Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
“Count the Cost?” -- Message for Risk-Taking Mission and Service Series
Rev. Laurie McHugh
October 20, 2012
Text: Luke 14:20-36
One sight that struck me during my first weeks in Windsor was an unobtrusive sign on the side of Arata Road that appeared on Saturdays. One afternoon, heading home from my first UMW meeting, I turned right at that sign (sort of like this one), lured by the promise of “Fresh Eggs for Sale.” At the end of the lane, I met an enthusiastic mom, who sold me a couple dozen eggs, small and variously colored, and who, with obvious pride in her voice, told me about her son’s adventures in starting this organic egg ranch. “He researched everything on the Internet,” Roxana said, “and he designed and built the coops, which are moved every three days so the hens don’t sit in their own urine, and they stay healthy.” I went home that day with a smile in my heart, and every day I passed Wise Acre Farms -- which, I’ve learned, is on leased Brooks family land -- I said a little prayer of blessing over the chickens as I made note of where they’d moved this time.
Roxana had encouraged me to sign up for her son’s email list, and within a few weeks I received a detailed update on the goings on at the farm, illustrated with dozens of colorful photos. I felt a little nudge, and that led to a correspondence, and a few weeks later I found myself sitting in a folding chair under a tree interviewing Roxana’s son, Bryan Boyd, and his business partner, Raina Bolan. I wanted to talk with them about risk-taking, because I saw a parable being lived out just around the corner from our church building.
Their story began when a hardship met an opportunity. Raina was starting over. She’d left a job and lost her suburban home, and she asked herself, “What do I really want to do?” She found herself in an upscale grocery store one day, looking at the beautiful organic produce, and saying, “I want to eat like that, but I can’t afford it; I can grow that instead.” She was ready to do something different; she loved the idea of growing vegetables and raising animals, and living in the country with her two teenagers.
Bryan, in the meantime, had finished paying off a debt which left him with an extra $600 a month. He’d never raised animals beyond the standard pets before, but he loves learning. Now he is “on a mission to build the best chicken coop,” one that reduces labor but is better for the hens, employing practices that do not overwork the land, on a farm that grows food for the hens, bringing their quality product straight to the consumer. “If you care for the animals and give them a good life, then you’ll have a better product,” he says. Bryan put his first coop on wheels, then designed one on skids to make it easy to move over land whether it’s dry or muddy, and each design is using less wood and fewer heavy materials. Bryan and Raina’s focus is constantly to keep their hens clean and healthy, and to get the eggs to the consumer efficiently so that they stay fresh.
Many of their customers are local restaurants and CSA clients. Recently, Bryan came up with a roadside stand that runs on an honor system, so neighbors can stop by during the week. They keep selling out, and now that the days are getting shorter, the hens are molting and slowing down their production for the winter; Raina explained to me that big commerical egg operations keep their chickens under lamps 24 hours a day to force them to keep laying -- and that, obviously, shortens their lives.
There are other factors in nature that are also hard to control, most notably hawks and foxes. How to keep the chickens safe but give them access to dirt and worms and bugs to eat in a natural environment is a constant challenge for Bryan’s designs. They’re also raising puppies in hopes they’ll eventually help to cut down their significant population losses.
Then there is the financial risk. The partners put up all their money for this endeavor because banks won’t make loans to small, diverse farms. “You can’t do this and expect to make a ton of money,” Raina laughs. The pair’s goal is to get where they can earn $14 an hour and Bryan can quit his day job, but they’re not anywhere near there yet.
“What gives you the courage to take these risks?” I asked.
Their response was having a passion for this lifestyle and this career choice. Bryan explained, “You can’t be successful unless you’re passionate about it.”
I asked, “What has been the most thrilling part of this for you?”
Raina said that she discovered: “I love chickens! They’re like people. Some are shy, and others want to fly onto my shoulder and stay there... They’re all really special.” She walked me out to one of the enclosures and called out, and the whole flock came out to meet her at the fence, even though it wasn’t feeding time. She picked up a chicken and told me its name. Bryan’s enewsletter includes a photo of the “Hen of the month.” It’s quite something to behold. (I had another smiley heart that day!)
