A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. After expressing thanks to God for the church at Corinth, Paul lit into them for their divisiveness. “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters…that all of you should be in agreement and there should be no divisions among you. You should be united in the same mind and the same purpose.” “Each of you says ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas.’
Remember how we expressed gratitude that churches had evolved enough in the last 2,000 years, we couldn’t relate at all to what Paul was writing? 🙂 Yeah. That’s not what happened. In fact, we reflected on just how familiar Paul’s words seemed. Because we are human beings, clique-ishness and divisions are a temptation in any community. Living in community is hard. Like, really hard. Talking about community, about “being one” and all that, feels good, but when it comes down to it, actually creating community is hard.
All things considered, I was glad when that sermon was over, weren’t you? It was… uncomfortable. As it turns out, though, Paul isn’t done yet talking about community.
He’s still a little testy, telling the Corinthians he can’t feed them solid food because they’re spiritual babies. Once he gets that out of his system, though, Paul teaches them a pretty good lesson. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul?… I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose…For we are God’s, working together. You are God’s field.”
Paul could have said the Apollos people were right, or Chloe’s people, or Peter’s people. But doing so only would have further entrenched the divisions. Instead, Paul helped the Corinthians to see that every leader in the community had served an important role. The leaders weren’t working at cross purposes; one wasn’t better than another. They all were working for the same purpose–to help the community increase its effectiveness in making God’s love real in the world. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. We—all of us—are God’s, working together. We are God’s field.”
We are God’s field. This community is God’s field. We are the place where what God sows grows. We are the plot that produces the crop that feeds the world. We–this community–is the means by which God chooses to act the world into wellbeing. We are God’s field.
So. What kind of field are we? Or, to put it more pointedly, if God were to plant something here, would it grow?
Good farmers understand that good crops don’t just happen. Knowing something about the field into which seeds are planted is crucial to ensuring a healthy crop.
An agriculture website lists four good practices of field management. First, know the exact location of the field so you can track weather conditions for it. Second, know the size of the field and its utilization (that is, the percentage of crops planted in the field). Size and utilization determine which crops will grow best in the field. Third, practice crop rotation. Planting the same crop in the same field year after year can deplete the soil’s nutrients. Rotating crops increases the chemical diversity in the soil.
The final consideration is knowing the chemical make-up of the soil, including the PH value and soil type. Soil type determines which crops can be grown in a specific field (some crops thrive in clay, others in sandy soils). Soil type also determines water management (for instance, sandy soil requires frequent irrigation with smaller amounts of water due to its high porosity). Another blogger notes that “Soil is the fundamental resource for every crop production. To achieve successful and sustainable farming, the soil needs to be healthy.”
If what I’ve read thus far hasn’t convinced you of the aptness of the field as a metaphor for the spiritual community, perhaps this sentence will. “Soil is full of living organisms such as fungi, bacteria, worms and millions of other microscopic organisms.” Doesn’t that sound just like church? Ooo, ooo, ooo! I’m a bacteria! I’m a worm! Me? I’m a fungus. It’s not as bad as it sounds. As the blogger writes, all the organisms in soil “play a vital role in the creation of the organic matter which reflects on soil conditions and finally its health.”
We are God’s field. We’re even laid out in neat rows like a field! So, how do we tend to our community to ensure we’ll be fertile ground for growing what God sows in the world?
At the Board retreat a couple of weeks ago, we had some lively discussion about who we are and where we’re headed. As a result of that conversation, we’re in the process of planning a visioning/dreaming process. A planning team will organize the process, but the bulk of the work will be done by all of us, the whole congregation. It’s not going to happen this week, but it will happen soon. So, stay tuned!
As we fine-tune our vision for where we’re heading, as we recommit ourselves to our unique mission, it might help to think about being God’s field. Like the wise farmer, we’ll determine precisely where we are. We’ll consider our size and utilization, so we can determine which crops—aka, ministries—will grow best in this field. We can consider whether it might be time to rotate our crops or ministries. And, last, we can determine the health of our soil.
Personally, that’s the part I’m most excited about. The thing that makes soil healthy, after all, is diversity. How does our diversity nurture us? How do our fungi and bacteria and worms work together to form a healthy field in which’s God’s dreams can be planted and harvested? (The title of last week’s sermon was “Salty Christians.” Maybe I should have titled this one, “Dirty Christians.”)
The poetic-minded among us likely have enjoyed this extended metaphor of being God’s field. Here’s a bit for the more pragmatic-minded–the verses we heard from Matthew.
If our community is to be fertile ground for God doing God’s thing in the world, our community needs to be strong, healthy, diverse. If our community isn’t strong, healthy, and diverse, then we’re simply a collection of people who come here on Sunday mornings, each doing our own thing, each on our own spiritual journey.
To be sure, each of us is on our own spiritual journey. Each of us is living our faith in the world in our own way. All that’s important.
There is, though, something unique about living faith as a community. There are some things the world can only learn about God’s love–that we can only learn about God’s love–through community. That’s why what we do here every week is so important.
Paul knew that, which is why, I suspect, he was so hard on the Corinthians. Jesus knew it, too… which is why he got so practical in today’s verses from Matthew. He begins with what was written in the law, “You shall not murder.” Then he riffs on that. Updates it. Gives an example of how to live that law from the center of your being. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Going from murder to making your offering in worship might seem a big conceptual leap…until you think about it. In each instance, the full humanity of the other is denied, right? The scale is different, to be sure, but it’s the same dynamic. The old line, “He’s dead to me!” makes a lot of sense. Sometimes, we get so angry at someone, they cease to be a person to us.
The thing is, when we say someone’s dead to us, a little piece of us dies, too. And if a little piece of us dies, then we’re not fully human, either. And if you have a community of people who are—because of grudges and anger and spats—not fully human, the community will not thrive. Soil whose nutrients have been depleted can’t sustain a healthy crop.
We are God’s field. What God sows will grow here…if we tend well to our community; if we see each other as fully human, as, perhaps, different from us, but equally loved by God; if we treat each other with respect and nurture our relationships with each other…
…basically, if we keep doing what Mary Cowal did her whole life. We said goodbye to Mary yesterday. Because I only met her two years ago, I didn’t know Mary very well. Hearing all the stories about who she was, about how she welcomed everyone into her life and into her home, about how everything she did, she did with love…first, hearing those things made me wish I’d known Mary longer. Then, hearing about who Mary had been, seeing all the people who showed up yesterday, feeling the sadness at her death in the room…yes. Mary tended well to her part of God’s field. And we are a stronger community because of it.
Mary knew—and lived as if—we’re all in this thing together. The sermon title comes from a song by Old Crow Medicine Show, a bluegrass group that usually sounds like it’s mainlining caffeine. Allen and I heard them at the Ryman a few years ago. At one point, the pace slowed and I heard these beautiful words: “We’re all in this thing together, walking the line between faith and fear. This life don’t last forever. When you cry, I taste the salt in your tears…” I think Paul—and Jesus—would be down with those words. We are all in this thing together. If we remember that in everything, everything we do, we will become a stronger community, a fertile field, a place where what God sows will grow and thrive.
We are God’s field. Let the growing begin!