Monday, January 20, 2014

demonstration plots

Sermon 1-19-14
Manassas Church of the Brethren
John 1: 29-42
Demonstration Plots

A few years ago, I started working for Brethren Volunteer Service on a very specific project: to start new BVS intentional community houses. These would be places around the country, connected with local congregations, where volunteers would work in the community at volunteer projects, but also agree to spend intentional energy working at their life together in Christian community. They would live together, eat together, pray together, and be in service together.

BVS had a long history of empowering people to serve, but running community houses was something sort of new (I’ve since learned that there were various experiments in community living in BVS’s history, but this was the first time it had been a sustained, programmatic effort.) So, BVS sent me down to rural Georgia, to a place called Koinonia Farm, where people have been living in intentional Christian community since the 1940s, to learn some basics for setting up community houses. It was an incredible weekend.

Koinonia Farm was founded in 1942 by Clarence and Florence Jordan and Martin and Mabel England. Clarence had recently finished seminary and a PhD, and had heard a specific call. He told his soon-to-be wife, Florence, “If you want to be the wife of a pastor of the First Baptist Church, you don’t want to marry me. I’m going back to Georgia and farm and do something for the poor.” And that is what they did. The big evil in 1940s Georgia was segregation, and Jordan had a clear sense that he was called to return to his home to work at ending racial strife through what the people there knew – farming. So Koinonia (a Greek word that means “community” or “fellowship”) began as a farm where men and women, white and black, rich and poor lived together following four very simple, biblical principles:

1.     Treat all human beings with dignity and justice
2.     Choose love over violence
3.     Share all possessions and live simply
4.     Be stewards of the land and its natural resources

Jordan called what they were doing on the farm a “demonstration plot” for the Kingdom of God. If you’re familiar with farming techniques, maybe you know what a demonstration plot is. I am not a farmer, and I had no clue. But the people at Koinonia taught me about it.

A demonstration plot is exactly what it sounds like: when you’re testing out something new, a new crop or a new seed or a new growing technique, you plant a demonstration plot. That way, you can watch its growth, and you can easily show others what you’re doing. Our youth spent a week at ECHO farm in Florida this summer, where the interns were caring for dozens of demonstration plots, planted to test out growing techniques that they could easily share with missionaries working in impoverished communities around the world.

As you might imagine, a demonstration plot for racial integration in rural Georgian in the 1940s was not met with overwhelming enthusiasm. The people around town were not too excited about this weird group of people who lived together, farmed together, shared their money and spent time across the tried and true racial dividing lines that had defined their world for so many decades. In the 1950s, the local Chamber of Commerce attempted to force the Farm to disband and sell its property. The Ku Klux Klan attacked the farm regularly, burning crosses in the farm’s yard and telling its residents that they would be killed if they didn’t leave town immediately.

The farm had been sustaining itself by selling locally produced goods – honey, chickens, vegetables and pecans. Their fruit stand was firebombed. Machine gun fire was sprayed nightly from the highway. People salted their fields, cut down their trees, and destroyed their tractors. But the people of Koinonia were committed to non-violent resistance and response. They endured the violence, posting unarmed sentries at the entrance, writing letters to the paper to explain what they were doing, and other creative responses.

Since they couldn’t make profit locally, Koinonia started a mail-order business, selling pecans and other goods around the country. Making a nod to the racist community surrounding the farm, Clarence’s slogan for the catalog was tongue in cheek: “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia!” The catalog worked. You can, to this day, order Koinonia pecans and other goods from their website. I recommend their granola.

One of the other things that Clarence Jordan did while he was living at Koinonia was to write his own version of the gospels, translating the story of Jesus into the vernacular of his place in rural, mid-century Georgia. He called it the Cotton Patch Gospel. Here’s how he translated our passage for this morning:

The next day, John saw Jesus coming to him. “Y’all, look! There’s God’s lamb, the world’s sin-bearer! That’s the one I was talking about when I said, ‘A man is coming behind me who has gotten ahead of me because he was there before I was. Even I was not sure of him, but that he might be introduced to the nation, I began a pre-enrollment in water.”

John testified further: “I saw the Spirit, descending like a dove from the sky, and lighting on him. And even I was not sure about him, but he who sent me to dip in water also told me, ‘The one upon whom you see the Spirit descending and lighting will be the one who immerses you in Holy Spirit.’ Well, I saw it, and I have emphatically stated that THIS is God’s Man.”

