Sermon: Lent 3B
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Most of you will remember that last year, I took a continuing education course on a farm, in which clergy and church leaders learned, among other things, about the connections between farming and pastoring. I finished that course in January, and will be participating in different continuing education options this year. But it was a valuable experience through which I learned a lot.
One of the things that I learned comes from having read a straight-up farming book: The Lean Farm by Ben Hartman. Hartman doesn’t make any connections between pastoring and farming; he’s only interested in farming. Those of us in the course needed to tease out those connections ourselves.
One of the connections that I have found most fruitful is Hartman’s insistence that farmers sell through pull. So many farmers, he argues, decide how many acres of soybeans they want to grow, or how many chickens they want to (or have room to) raise, or whether they want to plant some sort of unknown vegetable that no one has ever seen, just for fun. And then if they end up with too many soybeans, or too many eggs, or a ton of unknown vegetables that no one will buy because they’ve never heard of them before and don’t know what to do with them, they try to push their product. Hartman argues that farmers should instead listen to what their customers need and want, and let the customers’ pull guide their planting strategy and production. So they should be guided by pull, not push.
So during the class, our group of clergy and church leaders sensed that there was something important to be learned here, but we floundered a little because we kept thinking of ourselves as the farmers and all of you in the pews as the customers. And we all knew, at our core, that this just didn’t feel right. We had our eureka moment when someone suggested that we think about God as our customer instead.
God is our customer. Now, this metaphor has its problems. I know that. But let’s talk about what works here.
We all know, we’ve all experienced, what it looks like when priests or congregations or small groups within a congregation all try to push their agenda, right? It doesn’t work. Priests and congregations end up in conflict. Groups of people within a congregation end up in conflict. Or no one is in conflict, but programs and ministries fizzle and fail. Ministry and mission grow limp, or become a source of contention, because everyone is trying to push their own agendas, ideas, and plans.
BUT … BUT!…if God is the customer, and we let God pull us, and the work we do, if we let God’s pull guide us in all that we do…IF WE JUST LET GOD PULL…imagine what that looks like.
THAT is holy ground.
A little like the holy ground of Mount Sinai, where the Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites.
Those of you who have not missed church yet this Lenten season may have noticed a theme emerging from our Old Testament readings: the theme of covenant. A covenant, remember, is an agreement willingly entered into by two parties. The first Sunday of Lent we heard about the first covenant formulated between God and humanity—the one between God and Noah, in which God promised never to wipe out all of creation or all of humanity ever. This covenant was unilateral, in that God made all the promises, and asked Noah and humanity and creation for absolutely nothing in return. We made no promises. No rules were given to us. Out of pure love, God promised to sustain us and not to destroy us, no matter how disappointing we might be.
On the second Sunday of Lent, we heard about the covenant formed between God and Abraham, in which God promised to give Abraham and Sarah a son, to make of him a great nation through which all the nations of the world would be blessed. God promised some land. God also promised to be in relationship with Abraham and his descendants—he promised to be their God, our God. But this time, God did ask for something—that all males be circumcised. I argued that the reason for this condition is that relationships need to be mutual—that both players need to participate in it and to have some skin in the game.
In this week’s Old Testament reading—this is where things get serious for us. Our reading from Exodus tells a part of the covenant formed between God, Moses, and the nation of Israel. And this time, God gives them a ton of rules. What we heard today is the Ten Commandments, but someday—perhaps some Lent—I would challenge you to read through Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Because y’all, if you want to read through some rules and instructions, you’ll find them there. Rules governing sacrifice. Rules governing our relationship with God. Rules governing our relationship with one another. Rules governing our conduct with the poor and the needy. Rules governing our sexual conduct. Rules governing what we eat. Rules governing how we plant our fields. Rules governing how our priests should dress. Rules governing what we may touch and not touch. I could go on and on. In that covenant, God gave God’s people a ton of rules.
