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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Seed After Seed Word After Word - 07/16/2017

In January 2012 I took a 2-week class that mostly consisted of a trip to the southeast corner of Nebraska. The class was an immersion into rural ministry in that particular part of the country. I had never been in that area before and I am almost always up for visiting someplace new, so I enrolled. We were hosted by many people as we traveled around that little corner of the state, people who mostly made a way of life from the land.

Before I went to Nebraska, I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what rural America was like. But this was a very different kind of rural than I knew. There were hardly any trees, for one thing. And there was nothing like the Great Lakes around, so I had trouble figuring out what was north, south, east and west.

It was much more of a traditional culture in many ways too, something I found out quite accidentally when after worship on the first Sunday of our trip, I sat down for fellowship at the table that, unbeknownst to me, was designated for the grandpa-aged farmer men of the congregation. Their discomfort was immediately apparent. They looked at me like I had lost my mind.

When I realized what I had done, I didn't get up. Instead, I quickly recognized these men needed something to do with their nervous energy. So I took a sip of my coffee, commented on the delicious lemon bar I had on my plate, and started asking them questions about their lives as farmers, and how God and the church entered into those lives. Once they started telling their stories, the tension dissipated and I had a nice fellowship time with them. I hope they remember it fondly too and I hope I didn't shake them up too much – maybe just a little.

It was during that conversation that I began to understand that this wasn't just a different kind of rural then I was used to … it was also very different kind of farming then I'd heard about before. They called something like “poor dirt” or “poor soil” farming. It means the soil they used to grow their corn, wheat and bean crops has a lot of issues. It can often be too dry. But sometimes it can be too wet. The year we were there, the area was still recovering from record high flooding on the Missouri River the year before. In fact, while we were there, they finally found the remains of the last person missing after that disaster. It was a police officer who tried to help others escape the rising waters and lost his own life in the flood waters and dangerous quicksand-like mud they created.

Poor soil farming also means you are working with bad pH levels and soil that doesn't have enough organic matter in it, so it requires a lot of expensive inputs to get it to the point where it will sustain a crop.

The expense doesn't stop there. To maximize yields, the farmers like to sow their seed as precisely as possible, so they have tractors and farm equipment with these complicated on-board GPS computers that allow them to maximize every-single-inch of their fields. In their kitchens, these families often have weather monitoring equipment that Karl Bohnak would envy.

There are no fresh water bodies that you can see, as I mentioned, but they live above the massive Ogallala (oga-la-la) aquifer, which stretches from South Dakota to Texas and touches eight states. The farmers have to drill wells into that water source to irrigate their fields. They are entirely dependent on that aquifer.

Add to this all the politics and division that comes with GMO seed, buffer zones, pipelines people want to run right though those fields and that aquifer, and the normal stresses of life and family and community, and you can see that this is not the easiest way of life. Maybe it's because of all this, that these people have also been some of the most God-centered, church-faithful people I've every met.

I left Nebraska amazed, incredibly inspired and a little baffled that someone would choose to farm there – that a family would keep at it for generations – putting seed after seed in that “poor dirt” of southeast Nebraska.

Likewise, I think we might have a similar reaction to this Gospel text we consider today – the parable of the sower. Why would God sow the seed of the Word in the way this parable describes it? I mean think about it, a full three-quarters of the seed that God plants in this story does not make it to harvest – does not bear fruit. And I think we can all agree that since this is God we're talking about here, it is just as possible that God could only plant all this seed in the good soil – where it will yield for some “a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matt 13.8 and 23)

So why would God choose to plant seed after seed, Word after Word, in the generally “poor soil” of humanity?

Well, first I'd like to point out that on one level, the gospel writer is using this as a literary technique to point us toward others we meet in Matthew's story of Jesus.

It doesn't take too much looking ahead in the gospel to find people and characters that represent the soil conditions the parable uses as illustration.

First we have the seed that just falls on the path and is eaten by the birds, people who hear the word, but cannot understand it. It is like the people of Jesus' hometown of Nazareth, who by the end of this chapter will hear Jesus in the synagogue and not understand. “Is this not the carpenter's son?” (13.55) they muttered among themselves when Jesus began to teach them. “And they took offense at him.” (13.57) Jesus did not do many deeds there – the harvest of the Word wasn't very good – because of their disbelief.

