"Have you not asked those who travel the roads, and do you not accept their testimony?" (Job 28:29)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Preparing, Planting and Promise...

ARE WE Lutherans a welcoming people? I ask because I've recently come to the stark realization that our little church in rural Pennsylvania isn’t growing very much... not yet!
 In recent contemplation, I asked, “Are we a gospel proclaiming people?” If so, why aren't those who have heard our words showing up on Sunday morning?
 Possibly some of us have shared.., but it seems that either we are not a very inviting people, or the people we invite do not respond to the call of the Spirit.
 Consequently, I then wondered, "Do we need to examine our method or plant other fields?" It seems that in our little faith community, though we sometimes share words and mission with other local Christians, we exist as rather insular to the general population. Considering this, I now wonder, "Is this isolation a phenomenon just within Lutheranism, or is it also found in American Christianity, or does it hold true for the whole of Christianity across the globe?" For answers to these questions, we need to inform ourselves about evangelism, and the methods taught to us by our Lord. I do fear that this isolation exists at least locally. Statistics show that the American church population is dwindling.
  "Why" we may ask? Are we so insular from the world, that few around us hear the Law and Gospel? If so, we therefore have lost the Master’s touch in planting the kingdom.
 I think it is far past time to re-examine our methods according to Jesus’ lessons. We read a parable told to the disciples by Jesus, as passed along by the Matthean community…

“And he told them many things in parables, saying: "A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they had not much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched; and since they had no root they withered away. Other seeds fell upon thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear." (Matthew 13:3-9)

As we consider our Lord's words, we first notice that many persons who receive the gospel will not respond. We also note from some other scriptural records that tell us that some people may trample upon the sower. Are these reasons why we we do not go or grow?
 Scripture reveals that the earth, though distorted by sin, is not infertile. If we Christians fail to plant wheat, we will just get weeds. Something will grow. Weeds just sprout with evil abundance… and these weeds usually do not respond to the call of the church, especially if there has been no invitation.
  As a farmer in my early years, it seems to me that it is in this first step of planning where we falter. As persons called to gospel planting, even during the warm glow found just after Easter,
we tend to fail in walking out of the church door to begin evangelical efforts.
 Yes, we do receive the Word and Sacrament ourselves, and usually claim that thanksgiving is in our hearts... but we selfishly do not “go out to sow”. Consequently, we show how shallow is our commitment. We do not approach fertile ground... nor prepare the soil. We thus fail to even scratch red dirt! (“adamah” in the Hebrew). Thus sinful Adam in the field next door remains in peril. Our sloth and selfishness leaves persons, known and unknown to us, standing outside of God’s garden of grace.
 For this reason... for the sake of the lost, let us own our reluctance to do our Master’s bidding. We must ask forgiveness through, and for the work of Christ. Being forgiven, we can then be empowered by the Spirit to plant. We may then scatter from church to scratch this evil world deep in fertile methods of proclamation. Let us prayerfully ask the Spirit to direct our steps. Each one of us needs to pick at least one field of endeavor, realizing though, that we may later be guided by the Spirit to another site.

 First, we must ask, “Where in my every day, or weekly travels can I effectively have a faith dialog with others?” At work? At school? While golfing? When hunting or fishing, While eating or serving?
 We need consider how the setting offer a witness opportunity? Can a statement made simply by folded hands in a prayer spoken before having lunch with a co-worker or co-workers at a fast food restaurant, so that work will open an evangelical conversation? Might it be that the action could evoke inquiry? At least the respectful action of prayer lets others know your personal faith!
 Or possibly, heaven forbid, you believe that their salvation is not worth the risk of offending them with prayers in public? If you think the latter, do not call yourself faithful to Christ in practice!
 Remember that our Lord’s commission to do the task of evangelism was more than a request. It remains even now as a privilege and command. We are called first to be an evangelical people!
 So it is that you should now list the places where an evangelical witness may be offered. Remember, don't be afraid to break new ground... with God all things are possible. This is how evangelism begins. Choosing a field for your evangelical work is of great importance.
Second,  but of great importance is that you pray before beginning the groundwork, then pray again during the seeding, and pray finally for the growth of faith.

