Life Lessons from the Cornfield: Risk vs. Reward

A common business, or investment principle is “risk vs. reward.”  This involves determining how much cost, or risk a businessperson is comfortable taking, in order to maximize the reward.  The bigger the risk, often the bigger the reward.  Of course, the bigger risk also means that the reward might never come:

  • Apple, a computer company deciding in 2007 to transition into a phone company? High risk…and clearly lots of reward.
  • The introduction of “New Coke” in April of1985?   High risk.  Pretty much no reward.  (“What were they thinking?”)

Welcome to our four-week sermon series, “Life Lessons from the Cornfield.”  Today we’re thinking together about “risk vs. reward.”  Specifically, “the risk of planting.”  Now, I have to make a disclaimer:  I am a city kid.  My Mom grew up on a farm, but she married the city boy and that is where my brothers and I grew up.  But my extended family all farmed over near St. James.  And my wife, Lori, who was quite literally a “dairy princess” (I actually prefer the more gender neutral “bovine monarch”) grew up on a dairy farm near Kasson.  So, while I don’t know much about farming, I have witnessed how trying to make a living in agriculture can be a high-risk business.  Sometimes with reward…other times, much less so.

When Jesus taught, he liked to use agricultural imagery because he lived in an agricultural community.  It was language that the people would understand.  He talked about mustard seeds…he talked about vineyards…he talked about fig trees…

We too live in an agricultural community.  Of course, we don’t have much in the way of mustard seeds…vineyards or fig trees…. So we adapted our sermon series just a bit to language that makes sense around here: “Life lessons from the cornfield.”

When we hear parables, we try to make sense of them by assigning roles, we decide who represents what.  And in this story, our first inclination is to go to:

  • God must be the farmer, the sower
  • God’s Word must be the seed
  • And therefore, we must be the soil, correct?

And the point of the story is that we get to choose if we’re rocky soil…weedy soil…or good soil.  So, let’s all promise to be good soil and call it a day, right?

There is, of course, only one problem with this way of looking at the story.  In real life, soil doesn’t have a choice.  The dirt in the field doesn’t get to decide if it’s rocky, weedy or good.

I remember when we’d visit our cousins on the farm in the summers, and we’d “get” to spend time in the field helping them to pick rocks. (Anyone else ever done that?)  One thing I learned doing that: the quality of the soil isn’t up to the soil.  It’s up to those who tend it.  Pulling the rocks…fertilizing…getting rid of insects…that was the farmer’s work.

And to be a farmer is to accept a high-risk way of life.  You are at the mercy of the weather, of the insects, of land prices, of the equipment, the banks and interest rates, at the price of the crops and the current market conditions.

As a matter of fact, farming seems like just about one of the only jobs where you can do absolutely everything right, and if those outside conditions are not pretty much perfect, you can still lose. Farming is high risk.  To be a farmer is to have courage.  Farming…is not for the faint of heart.  And while farmers are very strategic in mitigating risk, and technology has come a long way, there is still high risk.  I was talking with John Ihlenfeld last weekend and asked how his crops were doing.  He just smiled and said “we’ll see.”

So, this/yesterday morning, Lori and I returned from the beautiful campus of Pacific Lutheran University, where we brought Nathan, our oldest, to begin his freshman year in college.

I am confident that Nathan is going to do great there.  It’s a good school with strong academics and a dynamic campus life…he has a good roommate named Kendon, who is from the Tacoma, so he knows the area; (Kendon is both an opera singer…and a Packers fan.  Who knew!)

But I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced such a mixture of emotions.  The excitement…the joy…the anticipation…the sadness…the anxiety…the grief… Lori and I had all of the feelings.  All of them.

I was thinking about it on the plane ride home today/yesterday.  And I realized, that bringing one’s kid, who we’ve nurtured and protected for going on 19 years and dropping him off somewhere…it is like planting a seed; it is a high-risk activity.  And the only way we can do that, is to trust.

We trust in the people who are now his community…we trust in that school…we trust in our parenting…and ultimately, we trust in God, the one who sows the seeds; the one who is responsible for the soil; the one who brings the harvest.  We simply trust.

Risk and trust are inseparably intertwined.  They are two sides of the same coin.  You simply cannot have risk, if you do not also have some level of trust, and trust, by its very nature implies risk.

This is true if you are planting corn, or dropping a kid off for college, or any other time that you have to make a decision that puts you outside of your comfort zone.

And so by definition, our faith must put us outside of our comfort zone.  As people who follow Jesus, we choose to accept the risk of faith.  We acknowledge that we place our lives into the hands of a God for whom there is no proof of existence.  Paul’s letter to the Hebrews reminds us that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.”  If we look for proof of God, we fail.  Instead, we look around the world and we see the evidence of God’s work…and we trust.  But we acknowledge that there is risk in this; because risk and trust are inseparably intertwined.

This is why identifying as a person of faith is an act of courage, and to choose to believe is to choose the hard road.  Faith is not for the faint of heart.

I told you about Lori’s and my trip to Tacoma to drop off Nathan, and the risk and trust that comes to us in moments like that.  But this week I’ve also been thinking about what happens when the seeds that God plants take root.

  • This week I’ve been thinking about Payton, who graduated from Luther College last spring and began her work this week as a middle school teacher up in Eagan, because she wanted to make a difference in the lives of young people.
  • I’ve been thinking about Elizabeth, who also graduated last spring and is working on the staff of a member of the US House of Representatives, because she wants to help change the world.
  • DJ graduated a little over a year ago. And he’s been working at a church in Rochester, doing ministry with young people whose faith is being formed.
  • Cameron went to grad school because he wants to research, and learn, and impact lives at a college level.
  • Christa graduated and went on a one-year mission that took her literally all over the globe, sharing God’s love and hope wherever she went.

In their baptism, God planted seeds within each of these young adults.  God did this so that they themselves would become a seed of faith, planted wherever they go.  And there are so many stories like this; stories of where the seeds that God plants take root.

This is how God works.  In the waters of baptism, God planted the seed of faith in you, and God works within you…God works that soil.  God does so, so that you can go and literally become the seed of faith in a person, or a ministry, or a service, somewhere within the world.  This is the cycle.  A seed always comes from a plant, which comes from a seed, which comes from a plant, and so on…and so on…

Whether it is at work, or at school, or at home, or at the park or the soccer field on in the grocery store, we have the opportunity to grow and to reflect the love, grace and goodness of God.  Our words and our actions literally become God’s seeds of faith planted in the lives of those around us.

In this parable, Jesus reminds us that the God who created us, sows seeds of love and faith with wild abandon.  And while faith can sometimes feel like a challenge; a high-risk venture, through Jesus, God takes on that risk, and overcomes it.  The gift of resurrection means that risk for God’s people evaporates, and we all dwell within God’s abundant love and grace.

My friends, our “Life Lesson from the Cornfield” this week is a simple one:  God planted seeds of faith in you.  And through Jesus, God has taken on your risk.  And God sends you from here, trusting, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to plant seeds of faith wherever you go.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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