June 17, 2012
Third Sunday after Pentecost, Year B (Proper 6)
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
Well, there is nothing like a week in Manhattan to make one appreciate the quiet of Eugene and the vast open spaces of the American West. Goodness. I was back East at an amazing roundtable discussion convened by the Bishop of New York on the intersection of food, farming and faith. It was quite a gathering, a couple of prominent bishops, executive chef of a fancy New York restaurant, three radical nuns (one Roman Catholic and two of ours), a suite of academics working in bioethics, Christian social ethics and theology, some folks from the national church and a couple of local farmers. I was kind of in between the academics, the farmers and the priests; definitely the coolest place to be. We did not really “do” anything. We produced no mission statement, no next-steps, not even a next meeting is planned yet, but it was one of the most productive days and a half I have had in recent memory. We talked about the state of agriculture, of the uncertain future of family farms, and of rural communities. We spoke of food, and how we eat in this country and why and how churches’ relationship with food are so potent. And we spoke about faith. How the creation is the first revelation of God, how God calls us to serve and how religious communities can be a force for truth and righteousness as well as a center of compassion and nurture. It was a good week. Thank you for the time to go and participate in a national conversation like this. And it is great, that after spending a few days thinking deeply about the earth and farming and the condition of the Creation that we find ourselves in the midst of some of St. Mark’s seed parables…
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The Earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
These parables are so fabulous because we can make so much meaning from them. The traditional interpretation of this parable is that the development and revelation of the kingdom of God is neither obvious nor controllable. Seeds are planted, they grow, we “know not how,” and then it comes time for harvest. The vocation of followers of Christ is sowing, propagating the Gospel, the word and work of God, not, as one theologian writes, to “provoke the harvest (for that happens ‘of itself).” That is backed up by the parable that follows this one, the mustard seed. Such a teeny-tiny seed, yet from it such great things happen. It makes for, “the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in the shade.” Our work, the little tiny bits of God’s work, the day in/day out kindnesses, compassions, supports and loves we do, and the monumental efforts, terrible risks and plain old martyrdoms we face striving for justice, all of that works collectively we “know not how,” moving us ever closer to the kingdom. Each act, no matter how small, is at least a baby step towards the kingdom. And that’s good. That’s the Gospel, Amen.
But coming home from this conference with my farmer hat not all the way hung up in the closet, that interpretation bothers me slightly. I have yet to know a plant that you can sow, and sleep and rise, night and day, go about your business and one day, poof – it is ready to harvest. (The possible exception is tomatillos). It makes me think of the parable of talents where the poorest of slaves tells the master that he reaps where he did not sow, and gathers where he scattered no seed. Yes, in the parable seeds are scattered but no effort is exerted. Does anyone have a garden like that? You plant and then a couple of months later you harvest? No. Of course not. Gardens, farms do not work that way. It takes work, hard work to grow things, right? Well, maybe…
One of the things we talked about at the conference was this very issue. And we spoke about it through the work of one of the most important agriculturalists of the 20th century, a Japanese plant pathologist names Masanobu Fukuoka. His book, The One-Straw Revolution, described what he called “Do nothing” farming. In light of Mark 4:26-34, we could call it parabolic farming. Fukuoka grew buckwheat, rice and Mandarin oranges on his ancestral farm in Japan. What he observed was that plants know what to do. A buckwheat plant is the only organism that knows how to make buckwheat. A rice plant rice, a Mandarin orange tree Mandarin oranges. And when left to their own devices they will do just fine. The problem is, that a Mandarin Orange tree’s idea of doing just fine might not agree with our desires and needs, so we need to come to some compromise. So what Fukuoka spent his life doing was trying to facilitate the conditions that these plants evolved to thrive in, because if we honor the true nature of the tree and satisfy its needs, it will produce beautifully, even though we “know not how.”
A metaphor that I use is that I cannot make a tomato.
Don’t get me wrong, Windy and I used to grow tomatoes. A lot of them. In our last season at the monastery farm we had something like 200 heirloom tomato plants that produced 400ish lbs/week at the height of August. We were pretty good at heirloom tomatoes, growing big fat, get-all-over-everything-in-the-kitchen juicy ones, Brandywine and Pruden’s Purple. Fabulous. We were good at growing them but truthfully, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make a tomato. My body doesn’t work that way, my DNA does not code those proteins. My will in not divine enough. No one is that good at chemistry to confect food from nothingness (we’ll just skip over the unnatural nativity story of Twinkies). But, following the wisdom of Fukuoka-san, what we can do is make things possible for that tomato plant to be the best it can be, the most tomatoey it can be. We can create the conditions for those plants to do the work they have been given to do by God with a bit of human encouragement, which is of course to make tomatoes. How does a tomato plant do it? We “know not how,” but we do know what conditions tomato plants evolved to thrive in and about that, there is quite a bit we can do.
We need to respect the treeness of trees; the tomatoness of tomatoes. I heard Joel Salatin speak a couple of years ago, he’s the famous farmer from Omnivore’s Dilemma, and he talked about giant agribusiness’ lack of respect for life, particularly in regards to the horrible conditions of commercial livestock production in CAFOs, (concentrated animal feeding operations). And he asked, “if Smithfield (the largest pork producer in the world) won’t respect the pigness of a pig, why do we expect them to respect the Jimness of Jim or the Maryness of Mary?” That is a good question and the answer quite obviously is that they do not. They do not respect the nature of pigs and nor do they respect the nature of people, be it their employees or neighbors, nor us, the eaters of these animals.
This is where the whole idea of the path of least resistance comes from. If we let things be the way they are supposed to be, it is going to be OK, it is going to work out. If we let pigs be like pigs, let them live like pigs are supposed to live, we’ll have happy and healthy animals who yield sustainable and nourishing pork or who just live good piggy lives. If we let a tomato plant be a tomato plant, we’ll have tomatoes. Juicers. Mr. Fukuoka let his Mandarin orange trees be Mandarin orange trees, lo and behold, he had massive yields of what we would now call nutrient dense Mandarin oranges.
The same is true with the kingdom of God. What is it, this Kingdom of God? I don’t know, I guess it is like if you scatter seed and then one day, Whoa! Look at all this grain. You know the kingdom is here because you know it when you see it. The kingdom of God is revealed when things are as they are supposed to be. It is the world when people are who they were born to be; where plants grow as they evolved to grow; where love flourishes where it is meant to flourish, that is in the being of every creaturely thing that was, is and is to come. We, human beings, are blessed with the uncanny ability to do two things; we innately know, really know deep in our hearts how things are supposed to be, how good food really tastes, what meaningful work really is, what true love and genuine happiness really feels like. And we also have the ability to deceive ourselves, to convince ourselves that McDonald’s food tastes good and doesn’t make us feel sick, when in fact it doesn’t and it does. We can convince ourselves that we are satisfied with our jobs, when we are bored. That we are healthy when we are sick, that we are happy when we are miserable, that things are OK at home when they are not. Our charge is to recognize the world and our place in it for what it is, and with fear and trembling be what we need to be in relation to our God and our neighbor. That is what the kingdom of God looks like. That and a garden full of tomatoes in August. AMEN