Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
May 3, 2015
Matthew 13:1-9, 19-23
For a carpenter, Jesus knew a lot about farming, teaching with parables are full of sowers of seeds, mustard seeds, wheat and tares, vineyards, pruning, fig trees, laborers in the vineyard. If we believe God is catalyst of the world coming into being, we will understand the Creator through the Creation. This helps you understand my relentless quest for gardening metaphors to convey the nature of church. Church is an organic, living thing, that takes planting, watering, and weeding to get to a harvest. The parable of the sower is rich with meaning for being church. Any good gardener knows you have to work with your soil, it doesn’t just take care of itself. Soil depletes if you don’t take care of it, community gardeners like me have to think sustainably about our 20 by 20 plots.
I want to share a farming metaphor that I find useful for our church. My mother recently shared a book with me entitled “1493.” When Europeans first saw American fields it made not sense to them. There were no neatly ordered rows, and plows were never used in the Americas because animals were not domesticated for work. It was all hand tilled farming that looked like an unruly mess to the European settlers. They did not perceive the order.
The Iroquois were quite good farmers. They practiced complimentary gardening, or what some of you may know as the “Three Sister’s Garden.” The Iroquois planted in mounds instead of rows, starting with several kernels of corn in the center. When the corn grew to about 6 inches in height, they planted beans and squash around it. As the corn grew tall, the beans climbed the corn stalk, using the structure of the corn to stretch up to the sunlight. In return, the beans put nitrogen back into the soil to keep the ground fertile for the corn. The squash grows around the mound and provides a natural protective barrier, holding in moisture like a natural mulch, and creating a microclimate for the mound. The prickly stems also kept pests away from the corn and beans. This complimentary approach also provided a balanced diet, since maize lacks the amino acids to make proteins, which are contained in the beans to provide a balanced nutrition. Recently researchers at Cornell reproduced the Three Sisters technique for 200 acres, and found that the technique produced three times as much food than 17th century wheat farmers in Europe.
The first struck me like a lightning bolt. The Three Sisters garden is a great metaphor for what we are doing as a church. The long term established congregations that formed First Churches are tall corn stalks, with strong roots in the community stretching back to Jonathan Edwards. We have history, traditions, infrastructure and an endowment as a gift from past generations. We have a maturity of a congregation that has been around through generations of change, people in these pews of been through the Great Depression, the Civil Rights Movement, (some of you were at Woodstock), and a merger of two denominational churches. There is maturity and depth here.
Common Ground is like the beans that climb the stalk and benefit from that structure. New church starts fail at the same rate as new small businesses. Common Ground is way ahead of recent new church starts, because the corn stalk is here, the infrastructure of a building, kitchen, office equipment and finances – and most important, a mature congregation with open hearts who have participated in both Sunday and Thursday services. In return, Common Ground replenishes the soil. Thursday night is a time where we can experiment with worship and try new things. It is more intimate and interactive and we get to know each other. We may find things we want to adopt on Sunday mornings. If you went to Monday Thursday, what a wonderful synergy of our Tenebrae tradition with a Common Ground meal. Common Ground brings in people who would probably never try a Sunday Service, people who bring their questions and insights, which creates new reflection, ideas and synergy, like nitrogen replenishing our soul. The corn and beans, Sunday and Thursday worship, create a balanced diet, and even if you don’t attend Common Ground, you get the value of good soil.
Where does squash fit in? Jeanne pointed out to me the importance of our smaller group activities, which build and sustain community. The Lenten study groups who read Rob Bell brought people together to share faith and engage in thoughtful reflection. We build relationships, and learn from each other in ways that Sunday service and Second Hour don’t due. It makes for depth and intimacy. Cooking meals together for the cot shelter, the Tuesday Noon Prayer Vigil for Nonviolence, Monday noon bible study, forums on peace and justice issues and the new prayer shawl knitting group, Dorcas, movie night, choir practice-these are like the sheltering leaves of the squash vine, that create the micro-climate, holding in the moisture. Real community needs that safety and friendship to thrive.
This is our version of sustainable church, our corn, beans and squash, the 3 sisters of Sunday worship, Common Ground, and smaller groups for study, prayer, mission and friendship. And because we have a 32,000 square foot garden, there is room for more. The Meeting House is like a community garden. I take great joy in walking through the Community gardens near my house on Burt’s Pit Road. You can see all kinds of vegetables, flower gardens, strawberry patches, different techniques of composting, creativity abounds and it is wild and beautiful, with the value of a broad shared community where you can learn from others, as well as very individualistic creativity. We share some of our garden space with Iglasia Bautista, and can trade some corn for some chilies for a little more spice to our spiritual diet. We have all probably been through hard times and needed some help. Cathedral in the Night is there for people who are experiencing hunger, homelessness and other challenges. They are partners who can do things we could not do on our own. Some people like to plant flower gardens to put beauty in to the world. We are hosting more arts and cultural events, (play) and a Summer art series planned by Susan Crolius,
The big challenge, beyond finances, is managing all this. At Church Council we have been talking about our governance and committee structures. We have a committee structure that is designed for planting rows. The world is evolving away from the neat organizational chart of mass production, to organizing by complimentary, flexible networks, much like the mounds of the Iroquois garden. And at first it doesn’t make sense when we are used to rows. We have more committee slots than people, and committee work has become a source of guilt and frustration. This is no one’s fault, it is a cultural shift. Last Thursday, Sarah and I were at a pastor’s meeting and we were asked to stand on one side of the room if we had changed our by-laws, stand in the middle if we were contemplating it, and on the other side if the by-laws hadn’t been changed for a long time. Most of the room was either contemplating or had already changed. When asked why, they said, because the structure was bottle-necking and not serving ministry.
I called Don Remick, our church development person for the Massachusetts UCC, and he gave me a reading list on new thoughts about church governance. That is what I did with my study leave the week after Easter! Now I imagine your brains are ready to shut down-governance? Committees? By-laws? Really? We want to talk about vision and mission. And you are exactly right. We are ready to talk about the future in a new way and update our sense of vision and mission. That comes first. Then once we are clear, we need to re-organize ourselves to figure out the best way to do it. You heard the parable, what happens when you don’t weed your garden? Who likes pulling weeds? Who likes tomatoes? We are motivated by what we love, that is where we put our energy.
Before I close, we won’t rid ourselves of weeds by spraying pesticides all over, this is Northampton after all. Meaning, I have no interest in blowing everything up, suspending by-laws, or trying to do this quickly. Let’s do this in stages, take some time to learn and explore. We are not trying to find a quick fix or magic solution, we are adapting to a new environment.
Adapt is the most important word for us in the next year. Adaptive organization thrive, and keep learning new ways, like good gardeners care for their soil.