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"The Successful Farmer"

Before I get into my sermon proper – that is, reflecting on Jesus’ parable of the Rich Farmer that Gene Bacon read for us – I want to remind us that an “industrialized economy” with consumer goods and services such as we enjoy here in Alpena, was not the norm anywhere in the world, prior to the Industrial Revolution.

From about 3,000 B.C.E. (when animals were domesticated and people first started to use the plow) right up until the Industrial Revolution (about 1800 A.D.), the world’s economies were “agrarian” – that is, “agricultural”- based systems… rural farming was the economic powerhouse… with village-life as the base of the economy.

As I said to Dick Bloom just last Sunday: “Farming is everybody’s bread and butter!” Most folks eat food grown on farms. But why should I talk about the essentially “agrarian” base of our economy? Isn’t Alpena more modern than that?

I mean, yes, we are in a “rural” area… but aren’t we “Michiganders” more technologically-advanced and industrialized, than we are agrarian? Isn’t our basic U.S. economy consumer-based? Buying & selling, retail marketing… advertising, investing… you know, producing stuff for stores and for Amazon-dot-com “on-line” buying? Isn’t that what makes America great!? Our economy – measured by Wall Street, and regulated by the Federal Reserve; our G.D.P. (gross domestic product) and investment in industry… that’s what’s reported. Growth counts! We’ve got the highest standard of living and the biggest economy in the world (China comes second and that’s why we’re in a race against them).

If you think that way -- or feel that way -- the statistics of American “prosperity” are with you! Most folks in America are not farmers, and (as a result) give little thought to agriculture. The “agrarian” sector of the economy is mostly ignored, and for good political reason.

The rural regions of our country hardly even count in the national Census data! We are so sparsely populated compared to urban areas… There are too few voters with agrarian roots to off-set the big money of Wall Street and the urban areas, and the CEO’s of financial institutions and big corporations. That’s where the money is… where influence is! That’s who the politicians pander to. You’ve heard of the “new” Golden Rule: “The one whose got the gold makes the rules.”

Since today’s text is a story from Jesus about a successful farmer, I decided to look up the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of America’s work-force and found out that (in the last Census, in 2010) there were a total of 751,000 farmers and ranchers in the United States. (!) 751,000 farmers and ranchers are providing food for 330 million Americans… plus surplus corn that is being made into ethanol fuel, as well as a tremendous amount of food that is exported around the world. It’s amazing what those 751,000 folks have been able to produce! Bravo!

751,000 people are only ½ of one percent of America’s workforce. All the farm-owners, farm-workers, and ranchers in America combined are only one-half of 1% -- 0.05% of all employed Americans! That’s hardly a drop in the bucket for demographic purposes… such as for representation in the houses of Congress… or for impact on Wall Street investors. American agriculture has become almost inconsequential in the thinking of our national economic theorists, or for the Federal Reserve to consider, let alone does farming influence US trade policies.

But growing food on farms is (ultimately) the true basis of our – and every – economy. Without a successful agrarian sector, people starve.

People starve in those places where farming is unsuccessful.

Father Polycarp told us (on Thursday morning) about how Boko Haram insurgents purposely attack the farm villages of Northeast Nigeria (where he is a priest and superintendent of the Christian schools) -- killing the farmers and their families, and not letting them plant their fields, in order that famine will drive them from the land. Then other wealthy families, military generals, and politicians (the very ones providing the killers with AK-47 assault rifles and ammunition!) can become the new land-owners and use the territory (& dislocated, impoverished people) for themselves.

It was a harrowing story to hear, and Father Polycarp’s life is in danger every day. But he’s going back next week… because he has hope that if we pray for the Boko Haram and their sponsors, that God will intervene and replace their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh; turn them from violence & bloodshed, and allow food once more to be grown.

He knows: where farms are successful, people are fed -- and when that happens, growth in the rest of the economy can follow. So, we pray! (And if you feel so moved, we can help with money so that he can buy sacks of corn, rice, and grain… so that his parishioners will not starve.)

