One more parable, also from Mark 4:
Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. (vv 3-8)
I’ve actually preached a sermon on this text: last year, when I was invited back to my mom’s home church in Wisconsin. Knowing that one listener would be my grandfather, a farmer who has lived his whole life in rural Pierce County, I wanted to use an agricultural image. As we came to verse 7 (“since it had no root, it withered away”), I lingered for a while: just as roots are vitally important to the health of any plant, spiritual roots can sustain a healthy church.
But it also struck me that the church is not like wheat, or another annual that must be planted anew every growing season. It’s a perennial, passing through cycles of life and death as the seasons pass. While we prefer to envision the lush growth of spring and summer, or the ripening abundance of fall, churches also go through the temporary death of winter.
I might have more to say about the winter of evangelicalism later this week or early next, but having sounded a harsh note a few hours ago… Perhaps there’s some hope in this parable. The church, for all its many faults, is not built on shallow, rocky soil. It will not scorch in summer’s sun, and it will survive winter’s darkness. But that’s because it has roots that stretch out through many eras and cultures, stabilizing us against the winds of change and providing sustenance in times of scarcity.
While part of the problem with what happened yesterday is (as I put it in my open letter) that too many Christians “[abandoned] hopeful expectation for the dubious relief of nervous nostalgia,” there are other, healthier ways to engage with the past. If we’re going to get through the winter and see our next spring, we’re going to need to draw strength from our spiritual roots.