The original inspiration for this sermon was Wendell Berry and Eugene Peterson. Long ago Peterson taught me a new way to read Berry. Every time he talks about farming, or agriculture, substitute in “church.” Berry writes lovingly and scathingly about modern agriculture—to say he is not a fan of agribusiness is like saying the lamb is not a fan of the wolf (although Berry, while genteel, is hardly lamb-like). Berry writes about sustainable practices, on the farm and in life, practices that call into question many of the modern values in our consumer society. Berry taught me to think of myself, not as a consumer, but as a producer. The consumption of goods for the sake of consuming goods in an illness, or as one of Berry’s friends, Edward Abbey wrote, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
Anyway, both Berry and Peterson taught me to look at the particular soil of the individual churches I serve. What worked in North Carolina at an upper class suburban Presbyterian church would not work in a university based Presbyterian church in Alaska, or a predominately retirement-aged church in Medford. To quote Berry: We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it. And to take good care of it, we have to know it. And to know it and to be willing to take care of it, we have to love it. He taught me to love the churches I serve, and by loving them he means knowing them and loving them for who they are. Berry writes, “To be interested in food but not in food production is clearly absurd.” To be interested in the Church, but not in the care and feeding of church members is clearly absurd.
The first draft of my sermon was about the Church, not about individual spiritual growth. The Redhead moved me in the better direction, at least for a sermon. She was right, because the words seem to touch people where they live. But this is all true of churches as well.
There are many models for understanding what a church is. Since the 1940s the church has been seen as a business, and pastors were trained to be managers. You can see this in play today when people talk about marketing the church, about defining what our product is, about setting achievable, measurable goals. A colleague of mine was invited to a sales seminar by one of his parishioners who told him, “Phil, this is right down your line. After all, you are really a salesman of the Gospel.” Now the reason that is a popular metaphor is because there are some things that helpful there. I may not be a salesman of the Gospel, but I am a communicator, and while I am not a CEO of the church, or even a mid-level manager, a lot of what I do requires managerial know-how. After all we are an incorporated organization with a budget of $400,000, and we have some valuable assets, this building, the organ, that we need to maintain.
The first metaphor for a church was political. The very Greek word for Church, ekklasia, means a political assembly of citizens. This was the basic institution of Athenian Democracy. Since Jesus used the term “Kingdom of God” a lot in his preaching, it makes sense that was the word the early Christians chose to describe their particular gathering. In ancient Israel the basic political body of people was called the Qahol, which was translated later into Greek as Ecclesia.
Over the centuries there have been many metaphors to describe the church, but I have to admit that the one I like best is the one found in the sermon text for last week, which was why I wanted to preach it about the church. The principles are the same.
One thing works in one church, but that very same thing, done the very same way fails in another church. The soil is different for each congregation. Some things cross over. In every garden, no matter where it is, you put seeds in soil, you make sure the plants have sunlight, you water and weed, and you harvest. But how and when you do those things is very different from place to place.
In churches all over the world a lot of the same thing happen. Sermons are preached, songs are sung, sacraments are celebrated, committees meet. There are pot lucks and other fellowship activities. But the way they are done are often different. Sometimes very different. It all depends on the soil of the church you are in. If things are going to grow, you have to respect the soil.
I believe the church is an organic thing. This particular church has a distinctive style of its own. Mission and music are very important to my congregation. If I ever suggested getting rid of our organ, it would be the last thing I suggested!
Some pastors come in, according to Peterson, and take the fertile soil of a congregation, bulldoze it away, and build the religious equivalence to a strip mall. This new program, that new worship technique, a canned series of sermons and futile attempts to imitate larger “more successful” churches are all untried and untrue methods to grow a church. Yes, they may work in some churches, but to think you can take a program that works in a suburban evangelical community church, and implement it in a downtown, mainline church is just short of crazy. And after you have stripped away all the fertile soil (driven off the people who have loved and sustained the church over the years) what do you have left? An empty strip mall.
Instead we should nourish what is already there. According to Berry, “If we can’t afford to take good care of the land that feeds us, we’re in an insurmountable mess.” If you can’t afford to take care of the particular congregation that sustains the church, you have just created an insurmountable mess. If you don’t like what is already there, if you cannot adapt to the people who are a part of the congregation, then you need to move on to a place more to your liking. If the people are truly dysfunctional, which does happen, then you are not doing them a favor by propping them up. Nature has its own ways of taking care of dysfunctional systems.
Berry believes we do better to adapt to our environment, rather than forcing the environment to adapt to us. “If we do not know how to adapt our desires, our methods, and our technology to the nature of the places in which we are working, so as to make them productive and to keep them so, that is a cultural failure of the grossest and most dangerous kind. Poverty and starvation can also be cultural products —if the culture is wrong.”
Berry is a contrarian, if you haven’t figured that out by now. You have probably seen the bumper sticker, Think Globally, Act Locally. Here is Berry’s take on that:
I don’t think ‘global thinking’ is futile, I think it is impossible. You can’t think about what you don’t know and nobody knows this planet. Some people know a little about a few small parts of it … The people who think globally do so by abstractly and statistically reducing the globe to quantities. Political tyrants and industrial exploiters have done this most successfully. Their concepts and their greed are abstract and their abstractions lead with terrifying directness and simplicity to acts that are invariably destructive. If you want to do good and preserving acts, you must think and act locally. The effort to do good acts gives the global game away. You can’t do a good act that is global … a good act, to be good must be acceptable to what Alexander Pope called “the genius of the place.” This calls for local knowledge, local skills and local love that virtually none of us has and that none of us can get by thinking globally. We can get it only by a local fidelity that we would have to maintain through several lifetimes.
When writing about promises, the kind of promises people make when they marry, the kinds of promises people make to each other, Berry says, For when we promise in love and awe and fear there is a certain kind of mobility that we give up. We give up the romanticism of progress, that is always shifting its terms to fit its occasions. We are speaking where we stand, and we shall stand afterwords in the presence of what we have said. Berry stands firm on the ground that nourishes him, and stands ever in the presence of what he has written.
Last night I watched the news in horror as I saw families torn apart by our recent immigration policy. I knew not how to react, except in disgust and fear. And I reached for Berry, who gave me little consolation. “It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits. It ought to, but we just finish our breakfast.” I wish for a country where the news can actually interrupt breakfast and dinner. Until then…well, we might find out just how bad it can get.
A Selected Bibliography: Berry also writes novels and poetry. I have read the poetry, but not any of his novels. The non-fiction keeps me busy enough. One day I will read them.
A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural & Agricultural, 1972, Harcourt, Brace; New York, Shoemaker & Hoard (2004), Counterpoint (2012)
The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, 1977, Sierra Club, San Francisco, Avon Books (1978), Sierra Club/Counterpoint (third edition, 1996)
Standing by Words,1983, North Point, San Francisco, Shoemaker & Hoard (2005), Counterpoint (2011)
What Are People For?, 1990, North Point, San Francisco, Counterpoint (2010) 1582434875
Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, 1992, Pantheon, New York
Another Turn of the Crank, 1996, Counterpoint, Washington, DC
Life Is a Miracle, 2000, Counterpoint, Washington, DC
In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World, 2001, Orion, Great Barrington, MA
Citizenship Papers, 2003, Shoemaker & Hoard, Washington, DC, Counterpoint (2014)
It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture and Other Essays, 2012, Counterpoint, Berkeley