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Old Testament Lesson: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 NIV
Gospel Lesson: Mark 4:1-20 NIV
|Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin|
Words of greeting and preliminary remarks included thanks to Ken Howle, Executive Director of Lake Junaluska, and Tammy McDowell, Assistant Director of Programming/Sales Manager, for the invitation to participate in the preacher-in-residence week. I referenced other activities that I offered during the week, and persons met. As a member of the SEJ Committee on Coordination and Accountability, I made a humorous remark that I was not there to receive a report on the Lake Junaluska ministry. I also thanked the Rev. Pam Carter, who served as the worship leader, Hilda Ryan, accompanist, Todd Alston, guest soloist, and Bishops Ken Carter and Charlene Kammerer (ret.) for their presence and support. Finally, I expressed gratitude to my husband Mike and our children for their attendance and support).
I served a congregation in Florida where years earlier, a family in the church had a grandfather on one side and a great-grandfather on the other side, so I am told who were instrumental in Lake Junaluska's development. As I stand here today, I am aware of so many who helped make this ministry possible. I am also aware that there was a day when I could not have come to Lake Junaluska Assembly, much less preach in this place.*
There is no denying that if we want to focus our minds on iconic symbols and traditional reflections of historical freedom, this is the high day.
Lake Junaluska has rolled out the 'Mom and Apple pie' carpet, complete with hot dogs, ice cream, and fireworks over the lake and memories of celebrating with people we know and don't know; this mix of Lake Junaluska residents, locals, visitors, and foreigners. Some recalling and learning more or less about our history and others very little still makes this tiny hamlet of the United States of America a fun place. I may not know your name. You may never see me again in life, but today, we are all here together, and I daresay that we would mostly agree that freedom is the right thing, at the right time.
The story of America's Independence is the stuff of General Benedict Arnold, who committed treason during the Revolutionary War, a folk hero, Paul Revere (not of the 1960's band Paul Revere and the Raiders), who rode through the streets crying out, "the British are coming, the British are coming! (which he didn't say)." Then there are others to whom you may be related, along with a man named John Chubb.
Is freedom the right thing? Absolutely. Freedom the right thing because its cultivation reflects the highest ideals that a people can amass as they claim for themselves the liberty of self-determination. They claim a way of life that reflects equality and equity for fellow citizens, laws, and guidelines designed to enable them to live together reasonably and peaceably. It ensures that the caliber of the freedoms they hold dear are point toward a bright future filled with hope and possibility for generations to come, or as we sing in the hymn, "Great Is They Faithfulness" points to the bright hope for tomorrow. This ideal sounds plausible, possible, and even achievable.
What made freedom the right thing at the right time? Historically, we would probably say, The Revolutionary War, which was an insurrection by American Patriots in the 13 colonies in response to British rule, resulting in American independence. During the decade before the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, tensions were exacerbated between colonists and the British authorities. The colonists repudiated a series of laws and enactments by the British (such as the Stamp Act, the Townsend Acts, and the Tea Act), which provided a disadvantage to the British and the disadvantage of a vast ocean.
If you live in the United States, you live in a country where true freedom will be the right thing at the right time, and where the seeds of that freedom have experienced a very complicated past, soaring and sometimes sordid; for some growing tall and strong, and for other people withering on the vine. Some people flourished in the soil of generational opportunity, while others faltered in the soil of abject poverty.
The 4th chapter of the gospel of Mark begins with a story about seeds, the role of the Sower, and the relationship between seed and soil. You know the story, and how marvelous for us to tell the story of Jesus teaching 'lakeside' as we gather today on the shore of Lake Junaluska.
Among the things he taught was this parable. In the parable, the farmer went out to sow, that is, 'plant' seed. And as the farmer 'scattered' the seed, it fell on different soil. Jesus names four examples; the path, on rocky places, among thorns, and on good soil. Seed is the right thing to plant in the soil.
In short, parables are earthly stories with heavenly meanings. God is the farmer or 'the Sower', and the seed is the 'Word.'
Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh, God's salvation to a sinful and unredeemed world. The centrality of God's word is not to be underestimated. So much so that John's Gospel opens with these words:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. John 1:1-2 NIV
The Word, the message of God's salvation, the freedom of the liberating message of God's love, frees us to live lives of this abundant truth, love, and hope.
God's love is made incarnate in Jesus Christ. God is in the business of (sowing, that is) planting, growing, and harvesting.
The seed is John 3:16 NIV:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
The growth is John 15:5 NIV:
"I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.
The harvest is Mark 4:26-29 CEB: (and this is the passage that Bishop Carter recently offered to the members of the Cabinet members and the Strategic Leadership Team).
26 Then Jesus said, "This is what God's kingdom is like. It's as though someone scatters seed on the ground, 27 , then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn't know how. 28 The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. 29 Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it's harvest time."
I say to you that the seeds of our country's freedom were the seeds of an ideal.
Jesus points out that sometimes the scattered seed is imperiled on the path of greed, nationalism, racism, tribalism, sexism, and xenophobia. Yet God scatters and plants in a way that is prolific and prodigal.
God's word is plentiful in the richness and the depth of the seed-gift. God is also a prodigal Sower. That is, God scatters God's love widely, God plants lavishly. The seeds of the gospel have been scattered everywhere, in all times, among all nations, among all people, among multiple languages, among people of all lifestyles.
In the trinitarian economy, God's prevenient grace is always planting, Jesus, the seed of God's amazing love and grace is always loving, teaching, constantly reminding, and reaching, and the Holy Trinity is always inspiring, reminding, and empowering.
I would also submit to you as every farmer knows that there is a 'right' time to plant.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 tells us:
1 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
God plants seeds everywhere for maximum effect.
But, we are also told in this lesson that seed and soil must have the right combination of circumstances to grow. All over the country, yes, even the world, seeds are continually being planted, and in this country, especially in the warmer states, something always grows.
Because God desires a rich and ripe harvest, God plants the right seed in all soils and at the right time.
Given the direct style of Mark's writing, particularly as he portrays a Messiah who defies Roman authority, this lesson on spiritual horticulture reminds us of the urgency of now.
Now is the time to plant seeds of freedom, seeds of freedom for everyone. First, we had militia members and later the military fight for our country's independence and over centuries. Yet some fought and still fight for a country in which they did not enjoy the freedoms for which they fought. My father joined the army in WW II, so young that my grandmother had to sign for him to join. He served in a segregated army in 1944, where black soldiers had to take their swimming drills at a neighboring black college. He returned to the Jim Crow south before moving to the Jim Crow north. Yet, he fought for freedom at the right time.
My husband's father and both our uncles served in Korea and returned to segregation, yet, they fought for freedom at the right time. My cousins served in Vietnam, and one in particular, Cousin Charlie Young, has his name engraved on the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington, D.C. He was killed in Vietnam in 1966, following the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It occurred to me that if he hadn't already been able to vote, he didn't live long enough to vote in the freedom of the Voting Rights Act.
And John Chubb mentioned earlier is my husband's ancestor. This free black man fought in the Revolutionary War and became the progenitor of a family of free blacks, who left N.C. in the 1870s, migrated to G.A., and founded a town and United Methodist congregation by the same name to this day. This is a family whose most well-known descendant is probably Nick Chubb, NFL Running Back. There is a new book (holding it before the congregation, then handing it to Mike), entitled, The Chubbs: A Free Black Family's Journey from the Antebellum Era to the Mid-1900s by Clemmie Whatley, Ph.D. (a Chubb family descendant).
And even though black people still live in a country where they are often seen as second-class citizens and where their lives are imperiled, I ask you, did they fight for freedom and die for freedom at the right time?
I'm talking about people whose lives were steeped in an ideal despite their treatment. God loved them, and they loved God and this country. Yet, the seeds of national freedom fell short; it failed them.
How could we allow for the convenient amnesia of enslavement of black people, Cherokee and other Native Americans, and black Americans on the trail of tears and Japanese internment? The seeds of American democracy, the American Experiment, have been both historically famous and simultaneously infamous in their treatment toward entire populations of racial, ethnic minorities, and cultures, much of which remains today.
