October 7, 2018, Rev. Kristin Philipson, Joel 2:21-27, Matthew 6:25-33
Thankful for Truth, Joel 2:21-27
I’ve never personally seen a threshing floor full of grain and vats overflowing with wine and oil but I have witnessed the abundance my grandparents used to get from their garden in the Okanagan Valley. I have memories of summer days spent making jam – not me – but my grandmother directing my mother and my aunts in a complicated production in the tiny kitchen (“now do this, now this, now that”), the big black and white enamel pot filled with glass jars to be sealed.
My grandfather would bring in armfuls of tomatoes from the garden for us to fry at breakfast and slice into sandwiches spread thick with mayonnaise at lunch and cut into salads at dinner and as soon as we thought we’d made a dent in their numbers in he’d come with another load from the garden. We’d go back home with cardboard boxes full of produce and then my grandparents would show up a few weeks later for Thanksgiving with still more and jars stuffed with preserves and jam enough to last for years – nectarine and peach and apricot. My grandparents’ garden witnessed to this irrepressible truth: that the earth is filled with a Spirit of profligate growth.
The prophet Joel wrote for a people whose land had been invaded by hostile forces, their crops trampled and their dreams devoured. Years passed without there being enough fruit leftover for the local grandmothers to make jam and no one could recall a time when they couldn’t eat the tomatoes from the garden fast enough. And so they began to doubt the truth, that the earth is filled with a Spirit of growth and the power to regenerate and heal.
Our minds can likewise be invaded by hostile forces. An opportunity came up for my daughter to join a competitive swim team. She had started swimming more seriously last year and I thought joining this team would be an incredible opportunity for her to learn discipline and perseverance and excellence, but she hated the idea. At first she said the prospect of that many practices was overwhelming. Then the issue became sleep – there was one very early morning practice each week. Finally, after much cajoling I convinced her to go to the first practice. I watched her move through the water with smooth and powerful strokes. She looked fantastic, and I could tell this team was just right for her but the first words out of her mouth after that practice were, “I’m never going back.” “I was the slowest person there,” she said, “I can’t do it.”
My mother and I went to the AGO to see the exhibit featuring the work of Canadian and Indigenous artist, Rebecca Belmore, called “Facing the Monumental.” One of the pieces on display is a modern day backpacking tent hand-carved entirely from marble – it looks uncannily like an actual nylon tent, the folds of the fly curved and draped much in the style the ancient Greek sculptors used to evoke folds in their dress. Indeed, the sculpture was first exhibited on the Filopapou Hill in Athens, it’s open door facing a view of the Acropolis, site of the Parthenon, the most ancient symbol of democracy and Western civilization. At the time tents not unlike the sculpture were popping up all over Europe as the continent faced a migration crises that reached a zenith in 2015. It is one of the monumental crises of our time, and when I think about how to solve it, along with the other monumental crises facing the human species there is a part of me that is as wracked with anxiety as my daughter was to get in the pool; a part of me that says, “I can’t do it.”
And so I’m thankful this weekend for my faith and I’m thankful for God’s voice, channeled by prophets like Joel and recorded in Scripture and so freed and released to proclaim it’s message in all times and places, to a people facing new and different hostile forces: “my people shall never…be put to shame…I am in [your] midst…I, the Lord, am your God.”
I wanted to say to my daughter what Joel said to a people who felt similarly in the face of trial and challenge: “Do not fear, O Soil” – not because I believe that some Deus ex Machina will come from the sky to her rescue – but because I believe that God has created and is creating; that the earth is filled with a Spirit of profligate growth – it spills over as fountains of leaves from trees and bursts open chrysanthemums and asters like fireworks; its in “the tree [that] bears its fruit, [and] the fig tree and vine [that] give their full yield,” and I believe that human beings are just as much a part of the garden. What does a seed do but face the monumental – the darkness, the apparent impenetrability of the ground – and what does it do but blossom and bloom and grow and heal and regenerate? And I believe we were designed in the same way.
I didn’t end up saying any of this to my daughter; instead I shared a story from my own teenage years about a moment when I’d wanted to give up on something for fear that I didn’t have it in me to succeed. I was lucky to have a voice in my life – a voice not unlike the prophet Joel’s – a voice that would not let me quit, a voice that reminded me that “the Lord has done great things;” that the earth is filled with a Spirit of profligate growth – enough to make whole years’ worth of jams and tomato sandwiches for a month – it’s the Spirit in me and it’s the Spirit in you. And I was filled with gratitude and thanksgiving that I had such a story to tell.
