Saturday, February 28, 2009

Let It Fly!

New Salem Lutheran Church, Turtle River, MN
March 1, 2009
Installation of Pastor Karol Hendricks McCracken
Mark 4:1-9

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Growing up on a farm, as I did, makes it both easier and harder to understand the Bible.

Growing up on a farm in southern Minnesota, as I did, makes it easier to understand the Bible….because the Bible comes to us largely out of an agrarian, rural culture.

The people of the Bible, by and large, were my kind of people—farmers, tillers of the soil. Rural folk have a leg up on urban folk in making sense of the scriptures….because rural folk know where the food comes from, they live closer to the land, they have an innate sense of how the natural world works. When a country boy like me hears this famous parable of the Sower, at least he knows something about what happens when seeds are planted in soil.

Growing up on a farm makes it easier….and it also makes it harder…to understand the Bible.

The “harder” part has to do with how much agriculture today has changed since “Bible times.”

For example, when my dad was farming between 1942 and 1975, we all knew that seed was precious and needed to be planted carefully.

Seed corn was and still is expensive. You dole it out sparingly, plant it cautiously, let none of it go to waste.

On our farm down near Mankato, one of the most complicated pieces of farm equipment was our corn planter. Right about now, every year, my dad started fussing with that machine, treating it almost like his fourth child. Integral to the operation of the corn planter were the round plates, situated at the bottom of the seed bins, that metered out the corn seed, in line with the speed of the tractor as it pulled the planter through the field, so that the corn plants would be spaced out just right….not clumped together too close, not scattered too far apart. Planting corn was a precision operation, designed to conserve the seed and sow it sparingly.

Take a look, though, at the Sower in Jesus’ story. He “spends” the seed like a drunken sailor….flinging it by the handfuls, in all directions. He lavishes the seed, wastes the seed, “broadcasts” the seed every which way.

You’d think, to read this parable, that there was an inexhaustible supply of seed!

Second, notice how and where the sower scatters the seed.

My dear father, back in the days before “minimum tillage,” prepared the seedbed with multiple passes of tillage equipment and administration of scientifically-measured fertilizers and herbicides. We planted the seed ONLY in the best possible seedbed. We avoided, wherever possible, the pathways, the rocky places, and the notorious weed patches.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we could “divert” those marginal acres with a cover crop to prevent soil erosion. The government paid us NOT to farm wherever the paths had run, wherever the ground was rocky or the thorns and thistles had taken over.
Not so, with this Sower in Mark, chapter 4. He is as indiscriminate as my farmer-father was discriminating, in deciding where exactly to plant the seed. This Sower in Jesus’ story—by my lights, at least—lets the seed fly in all the wrong places—flings recklessly the precious seed in areas where it doesn’t stand a chance of growing, or so it would seem.

What a reckless, wasteful, stupid way to plant seed!

And then there is one last thing that shocks a modern farmer in this parable. I’m talking about those fantastic, off-the-charts yields this Sower achieves. “Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold: (v. 9)

The farmers I have known are sober, realistic, scientifically-minded people. They deal in probabilities and hard realities, they work toward growth (of course!) but always within the bounds of what’s possible.

Growing up on the farm in the 150s, 60s and 70s….I remember seeing corn yields in southern Minnesota grow from 100 bushels an acre to over 200 bushels an acre, an impressive Green Revolution….but still not fantastic enough to strain sober reason.

Here in this parable, though, it’s as if the Sower is planting “magic seed,” achieving Jack-and-the-beanstalk yields that strain our credulity and make us wonder if it’s all smoke-and-mirrors. A hundredfold yield! Don’t be ridiculous!

And here, precisely here, of course, the Good News of the Gospel breaks through once again.

For the Gospel isn’t about probabilities and possibilities….the Gospel isn’t subject to hard realities and pure logic…..the Gospel of God’s extravagant love in Jesus Christ bursts through all of that, as it does here in the parable of the Sower.

Because, you see, the seed is the Word of God, and that changes everything. All bets are off!
The seed is the Word of God, and the Word, dear friends is inexhaustible. It’s meant to be flung, hither and yon, broadcast far and wide, unsparingly, “un-stingily”—just let it fly in all directions.

There’s a first Word for you, dear Pastor Karol, as you are installed today. God calls you to be lavish and wasteful with the Word. It’s none of your business to dole out the Word in measured, safe, bite-size, reasonable portions. Let it fly, broadcast it, spread it around rich and thick…and God will take it from there.

The seed is the Word of God, dear friends, and this Word wheedles its way into the most unlikely of places, finds a home in the most unworthy of persons. This world is full of persons who don’t, by rights, “deserve” the Word of God.

Come to think of it: none of us “deserves” the Word of God. We all, at various times and under certain circumstances are like the hard pathway, the stony soil, the prickly weed-patch. Look at any of us—honestly and directly—and it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say: “The Word will never have a chance with THAT person….”

But the Word finds a way. It’s not up to us to deny it to anyone—that’s way above our “pay grade!”

For you, Pastor Karol, there is another call here: never underestimate the capacity of the Word of God to make someone new in Jesus Christ. Some of your greatest ministry will happen with some of the least likely characters.

And then, one last thing: get ready to have your socks knocked off, with the results, the yield of all that indiscriminate, wild-eyed seed-flinging.

Stand back, and be ready to be amazed by what God will do with the Word. It’s like super-seed, it works its own kind of germination-magic, in our midst. The Word, truly does yield thirty-fold, sixty-fold, one-hundred-fold and even more…

I love stories about Martin Luther--who reformed the Catholic church in the 16th century and started the Lutheran movement within the church. One of my favorite Luther stories has to do with the Reformer’s utter confidence in the power of the Word to work in the world.
Luther once wrote: “See how much God has been able to accomplish through me, though I did no more than pray and preach. The Word did it all….while I sat still and drank beer with Philip and Amsdorf, God dealt the papacy a mighty blow.”[i]

If the Word of God is as powerful as Luther said it was, as mighty as Jesus proclaimed it to be in this parable, there is wondrous relief that should wash over us, especially us preachers of it: It doesn’t all depend on us. Hear that, Pastor Karol? You’re important—but you’re not indispensable. Neither am I. Nor are any of us, gathered here this morning.

God is at work through God’s Word, even when we’re blowing Z’s, taking our beauty-rest, or maybe (like Luther) quaffing our favorite beverage. We can be out of sorts, out of good ideas, or simply “out of it”—but the Word is still at work.

To be sure, we want to serve this Word as best we can. But most of all, we need to know when to let it fly and then get out of the way.

Our prayer, a prayer that will shape our life, goes like this: “Almighty God, grant to your Church your Holy Spirit and the wisdom which comes down from heaven, that your Word may not be bound but have free course and be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people, that in steadfast faith we may serve you and in the confession of your name may abide to the end; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”[ii]

[i] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Luther, p. 214.
[ii] Lutheran Book of Worship, p. 137.

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