Now, back to American farmers: that number – 751,000 – came from the 2010 Census. I’m sure you know that it’s been a hard decade for farming since that statistic was recorded… so I expect next year’s Census to record even fewer farmers and ranchers. Just last month a front-page article in The Alpena News stated: “Somber farmers feeling defeated – Wet, cold spring hurts planting across region.”[1]

Wayne Smolinski of Green Acres Farm, Inc., in Lachine, said “the problem for farmers is that the government has cut-off deadlines for when corn must be planted for the crop to be insured.” The cutoff date for corn and for soybeans had already passed. Smolinski said insurance companies consider farmers who plant after the cut-off date to be too much of a risk and won’t insure their crops. Smolinski said that farming right now is as stressful as it’s ever been. “They always say farming is like gambling, but this year is real. Even if farmers who got their crops planted on time, they weren’t planted in ideal conditions. It’s so wet,” he said, “This is the first year I can remember ever in my life that, when you’re planting and digging the seed depth, it’s solid water down in the ground -- the water table is so high.” Smolinski said the worst thing about it being wet and cold is that seeds will rot in the ground.” (unquote)

Farming is risky business! The tariffs that have disrupted trade with China have also hurt our farmers very badly this past year -- closing a primary global market for soybeans and other items. The floods in the Midwest this spring -- and other storms of the past few years -- have driven many land-owners into bankruptcy. And the low market-prices for dairy, fruit, vegetables, soybeans, and corn almost don’t make agriculture a viable investment any more. (!)

It’s not like we don’t need food any more -- it’s always in demand -- but there’s just too much of it on the market. The prices have dropped to less than it costs the farmers to produce it. (!) Farming is a Wall Street “loser”!

If farmers are only ½ of 1% of American workers, that means 99 ½ % of the rest of the American workforce are providing industrial goods and services, not food. Wow! 99 ½% of us live from the excess surplus of food that is produced by our very small “agrarian” farming base. (!)

So, the picture that Jesus gives us of a successful farmer, whose lands have produced so much food – corn, grain, grapes, vegetables… we don’t really know what kind of farm he had – such that he didn’t have room in his barns to store it all, may not be so far-fetched after all. (!) Our farms are more mechanized, with better seed and fertilizer, but a “bumper crop” was even possible in ancient agrarian society.

In fact, that’s how the cities could grow, since their population didn’t farm for themselves. (!) Urban people lived from the annual surplus that the farmers produced. Empires ran on other people’s food! Generally, rulers in the cities had the official authority to confiscate the surplus -- either through taxes, tolls, and tribute, or because they had the military weapons & police powers that enabled them to do so. It was a rare farmer who got to keep what he grew for himself, unless he was well-connected to the powerful… the elite families, the governing class.

Jesus told a story about a man whose investment in land and labor had “paid off” big time! He knew that he had ample “net worth” stored in his barns to provide everything for his present enjoyment and for his future needs. He was rich with tangible, material goods -- food and drink and shelter and clothing -- sufficient for the day (yes) and for ever!

We should feel good for this fellow. He has been LUCKY! He’s gotten to where most of us would like to be. He has applied himself, invested well, and reaped a generous reward of “the good things” in life -- and then some! He has it made in the shade. God has, most definitely, blessed him.

But wait a minute… why should I mention God? Why should the rich farmer in Jesus’ parable give any credit to God for his success?

Well, first, you could say God gave him those good things by providing “sufficient” rain -- not in excess, to where there would be a flood; and not too little, precipitating a drought. God provided the rich harvest through “sufficient” sunshine -- at no charge, no less! -- and fertile soil, and the germination of new life in those hard, dry seeds. The guy was set for life, and it really wasn’t through any “cleverness” on his part! He had inherited a good plot of land from his father, with the right kind of soil, and he invested in good seed & good workers!

The farmer comes across as quite successful… although he did not really do it all on his own. He just thinks he did! He has more than enough -- more than what is necessary, more than what would be sufficient to sustain life; much more! This is a picture of prosperity --thanks to productive soil, hard-working field hands, a bountiful harvest, & a manager who is on top of his inventory -- the farm is a success! The farmer is in good shape; he’s got a lot of crop under his control.

Taken by surprise -- by such un-expected abundance (good news) -- the farmer didn’t even have room enough in his storehouses & silos for the excess… the surplus food!

So, what shall he do?

For one thing, he could have given some of his crop away. (!) Certainly there were some hungry families in his town -- his was a peasant-based agrarian economy! And I’ll bet his tenant farmers would have appreciated his offer to share his bounty -- after all, they were the ones who had to work longer hours (and work harder all around) to bring in this year’s much larger harvest than in years past.

