Friday, July 15, 2011

A Mess of a Church

Summer Campus Ministry Conference
Bemidji State University—Bemidji, MM
July 14, 2011
Matthew 13:24-30
In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

It’s midsummer, and the crops and gardens are all growing.  Seedtime is weeks past—but you wouldn’t know it to encounter the parables that come at us in the lectionary these hot weeks of mid-July.

Here in God’s Word, seeds are still being sown—and in a manner that drives 21st century farmers in the Upper Midwest stark raving mad.

First, there are entirely too many seeds being flung around willy-nilly, “broadcast” hither and yon, a real hit-and-miss operation if ever there was one.

My father who farmed for over 30 years in southern Minnesota was a stickler for not wasting any seed.   He adjusted and readjusted the old John Deere planter to deliver each kernel into the soil, not too close, but not too far away either,from the next kernel, each precious treasure deposited at just the right depth.  It was both an art and a science, to trust the seed so painstakingly, so stingily to the well-tilled soil.

But not so in Matthew chapter 13.   Whole handfuls of seed are flung with wild abandon all across the un-cultivated landscape, as we heard in last Sunday’s parable, repeated now in this one. Don’t spare the horses—don’t skimp on the seed!

But the farmer in this parable isn’t the only prodigal sower.  By night his nemesis slinks through the same field, just as lavishly sprinkling weed-seed, to germinate alongside and hopefully over-power the good seed.

The Word of God, like the night-time cold cream my mama used, the Word is meant to be applied liberally.   Slather it on, overdo it whenever you get the chance, don’t hold back.   The Word is not some pinched, parsimonious spice to be sprinkled here and there—just a pinch, just a dash.    Let it fly!  Fling it as far and as fast as you can…

….because Lord knows, there are other sowers eagerly spreading other “words,” with no compunction, no reluctance to “let ‘er rip.”

David Lose of Luther Seminary observes:  “In recent years, the presence and influence of the Christian story in contemporary culture has shrunk considerably. The proliferation of different and competing stories about reality—some of which are religious, while many more are about material wealth, nationalism, or ethnicity—has occupied more and more of our attention.

We may see these stories proclaimed on the front covers of magazines or more subtly hidden in the logo of a powerhouse brand, but they are all around us, each inviting us to subscribe to a particular understanding and worldview about what is good, beautiful, and true. Taken as a whole, the proliferation of all these different worldviews has crowded out the biblical story as the narrative by which to make sense of all others and rendered it just one among a multitude of stories.”  ("Stewardship in the Age of Digital Pluralism, p. 112 in Rethinking Stewardship--Word and World Supplement Series 6, October 2010.)

Campus ministry offers the church a strategic foothold in the world of American higher education, sowing the Word where it desperately needs to grow.   And, now more than ever, we need to remind the whole church that if we’re not in this game—flinging the seed of God’s word on campuses all across this land, we will be missing “big time” a golden opportunity to be out there, meeting young adults where they are already choosing to be, contributing to the marketplace of ideas, trusting the seed of the Word to find places to grow on territory we dare not abandon.

Moreover, campus ministry cultivates a generosity of spirit and a yen for adventure, even a little craziness about how far and how fast we are ready, willing and able to “broadcast” the good seed, wherever and whenever it might germinate.

The second thing about this parable, is the way it portrays the farmer’s willingness to tolerate all sorts of messiness in his field.  

My farmer-dad knew that, as Garrison Keillor puts it:  farming is a spectator sport.   So every summer, when our work-day was ended, our family climbed in the old galopy to go inspecting the fields—ours and our neighbors’ fields as well.

My farmer-father loved rows that were straight and hound’s-tooth clean of weeds.  He was a lot like the farmhands in this parable.  When they realize their enemy has sowed weed-seed on their turf, they’re eager to do a little separating of the wheat from the weed, while it is still growing…

…..but the farmer in Jesus’ parable will have none of that.   “Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”   This farmer is less interested in “appearances,” less enamored with “purity” than most of his peers.

Now more than ever it seems clear that there are two dominant ways of being Lutheran in North America.   There is the way of “enclave Lutheranism”—marked by tightknit circles of the likeminded—straight as an arrow, neat as a pin, all the rough edges rounded off, pure doctrine producing a putative pure community.

And then there is the messy alternative, the expansive, experimental, ecumenical, “almost-everything-is-up-for-discussion” Lutheranism of our own tribe, the ELCA.   Lord Almighty, but we are a mess of a church!   We let in all sorts of rabble and we tolerate all sorts of nonsense, and sometimes I wonder whether God doesn’t just wonder what to do with us.

