Psalm 63:1-8; Luke 12:16-31
It’s the fourth Sunday of Lent and we’ve been working our way through the silence of this season, exploring the practices in which Christians have engaged for centuries – beginning with prayer, and then study and self-examination, and today we turn to the discipline of focus – that is, the responsibility we have as people of faith to drill down and center ourselves on what really matters in life.
Jesus takes us to that place in a story he tells. The gospel lesson this morning is set in territory unfamiliar to many of us. In his parable, Jesus takes us into farm country, the territory beyond first-century Jerusalem. Call it Outstate Palestine. Greater Galilee.
Rural America – unfamiliar for many of us, although if you go back a generation or two it’s surprising how many of us have connections to small towns and farms. Maybe a farm in North Dakota or a small town in northern Minnesota. We don’t have to go too far back. I myself was born in a small farming community in central Kansas.
After the Westminster Town Hall Forum this past week I heard quite a few others recount stories of their early days in rural towns or on family farms. The speaker at the Forum was Lisa Schulte Moore, a professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State in Ames. She talked to us about farming – not a common topic for the Forum.
The Forum’s spring series is presenting five women doing cutting edge work on combatting climate change. From outer space to Iowa farm soil, we’re learning about creative responses to the climate crisis. These leaders in science and policy are offering us a way to put our faith into action. They are working to steward the earth, as we say at the close of worship each week in the Charge.
Tenzin Dolkar, a program officer with the McKnight Foundation and the lead for their working-lands strategy, also participated in the Forum. Something she said caught my attention:
“Eight agricultural midwestern states produce 25% of the country’s greenhouse gas, and if those eight states were a nation, they would be the fifth highest producer of greenhouse gas in the world.”
What happens in rural, agricultural America affects and even drives climate change. Cultivated land and agricultural practices are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions – and it’s not all methane from industrial cattle feedlots or exhaust from fossil fuels used in farm machinery. Mostly, she said, it’s in the soil. Under the ground. We have to go deep, she said, to learn about the preservation of our planet.
Professor Schulte Moore helps Iowa farmers develop sustainable practices in their work on the land. “Farmers will be the heroes in fighting climate change,” she says.
Climate change is being caused by a significant increase in carbon in the atmosphere. There’s been a 30% increase in the last 150 years. Carbon sequestration – the long-term storage of carbon – is key to limiting climate change. By caring for the soil, because it holds carbon, farmers can help slow climate change.
“Although oceans store most of the Earth’s carbon,” the Ecological Society of America says,
“Soils contain approximately 75% of the carbon pool on land — three times more than the amount stored in living plants and animals. Therefore, soils play a major role in maintaining a balanced global carbon cycle.” (https://www.esa.org/esa/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/carbonsequestrationinsoils.pdf)
We may not live in rural America or know much about the soil of farmland, but we all have a stake in what happens there. “We are all eaters,” as Schulte Moore points out, and the production of food is the goal of agriculture.
For the psalmist, the aim of life with God is for the soul to be “satisfied as with a rich feast” by the steadfast love of God. To eat at the heavenly banquet is an image that appears repeatedly in scripture. It is the pinnacle of the religious imagination.
But reality creeps in, then and now.
“My soul thirsts for you,” the psalmist says, drawing upon imagery familiar to any farmer, “As in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
The poet-farmer, if speaking today, might say, “My soil thirsts for you, as in a dry and weary land where the carbon in the earth has been depleted.”
The life of the soul is connected to the health of the soil, which is linked to the sustainability of the planet.
In telling the parable of the rich farmer who wants to store up his extra resources and “eat, drink, and be merry,” rather than share his largesse with those in need, Jesus strikes a nerve. He hits close to home. Many of us, in effect, live like that. Maybe not on farms, and maybe not with grain silos, but with extra homes and cars and resources tucked away.
“What if this very night,” Jesus says, “Your soul were demanded of you?”
What if we were suddenly called upon to make an accounting of how we live with what we have? That is the question Jesus poses in this simple story set in ancient rural Palestine. He’s going deep within and checking on the soul health of his followers. He wants them to take a long, hard look inside, at the center of their lives. He wants us to do that. This is the Christian practice of learning to focus on our inner selves. What do we see at the core? What anchors us inside?