The following day, John was standing with two of his converts, and when he saw Jesus walking around, he again cried out, “Y’all look! There’s God’s Lamb!” The two converts, upon hearing John say that, started following Jesus. Jesus noticed that they were following him, and he turned around and asked, “What’s on your mind?” They asked, “Reverend, where are you staying?” He told them, “Come and see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they visited with him that whole day until about four o’clock.”

How about that? The disciples are following Jesus around like a celebrity – after all, John has just yelled at them that this is God’s Man, the world’s sin-bearer – and they’re curious. Jesus senses them following him, and he says, in Jordan’s Georgia accent, “What’s on your mind, y’all?”

And they ask one question, a stand-in for all their pent-up curiosity about this savior of the world: “Hey, um, well, we were just wondering, Rev, what were you…who are…how did you…where are you going?”

And Jesus, who must hear all the curiosity behind their stammered question, says simply: “Come and see.” He doesn’t try to explain it, he doesn’t offer them a theological explanation for who he is, he doesn’t outline his itinerary for teaching and preaching and healing and miracle-working. He just says, why don’t y’all come with me and see.

I think that’s what Clarence Jordan and the people of Koinonia have been doing for the last 70 years, attempting not to explain or defend or simply obey the gospel, but to live it – to be a tiny piece of the good news, a demonstration plot for the Kingdom. For 70 years, they have been working at reconciliation, at non-violence, at living as a blessed community of Christ together, even in the midst of threat, violence, and scorn. For 70 years, they’ve been demonstrating what the Kingdom can look like.

And what DOES the kingdom look like? Well, Jesus tells us: The kingdom of God is like…

a seed sown on good soil;

a field where weeds have overtaken the crop, but where the farmer allows God to separate them out, caring even for the weeds;

a mustard seed, growing stealthily to become large, offering hospitality and community even to the birds of the air who make nests in its branches;

yeast, mixed into dough, enabling the mixture to rise and grow, to become what it is meant to be;

a treasure hidden in a field, inspiring the finder to sell all he has to buy that field where the treasure is stored;

a merchant finding a single pearl of such great beauty and value that he abandons all his other trade to buy it.

I have seen you all practicing all these riddles of being the Kingdom. I have seen you offering hospitality and home, loving extravagantly both those who you know and those who you don’t. I have seen you in just the last few weeks caring for foster children, donating coats and blankets to those without shelter during extreme cold, planning blood drives, coordinating disaster response trips, caring for one another, praying for one another. I have seen you doing the work of the Kingdom, welcoming and caring and befriending. And watching you, hearing from you, getting to join in this work with you…it widens my heart.

And here’s what I want to say to you this morning: THIS is the work of the church. Being a demonstration plot for the Kingdom is why we exist as a congregation. Meeting budgets and hiring staff are important things, especially when we have decided together to own buildings and pay pastors. They are ways we practice stewardship and care for one another. But they are not the reason we exist as a congregation, as a part of the church, as a tiny piece of the Body of Christ. The church exists as a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God. The church exists so that when someone asks us why it is we follow Jesus, what it is we’re up to when we walk in these doors, why in the world we see faith as a valid option in this post-modern world of cynicism and doubt…the church exists so that we can say, like Jesus, “Well, why don’t you come with me and see.”

I was blown away by my experience at Koinonia. Blow away by their incredible history, yes – in addition to the Farm community, both Habitat for Humanity and the Southern Poverty Law Center, organizations who have lifted heavy loads and served to make God’s kingdom immensely more visible in the world – both were started out of connections with Koinonia. 70 years is a long time to fight racism and live in joyful community together. The legacy of Clarence Jordan is incredible.

But I was most blown away by the honesty of the Koinonia community members. They were proud and respectful of their heritage, and deeply committed to continuing the work of community and reconciliation in that place. But they were also boldly honest about how hard the work was. For a while, 1990s, the Farm was defunct. Its partners continued their work, but no one lived together in community. Conflict had gotten the best of those living there, and the group had disbanded. From what I can gather, it was a hard and disillusioning time. But the vision of being a demonstration plot did not die. In 2005, the community re-emerged. I was there in 2009, and the group was still struggling to learn how to live together, but they were doing it, and they still are.

I’m not under any illusions that being a demonstration plot for the Kingdom is easy – it is probably one of the hardest things any of us could attempt. But it is what Jesus asks of us. It is what the Spirit is swirling around here to enable us to do. And, more than that – it is what we are already doing, together, here. The question is, how do we trust in Jesus – both so that we are able to keep seeking him out, to keep following his call to come and see, and to open our mouths and our lives to those around us, inviting them to join us, to come and see what it is we’re up to, what the Kingdom might be like?

Come and see.


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