Then we have the seed that falls on shallow soil and takes root quickly, people who are overly zealous when they hear the word, but who know it only topically as though it were a fashion trend or something. And so when life inevitably gets tough, they turn back to other gods, like overindulgence, drugs and other things that numb our pain and fear. We might think of this kind of soil when we hear the story of Peter getting so excited at seeing Jesus walk on the water that he asks if Jesus would command him to do the same. “Come,” Jesus says. So Peter did walk on water, “But when he noticed the strong wind he became frightened” (14.29,30) and began to sink. Fear drowned that harvest.

When we hear about seed planted among thorns, people who hear the Word but cannot bear to give most of what God has given them back to the world, we might think of the Rich Young Man who asks Jesus, “ Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (19.16) The man hadn't murdered or stolen or slandered anyone, so he thought he was sitting pretty good on this eternal life thing. But Jesus added more: “'If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.' When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (19:21-22) The things the young man thought he owned, really owned him and they choked the harvest like knapweed taking over a field of wild blueberry.

And finally, we get to the relatively few seeds planted in good soil, those who hear the Word and provide a good place for it to grow, tending it carefully in their relations with God and neighbor, letting the Word produce a harvest through them for the benefit of creation. One example of this we'll hear about later this fall is the story of the vineyard owner who took a lot of guff for paying all his laborers the same generous wage whether they had worked all day or only an hour. The Word grew many fold and passed out God's grace in radical ways in that story.

So that's one quick look at how this parable serves this gospel as a whole – but we still have this question to consider: Why would God choose to plant seed after seed, Word after Word in the generally poor soil of humanity?

The answer, I think, is first … because God can and God wants to.

And also – because, although we cannot know everything about why and how God works that seed, we can see here, once again, how this God of ours is a God of endless second chances.

God will continue to plant the Word everywhere and it will continue to seem like an exercise of dropping good seed on poor dirt most of the time.

But consider what that says about God's love for us – for everything.

No matter how far somebody wanders from God, no matter how deaf they may be to the Word of God, no matter what may be enslaving them and keeping them from that Word … God will continue trying to break into that person's life.

And think about it in terms of how we come to the Table for communion over and over again – each time it's like God is planting that greatest expression of God's Word in us – our redemption in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a seed we take into ourselves in the form of bread and wine. Some weeks that Word of salvation is received in very good soil – other weeks it's not so good. And yet, here we are, regardless of how well irrigated we are, what our pH levels are or how much life matter we have inside us … here we are, forever invited to the feast of this Word.

This revelation about God's sowing ability certainly brings Isaiah's words to new life, new harvest … “ shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (55:11)

And so to end today, I'd like to share with you a prayer I wrote when I returned from Nebraska. It was written with those farmers of poor soil in mind, but I think it fits our situation too – our quest to be good soil for the seed of God's Word so that it goes forth from our mouths and in our actions as plentiful harvests … “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

Let us pray.

Transforming Creator God:
You provide all that is needed to sustain your beloved people with the land –
the stewards' hands and evolving wisdom,
the microbes and the earthworms that bring fertility to the soil.
the rains and the wind and the sun that bring the crops and herds to life
and take them back in death.
the life giving streams and rivers and aquifers.
the birds and butterflies, the mountain lions and coyotes,
the field mice and snakes.

Sometimes we doubt your promise to provide what we need from this land.
Sometimes we may even believe we can improve upon your perfection.
Sometimes we lose ourselves in sins of anxiety when the world,
its needs and opinions feel like they are closing in all around us,
like impenetrable hedgerows of Osage orange.

Thank you for entrusting us to work this land, like your Word to draw life from it, to learn from it, to love it, and finally, to rest in it. Thank you for giving us your son Jesus Christ in this land to lead us to our eternal lives.

Walk with us, Transforming Creator God, as we gratefully serve as your stewards and co-creators. Continue to sustain us with your love, your Word, and this creation.

In the name of your most holy son, our Lord, Jesus Christ,

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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