Proper 10, Year A July 10, 2011
Reading again this parable of the sower from Jesus (Matthew 13), I was reminded of some studies I read back in my college days about how farmers in various parts of the world were beginning to realize greater abundance through multi-cropping techniques. So, I googled multi-cropping this week and I learned that farmers using multi-cropping techniques - that is planting several crops together in one field - realize several advantages that mono-croppers do not. One benefit of multi-cropping is that it helps the soil to maintain nutrients, which are more quickly leached out by the planting of just a single crop over and over. Additionally multi-cropping can capitalize on the interplay of the natural qualities of various plants. Get this: when tomatoes, onions and marigolds are planted together, the onions help suppress weeds that usually plague tomato and marigold fields, while marigolds repel pests that usually feed on tomatoes. So the combined result of multi-cropping these three crops is that all three achieve greater abundance than they do when planted separately.
Multi-cropping seems to me a good metaphor for many mainline American Churches. Gone are the days when the Spirit of God spreads only Episcopal seeds in the Episcopal Church, Roman Catholic seeds in the Roman Catholic Church, Baptist Seeds in the Baptist Church, and so on. It seems to me that the Spirit of God is heavily into multi-cropping these days. For instance, how many of you here where raised in a tradition other than the Episcopal Church? (a show of hands revealed one half to two thirds of the congregation) As I read and talk to colleagues in ministry, I see more and more evidence that the spiritual abundance that Jesus points to in the parable of the sower is being realized when people of various backgrounds come together in one body, and create a rich diversity of praise and service that could not be created in a monoculture setting. It is the spiritual equivalent of mixing onions, tomatoes and marigolds!
Given this multi-cropping activity of God’s Spirit, the challenge for any faith community that seeks to live into the abundance pointed to in this Gospel passage, is to recognize how the congregational culture that currently exists is, or is not open to increasing diversity. This is not easy work, as most self analysis is not – but it can be exciting and rewarding work! It is work because those of us who have been in a particular congregations, or denominations for any length of time are not always aware of what the barriers are for “new seed” to find root in our field.
Another metaphor used when talking about this sort of congregational self-analysis is that of the “cultural iceberg”. This is a term coined by The Rev. Eric Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute. This is how one blogger, Duncan McLeod, who has engaged in the work Eric proposes around knowing our individual cultural icebergs, describes it:
[If you think for your culture as an iceberg floating in the ocean] Above the waterline are external elements of culture that are explicitly learned, conscious, easily changed, linked with objective knowledge that can be sensed – seen, heard, tasted, touched, smelt.
Under the waterline are internal elements of culture that are implicitly learned, unconscious, difficult to change, linked with subjective knowledge – beliefs, values, patterns, myths.
When two people from different cultures come close to one another, it is like two icebergs colliding. Under the surface, often without people realizing, unspoken assumptions are clashing or competing with one another.
The key is to be aware of one’s own iceberg, explicit [above the waterline] and implicit [below the waterline]. And to listen in ways that help one to discover something of the sub-surface aspects of others’ cultures.
To help us get our heads around this concept, we met in small groups to talk about a scene during meal time on an ordinary day when we were each at the age of 10 to 12. I talked about the culture I experienced in a small family (6 siblings had recently left home) with an alcoholic father and codependent mother. We ate at a long rectangular table. It was fascinating to explore the impact of this scenario on my perception of power and authority, male and female roles, and hospitality. And just as fascinating to sit with five others who were doing the same thing.
Eric Law emphasizes that congregations have cultural icebergs as well, and discovering the explicit and implicit parts of them can prepare a congregation to be open soil for those whom God draws into the congregation, but who might come from quite a different place. While the dinner table exercise that Duncan McLeod describes can help us identify some to the aspects of our personal cultural iceberg, to get at the content of our congregational cultural iceberg, we might want to ask questions such as, “What is normative to this community? What are the unspoken rules, norms, and ways of doing things that are just assumed by those who have been members for a long time? “ It is often those who are newest to the community who may be most aware of the underwater, implicit part of the iceberg, as those of us who have been around longer just take the norms of granted, but those who are newer often bump into them, not knowing they are there.
For instance, someone who is fairly new to the parish told me recently that she has had a hard time identifying how to become involved significantly in our ongoing ministry. Whereas the website of another church in our community states very clearly who to contact to get involved in various ministries, our website and other communication tools of ours have not led this newcomer to that sort of information. Instead, she noted that it seems to be our style to have the leaders of the various facets of our ministry make personal invitations to people to join in. Two very different congregational approaches to incorporation of new members into ministry- neither good nor bad – both with strengths and weaknesses. But, awareness of this part of our cultural iceberg is a good thing – such awareness allows us to understand that our approach may work well in some cases and not in others. Such awareness allows us to adjust our approach if we discern that will make us more open to the multi-cropping movement of the Spirit.
There are ways for us to proactively and intentionally look at the many facets of our congregational cultural iceberg – exercises we could undertake as a group to begin to see what the unspoken norms that have given our community its shape over the years are. I am pondering how to use one of our Wednesday evenings this summer, and several adult forums in the fall to explore this further with anyone who is interested. Stay tuned!
I want to end by sharing an excerpt from the book titled Radical Welcome, written by The Rev. Stephanie Spellers, who is a priest of our diocese and on staff at our cathedral in Boston. In this excerpt I think we hear that knowing who we are culturally can help us see others who come from a different place, and then intentionally stretch ourselves to offer them the generous welcome of the open, good soil of the Gospel parable. Here is what Stephanie wrote about her entry into the Episcopal Church:
“I will never forget that winter’s day, sitting in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, a grand Gothic edifice on New York’s Upper West Side. Though I had worshiped on the fringe of the congregation while living, working and writing in the city, this time I had come simply to celebrate a friend’s ordination.
Seated at the back of the church, distant from the action at the front of the chancel, I was slowly, inexorably tuning out. And then, with a sharp visceral tug, I tuned back in.
[voices sang] ‘Lord I will lift mine eyes to the hills, knowing my help, it comes from you…’
Was I hearing right? …. Could it be? … Like a giddy child I turned to my friends on either side, whispering, ‘Do you hear it? Do you hear it?’ They nodded, but they really didn’t have a clue.
On the surface, we all heard a quartet from a local black church singing Richard Smallwood’s ‘Total Praise.’ What I and perhaps a few others could hear was sweet memory. My mama used to play ‘total Praise’ on those random Sundays when she would pack me and my brother into the Oldsmobile Omega and cart us to the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. Later, I sang in some school-based gospel choirs and cobbled together my own gospel music collection. Even later, once I landed in the Episcopal Church, I played the songs religiously while I dressed for church, my private time to ‘get my praise on.’ But hearing this music- a pop gospel hymn sung by soaring expressive black voices- in an immense dignified European-American identified space? The tears poured, my hands waved, I lifted my voice, and deep inside I heaved a huge sigh of relief and gratitude for the welcome. Years after my official reception into the Episcopal Church, a part of me that I didn’t even know was sitting outside finally opened the door and came in.” (Stephanie Spellers in Radical Welcome: Embracing God, The Other, and the Spirit of Transformation, p.3).
My friends, perhaps something in you resonates with that story. Perhaps something in you is still sitting outside the doors of this church. What so many of us know about the spirit of this congregation is that we have found warm welcome here and so we long to be deeply welcoming to others. May the divine sower till us and move us in ways that make us even more open ground for tomatoes, onions, marigolds and varieties of seed we haven’t even heard of yet, so that Christ’s spiritual abundance might continue to overflow here.
In his name and for his sake.