University Congregational Church
Oct. 2, 2018
“Plant Big Potatoes”
II Cor. 9:6 and Matt. 6:19-21
Isn’t fall a lovely time of year? Other than not being able to breathe, I so enjoy September and October in Kansas.
• Cool breezes blowing in the windows at night
• The rich colors of orange, purple, burgundy, brown accenting the earth
• The smell of fresh firewood being brought into the house
• The open air markets where you can get the last of the season’s produce
• The changing colors and smells of the gardens and the trees
This is a season of harvest. And today I want to speak about the correlation between planting and harvesting.
Many years ago, in a village far away, the villagers thought that they could eat all their biggest and best produce and keep the smallest for seed. This was a group of people who loved potatoes. When the harvest came, they picked out the fattest and most shapely potatoes for dinner. The small, odd shaped scranny potatoes were saved for seed.
But in the spring, all they had left to plant were the ones no one wanted to eat all year long. So they planted those potatoes. The first year, there was only a small difference in their crop, so small that no one seemed to notice that the harvest was smaller than previous years. A few years went by… and after those years when only the scrawniest, misshapen potatoes were planted… everyone began to notice that the entire crop was full of marble-sized potatoes.
They learned from bitter experience that they just could not keep the best ones for themselves and use the leftovers for seed. The law of life is simple: the harvest will reflect the planting.
Planting small potatoes remains a strong temptation in many areas of life. There seems to be something about us that just wants to keep the biggest and best for ourselves and plant the leftovers. If you listen carefully, you will hear these philosophies in all arenas of life – in social service, in business, in politics, and even in families.
It is tempting to want to get mine before you get yours; to take care of myself before worrying about anyone else; to give away the leftovers and then complain about those who got them. By some crazy twist of nature, we expect our selfishness to result in gracious selfgiving. We expect our small investments to produce big dividends. And most of us here today have lived long enough to know that it doesn’t work that way.
If we want big potatoes, we have to plant big potatoes. If we want big faith, we have to plant big faith. If we want to grow up in Christ and be mature, we have to make big investments in the growing process. If we want a physically fit body, we have to spend time at the gym. If we want a healthy, vibrant church, we have to put in the time and energy to create and maintain one. The apostle Paul, who loved metaphors, talks about this very correlation in terms of sowing and reaping the harvest.
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 2 Cor. 9:6
He goes on to write that this giving that they are doing should fall under 3 guidelines:
• Each should give as s/he has “decided in the heart”
• The gifts aren’t to be given “reluctantly or out of necessity”
• The giver recognizes the truth that “God loves a cheerful giver”
This is Paul’s moral guidance – giving isn’t about how one feels because feelings can change. Giving is something done freely and is defined by God’s love.
This is one of the central teachings of the Bible – that commitment and giving is not carried out in a single action (or even in a series of actions), but in one’s entire way of life. It permeates all aspects of our lives. It is not so much as what we do – it’s about who we are. I have two true examples of this…
There was a knock on the door of a hut occupied by a missionary in Malawi Africa. Upon answering the door, the missionary found one of the native boys holding a large fish in his hands. The boy said, “You taught us what tithing is, so here, I’ve brought you my tithe.” As the mission worker took the fish, she questioned the boy, “If this is your tithe, where are the other fish you caught?” “Oh,” said the boy, “they are still in the water. I’m going back now to catch them for dinner.”
The other example is from one of my former congregations. I was a young mom of 3 children, working full time in the church and traveling to Oklahoma for seminary two days a week. One of the Stephen Ministers in that church asked privately if she could take our family as one of her assignments. Her name was Bea. In addition to her financial commitment to the church, as a Stephen Minister, Bea made hospital visits each week as well as visits to people in the church who were struggling. And each week, she surprised my family with something – usually something from her kitchen. It might be homemade bread or a fresh pie (my favorite). She might bring something special for our children – mac and cheese or a basket of fun activities. She thought of us every week for 3 years. Bea’s commitment to the church was truly a way of life for her. I don’t remember what Bea’s financial commitment was to the church, but I’m going to guess that it was extravagant because that is the kind of love she shared in her everyday life.
The second thing I think we can learn from the Bible about commitment is that the practice of stewardship has the power to change how we understand our lives. People of faith recognize God as the source of all that we are and possess. This is a profound experience; it is a counter-cultural way of living. We understand that the word “stewardship” is best translated as “care” or “responsibility”.
Most survey giants like Gallup show that those who volunteer for a project are the ones most financially invested in that project by almost 3 times those who didn’t volunteer. The implication for us as committed stewards is clear. Our gospel lesson from Mark tells this ancient truth:
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matt. 6:19-21
I find it profoundly interesting that Jesus takes what is proverbial wisdom and something that would have been known to his Jewish audience and turns it into a radical reorientation of one’s whole life. The 3rd of the Three Pillars of Judaism is “deeds of loving kindness”. But Jesus takes what seems to begin as prudent advice into a radical reorientation of one’s whole life. The location of one’s “treasure” turns out to be a matter of one’s total self. How one handles property and time turns out to be not peripheral, but a matter of saving or losing one’s whole being!
A man in my last congregation was a heating and air conditioning service man and a business owner. When he was working, he often popped over to the church to fix this or that. It was not a surprise when he showed up at the door and mentioned that he would be there for a few minutes to fix the running toilet or shore up a spot on the back fence. When he sold his business and retired, he considered the church his retirement job. He kept the property going for a number of years – and he believed in giving his very best to the church – putting in the best plumbing and always leaving things better than he found them. With all of the time and supplies he gave in the everyday repairs I would have thought that his pledge to the church was average. One day I found out that it was quite the opposite – he was not only extremely generous with his time, but with his finances as well. He once told me his personal story and I learned how important giving was to him. It was the essence of who he was. He said that his life had purpose and meaning because he was able to do and give what he did. Without it, he explained, he would not have nearly as much personal joy.
The third thing the Bible teaches us about giving of self is that it is a response – a natural and beautiful response – to God’s grace. You’ve heard the expression, “the joy of giving”. This is not simply an obligation or because we think we will receive something in return – but the joy of giving comes from a sense of gratitude for all the grace we have experienced.
Why did Bea make baskets of activities for my kids and pies for me? She was passing on God’s grace. Why did the little boy give away his first catch of the day with no assurance of another fish for his own dinner? Grace. Why plant the biggest potato instead of eating it when you don’t know whether you’ll have a bumper crop next year? Grace. Why live your whole life sharing what you have and volunteering your days away? Grace. Why listen without interrupting; why offer to serve at the Hygiene Pantry; why give more than you can afford? Grace.
I want to close with a prayer by an unknown author which expresses all these ideas: It helps now and then to step back and take the long view. The Kindom is not only beyond our efforts – it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. This is what we are about: we plant the seeds that one day will grow; we water seeds that are already planted knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything. There is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning – a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future that is not our own. Amen.