 As a child of twelve, I remember that my mother told me that when I was old enough to plant and grow something in the yard behind our home, I could go to work on the farm managed by my favorite uncle. So, with an unspoken desire buried deep within my adolescent and skinny body, and a goal in my mind, I began to plan. Long before planting time came, I went to the school library and studied gardening and farming methods. Afterward, I very carefully picked the garden site, choosing fertile ground with good sun exposure. And finally, after having to invest my lawn mowing allowance for my spade and fork, I began to dig.

 Digging the garden was work in the hot spring day, but there was no turning back. I was invested in the spirit of growth. Giving thanks for my mother’s wisdom, I now realize that I have been, either literally or symbolically digging the dirt of God’s sweet earth ever since.
 Prayer does that focusing for us. I now see that doing evangelical planting is very much the same as gardening or farming. It’s at the same time, both complicated and easy! That is why prayer for a bountiful harvest is so very important. Prayer, study, and planning are just the initial steps. You must develop prayerful resolve. This type of resolve only can be obtained from the Spirit of God, on each and every day of the planting. Once begun, there can be no looking back nor hesitation about the rightness of the task. Make sure that you are fed... involved in a church that seeks right interpretation of God's Word.

Note the words of Jesus to an impetuous young man. That person said:

"I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home."Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:61-62)

At a clergy gathering I noticed the guest speaker, Dr. Gemechis Buba of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC), standing in front of the gathering with the scriptures in his hand. That was his first tool of the planting! I noted his quoting of certain key texts without even opening the beautiful floppy book. So should our planting be! Each thrust into deep the soil of sinful earth should be of the force found only in biblical strength.
 So roll up those protective garden gloves, set them aside, and open your bibles. Memorize key passages you should use during witness. Attend bible studies. Over the years I have grown my own list… a veritable garden salad of Romans 6:23 and 3:23-24, and verse 28 followed by the tall stand of the golden wheat found in John 3:16.

Memorization is difficult you say? For some... but I counter with the words of the Master of the Vineyard…

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:29-30)

After prayerful planning and studying for the field of endeavor, whether your find fertile ground in the workplace, badminton courts, square dance club, neighborhood bar or county fair planning committee… know that digging is not easy work.

 As you dig, know that you’re going to find worms! Your work will sometimes expose big, fat, ugly slimy night crawlers that will try to hide from the light, Do not faint at their attempt to reject your efforts. For example, those persons who stubbornly claim atheism or agnosticm... may try to preserve the darkness that keeps them spiritually hidden.
 Know this…. like the big night crawlers that were turned up by my youthful digging, these persons who are exposed and reject the Word that you offer, have deeply felt the vibrations of the Spirit’s work. However, though disturbed by the Spirit's footfall, they may still try to cling to their earthly gods, They cannot see or hear! Simply pray for them and let them go their way. Our God is not finished with them.
 Once the gospel grounding has been carefully prepared, your step by step planting begins. Now remember! This is stinky work. When a gospel seed is planted by your time spent with an acquaintance or friend, plenteous manure and fertilizers must attend.

No, don’t crinkle your nose up! So it is... now, and so it was when our Lord began his work. We know, for Jesus told this parable…

"A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?'And he answered him, 'Let it alone, sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'" (Luke 13:5-9)

 Anyone who is experienced at the planting of crops knows that you do not spread seed on hard ground. The soil must be overturned and broken apart for aeration. Turning a person's world upside down can be disturbing. Yet a thorough, and often painful, aeration by the Spirit’s power is just what is called for… and you must know how this is done!
 You, the sower of the seed, must show the dirt that has been under your own fingernails. You need to aerate your story. Tell about how God worked in your life. Relate how the Spirit lifted you up in spite of the manure on your boots, your clothes, and your soul.

