Ten years ago this week on my first Sunday as an ordained minister, I was happy the assigned Gospel reading was the parable of the sower. It seemed like a good text with which to start ministry in Borderlands — a remote and beautiful part of Saskatchewan where farming and ranching are central.
In farm communities, the sowing of seeds, the tending of crops, and the reaping of harvests are perennial topics; and the amount of rain is always top of mind. In 2011, the countryside was green and the sloughs were full; but I soon learned this was unusual. Drought has haunted the farmers of this area ever since it was first settled by Europeans 100 years ago.
I was happy about the parable since pretty much everyone who came to the three churches on that first Sunday – about 30 in total – were aware of seeds and soil, rain and sunshine, and the other ingredients needed for farming.
Not that I was a farmer. I grew up in small cities in eastern Ontario, and I had lived in Toronto from the time I started university. But like many Canadians my age, I was only one generation removed from the farm. Both of my parents grew up on farms on the shores of Lake Ontario. And one of my cousins still runs the farm where my father and his siblings grew up.
But regardless of what we know about farming, what can Jesus’ parable say to us?
The seeds in the parable are usually seen as metaphors for the Good News of the kingdom of God, and the different types of soil as metaphors for the people who provide a welcoming or hostile environment in which this news might take root.
I also think we can view the seeds as us and the soils as the contexts in which we find ourselves. Sometimes the soil in which we are planted makes it feel easy to be a follower of Jesus and there are other situations where the soil seems far from ideal.
Jesus’ first followers did not ask to be born as poor fishers in an obscure part of the Roman world. But as children of God, they answered Jesus’ call and created a community of love. Despite their shortcomings, they helped to change the world.
Ten years ago, I had not asked to be settled in a depopulated part of Saskatchewan. But I tried to root myself there as best I could.
The United churches in Coronach, Rockglen and Fife Lake afforded me a gracious space in which to craft Sunday services even if they did not offer much scope to learn about other aspects of ministry. All three churches were tiny, their leaders were elderly, and they no longer had outreach projects.
Perhaps the most important part of my work was funerals. On average, I presided at a funeral every two months, which meant I spent a lot of time with people who were grieving loss and seeking rituals and words of comfort.
I now view this period with nostalgia partly because of how stable and secure the context was, a stability that continued in my first three years here in Mill Woods. The years 2011 through 2016 were ones of economic growth and prosperity, decent harvests, and few social crises, at least as seen from the vantage point of rural Saskatchewan and then Edmonton.
But since 2016, our context has been roiled by the advent of fascist governments in places like the United States, Hungary, the Philippines, and Brazil; a global pandemic; and increasing signs of climate disaster, the latest of which was the heat wave that stressed Alberta, British Columbia, and the U.S. Pacific Northwest last week.
Personally, I enjoyed last week’s weather even as I am glad that Edmonton didn’t see 40 degrees and that forest fire smoke hasn’t reached us yet.
But when a mountain town in British Columbia hits 49.6 degrees Celsius before burning to the ground in a wildfire, I worry about what this means about the “soil” in which we are asked to root our ministry.
I thought about the difference between ministry in quiet times and in stressful times when I watched a new documentary on Netflix. “David Attenborough: A Life on the Planet” surveys the life of a 94-year-old filmmaker using clips from the wildly popular nature films he has made for the BBC over the past 65 years, and it presents his thoughts on the dangerous degradation of the world’s wild places since he was born in 1927.
In Attenborough’s lifetime, the human population has quadrupled; the amount of carbon in the atmosphere has doubled; and the amount of wilderness has been cut in half. Happily, Attenborough ends his film with ideas about how the human impact on the natural environment can be lessened and its wild habitats rebuilt; and so, despite the film’s many disturbing aspects, I recommend it.
Attenborough talks about the secure and stable geological era – the Holocene – in which life has unfolded over the last 12,000 years ago. He describes it as a Garden of Eden in which humanity’s farm-based civilizations have flourished; and about how our destruction of habitat now threatens to end the Holocene.
I pray that Attenborough’s ideas about how to rewild the world inspire the actions of many governments. But I am shaken when the impacts of the climate change against which he warns come as close to home as they did last week. I yearn for days of greater security and stability in which to unfold our lives as individuals and as a community of faith.
But then I remember the Good News is designed precisely for times of rapid change and crisis. Jesus proclaims new life for people burdened by poverty, empire, and war. He exposes the ideologies of religious and political elites as illusions, and he helps us realize how a universal love can flood our hearts, heal our communities, and help us unite humanity into a beloved commonwealth.
So, when crazy weather upsets my equilibrium, I could try to remember that troubled times are ones in which the Gospel might take root and how today’s crises might lead to the growth of understanding, healing, and love.
Ten years ago, I did not know much about Borderlands nor did I foresee what we would do together over two and half years. But I trusted that whether the soil seemed weedy, parched, or well-watered, it was our holy ground.
Ten years later, you and I are planted in another blessed patch of holy ground, and we too can trust that God as Source, Salvation, and Spirit has provided all we need to be present in love to one another and to our neighbours.
May it be so. Amen.