July 24, 2011 – Harriet Sandmeier – The Deck Farm

Scripture Reading: Matthew 13:31-32

Another parable he put before them saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

The Deck Farm

Three years ago I read an article in Midwest Living magazine about a family in Wisconsin who offered farm vacations at a second farmhouse on their property. My husband, Max, has many fond memories of spending his early childhood on a farm in his native Switzerland. So I asked, “Hey Max, would you like to spend a week on a dairy farm in Wisconsin?” And he promptly and enthusiastically replied, “Yes!”

This summer marked the third time we have stayed at what we now call “our” farm. I chuckle as I recall the first time I called the owners, Jess and Mary, and made a reservation. Our conversation was going just fine until I was giving our address and said, “9 Wilson Road, Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York.” There was a long pause until finally Jess said, “We’ve only had one family from New York come to stay. They lasted one night and then packed up and said they had to leave because it was too quiet!

It’s that asphalt and steel building thing!

I assured Jess that we lived in a very quiet area, but I know he and Mary were more than a little skeptical about how this reservation was going to turn out.

Interestingly, we bonded almost immediately upon meeting each other in person! We now look forward to seeing each other, and tears fill our eyes when the all-too-short week comes to a close! Who-da-thunk-it?

We don’t have to do farm work while we’re there, but Max enjoys helping to feed the heifers and to catch a ride in Jess’ huge tractor as they go out to cut hay. I should say, “cut hay and chew the fat,” because these two men really like each other.

I am perfectly content to sit in the swing in the front yard and read the novels I never find the time to read during the rest of the year.

This year, because we had to go in early June there wasn’t a garden in which to help ourselves to fresh bounty … except for some terrific rhubarb. In fact, the garden plot by “our” farmhouse was just being planted. This gave us lots of opportunities to talk about what goes into the ground as seed and seedlings. Jess and Mary have been farming their entire lives and they clearly know what they’re doing. They are super teachers. Super teachers and super friends!

Of course the Wisconsin farm comes to mind as I read all of these agrarian parables of Jesus!

This year our lectionary spreads before us all of the wonderful parables of Matthew…so many of which understandably relate to the agricultural society in which Jesus lived and taught. And this year I find myself thinking about two other things as well as the farm.

The first is Rural and Migrant Ministry, that justice and fair-food oriented not-for-profit agency with which our presbytery makes covenant – and which this church in Yorktown as supported generously and consistently for thirty years.

A little sidebar here, my friends! It’s commercial time. Rural and Migrant Ministry – RMM – is celebrating its 30th anniversary at a wonderful gala this coming October 15th. I truly hope that this church will both support it generously – like…how about sponsoring one of the workshops? That … and then also that you’ll gather a sizeable group of folks to caravan over to Ulster County for the day’s events and the celebration dinner (at which RMM is hoping the special guest will be Harry Belafonte)!

OK – end commercial! Back to the parable of the mustard seed.

The second thing this parable brings to mind is our “deck farm!” Yes, the sermon title in the bulletin is correct. It’s “Deck Farm” – not “Duck Farm.”

Our Wisconsin farm experiences coupled with growing consciousness about and commitment to sustainable food sources and justice for farm workers have given birth to a desire to grow some of our own food. Our own garden!

Ideally we would dig up about half of our backyard and plant a variety of vegetables, but frankly, we’re no longer up to such a task! Besides, even if we could do it, it would be futile unless we erected a nine or ten foot fence. The deer would devour! The rabbits would ravish! The woodchuck “would chuck!” And that’s to say nothing of the squash slugs and other creepy crawly things living in the ground.

So dismissing the idea of a backyard garden we turned to Plan B/our small back deck. We purchased several “grow boxes” (rather remarkable things actually), and with several packets of seeds and some tomato and eggplant seedlings our “deck farm” came into being! We added some hanging baskets for herbs and large pots for leaf lettuces and scallions.

The deck is small, but guess what? When I tell you that we also planted summer squash and cucumbers, you know what! We have to clear a path practically every day to get from the back door to the steps leading to our driveway!

But it’s working! By golly, every day we find something new to harvest.

We have a farm! (Of course we have to send some pictures to Jess and Mary so they can enjoy a good laugh!) But it really is possible to grow a lot in a very small space.

Can’t you just imagine what Jesus was thinking when he told his disciples the parable of the mustard seed? He knew he was starting small…and with a rag-tag bunch of doubting disciples…but he also knew that the Kingdom of God could grow just as the mustard seed could grown into a huge tree. He was sowing seeds! And once again though that metaphor he was modeling what our ministries on earth are to be about!

You know, the metaphor of the plant growing from a tiny seed is basic to everyday thinking. Parenting is the daily sowing of commands and ideas and words, in the prayer that they will someday flower into fine characters. Teachers drill pupils in their ABC’s in the prayer that one day they will be able to read the most profound literary passages.

Even the work of Christian ministry – to which we each are called – is a matter of sowing tiny seeds. We Christians cannot, by preaching and teaching, by raising money, by electing deacons and elders, by traveling on mission trips be assured that any of that will make a single disciple, build a single congregation, nor advance the cause of human rights even one iota. We can tell the good news, appeal for righteousness, and speak out against injustice and cruelty, but there is not guarantee that these efforts will produce a more just society.

The Christian worker, most especially, is apt to be driven to despair by the great gap that yawns between the vision of perfection and the performance. We want to do great things for God but we do not seem to do even average-sized things for God. But we never know, do we? We never know when something we say or do will take root and blossom.

When I was just out of graduate school I took at 7th grade English teaching job in the Shenandoah Valley because my fiancé at the time was going to be on the faculty at Washington and Lee University. I taught for two years before our first child was born. I was young…and had studied psychology and counseling. I was trained to be a counselor. Teaching was something I neither expected nor intended to do…nor was I particularly prepared for it. I know now that I kind of stumbled-bumbled my way through each day in the classroom. I tried this and that – and the kids were my guinea pigs!

Last Christmas I received a card form a friend form those days with whom I maintain the annual car-contact. She include a letter in which she said that she had recently attended a memorial service that had been conducted by a Baptist minister who had been a student in one of my first-year classes. At the reception following the service Ann said that during conversation with the minister that somehow my name came up, and the minister said, “I have never forgotten how much she taught us!” Wow! Talk about receiving a totally unexpected gift! I was astounded that a man who must now be in his early 60’s would even remember his 7th grade English teacher. Maybe it was the New York accent that did it! But seriously…you can just imagine how gratifying it was to receive this amazing feedback 50+ years later!

So we sow seeds. We sow in our work. We sow in our relationships. We sow in our Christian lives. Wherever we are the most that we do is sow seeds. And that – it seems to me – is wholly consistent with the teaching of Scripture.

Of such small, ordinary daily works is the life of Christian faithfulness made up. The great issues of our time often make it difficult to feel that there is much we can do. We are greatly tempted to drift. But Jesus tells us that near at hand is a field in which we may sow small seeds. There is never “nothing can be done about it.” God always allows us some small thing that we can do: write a letter, befriend a stranger, encourage a friend in despair, invite a neighbor to church. Of such tiny seeds God can make great shrubs…and, my friends, of such small beginnings the kingdom is made.

Sow, my sisters and brothers…Sow!