 Oh yes, it can be a risky and stinky job to do this over and over again for each new crop. But it is necessary! Let them know how the divine gift of Christ empowered God’s Spirit to tie your wandering tendrils safely. Tell them how God’s only begotten Son, Jesus, has led you and taught you toward your bearing of the fruit of the kingdom.
 This mixture of digging together in the dirt, as two human beings sitting over a coffee break and working through the fertilizer found in your life, is very important for identifying the sinful commonality of all that is human. Let not demonic pride ruin the harvest and trample the crop. Do not be haughty, for we are all sinful and rest on the graceful love of God. Without God’s precious gift we would wither and die. Only the precious sweat and drops of blood shed beneath the cross of Christ has been the watery baptismal gift that leads to eternal life. So plan now, memorize scripture, and get ready to turn the earth and plant the seeds of eternal life.

Don't Over Work the Soil!
Workers in God’s garden, know this! Here is the most difficult part for those who till the earth as disciples in the Spirit! Once the seeds of faith are planted and you have watered them with your prayers to God, keep your hands off the growing. Know that faith must germinate within them!
 “How long will the sprouting take?” you control freaks may ask. “When will you see signs of new life?” you may wonder.
 I say to you that the Spirit does not always reveal. Some persons respond to the loving waters of your words quickly, to emerge as the stones roll away from their earthen tomb in just a few days. Others are like the seeds of a bristle cone pine, seemingly cold dead in faith, which may wait for eons... to be triggered only by the heated fires of the Spirit.
 Remember! You are called to put aside your control issues and bend your knees daily in prayer to the “Lord of the Harvest”. In the Lord’s own time, the “agogic” merging together moment... shall come. Remember that your Lord has said..,

“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:18-19)

 In the Lord’s own time, therefore, the faith that has been planted shall germinate and growth can begin. Be assured that for some this holy growth may at first be unseen. Then, though possibly becoming antsy like myself as gardener, in the coming days warmed by the Son, you shall kneel for a thanksgiving prayer as the planting begins to emerge triumphantly.
 In my own planting of the gospel, I’ve seen youthful men, sprout suddenly... onion-like to become the first tall, sweet leaders within a household and church. I have witnessed red-haired radishes come up in catechism to relish the taste of the youth group. Even lettuce-like leafy people, seemingly tossed by every faint breeze, stay though easy to wilt. These last, when rooted in scripture, shall be nourished by the rich life of a gospel people.

 Finally, there are the “rutabagas”. Those persons are like the tasteless clumps that filled my mother’s family pot when times were tough. Hard to digest sometimes, these seemingly nourish us like vital spinach and keep the church going. As the words say, these all come up together “there in God’s garden.”
 Remember! When all these wondrous persons first emerge tender in the faith.., that is when you are called to remain beside them.. Speak for them on your prayer bones... to cultivate. Bring them to your bible study group. Invite them to worship. Empower them, in turn... to contribute shade to others who are tender in the brightness of God’s love. Nurture them, weed them and care for them, even gently tying wandering tendrils so that they may grow straight and true.
 Most of all, invite them to the waters of baptism wherein the Spirit nurtures and they may be fed greater strength. Let them know they are not growing alone, for the Spirit of God is in them and with them. Soon they shall be pruned and strengthened by both Law and Gospel, bearing fruit and gleaned to be a source of seed for the next generation. Know the Lord Jesus has said...

"The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (Matthew 13:31-32)

 Indeed, though some will be lowly melons, they just may add a sweet base to the church choir. Others will be tall feed corn in due season, rising high to feed and lead us before falling to earth in the autumn of their lives. And still others will be like a staunch growth of sunflowers that raise their faces in praise to the Son. Of such people church growth occurs in the preparing, planting, and promise… thanks be to God, Let us work heartily in the garden of the Almighty!

For your thoughts, I offer this video in honor of someone who influenced my walk of faith...

May the Peace of God that surpasses all human understanding,
 keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord

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