In short, we who are the ELCA look an awful lot like that farmer’s field must have looked—with weeds and wheat all over the place—a source of head-wagging and tongue-clucking by our neighbors, no doubt.    A mess—but what a glorious mess…..and if the farmer in the parable is the God-figure, well then it’s the kind of mess that only God could love.

Campus ministry has always had a high tolerance for such messiness; perhaps that is one of our “charisms.” We stubbornly keep prying open doors that others thought they had safely nailed shut.   We’re always on someone’s hit list, always in the cross-hairs of some neatnik repristinator of the “good old church,” trying to circle the wagons and batten down the hatches….but to no avail, because—wouldn’t you know it?--some hippy-dippy campus pastor keeps coming along and inviting in all the wrong crowd.

What the church hasn’t always realized or treasured is how desperately we need to cultivate hothouse experiments, demonstration plots, like campus ministry….to intrude upon the buttoned down closed-system that some in the church always find alluring.

And perhaps even now, in the midst of our understandable angst over little things like money and support—we’re receiving a chance to revel anew in the glorious messiness that the Lord of the Church seems to covet.

But why?  To what end?  For what reason does this parable’s farmer sow seeds so recklessly and cultivate messiness so ridiculously?

It’s for the sake of the harvest, don’t you know?   The farmer doesn’t want to lose one single stalk of wheat, one solitary sheaf—none of it must be wasted.   If I didn’t know better, I’d think that this crazy farmer even imagines that some of those weeds might—when day is done—turn out to be wheat after all!

Such wishful thinking is called erring on the side of grace, and it’s God’s favorite way of making mistakes.   The bean counters, the heavenly hall monitors, the guardians of a mighty fortress of “orthodoxy” fret that somewhere someone might be whispering something that verges on universalism---but they haven’t taken a good gander at this goofy farmer in Matthew 13, have they?  

For what appears to be wastefulness and a tolerance of messiness is none other than a fierce determination to demonstrate power chiefly in showing mercy, which is the hallmark of the God who has drawn near to us in Jesus the Christ, crucified and raised again, for us and for our salvation.

It is for the sake of this divine “erring on the side of grace” that we care so passionately about and give ourselves so recklessly to campus ministry, is it not?

It is for the sake of this confession—that surely deserves a place on every campus devoted to the fearless quest for truth—it is for the sake of contending that at the center of the universe there beats a passionate heart of unconditional self-giving, a self-emptying love that will not let us go. 

It is for that that we believe campus ministry deserves the very best we have to offer.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.


  1. That is really lovely, Bishop Larry!
    I appreciate the analogy to the ELCA, since I am one who both delights in the variety and excitement and openness (and benefits from it directly) but also, somehow, longs for the neatness and clarity and definition of a simpler time and world. But I know that never really existed, and to the degree it seemed to, it came as a price.
    But the second point is just as good: that campus ministry is a place where ministry is writ especially large. In my own case, I was first attracted to the Lutheran church through my college's campus ministry; a smart, progressive, open, "big-picture" kind of Christianity, but which was still clearly embedded in a cherished heritage. But the heritage was not a constraint but a source of strength and confidence. Pastor Henry Horn, my first campus pastor, and then Pastors Fred Reisz and Jesssica Crist, all held the door open and pointed to Christ and to a church that was big enough to believe "impossible" things and hold paradox as value, and offer a glimpse of a resurrection life ahead for me and for the world.
    That picture of God's love was the greatest gift I have ever received, beyond life itself.
    Thanks for a great sermon!
    Guy Erwin

  2. Thanks for posting this insightful and meaningful sermon, and for your support of campus ministry! As a new mother, I keep thinking lately about how messy the Incarnation must have been (think: childbirth, diapers, playing in the dusty Palestinian dirt, etc.). God came right into the midst of the fierce messiness of being human.

  3. What a great sermon! It brought tears to my eyes when I heard it. Thank you!

  4. Beautifully done Bishop Larry. As a product of campus ministry at St. Cloud State, and as a former campus pastor in Boulder and Denver, I couldn't agree more with your thoughts. Now as a retired ELCA pastor, I hope we will find a way to continue support for this 'field' ripe unto the harvest. Thanks for your good support to the current campus ministers. Peace, Dick Magnus

  5. Thank you, Bishop Wohlrabe, for a wonderful message. As one who continually experiences the fruits of campus ministry, I pray for its ongoing support.

    Brian E. Konkol
    ELCA Global Mission, South Africa