What thrills Bryan, he said, is “the intense entrepreneurship that this brings out in a person,” the spirit of “creativity and experimentation, and the chance to educate people.”
I hope you’ll join me in prayer for these two young neighbors, their animals, and the spirit of adventure and risk-taking that fuels businesses like theirs in our community.
This week’s scripture lesson follows on the heels of last week’s parable of the great banquet in the 14th chapter of Luke. Whereas last week’s lesson had Jesus addressing a group of Pharisees in a private home, this week’s teaching has Jesus back out among the multitudes. His words are very likely going to pare down the large crowd, sort out the true disciples from those going along for the excitement, following what is popular and going with the groupthink, those who are following for the wrong motivations -- the “not salt” people who won’t really change the world.
You may remember Jean Parnes’ comments from a few weeks ago when she mentioned this verse that is one of the hardest in all of the gospels: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” The next verse is almost as troubling: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (I told you we were entering tricky territory.)
How does this jibe with the commandment to honor father and mother and the host of other teachings about loving others? I think what Jesus is pointing out is that even family -- a blessing for most of us -- can become an idol, something that diverts our attention from pouring ourselves out for the sake of God’s purposes in the world. It’s also possible that, in the repetitive manner of ancient Hebrew poetry, we have a parallelism here (you might recall that the Psalms do this all the time, putting two concepts that mean generally the same thing side by side, as in Psalm 100:1: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord... come into God’s presence with singing!” or the double parallel in Psalm 27:1: "The LORD is my light and my salvation -- whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life -- of whom shall I be afraid?” or in Psalm 18: 6: "In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help.”) Perhaps idolization of family is an extension of “loving your own life.” We certainly are tempted to live our dreams out through our children or grandchildren, are we not? We certainly are tempted to a preoccupation with our family’s well being, and that preoccupation may keep us from fully answering God’s call.
Then there’s another parallel and contrast in the next sentence: “carry the cross” and “follow me.” I wonder what that must have meant to the first hearers and readers of these words. It’s such a commonplace expression now, so much so that it’s lost some of its power. In a day when a cross was like an electric chair, the method of public execution favored by an oppressive government, what would it mean to take that up in order to follow Jesus?
“Carry the cross and follow me” over against “love of family and love of life” is a pretty stark contrast.
The next image is one with which we might be painfully familiar: the builder who starts a project and is not able to complete it. This town saw a great period of growth and building, and then felt the effects of an economic downturn. We see this on a macro and micro level; the market changes; illness strikes a family; circumstances beyond one’s control impact a plan. We don’t always take the foxes and the hawks into account.
In the Kingdom of God, the stakes are great and the odds seem to be stacked against us -- like the army leader with the 10,000 soldiers going up against 20,000. This is a realistic picture of the monumental tasks God sets before us.
We could give up -- but the punch line in Jesus’ story is unexpected. We could let the fear of failure, and the experience of failure in the past, shrink our world and our dreams down to manageable size, make us unwilling to risk. But that is not what Jesus says a disciple does. If you’re a disciple, you accept those odds -- and you respond by giving away everything, that is, you depend on God. The things worth doing for God will always have impossible odds. They will always demand everything. They will require all-consuming, God-first love and surrender.
The final illustration in the passage is one of those that the childlike part of my mind has turned over for years. What is salt without saltiness? It’s Jesus’ way of saying that this stance of God-first, all-out, risk-taking trust is so basic, so elemental to who the disciple is, that there’s no halfway. We either season, flavor, transform the world, or we’re of little or no use to God’s kingdom purposes.
So we count the cost, weigh the odds, but no matter how we render it, we need to know that this venture of discipleship is more than we will ever be able to do on our own. But do we turn in the towel? No way. We give up, instead, the notions of comfort, safety, calculated risk, and offer all we are into the hands of God (because it’s all in God’s hands anyway!), and let God do the work through us, pushing us, propelling us into places we never expected we could go.
On that journey, we might discover, like our neighbors at the farm, that we really love chickens -- or that we really love the poor, the sick, the broken, the vulnerable to whom God calls us to be Christ’s hands and feet. We might discover that there are amazing capacities buried within us for creativity, experimentation, entrepreneurship, generosity and change. It is my prayer that we will find joy in those discoveries. Amen.