The Glorious Beauty of the Lilies and the Soaring Freedom of the Birds, Matthew 6:25-33
I will assume that none of you has to be here this morning; that there are, in fact, many other places you could be at this very moment, on such a bright and cheery autumn morning during the very last long-weekend before Christmas. I will assume you already enjoyed your last weekend at the cottage, or that you’ve put off your departure until this afternoon. If exercise is important to you then I’ll assume you got up early in order to fit in your run in the ravine. I’ll assume that you told your friends you could meet for brunch on Saturday, but not Sunday and that you decided to delay cleaning up your garden until next weekend. I know you could be at home stuffing a turkey if you are hosting dinner tonight, in fact I know you could very well have stayed in bed if you’d really wanted to, but here’s the thing: out of a whole world of interesting and important activities you could be doing right now you chose this one: to come to church. And since no one would have judged you for choosing otherwise I will assume that it is important to you (or to someone you are here with) to nuance your thanks on this feast of Thanksgiving with a little bit of praise.
In the language of our prayers this morning you glimpsed one of the deepest longings at the heart of the Christian faith: to believe not only that there is a God who “created the Earth and gives us the harvest,” but to believe this God “provides [us with] all that we need.” Thanking God for “beauty and bounty,” for “fields ripe for harvest,” and for “gardens overflowing with goodness,” means God must somehow be responsible for all these things. According to the Christian faith, this is what Thanksgiving is all about: giving credit where credit is due. Our scriptures tell us not to worry about our lives and what we’ll eat and what we’ll drink and whether we’ll have enough but would point us instead to the confidence of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, whom, if they could talk would surely proclaim along with the Psalmist that, “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Ps 24:1).
When you come to church at Thanksgiving you are confronted with one of the basic confessions of Christianity, the belief (as the United Church of Canada wrote in its New Creed) that “God has created and is creating;” exhibit “A” spills out on the table behind me. Daniel Migliori, in his textbook of Christian theology called Faith Seeking Understanding, describes our belief like this: “Christians confess the lordship and providential care of God over the world. God does not abandon the creation, leaving it to run on its own…but remains ever faithful, upholding, blessing, and guiding creation to its appointed goal.” In the United Church of Canada’s oldest statement of faith, the Basis of Union from 1925, we wrote that, “We believe that God is the creator, upholder and governor of all things,” and in our most recent statement of faith, A Song of Faith, composed in 2006, we confessed our belief that “God creates the universe…tends the universe [and]…enlivens the universe, guiding all things toward harmony with their Source.” The Christian faith takes up the song of the Psalmist who sings of God visiting the earth and watering it in order to make it fruitful, who provides the people with grain and then prepares the land, and blesses the earth’s growth and crowns the year with bounty (Ps 65:9-11a). This God deserves our thanks and praise because our cornucopia is full and our cup runneth over, unless, of course, your cornucopia is looking a little sparse this year and as best you can tell your cup only half full.
This past summer my husband and I planted a garden; a garden whose beauty and bounty I fully expected to give thanks for this fall. We had waited a long time for this garden. Prior to this summer our backyard was a dumping ground for renovation waste; it was piles of demolished drywall and thick rectangles of pink insulation and wooden 2×4’s of various lengths. The tiny patch of grass where the kids could play died and became infested with the most tenacious and voracious weeds. Any soil visible under the waste was dusty, the colour of ash, and every square inch of dirt turned up rocks or nails or broken glass or metal. The front yard was much the same. One of our neighbours would come over to cluck at us whenever we were out working, pulling weeds or picking out the rocks one by one. No flowers will ever grow here, he actually said to me one day. Says you, I thought and got back to my weeding.
A garden would definitely be a challenge, yes, but we had vision! We could see it: it would be practical but beautiful, glorious in all four seasons. I pictured the brashness of those greens and yellows and purples I would plant; a riot of life in the midst of hard, grey concrete. Out back we’d plant a tree for the kids to lie under and we settled on an Eastern Redbud, which flowers purple in the spring and whose leaves are shaped like hearts – yes, hearts! – the most perfect symbol (we thought) for the love we were nurturing in our family.
