“God Gives the Growth”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

October 21, 2018

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

 

It is an uncertain time for farmers.

Climate change is bringing shifting weather patterns:  droughts in some places, floods in others, changes in the growing season and the rainfall pattern and the pollinators and the pests.  Recent reports indicate that it is probably worse than we had previously imagined.  It is harder than ever to forecast how the crops will do.  And even if they grow, changes to trade agreements and agricultural tariffs are creating uncertainty about where, and to whom, and at what price those crops can be sold, and whether the farmers who grow them will be able to break even at the end of the day, let alone turn a profit.

Here in New England, our small farms and dairies have always had a tough go of it, but in recent years, there has been a spike in rates of depression among farmers, attributed to rising uncertainty about the future and the fear of losing the land that, in many cases, has been in a family for generations.  Some farms have closed; others have sought to diversify their offerings; still others have sold off some land for subdivisions and tried to keep operating at a smaller scale.

It is an uncertain time for farmers.  But even in the best of times, you never know what the weather will do.  You never know when the rain will fall and when the sun will shine, when it will be hot and when it will be cold, when a freak hailstorm or tornado will pass through and knock out your peach blossoms or your cornstalks.  You never know how the harvest will be.  But you know that if you don’t plant, there certainly won’t be any harvest at all, so you plant your seeds anyway.

 

It is an uncertain time for churches.

Climate change of a different sort is shifting Americans’ relationship to the kinds of institutions that used to make up the structure of the community.  Church attendance is no longer a social expectation—in fact, today it often feels more anomalous to attend church than not to attend.  With the public perception of what “Christian views” are on any number of issues, it can feel like an uphill slog to explain that you’re not that kind of Christian.

Here in New England, we rank among the least religious states in the nation, based on both worship attendance and personal beliefs.  Many churches, especially our small, community congregations, struggle to meet budgets and maintain aging buildings.  Some have closed, and others will likely follow (though please hear me when I say that this congregation is alive and well!).

It is an uncertain time for churches.  But even in the best of times, you never know what the weather will do.  You never know when an abuse crisis will break, driving faithful people away from the institutions that have failed so profoundly to live out the principles we preach.  You never know when a national or personal tragedy will befall us, bringing people back to the pews in search of solace or community or answers.  You never know how the harvest will be.  But you know that if you don’t plant, there certainly won’t be any harvest at all, so you plant your seeds anyway.

 

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, just a couple of decades after Jesus’ death, the apostle Paul wrote, “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.”  And in today’s reading, from Paul’s second letter to the same congregation, he makes a similar claim:  “The One who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.”

Apparently our ancestors in faith needed reminding that it wasn’t all up to them.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I need that reminder, too.  In a time when so much feels uncertain, it is easy to slip into believing that the weight of the entire world rests on our shoulders, that the fate of our planet and our community is in our hands alone, that nothing will ever change unless we personally make it happen, that if we don’t get it right, no one will, and all will surely be lost.  But the apostle Paul reminds us that this is not so.  What we do matters tremendously, don’t get me wrong.  But what we do is not the end of the story, not if God has anything to say about it (and she does).

We don’t know what the future will bring—for our farms, for our churches, for our families, for ourselves.  But our part is not to control the future.  Our part is not to guarantee the harvest.  Our part is to plant our seeds, to give of ourselves and our resources—willingly, boldly, courageously, even joyfully, in spite of not knowing what may come.  And our part is to trust that God will give the growth.  For God can use the gifts we offer, no matter how small or inadequate or uncertain we may feel, to bring forth bounteous harvests in the unlikeliest of places.  God has always been about precisely that.

When the Israelites were suffering in slavery in Egypt, God used Moses—slow of speech and uncertain of heart—to convince Pharaoh to let the people go.

When they were wandering in the wilderness, nearly perishing of hunger and thirst, God told Moses to strike a rock with his staff, and when he did, out from the rock poured sweet, quenching water.

When God decided to enter into human life, God asked Mary if she would consent to bear God’s heart into the world, and when she gave of herself in that way, Jesus arrived, and everything changed.

When Jesus needed disciples to help spread his message of radical love for all God’s people, he asked some fishermen who happened to be passing by to follow him.  They were a ragtag bunch, not the kind of highly-qualified applicants you might hope for.  But when they followed, when they gave what they had and let God do the rest, a movement was born that continues to this day.

Our part is not to control the future.  Our part is not to guarantee the harvest.  Our part is to listen for God’s call and to say yes when it comes.  Our part is to give God something to work with and then let God do God’s thing.  Our part is remember that it is God who gives us the seeds to begin with, and so we are to plant them, to give of ourselves and our resources—willingly, boldly, courageously, even joyfully—and to trust that God will give the growth.

Or, in the words of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree today.”

May we do the same.

 


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