President’s baccalaureate sermon: “Mighty the Plantings of God!”

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Baccalaureate sermon (as prepared for delivery) by Dr. James E. Brenneman, president of Goshen College on Sunday, April 30, 2017 in the Goshen College Church-Chapel

Text: Matthew 13:31-32


“Ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you. . .Ask the plants and they will teach you,” so says, the biblical Job to his dialog partners in Holy Scripture. Not bad advice, especially from a person described in the Bible as wise, blameless, patient, one who holds fast to righteousness and justice. In the Qu’ran, Job is called a prophet of perseverance. “Ask the plants of the earth and they will teach you,” this wise man says.

What do the plants have to teach us? As I stand here today, I think back when most of you were in preschool or kindergarten. No doubt, like preschoolers everywhere, you experienced the awe and wonder of planting seeds in the school’s garden or in little paper cups, putting them on the window ledge of the classroom. You watered and watched and waited until one day, almost by magic they sprouted into little green plants to lots of ooohs and aaahs.

It was then that the plants began to teach you the greening power of life in each little seed. There you began to discover what the hymn writer, Natalie Sleeth, poetically captured in what was at first a hymn written for children at Easter: “In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free! In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. … Unrevealed until its moment in time, until its season, something God alone can see.” I love the hint of mystery and timing in that phrase.

Now is the season that you graduates are on the brink of commencing into the rest of your lives. Now is the season you burst forth revealing to the whole world the greening power that lies deep within each one of you. And now is the time, we, your parents, families, friends, teachers, staff, and administrators stand in wonder and awe, ooohing and aaahing as we see the flowering of the seeds planted in you however many years ago when you first became a GC student.

When the gospel writer Matthew notes that ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took, and sowed in a field,” there is no need to dwell on his claim of it being the smallest seed. The gospel writer Luke, in his version of this same parable, doesn’t mention the size of the seed. I’m guessing, since he was a physician, St. Luke knew his science and seeds, and knew the mustard seed wasn’t the smallest.

The real significance of this parable of the mustard seed has to do with how both gospel writers link heaven and earth – the seed, for them, becomes a signpost of the kingdom of heaven on earth. When biblical Job says “ask the plants of the earth, they will teach you,” he goes on to say, the plants will teach you that “in God’s hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.”

Job and the gospel writers are reminding us that God is the source of the life-force, the energy, the greening power in every living thing, every seed, mustard or not. Said differently, and by the poet Thomas Moore, “There is a piece of sky and chunk of earth,” in every one of us here today, and especially so, in you graduates. You contain a latent, burgeoning potential to do great things.

Later, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says, “If you only have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains.” Here he is emphasizing the inherent, deep-seeded, greening power within each one of us to do some rather audacious things in life, like moving whole mountains!

I have no doubt Jesus wanted his disciples to appreciate the inner life-force of the Spirit and life within them. I also believe he was preparing them for potential tough times ahead. Mountain-sized obstacles would come their way. Some seeds might fall on rocky soil, some on parched ground, others might be covered by asphalt, and other barriers to the light.

It should not surprise us that folk-tales and parables from many world cultures speak to the power of plant roots, plant energy and plant-forces that compel plants to snake in between and through the harshest of barriers. Plants find a way. Plants will grow wherever they can find a small crack of sunlight, a glimmer of hope.

George Carlin, that old rather crude comedian of your parents and grandparents generation, cuts to the chase, in describing the audacious power of a tuft of grass or flower growing through a crack in the concrete. “It’s so freakin’ heroic,” he says” (and that’s the PG version). I couldn’t agree with him more.

My good friend, Elkhart County Commissioner, Mike Yoder, a farmer by trade, knows from experience just how tenacious and precarious betting your income, your sustenance, your life on the planted seed. Mostly, you have to wait and wait and hope and pray and nurture and wait some more to see what harvest may come. He can tell stories of drought and floods that have wiped out whole crops. So when he speaks about learning from plants, I listen.

Mike once shared with a small group of which we are both a part, that he had to learn over and over again how “every adversity brings with it the seed of an equivalent or greater advantage.” In other words, with every roadblock or obstacle or setback, this farmer is telling us to imagine a new seed being planted that will produce “an equivalent or even greater advantage,” something at least as significant in our lives, and often, something even better in the long run. You see, adversity isn’t necessarily the end of the story. Plants endure. Plants find a way. Plants are ‘freakin’ heroic.” Mighty are the plantings of the Lord!

You heard the stories of just three of your classmates today, graduates who have sown and will sow seeds of change for years to come. There are many, many more examples of how so many others of you have sown and will continue to sow seeds of peace, justice, and reconciliation!

You have served in afterschool programs, boys and girls clubs, cleaned riverbeds, and served in impoverished settings next door and all across the globe. You have worked with local law enforcement to reduce racial profiling. You have challenged the status quo on and off campus on Title IX sexual assault issues. You have nobly defended your fellow immigrant students, documented or not. You have led in worship, prayed for the needs for the world in vigils lasting 24/7 for a week, supported each other spiritually and emotionally.

You have worked to highlight the inalienable rights of indigenous natives right here in IN and elsewhere. Stood up for their water rights and honored the first keepers of this land under God. You have fought racial discrimination whenever and wherever it is found. In the words of Maya Angelou, you have helped to “uproot guilt, to plant forgiveness, [to] tear out arrogance, to seed humility, to exchange love for hate, to make the future one of promise.” In short, you are the seeds of positive social change bringing pieces of the sky and chunks of earth together, planting hope on earth as it is in heaven. Mighty are you, the plantings of the Lord!

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that today, in almost every respect, we are looking back from the vantage point of the abundant harvest that each of you represent. Goshen College today, the Goshen College that is you, the very diverse and intercultural GC that is us. We, together, are a beautiful harvest from seeds we did not plant, the equivalent advantage of seeds sown even in adversity, bulbs tucked away seasons and lifetimes ago that are now bringing forth the hope, faith and promise implanted within each of you today.

The saying by Jesus is so true, “someone plants, while others reap.” (John 4:37). So thank you parents and families and donors and professors and so many others who have sown, and planted, and tilled and watered, nurtured and pruned for the great harvest that is ours today. Mighty are you, the plantings of the Lord!

In a minute, you who are seniors, will be invited to come forward to plant a seed in the soil. In this ritual reenactment of sowers everywhere and since time immemorial, you symbolize the sacred greening power of the earth and of its Creator God. In this ritual we acknowledge the Lord, all merciful and loving, who implants in each of us the seed of an unmerited life. In your planting of these seeds, we stand as witnesses of your being sown the world over and we await with great anticipation of how the world will reap the life-force, the greening energy, the divine spirit residing within you. As the prophet Isaiah prophesies (61:3), “you will be called the mighty ones of justice, the plantings of the Lord, bringing glory to our Creator.” Indeed, mighty are the plantings of the Lord! Amen!