St. Mark's Episcopal Church

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Pentecost 4 2011 Sermon
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Sarah Monroe

Jesus liked to tell stories. He didn’t sit around teaching complicated doctrine and using big words. He just liked to tell a good story. I can see Jesus, sitting on a boat just off the beach and looking over farms in a distance. Maybe it was about the time it is now, not long after planting, when the wheat and corn are sprouting out of the soil. It was a beautiful day and the horizon was full of life and new fields.

But Jesus was also looking over something else. There were crowds of people, people who lived under Roman rule, who were oppressed, people who were hungry, people who were struggling with their lives. There were struggling communities trying to survive in a hard world. “The field I am talking about is the world,” Jesus told his disciples later. Over and over, the gospels tell us that Jesus looked at the crowds that followed him with compassion. He knew something of their pain and their desire for joy and life.

And, instead of giving some complicated lecture, he starts telling a story about a farmer who decides to plant his crops. The farmer eagerly watches his plants grow. He (or she) notices that some little seedlings die because the ground is too hard and that the birds eat others. Then he notices that there are too many weeds in some patches. The farmer is a bit anxious, but so relieved when she realizes that many of the plants are growing in good soil and they are thriving. Harvest is coming and it will be abundant! The family and the village will be fed.
It’s a lot of work to get a field ready. Most of us have grown a garden and know something about this. Some of us might have even grown crops on a farm. Think about all the time you put into preparing the soil, fertilizing, watering, and weeding. In Jesus’ time, most people he was talking to grew their own food staples and every year, they would plant some kind of wheat or barley or corn. All of them knew how bad it was to have soil that was full of rocks. And everyone hated those ends of the field, where all the wild plants and thistles would grow into the nicely plowed field. Like blackberry vines that just come up in the garden, out of nowhere all the time.

Of course, the disciples could not figure out what all this had to do with God’s kingdom. This morning, in our reading, we skipped the part between the two passages where the disciples come up the Jesus after he has told his story and ask him what in the world he is talking about. Fields, grain, farmers, weeds? What does this have to do with the kingdom of God? Jesus said that he was looking out over the fields of the world, fields that were capable of yielding so much good and he also saw war, hunger, famine and cruelty. He saw people so involved with getting stuff that they forgot about love and compassion. He saw weeds and rocks. And it was easy to despair. But Jesus gave hope. He insisted that harvest would come, that the kingdom of God would come, and that the harvest would be abundant. 

All this talk of harvest reminds me of another story about hope.  Native American storytellers tell a very old story about how agriculture started on the American continent.  They call it the story of the Corn Mother. At the beginning of the world, when everything was young, a woman came to life and she married one of the first men. She said; "I am love. I am a strength giver, I am the nourisher, I am the provider of all." They had children and they flourished. They lived on the animals that they hunted and everyone was very happy. But, as time went on, the animals they hunted started to die out because too many were being killed. The First Mother was now very old and her grandchildren came to her crying because they were hungry. She wept and wept until she decided what to do. She decided that she would die to give food to her people. She left careful instructions for how they were to bury her body and how they were to preserve and plant the corn that grew from it. And, a few months later, on the place where her bones were buried, corn sprang up and fed the hungry tribe. The tribe followed her instructions and, every year, the Corn Mother was reborn and gave life to her people. The people said of her; “She has given her life so that you might live. Yet she is not dead, she lives: in undying love she renews herself again and again.”  

Out of this hard and difficult time for the tribe, new life came up and everyone received an abundance. Even when it seemed like death and suffering had triumphed, new life was just around the corner. Jesus talks about this in another passage when he says; “Unless a corn of wheat fall into the ground and died, it remains alone; but if it dies, it gives much fruit.”

