“no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey – or who you walk that journey with – you are welcomed here.”
MESSAGE PREACHED ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 10, 2013
Commitment Sunday at Coral Gables UCC
The Rev. Dr. Laurinda Hafner, Senior Pastor
While I think I was always a city girl at heart, I spent the first ¾’s of my childhood in rural Indiana….among farmers and fields, combines and grain silos. My father was pastor of a small country UCC congregation that was filled with second, third, fourth generation farmers and so much of his life as a pastor was going to Farm Bureau meetings to offer up an opening prayer or to the blessing of the planting on local farms.
One of my favorite memories of growing up in such a setting was listening to the farmers talk about their fields – it’s funny how stuff stays with you from your childhood even if it isn’t much use later in life. I know that “corn is to be knee high by the fourth of July.” That one should plant peas when the forsythia blooms. And,“When elm leaves are big as a penny, plant kidney beans if you want to have any.”
And while I’m no farmer, or gardener, or even a good tender of houseplants, as those of you who sneak into my office to water my plants will attest, I’m fascinated by the inner life of soil that allows for planting, growing, and ultimately harvesting.
That may be why I’m fascinated by the soil here in South Florida — it has even been said that our soil is one of the key factors in making our little area of the world so unique.
South Florida soil consists of rock, sand, marl and muck. The rock is known as Miami limestone, which is an alkaline calcium carbonate and not coral rock as some believe. Miami Limestone is high in pH, and does not retain water or nutrients well which makes growing many plants a challenge. Our type of limestone is very young geologically and is found only one other place in the world (Bahamas).
Before South Florida was riddled with canals, there were seasonally wet finger glades intersecting the limestone ridge. The soil found in these glades is known as marl, a grey, clay-like substance formed by the erosion of the surrounding limestone. Sand is found in large quantities around the Redlands as well as other areas in South Florida. And Muck, half decomposed organic matter has very poor aeration and drainage; it is very hard to get it dry once it is wet and very hard to get it wet once it is dry.
Rock, sand, muck, and marl are not a recipe for good soil and yet looking around South Florida one sees a lush tropical paradise. You see, the key to growing plants in South Florida is the right plant in the right location: one must choose plants that are adapted to growing in our soil.
Jesus, our storyteller in today’s text, tells a similar yet in many ways very different tale about soil – while it’s not sand, muck, and marl he’s dealing with, he does talk about soil that is so rocky, that no plant can put down deep roots.
He talks about plants sown on a footpath where the soil is so compressed by the constant foot traffic that the seed cannot go into the soil.
And then, he brings it all home by announcing that the seed which fell on good, deep, soft soil, took hold, and grew, and produced an abundant crop, as much as 100 times as was planted.
What was the difference? What was the difference between the seed that produced no results and the seed that produced great results? For Jesus, it wasn’t the seed. Rather it was all about the character of the soil.
Two similar yet different illustrations – both appropriate for us today on this Commitment or Stewardship Sunday. As residents of South Florida we know that here it is about planting the right plant; and in the parable that Jesus tells, concerning the word of God, it is all about the right soil, that produces an abundant crop. Soil or plant – it’s kind of a chicken/egg question isn’t it? What provides strong, healthy, productive growth?
Now I pause for just a moment here to note that I may have lost some of you a few sentences back when I mentioned “Stewardship Sunday.”
I’m sure there are some of you out there right now who are sinking into your pew thinking, “Oh, no. This is the Sunday I meant to stay home. I hate it when we talk about money and finances in church.”
And first-time visitors – I’m sure you are thinking… “52 Sundays of the year and I have to choose this one to come to this church.” I sincerely hope you don’t leave here this morning saying, “All that church talks about is money” because we don’t but, we do talk often about giving, and gratitude, and generosity. It’s the nature of our faith…
In fact, I will no longer make apologies for preaching a sermon on money, and giving, tithing, and pledging. If Jesus himself preached on money more than anything else except feeding the hungry then I can — no make that should — preach a sermon on the giving of our own personal treasure or resources.
But back to our quandary: soil or seed? I love that our 90th anniversary committee chose as its tagline, “It starts with the soil.” And indeed, 90 years ago, George Merrick himself, the architect and dreamer of the city of Coral Gables, gave the land, the vision, the earliest resources to create this church to honor his father, the Rev. Solomon Merrick, a congregational minister.
Now Solomon wasn’t just a Congregational Minister, he was a Congregational Minister from Massachusetts, the birthplace of Congregationalism in America. He knew and would have taught George the rich history of the Congregational tradition – that it was the first denomination to:
- take a stand against slavery;
- ordain an African-American in a protestant denomination in 1785;
- ordain a woman in 1853;
- lead the social gospel movement that denounced economic oppression in 1897.
The soil on which George planted the church may have literally been muck, sand, and marl, but figuratively it was built on the belief that all God’s people are created equal, and that God’s loving and grace-filled word is for all; that we are called to build a just society that is lived in the presence of God, and in the words of Jonathan Edwards, an early Congregationalist and one of the great thinkers of the Great Awakening, “the church should recover the passion of a transforming faith that changes “the course of our lives.”