That would only have been fair! Nowadays we call it “profit-sharing” (a good thing all around)! The rich farmer could have shown himself to be generous, benevolent, a real “philanthropist” (which means “lover” of “humanity”). He could have doubled his workers wages, and paid them in produce, since they were his co-workers who did the labor. He owned the land, but not them. Why should he assume the entire crop belonged to him?

Or, as a faithful Jew, the farmer could’ve brought his tithe (“tenth”) as an offering to God, who had given him the harvest in the first place.

A tithe was required under Jewish Law, but he could have added more (double down!): 20% or 40% -- consider it a thanksgiving offering, or a community gift. After all, what was “a little extra” to a man who has such obvious excess?

Or, if he didn’t share it with his workers or give it to his church, he could have left a greater portion of it out in the fields unharvested -- as he was supposed to do under Jewish Law (the “gleaning” clause) -- for the poor transients who could pick for themselves some fruit or grain as they passed through town. (We talked about that last Sunday.)

He could have left some of the crop exposed out in the open for the birds and bees (without whose carrying of seeds and pollination work, the harvest would not have come!). He could have left some of it unharvested until the next growing season -- to restore nutrients to the soil as the ground lay fallow (which was prescribed in the Bible for every 7th year)

Or, for heaven’s sake, he could have thrown a big party in keeping with the Middle Eastern tradition of Hospitality! He could have used this serendipitous occasion to have fed everyone in the whole country-side at least ONE good meal, on the house! Y’all come!

But he didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he only thought of himself. He made plans… building plans… to tear down his (otherwise perfectly sufficient) barns -- to go through all the turmoil and trauma and unnecessary expending of resources -- to build bigger ones, just to store everything for later for himself! The very idea is so exaggerated, it would strike us as comic -- like Uncle Scrooge McDuck, swimming in his pool of money -- were it not so sad a commentary on the man’s narrow, self-centered view of life.

Jesus calls this successful man, at the peak of his productivity, a “fool.” Perhaps because the man thought that he had done it all on his own… or that his personal prosperity and security in LIFE was all there was to the matter. His short-sighted sense of personal profit may have made him impervious to the call of God on his soul… blocking out all other options -- any one of which would have been more reasonable -- any one of which would have been more compassionate. Any one of which would have endeared him to his people & be remembered fondly.

Instead, the rich farmer blocked out all other people but himself. (It is said that a person who is “all wrapped up in himself” makes a very small package!) I see in Jesus’ description of this wealthy narcissist a perfect example of a capitalist with no social conscience.

Seeing the whole picture, any person who would choose to be like that man -- rich in things, but lacking eternal value -- appears comic, pathetic.

Please notice: when the man lost his fortune in the end, it wasn’t a punishment for anything. It occurred simply through the natural process of death. As the old saying goes: “There are no pockets in a shroud.” “You can’t take it with you.” What to do with his abundant estate was no longer HIS problem; it became a matter for his inheritors to fight over (which, by the way, was the precipitating event that caused Jesus to tell this particular story).

The rich man may have made a foolish decision about how to use his accumulated wealth during his lifetime, but his inheritors may be wiser, more compassionate, more creative… One would hope so, but there is no way to know. Sadly, most folks who “inherit” their fortune instead of earning it -- who receive it as a gift from a parent’s estate, instead of having to work for it – tend to abuse the privilege & power that money affords… and their world shrinks to the size of their ego. (!)

If you or I end up as lucky as this successful farmer, wouldn’t it be much wiser and more meaningful to SHARE our good fortune with our less prosperous sisters and brothers? We don’t want, as the final summation of OUR life-story, to hear God say: “Thou fool.”

When the Parable was finished, and the people had been given time to think (“Who WILL get what you have prepared for yourself?”), Jesus went on to encourage the crowd that they should do all that they can to gain wealth that has lasting value (achievements that are meaningful in God’s eyes, not just in your own), rather than just building bigger houses in which to store the stuff of earth for yourself. After all, we’re not going to be able to take it with us!

---- Amen.

[1] The Alpena News, Tuesday, June 25, 2019, volume 120, No 279, page A-1, article by Crystal Nelson, News Staff Writer

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