Let me tell you the wrong answer first. God did not give God’s people a bunch of rules so that if they kept them, they would be saved. That’s not how it worked. I’ve said this before—God did not come to Moses while the people were still in slavery in Egypt and say, “If they keep all these rules, then I’ll free them from slavery and take them to the Promised Land.” No—he just saved them. And after having saved them from slavery, he asks them to respond by being a holy people, a godly people, who walk in God’s ways and do what God says.
In other words, God asks the people to let God pull.
And this is important, because one of the sins of humanity is that we like to push. To push our needs, our wants, our ideas, our agendas, our plans, our desires. To plant what WE want to plant. To do what WE want to do. To live the way WE want to live.
But God tells us that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. And so being God’s people means letting God pull.
And so God gave those ancient Israelites a whole bunch of rules so that they might learn to let God pull.
Some of those rules don’t apply to us anymore. Like the dietary restrictions. Jesus came and told us that it’s what comes out of our mouths that’s important—not what we put into our mouths. So why did God give them rules about what they put into their mouths in the first place? Perhaps to teach them how to let God pull. If we begin by letting God pull us in small things, then we can go on to let God pull us in bigger things.
But some of those rules do apply to us. Like the Ten Commandments. They are our basic guidelines for letting God pull us in our relationship with him, and for letting God pull us in our relationship with others.
When Ben Hartman says that farmers should let their customers’ pull determine their planting strategy and production, he’s trying to help farmers develop more fruitful farms. When God says that we should let God’s pull determine our entire approach to life, God is trying to help us produce more fruit as well. There’s spiritual fruit, of course—the fruits of the spirit. There’s also making our world—that God created and loves and cares for and promised not to destroy—more fruitful as well.
So, in that covenant on Mount Sinai, God wasn’t trying to save us. God was trying to create a holy people, a fruitful people, who let God’s pull determine everything.
This is difficult to maintain, of course. We all know this. We’re all human, all sinful, and all too often we don’t let God pull—instead, we push.
This Lent, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting and talking to people about my own tendency to try to solve problems and save the world by the force of my own will. If I just work hard enough, I think, if I’m just smart enough, if I’m just dedicated enough, I can fix it all—my own problems, and all of yours, and my family’s and this parish’s. And it’s all well-meaning—I’m really trying to make things better and easier—I’m really trying to do God’s work. Funny how often I fall into the trap of trying to do God’s work without really listening to God—without letting God do the pulling.
And so a part of my Lenten discipline—the penance that I was given when I went to sacramental confession—was to spend more time in contemplative prayer, in prayer that is still and silent and listens and waits for God’s pull. I could do this at any time, of course. I don’t need it to be Lent in order to do this. But Lent is the time when we’re instructed to examine ourselves, to repent, to engage in practices that call us to let God pull.
When we give something up for Lent or we take something on and we are faithful in that, hopefully, we are training ourselves to let God pull us. To let God shape us. To let God determine how we live and move and have our being. So let’s pretend you know someone who gave up coffee for Lent. Does God care about whether or not that person drinks coffee? I don’t know for sure, but I’d guess not. But if the giving up of the coffee is a reminder that our lives are not to be spent chasing our own desires and having exactly what we want when we want it—if it becomes a lesson in obedience and in letting God pull our lives—then it’s of value.
Sometimes we need to do little things before we can tackle the big things. Perhaps humanity needed to circumcise its body before it could circumcise its heart. Perhaps tithing our material goods is a step towards truly living lives of mercy and compassion and love. Perhaps we need to give up coffee for a time before we can give up our weightier and more sinful desires. Perhaps it’s all a part of letting God pull us toward holy ground.
The covenant between God and Moses and the Israelites is too complex for me to cover all in one sermon. There’s so much more that could be said. But here’s the thing that I think needs to be said today:
God calls us to be a holy people. And that means letting God do the pulling. So don’t go out and plant your soybeans willy-nilly. Because God is so much more than your customer. God is your God. And you are God’s child. God’s beloved. Listen to God. And let God pull.