This church – this very congregation — has sprung from such soil. And over these 90 years this church has planted itself right here in this place – on this soil – aiding those suffering from the depression in the 1930’s; tending to the migrants and exiles of the 80’s; fighting segregation and the bigotry of the 50’s and 60’s; working for peace and non-violence in the 70’s and 90’s; advocating and promoting conservation, and economic justice in these present days; and always, always, standing firm in the belief, “that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey – or who you walk that journey with – you are welcomed here.”
For 90 years, this church has stood as a bright guiding light in this community. It has been a beacon of hope in this war torn and divided world, a tantalizing glimpse of sanctuary, community, justice, hospitality, and a theology that is relational with a loving God and with the call to love one another. And, I will tell you my friends, the world is thirsty for such life giving hope.
“I struggled with my sexual orientation for as long as I could remember, since before I even knew what it was.
Growing up I bounced between my stepfather’s Presbyterian church, my mother’s Baptist church, and my paternal grandparents’ Catholic church. Each house of God sent a clear message regarding the evils of homosexuality.
Eventually, I left my southern Indiana roots and moved to Miami. I began teaching for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. It’s been in Miami that I’ve settled into myself.
Recently Miami-Dade County Public Schools’ Sexual Minority Network offered a professional development workshop, “Educator Strategies for LGBTQ Student Support.” One of the most remarkable aspects of the workshop was that the event was hosted in the fellowship hall of the Coral Gables Congregational United Church of Christ.
Having grown up in rural, conservative, predominately Christian southern Indiana, the idea of an open and affirming church is alien to me. Not unlike Mark, the young gay male protagonist in Del Shores’ play Southern Baptist Sissies, who says that his church “is where we learned to hate ourselves,” I experienced condemnation from my hometown church and folks who considered themselves good, God-fearing Christians.”
Friends, as I see it, this congregation’s mission is to stand on the side of love. Not narrowly defined love but the kind we find in our UCC tradition where God is love in action.
But our congregation needs both soil and seed to grow and flourish and to discover, receive and give away such love. Our soil, so hopefully laid 90 years ago, still needs to be fertilized, and balanced, and watered, and weeded, by our time, talent, and treasure.
We have a vision for our future here. That our children will grow up well and loved in this embracing UCC village as they learn how to care for our world and for each other.
We continue to expand what we do in Christian education, worship, and music ministry to help grow people’s faith…
We continue to find ways to bring compassionate and concerned individuals together to advocate and to work for justice and peace; to find ways to support one another and to care for those in need. We have potlucks, and concerts and our own traditions like Coffee Houses that bring us together. Our sheltering sanctuary is beautiful and yes, we continue to maintain and restore our historic setting. And we are here when life is difficult and when life is so very, very good.
We have a true shared ministry – with a committed church council and strong lay leadership, a dedicated and talented staff and I promise you that we guard and administer our resources well.
Sunday after Sunday, I hear from visitors words similar to these: “I never knew such a place as this UCC congregation existed! Where have you been all of my life?”
But those are the ones who find us. There are many more souls out there who are longing for a church like ours, who post questions on the internet and ask friends in vain. What about them? Shall we [leave] them wandering in a spiritual wasteland or make a real effort to go out and find them and bring them home?
To do this we need, you guessed it, more generous giving, money, staff and resources to bring them all in. And to let the world know we are not only here but we are here for them!
Imagine a world filled with joy. Imagine a peaceful, just world. Imagine a place where people do get along with each other even when they disagree, where love is the only doctrine and where radical hospitality and acceptance are living realities.
Imagine such a world or maybe just a city like Miami or Coral Gables filled to overflowing with committed, passionate members of the UCC.
So if you care deeply about our values, if it matters to you that we have this oasis of hope and joy, acceptance and freedom that we call Gables UCC, then join us! We need constant and generous gardeners who know that though we are far from perfect, we still embody a very real hope for this wounded world we live in.
This morning, I am asking of you something great…something profound…and for many of you something life-changing…and life-affirming. To recognize our own privilege and to be counted among those who are willing to change our lives for the sake of others by making this church a priority in our giving.
In a few moments, I’m going to invite you to come forward and place your pledge card and/or your morning offering in the baskets on the communion table. There are pledge cards in your bulletin if you need one. I also invite you to place your wish for this church in 2023 in the time capsule.
I do want to acknowledge that this is a tough financial time for many of you – And if you know that you are unable to give a monetary pledge or gift today, then take out the pledge card and just write, “Thank you, God, for this church” and place it in the basket as your offering of gratitude. And know that this church family loves you and is here to help you.
The great poet and American farmer Wendell Berry has written:
“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for the it we can have no community, because without proper care for the soil we can have no life.”
May we this day and in the days to come, truly care for the soil out of which this church springs forth with life.