December 4, 2016

Plowing the Field

Advent 2A, December 4, 2016

In 1942, Clarence Jordan and his wife Florence, along with another couple (Morton and Mable England) began what they affectionately called a “Demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” It was a farm in Americus, Georgia, about 130 miles due south of Atlanta on US Hwy 19. Koinonia Farm as it came to be called was, essentially, a commune. But the people who came there spent time developing community life on the teachings and principles of Jesus. People of all types, men, women, black, white, foreign & native born, all worked side by side, ate side by side, and shared in the profits of the farm. They prayed together, worshiped together, and studied Scripture together too. There was not a distinction among them. 

At least, not on the farm itself. As I said, it was the 1940s in rural Georgia. After the War, various groups tried various measures to get Koinonia Farms to stop doing what they were doing. There were protests and boycotts, firebombs and bullets, even night time visits from the Ku Klux Klan. But in all of those hardships, Clarence Jordan and his farm family responded with non-violent resistance and prayer. They found new avenues to sell the fruits of the labors. They used other networks, long before mass media, to tell their story. And in all of that, Koinonia Farms grew. As the threats of violence passed, they focused on the poor quality of local housing and began a project to build decent, affordable homes for our neighbors. Linda & Millard Fuller were part of Koinonia Farms at the time, and from that local effort to build homes came Habitat for Humanity. And Clarence Jordan told the story of Koinonia Farms in multiple ways before his unexpected death in 1969. One of his lasting legacies is a series of books called The Cotton Patch Gospel in which he translates the New Testament from the ancient Greek into the South Georgia vernacular of his people. Gainesville, GA, is Bethlehem; Atlanta is Jerusalem, just to give you a hint of his geography. 

Who, really, would have thought that in little old Americus, Georgia, there would be such a place that will celebrate its 75th anniversary in 2017. An ongoing community that seeks to show what the Kingdom of God can and should look like, in much the same way the prophet Isaiah talked about a few thousand years ago. Clearly humanity is still working on it, but every now and then we get a glimpse of that peaceable kingdom as it prepares the way for God’s reign to be seen. What makes Koinonia Farms so different is how counter-cultural it was. Clarence Jordan grew up in a mainline, Protestant denomination and graduated from seminary in that Christian tradition deeply rooted in the culture of the era. The first groups that took issue with Koinonia were not the Klan or the White Citizens Councils; it was other Christian places of worship. In a time when most churches in the Deep South supported segregation, either explicitly or through their silence, they saw this “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God” as a direct threat to them and their understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Jordans had a friend from India, a recent convert to Christianity, visiting with them, learning with them on the Farm. They took him to church with them on Sunday. The Jordans saw nothing wrong with this, of course. Here was a friend, a follower of Jesus, and they wanted to show off their church. The other members of the church saw a person of color and, while they let him worship with them since he was a friend of the Jordans, they were pretty clear they didn’t like it. 

A few years ago, the Jordans son, Jim said in an interview with Christianity Today magazine: When it became clear in the South that the old ways were not going to last forever, and the strong resistance started, Koinonia became a symbol for the change and the lightning rod for the opposition. 

When the systems begin to shift and change, it makes people incredibly uncomfortable. We can see this play out in smaller ways like our own household or our workplace or local churches. I mean, have you ever encountered a loyal grocery store customer after they find that the tomato sauce is now in a different place? We see this level of discomfort and angst when systems we have known for a lifetime start to shift, when it appears that “the way things have always been” might not “always be” in the next generation. It goes way beyond tomato sauce or who is going where for the holidays. It means we have to take a long, hard, and often uncomfortable look at what God is doing. Our words from Isaiah and John the Baptist today address some of this shift. One of the things I adore about both of these prophets is their inability to mince words. Isaiah proclaims the coming of a new Davidic King. Christians have plugged Jesus into this story somewhat retroactively. We can see what Isaiah was talking about, but the likely hood is that Isaiah couldn’t envision someone like Jesus; he was talking about a new King to be like or better than David, a man after God’s own heart. It wouldn’t be easy, and it would certainly disrupt the system that had evolved since David was king. The images of predator and prey lying peaceably together brings up images of the Garden of Eden, but it is also meant to serve as an image of kingdoms no longer at war, no longer seeking each other’s land. Not an easy habit to break! While Isaiah was prophesying somewhat abstractly about the future, John the Baptist was, well, being John the Baptist. Normal everyday people are flocking to him to see what his message is all about. And those in religious power, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, come to him as well. Only, they seem to be on the fringe of the crowd to see what he might say next. He sees them and says, “You brood of vipers!!” I doubt they smiled and said, “Oh, he’s talking about us…” 

This Wildman of the Wilderness, John the Baptizer, got himself into more than a couple of troublesome spots with people for speaking truth to power. He starts off that way today with his “brood of vipers” comment, but he keeps going. Did you see that? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 

He’s saying that God doesn’t care what has happened in the past. God doesn’t care who your ancestors are or were. What have you done today that is going to help bring peace to the world and God’s Kingdom on earth? Because that’s our job. John the Baptist was not the Messiah, and he was not, by his own admission, the one Isaiah was talking about either. But he pointed the way, and laid the groundwork for Jesus to proclaim the Kingdom of God has come near. Clarence Jordan carried on the work of John the Baptist and Isaiah by literally preparing the Earth for this peaceable Kingdom that Isaiah foretold. There’s only one John the Baptist. There is only one Clarence Jordan. And there is only one of you, too. Our call, our job, is to prepare the way for Christ, and that happens in many, many ways. The Church of course is people who sometimes occupy a building, not a building sometimes occupied by people. This Church, you, do a pretty amazing job of reaching out to relieve, to the extent we can, the suffering of those in our community and beyond. The bins in our Reception Area for Religious Community Services, Interfaith Refugee Ministries, and Merci Clinic are always overflowing. When there is an individual need, this church responds. The Christ Church Trust recently gave away over $70,000 for local agencies who are serving the most vulnerable of God’s children here in New Bern. The Gospel writers told the story of John the Baptist. The stories of Koinonia Farms and Habitat for Humanity have been well told in many ways, and RCS, Merci Clinic, and Interfaith Refugee Ministries all have powerful stories to tell, too, about what happens when people of faith look to answer Jesus’ call to a better way of life and a better way to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. As Christ Church, we have a story to tell, too. We have a story to tell about the ministry that happens here in these historic walls, but we have a story to tell about the ministry that happens OUTSIDE these walls, too, and the people of Christ Church who help make New Bern it’s own little “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” We live into and live out our Baptismal promises all the time, and in doing so, we are pointing the way to Christ. The problem is that we are either too humble to talk about them, or we don’t know the whole picture enough to tell that story. 

Former Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori talked many times, including from this pulpit in 2011, about how the true impact of a church should not be measured by how many seats are filled each week, but by how many lives are transformed in the community. It is my hope that one year from now, the first Sunday in December 2017, we will be well on our way to telling the story of how Christ Church, New Bern, impacts this community and makes a difference in the lives of those we encounter. It’s an effort that will take all of us, not just gathering the stories and images to be told, but to share those stories with our friends and neighbors. When we do that, when we tell the story, not of how great we are, but of how we serve Christ by serving others and tending to those on the margins of our community, we point the way to Jesus and show others what Christian community means. 

And that, my brothers and sisters, is called Evangelism. 


 Extra Sources: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/marchweb-only/32.0a.html