But, we have a God whose seeds of love and salvation in Jesus Christ never fell short and never failed them. While we can't remove the seeds of hate and discrimination and the theft of lives and livelihoods, we can refuse to continue planting them. By God's sanctifying grace, we can plant new seeds of love, hope, inclusion, equality, and equity.
Folks, we will not plant new seeds of freedom until we first plant seeds of truth-telling. Words matter.
We won't get where we hope to go or grow unless we 'get real.' The obstacles are usually of our own making. So, if we don't like terms like woke, 1619 project, black lives matter, insurrection, LGBTQ+ ordination and marriage, three-fifths, militia, wear masks, COVID-19 is real. It can be deadly, truth, lies, racial wealth gap, reparations, critical race theory, white supremacy, white privilege, defund police, accountability, racism, racist, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and knee on the neck. When we disagree and don't empathize with someone else's reality and feelings of guilt as responses, we are unlikely to work on ourselves, on behalf of others, toward reconciliation.
Allow me to share a quick story about difficult and hypocritical words.
You learned that the Gettysburg Address was written by the late president Abraham Lincoln and delivered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863.
Approximately one hundred years later, a nine-year-old black girl placed her hand across her heart and recited the pledge of allegiance to the flag every day in school during the Civil Rights Movement. That same year she was asked by a white male teacher to learn and recite the Gettysburg Address. Even at that age, you could hear the eventual timbre in her voice and diction of her words. She stood on a stage behind an old-fashioned floor microphone and before her peers during a school assembly for Negro History Week and began to say these words:
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."
And she concluded with these words:
". . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
And almost today, sixty years later, she has been invited to preach at Lake Junaluska on the 4th of July.
I was aware then as now that I was a black girl whose 'fathers did not choose to bring forth a new nation conceived in Liberty' on this soil and that the 'fathers of others' were determined that all men (and women) would not be acknowledged as having been created equal and would not be treated equally.' The teacher never considered the disconnect between the message and the messenger.
Therefore, refuse to be sucked in by difficult words. If you went to the doctor and were told you had cancer, you wouldn't want the doctor to call it a cold on which to base your diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis, because you couldn't stand to hear the word cancer.
No one makes us feel guilty. When we acknowledge the wrong, guilt often follows. I know I don't need outside assistance. The problem occurs when we won't admit the wrong because we don't want to feel guilty. In this case, we allow guilt instead of right to serve as the driver and become stuck in that gear without action.
But wait, here's the hope. Words can also empower us. They can serve as weather vanes. Weather vanes point the direction in which the wind blows and from which the wind blows. The farmer knows that the wind is an indicator of the weather and plants the right seed at the right time based on the weather. For disciples of Christ, the Holy Spirit blows and helps us to know the right time to plant seeds of love and salvation in the right soil.
There is no 'u' or 'i' in the word freedom because freedom is about us. We have an opportunity to recommit ourselves to planting seeds of freedom, liberty, and justice for all, of planting them when a nation is ready to live up to its self-proclaimed ideals where all people have the freedom to thrive. And we have an opportunity when a church (as in The United Methodist Church) is ready to live up to its kingdom mission where all people have the freedom to receive and express God's love because the kingdom of God is about God's vision for the Church. Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. The reign of God is both now and still to come.
So let us learn and remember the past and do the work in the present by planting the right seeds, in all soil, at the right time, and from every pulpit and every mountainside, allow freedom to ring!
My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims pray
From every mountainside,
Let freedom ring!***
Let freedom ring!
*Crum, Mason, The Story of Lake Junaluska. (Classic Reprint) Forgotten Books, 2017. Originally published in 1950.
**The Chubbs: A Free Black Family's Journey from the Antebellum Era to the Mid-1900s. Clemmie Whatley, Ph.D. Sunbury Press, Inc. 2020.
***Smith, Samuel F., America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee). 1882. Music, Thesaurus Musicus, 1744.