The story about the rich farmer invites us to get our priorities right. Jesus is urging his followers – including us – to develop an inner moral compass, to learn to focus on what is right and good, on that which sustains life for ourselves and others, as good soil does for the planet.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t get prescriptive here. He doesn’t use the parable to call for economic justice, or social realignment, or some grand redistribution, as he does elsewhere. When the rich young man – probably not a farmer – asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus says frankly, “Sell all that you have, give it to the poor and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21-22)
He wants the rich farmer to focus more on the health of the soil, rather than depleting it by over-producing on the land to cover his anxieties. The lilies, Jesus says, don’t worry about what they’re going to wear, and look: they’re beautifully arrayed. The ravens don’t panic about what they’re going to eat, and look: they get plenty of food. Trust and follow the sustainable practices found already in creation, and you will find life. Overdo it, and you will deplete your soil and lose your soul.
The parable may not call for radical restructuring, but it certainly challenges many of us right where it matters: Do we really need all that we have? The caption in a recent cartoon New Yorker says, “You can’t take it with you, but you can put it in storage.”
America has sprouted vast numbers of storage businesses across the land over the last few decades that raises serious – and biblical – questions about priorities. “Self-storage is a $40 billion dollar a year industry,” a NY Times article reported recently, “With more than 10% of American households paying to store their stuff someplace besides where they live.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/12/opinion/family-possessions-storage-units.html?referringSource=articleShare)
Sometimes we need the space between household moves, or after a death in the family, or to hold onto things temporarily, but this parable pokes at our national preoccupation with storing things. I can say this because I’m guilty, too. I don’t have a farm with barns, but I’ve got a basement and an attic and a garage. Extra barns.
The silence of Lent offers us a chance to think about our priorities in new ways, to focus ourselves again. The point of the parable Jesus tells is not to chastise the rich farmer or any of us, but, rather, to invite us to re-center ourselves on what truly matters. The pandemic helped us in this regard because it cut everything down to the essentials. Remember back in the heart of early Covid – two years ago – how simplified things became? How we could turn toward what mattered most?
Soren Kierkegaard is talking about this kind of intense inner focus when he says, “Purity of the heart is to will one thing.” For the Danish philosopher that one thing was to will the good.
What is our core focus in life? Is it work? Is it power? Is it some addiction or obsession? Is it, as for the rich farmer, feeding a false sense of security by acquiring and retaining more than we need?
To will one thing as followers of Jesus means to center our lives on love.
Howard Thurman called it “the single mind…the nerve center of your consent.”
For him, that kind of spiritual focus is at the heart of faith.
It is, he says,
“The experience though which a person passes when, deep within themselves, they make a selection of values and proceed to lift this selection of values into the dimension of the absolute…(It is) the choice between that for which I am willing to stand and that against which I stand.” (https://thurman.pitts.emory.edu/items/show/4_
The rich farmer in the parable has centered his life on his own anxieties, not on living richly toward God and others. Like soil leeched of nutrients, his soul is depleted from a focus on that which does not sustain life or lead to love.
Professor Schulte Moore didn’t quite put it quite like that in her presentation on soil health at the Forum, but that’s what she was talking about: the link between life-giving soil, a healthy soul, and a sustainable planet. If we’re going to address the degradation of creation, we will have to shift our priorities and realign, re-tune our inner focus.
Some of the farmers she works with are like the farmer in the parable, focused on the bottom line and producing as much as they can and not thinking about the health of their souls. Some of us are like that, as well.
But other farmers – in fact, 55% in Iowa, after many years – want to learn about more sustainable use of their land. Schulte Moore is teaching them to put prairie strips into their fields. Replacing only a small portion of cultivated land with strips of wild prairie greatly improves the health of the soil in the field, “helps control erosion, mitigate climate change (and)… improve…water quality and biodiversity” throughout their cultivated farm. (https://civileats.com/2021/11/22/after-years-of-pushing-for-prairie-strips-this-ecologist-won-a-macarthur-genius-grant/)
Prairies strips on farmland – teeming with pollinators and birds and mammals and other creatures – lower the rate of carbon release into the atmosphere, thereby helping diminish climate change, and do not reduce productivity. Like the lilies and grasses of the field and the ravens of the air, nature has its own ways of seeking sustainability.
Schulte Moore tells of visiting one farmer who had planted prairie strips in his fields, now full of flora and fauna and thriving crops. He was beaming as she walked up to him. “This is why I farm,” he said, “There is so much life.”
Jesus takes us into farmland in this parable to teach us something about life as people of God – to keep our focus, our inner compass, centered on the right things.
“Seek first the reign of God,” Jesus says. He’s pointing us in the direction of the love and justice of God.
Good soil for a healthy soul – and a sustainable planet.
Thanks be to God.