 single-family homes at below market values to their employees.  They also subsidize their on-site preschool so that no one ever pays more than $7 a day, no matter how many children they have attending.  But that’s not all.

When they decided to add machinery to their packing facility they could have installed new highly efficient equipment which would have forced them to lay off some of their employees.  Instead, they added machinery which was not quite as efficient but did allow them to add 35 new employees. And if that was still not enough, and for me this speaks more about their faith than anything, in 2006 when 70% of the apple crop was wiped out by a hail storm their insurance company told them they would pay on the policy but only if no harvesting was done.  That meant they would have to lay-off several hundred of their year-round workers, and not hire any of the even more migrant workers who come to work their orchard each year.  Instead, Cheryl and Ralph said they decided to trust God, discarded the insurance money and went ahead and picked the fruit.  They were able to keep everyone employed and broke even that year.  Imagine what a very different place we might be in today if all our companies, especially those that claim to be Christian, were being run more like Broetje orchard.  Imagine if we lived our lives like the Broetje’s do.  Imagine if we gave like the Broetje’s give.  Imagine of we decided that we had enough and gave in abundance because God first gave to us in abundance.

We began this series by hearing the parable of the sower.  Jesus said that a farmer went out to scatter seed, and some seed fell on hard ground where it couldn’t penetrate, and so the birds came up and ate it up.  Other seed fall on rocky ground where the ground was shallow, and so the plants that grew up dried out under the heat of the sun.  Some seeds fell amongst the thorns, but the weeds grew up and choked out the plants, and some seeds fell in good soil, and it grew up and produced not just a good harvest, but a bountiful harvest of 100 to 1 in one case.  It was my contention, and it still is my contention, that we are all four types of soil at different times in our lives.  Sometimes we are ready and receptive to receive God’s word, and sometimes our hearts or minds are too hard to be able to allow it to grow, and it could all be happening at the same time, that some things we are receptive to hear but other things we’re not ready for.  But for me the other key to the parable of the sower is what the sower actually does with the seed.

As we look to life on the farm for how to grow in our faith, if we were to ask farmers if they routinely scatter seed in areas where they know it won’t grow, what are they going to tell us?  Of course they don’t.  While they may sow generously, they put the seeds only in the good soil where they know, or hope, it will grow and bring in the harvest they want.  They don’t scatter it everywhere, and yet God scatters the seeds everywhere.  God sows bountifully.  God sows in the good soil and the hard soil and the rocky soil and the thorny soil, even in our lives, because God knows that seeds don’t only just grow in good soils, they grow even where you might least expect it, and so rather than saying that some people will never be receptive and therefore will never receive the seed, God sees everyone as a beloved child, deserving to have the seeds planted in their lives.

God graces.  God blesses. God forgives.  And God sows.  That’s who God is.  And so the giving or not giving, the sowing or not sowing, on our part is really not about us, except as a representation of our willingness to respond to the sowing and scattering that has already happened in our lives.  God does not sow sparingly, God gives in abundance, and what Paul tells us is that God gives abundantly to us, regardless of what we think we actually have, so that we may share abundantly with the world.  Those who sow sparingly will reap sparingly.  And those who sow generously also will reap generously, not for ourselves, but for the harvest that God has called for us to produce.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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