I think Jesus loved talking about planting and harvesting so much because it is a perfect symbol for what happens in our lives and in the lives of our communities. Difficult times come. Weeds grow and make our lives harder. We mourn losses and we run into all kinds of unforeseen problems. Sometimes it feels like trouble will never end. The sun gets too hot and the weeds too many. It can seem like the world will never change. We look at broken communities, growing homelessness, job loss. The news reminded us again this week that unemployment in our country is at an all time high and that more and more people are struggling to make it. We are beginning to feel like that hungry tribe in the story and so are our neighbors. People fight over what jobs seem to be left. A few people get wealthy while they take advantage of others. “The deceitfulness of riches” that Jesus was talking about is still with us. We all look at our world and we know that it is not right. 

In the middle of all that, I can see Jesus smiling, thinking about all the amazing harvests that he probably took part in. Harvest is a great time, which is why we still celebrate holidays like Thanksgiving. Every year, the earth gives us life sustaining food, coming alive just like the Corn Mother in the story. It takes a lot of work to get it there and then even more work to harvest. Remember those bowls of green beans, peas, and zucchini from the garden? How about the corn and pumpkins?

Jesus gives us a story of hope, even in difficult times.  He assures us that the kingdom of God will come and it will bring abundance, despite all the difficulty and pain we have experienced. That is what the kingdom of God is all about. Abundance. Joy. Life. Jesus is obsessed with giving life.

It is a long hard road to harvest. It is a lot of work to prepare for. We are co-farmers with Jesus in this. We are called to help bring this harvest in. We are called to help bring the kingdom of God among us. We are called to change the world. We are called to live with so much love and so much compassion and so much hope that those around us realize that there is a different way to live. Jesus was willing to die to do this and so was the Corn Mother in the old story. We are called to live in that love.

And, as we work to do that, we need to tap into our own spiritual life. That is what will give us strength and resources to change the corner of the world that we are called to change. We, like the Corn Mother, need to be renewed again and again.

Where does our spiritual life come from? In our second reading, Paul tells us that “the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit that dwells in you.” It is this Spirit, this source of life, that gives us life and love as we walk our spiritual paths. We can have life and joy and abundance. And we can share it with the world. But we ourselves have to go after the things that are life-giving, things that renew us and make us feel alive. Some people call this a spiritual practice.

What gives you life? Is it your family? Is it taking walks on those few sunny days we have? Is it singing or visiting with friends or gardening? All of these things can be a spiritual practice. They are things that allow the Spirit to work in our lives and give us life and joy and abundance and peace.

One of things I have loved about working in a hospital this summer is talking to all sorts of different people about their spiritual lives. And I have found that, whether or not a person goes to church, people who are spiritually healthy and have something to give the world also have something they do to connect with abundant life. It may be something you would not even think of as spiritual. One guy found it walking in the hills with his dogs. That was what gave him life.

I have found amazing life giving spiritual practices where I least expect them. Talking to people at a burger stand window. Hiking around Lake Sylvia. Silent prayers in the hospital chapel. I have found renewal in all of those places. But I have to be looking. I have to stop and take the time. I could spend all my time thinking about all the things that are wrong in the world or wrong in my own life, but I can t change any of it until I stop and find healing myself. That is what a spiritual practice is.

Finding what gives us life doesn’t have to be long prayers or hours of reading. It might be watching the sunrise every morning (or if you are a night person like me, watching the sunset). It might be spending a few moments meditating in your garden. It might just be gardening itself. Maybe coming to church. There are many ways to connect with the Spirit and find the source of life and abundance in our lives. If you think about it, many of us probably already have a spiritual practice that we just haven’t recognized. Never forget, this has the power to change the world. Because, when we go into a suffering world, a suffering community, and we go into it with hope and a sense of life and abundance, we show that there is a better way to live.

The poet Wendell Berry found this sense of hope in the outdoors and he writes about it like this;
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the middle of the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

It is that resting, that renewal that helps us find a harvest of love and peace and abundance that Jesus said he came to bring. And then we can share it with our communities and with the world. Amen. 




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