The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 10
Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 65:1-14; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23
The Rev. Carissa Baldwin-McGinnis
Just as the farmer cultivates the earth, God cultivates our lives.
One Bible scholar wrote in relation to today’s psalm that, “God is the cosmic farmer.” Even with our theology of creation, I was taken aback by this idea. I have always thought of God more like stardust and light, darkness and expansion moreso than as the one with dirt permanently embedded under fingernails.
In 2008 a book of photos by Paul Mobley was published under the title, “American Farmer: The Heart of our Country.” The book presents faces that look somehow like the land they tend. Some clear. Some ruddy. Some young. Many weathered by years in the elements with contours and crevices galore.
I do not know our own congregation well enough to know what knowledge of farming we may have at St. Andrew’s. Generally I am guessing the longer we are in the city, the less we know about cultivating food. I married someone who grew up on a0 farm. I have read books about farming. I sometimes shop at farmers markets. In the late eighties I did a week of gleaning in zucchini fields in south Texas. I grow rosemary and scallions in pots in my back yard. Yet in actuality I know nothing about farming.
Of the farming stories I’ve heard, I love the ones that seem most like miracles. One is the story of Detroit having died to industry and came to life anew first through urban farming. My father told me about a recent podcast which told of a man who makes his life traveling America in search of diverse apple species. He knows them all and relishes in seeking native trees growing without the help of humans. Of all the apple species this expert knows and has tried, he found a specimen of the one he considers the most delicious growing out of simple crack in a sidewalk of an otherwise concrete, urban jungle. Stories like these make the idea of God as farmer particularly pleasing.
In his introduction to the photography book, “American Farmer”, Michael Martin Murphey says those outside of rural America will “be astounded to find that those who are close to the land have a startling sense of where they belong in the universe. They love their lives, accept the inherent struggles, and are surprisingly at peace considering that they confront so many daily challenges. Perhaps it is because they know what it is to grow things, have worked to understand and to accept the forces of Nature. It becomes a spiritual quest in the end.”
The theologian Noel Dermott O’Donoghue writes from his experience as a child in southwest Ireland where every turn of the agricultural year has had a corresponding prayer and ritual. He writes, “The seedsman is his own priest. The work is equally labor and liturgy.” In that he introduces us to the concept of farmer as priest and farm labor as liturgy. This Scottish farmer’s prayer is piece of that spiritual farming tradition.
I will go out to sow the seed,
In name of [God] who gave it growth;
I will place my front in the wind,
And throw a gracious handful on high.
Should a grain fall on a bare rock,
It shall have no soil in which to grow;
As much as falls into the earth,
The dew will make to be full.
Oh that the seeds of our lives would evade rock and weed. Oh that the seeds of our hearts would always find the soil with plenteous dew to moisten its first sprouting. We know all too well that our lives fall on hard times just as they fall on good times. Sometimes we and our distractions choke off what wants to live in us, and sometimes others choke off the life that wants to grow there. What we say and do to God and with God and also to ourselves and to one another matters. Our words and deeds are the ways in which we farm well or farm poorly our relationships and our legacies. One farmer was quoted as saying, “A farmer never has a perfect year, but he’s always striving for one.” So it is in our spiritual lives.
A common refrain by farmers is, “You either marry it or inherit it.” This is as if to say farming is not a job people would otherwise choose, because it is so hard. As children of God we are born into a life of farming. Just like the early disciples were not fishers of fish, we are not farmers of fields. We are farmers of the spiritual presence of God in every person, every place, everything; especially and including ourselves. When we are raising a child, caring for an elder, loving a lover, sweeping our stoop, watering our house plants, or giving food to our pets, we city slickers are farming and being farmed in a most basic spiritual sense.
In worship we praise, pray, ask and give thanks. That prayer life is farm life. Churches are communities of cultivators. Monasteries are small farms for the faithful. We may come to church to hear good children’s sermons or to be filled up with sacred music, but more deeply we come to sow and be sown.
John O’Donohue wrote a Blessing for farmers.
Before the human mind could warm to itself,
The hands of the farmer had first to work,
Creating clearances in the earth’s thicket:
Cut into the thorn-screens of wild briar,
Uproot the clusters of scrub-bush,
Dig out loose rock until a field emerged
Whose clay could be loosened and softened
To take seed and bring forth crops.
Let us bless God and praise God’s name forever. AMEN