putting the “in” in incarnation


    Though it was almost thirty years ago that I was on a mission trip in the interior of the Yucatan peninsula, in a little village called Hoctun, I can still see the man vividly.

    Our task was to dig wells and put in water pumps to help the subsistence farmers do more than, well, subsist. The ground was covered in rocks and the vegetation was almost as sparse as the rainfall. When we got to our first site, the man was standing in his small field, a cloth bag draped over his shoulder and a pointed stick about five feet long in one hand. He would wedge the stick in between the rocks and twist it to make a small space, reach the other hand into the bag and drop two or three kernels of corn in the hole, and then cover them by scraping the dirt back over with his foot.

    “What’s he doing?” I asked.
    “Planting corn,” replied the missionary who was our team leader.
    “That won’t work,” I said.

    The man came to mind again this morning as soon as the gospel reading began: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.” Ginger began her sermon by describing how the Palestinian farmer of that time would have had the bag over his shoulder and would have broadcast the seed by the handful over the ground around him, letting the seed fall wherever it might.

    (A short break so you can watch the best telling of this parable I know – and the song is killer, too.)

    It makes for great theater, but my feeling about that farmer is the same I felt back in Mexico: it won’t work, which makes the fact that it was Jesus’ metaphor for how the Community of God (I’m still chasing a better word for kingdom) grows downright perplexing, particularly when I take myself back to what we went to do for those three weeks in the Yucatan.

    We went to teach them to farm differently. We brought diggers (by that I mean people to dig), tools, water pumps, and all kinds of things to offer them the chance to not have to live on a stick and prayer. Underneath the rocks was fertile soil. The water would mean they could grow vegetables they had grown before. They could also keep chickens and rabbits. Part of our message was, “If you want your farming to be productive, you’ve got to use more efficient technology and practices.”

    Don’t get me wrong. They needed the help. I think we did good work during those three weeks. I think we helped to save some lives. But I’m thinking in metaphor here. Jesus uses the image of a subsistence farmer to represent how the Community of God takes root and grows, or doesn’t in us. I find deep comfort, somehow, in knowing our God whose name is Love, is full of grace and hope and even power, and is marvelously inefficient. If the world is a farm, then God doesn’t appear to think a tractor’s sexy. The crop, instead, gets planted one randomly dropped seed as a time.

    The whole of Matthew 13 is filled with parables that are somewhat counter intuitive by most current standards. Jesus talks about a farmer doesn’t pull any weeds and just harvests everything, then of the Community of God being like mustard seeds and yeast (both rather mysterious in their workings), then on to treasure hunters on land and sea willing to give up everything for their quest, and then a fishing version of the inclusive farmer, with the fishermen hauling everything into the nets. We read the stories and then we, like the disciples come looking for explanations. Much of the time, the explanations I’ve heard move to the parts of the parables that deal with who gets left out: the soils that don’t measure up, the tares to be bundled and burned, the fish to be tossed out.

    I’m not sure the culling comes quite so easily.

    The folks at theooze.com sent me some books to read and write about (who am I to turn down free books?). I was a couple of chapters into The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay when I heard Ginger’s sermon on the Sower, and I got a little past halfway sitting at Panera yesterday afternoon. The authors live up in the Pacific Northwest and are working out a new model for Christian community that has more incarnation and less institution than the church. Rather than sitting in sanctuaries waiting for people to join them, they are out in the pubs with the public, working hard to incarnate Christ’s love to those who have been burned by religion or who know nothing of faith. Though much of their critique is aimed at the evangelical church and uses a vocabulary with which I’ve lost much of my familiarity, I appreciate their passion and their willingness to work out their faith in public. The book is giving me much on which to ruminate and I think it’s worth the read.

    As far as where some of their words took me, I got hung up on one sentence. In the midst of their great stuff on how ministers and other Christians needed to get out of the building to share Christ’s love and how they needed to build relationship rather than connect to convert, they wrote of the people with whom they found resonance:

    They think the homosexuals’ struggle for sexual clarity isn’t that much different in God’s sight than the heterosexuals’ struggle against pornography.

    Man, there’s a lot to unpack in that sentence.

    First – and to the point: there’s a big difference between homosexuality and pornography. Being gay or lesbian doesn’t destroy relationships and individuals; pornography does.

    Second, what the hell is “sexual clarity”? My gay and lesbian friends are struggling because they aren’t accepted, not because they’re confused.

    Third, when we don’t welcome everyone with the love of Christ, we’re missing what it means to be a part of the Community of God. There’s a lot of good gay and lesbian soil out there folks where God’s love is growing strong, in spite of the rejection and ridicule that comes from many of those who call themselves Christian.

    One of the themes in the parables is God’s willingness to scatter love everywhere and to take in every growing thing. Yes, the parables talk about sorting things out at the end. I struggle with those parts of the stories because I think it’s completely consistent with the image of God we’re given through Jesus for God to get to the sorting out and just yell, “All ye, all ye, ox in free.” (At least I know I’d be foolish to count on God to agree with me on who should be asked to leave.)

    I’m not trying to rail on the guys who wrote the book. I highlighted the sentence because it hurt. Two thousand years on and we still don’t know how to love one another very well. What I know about love is it is fundamentally who God is; it looks the same when it is shared between two people, whether they are gay or straight; and it feels the same to me as I give love and receive love from both my gay and straight friends. When we speak of Jesus, we often say he was “fully human.” I think he loved people in a way that allowed them to be fully human as well. If our call is to create incarnational community, then we are called to love each other into wholeness, which mostly means I love you into becoming the person you feel called to be, not who I imagine you could become.

    When it comes time for the sorting, if God says to me I missed the point because I let too many people in, I will smile and take the hit. What would break my heart would be if God said, “I had room for everyone. Why did you keep closing the door?”



    1. Thank you Milton.

      With all the furore here in England on this issue it is sometimes hard to remember that God is co-opted into this and that I/ we are still children who are loved, regardless of the heartache and destruction we are said to bring.

      So thank you.

    2. Wonderful post, Milton. And, the video was great. I will pass it on to others.
      I am still waiting for you to comment more (as you hinted you might) on The Shack. I am reading it and having trouble putting it down.

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