The tree was delivered in the middle of June with a handwritten not attached to one of its branches: “Don’t worry,” the note said, “it is alive.” How can I describe this tree to you? It was (at best) a six-foot long stick, with two or three twiggy branches sticking out from its sides. There were absolutely no leaves on it, not even a bud. But we weren’t to worry. The note said all that this tree needed was some good hot weather and it would leaf out in no time. My husband and I decided we would just have to take perfect care of the tree, and it would grow…it would grow! And so we watered it and watered it and waited and waited. We went away for two weeks and enlisted the help of another neighbour to come by to keep up the watering, insisting that he follow our instructions exactly. By the middle of July, when the tree still hadn’t produced even the tiniest bud, my husband called the people who sold it to us. “When you scratch the bark can you see any green,” they asked? He thought so…maybe…and there were suckers shooting out from its base. “Don’t worry,” they said. So we kept watering and waiting and waiting and watering but those heart-shaped leaves never did appear and this past week we finally gave up and pulled out of the ground that spindly, brittle little stick we’d been calling a tree for the past four months.
What I’m trying to get at is this: if we are people who are going to come to church on Thanksgiving Sunday to thank God for seed and harvest (and in so doing admit our faith in a God who upholds and governs and tends and enlivens creation) then we’d best have some way to make sense of what happened to my tree, because despite it being a part of God’s creation, and despite us giving it our best, that Eastern Redbud is now no more than a pile of sticks waiting for pickup on the next yard waste day. I have the example of my tree, but you will have your own personal list of things that make you wonder whether God is really in charge in the way our creeds and scripture suggest. We wonder that in a world where we can fill our cornucopia to overflowing others this very weekend will go hungry. We wonder that, in this world of potential and possibility that there are those who, this very moment are wishing they could catch a break and find a job. We wonder that in this world of beauty and bounty, in this world that we say belongs to God, along with everything in it, that there could be young people who can’t find hope. Thanking God that we’ve been cared for makes us wonder why it looks like God doesn’t care for so many others. And deep down we worry that we are actually are our own, when it comes down to it. That we alone are responsible for what we have to eat and what we have to drink and what our children have to wear. And so we rush, picking up papers and plans making appointments, sowing maniacally that we might have something to reap, toiling and spinning that we might have some sense of security, with no time to look at the birds or consider the lilies gazing out above the grass from their tender blue eyes.
Under the circumstances, many have decided it makes better sense to take God out of the equation entirely, rather than to wrestle with the persistent reality of pain and sadness in a world God supposedly created and called “good.” Doing this makes thanksgiving simple: When thanks are due it’s because they have earned it themselves and if the world is somehow lacking they likewise have only themselves to blame. But what of us who are here in church? Perhaps we need to be clear about the character of the God in whom we have faith and trust.
Just before the passage we heard read in the Gospel of Matthew is a brief teaching Jesus gave called “The Sound Eye.” “The eye is the lamp of the body,” he says, “so if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light” (6:22). Our perspective matters, Jesus says. Apparently the first service of thanksgiving in Canada happened in 1578 in the Frobisher Bay area of Baffin Island, during Martin Frobisher’s third voyage to the region from England. Frobisher was on a mission to find the fabled Northwest Passage. He’d traveled with a convoy of 15 ships and planned to build a small settlement in the area. But ice destroyed the ship that contained most of the building materials, and his fleet was separated by sudden and violent storms, so that when the whole contingent that remained they all found themselves together again in the bay Frobisher called on their designated minister to lead them all in a service of thanksgiving, praising God for their “strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places,” as they described the experience. Frobisher would have described his God as “Almighty;” a God so powerful as to be able to physically intervene in his expedition, a God who is to his ships as a child blowing through a straw is to the movement of paper boats on a puddle.
I don’t mean to dismiss Martin Frobisher and this theology but I think many of us have trouble with this way of understanding God and even with the wording of the official inauguration of thanksgiving in 1957 as “a day of general thanksgiving to Almighty God.” If God is Almighty, then we wonder why God doesn’t get overtly involved in the situations of our lives that could really use the intervention of God’s power and might. Any thinking person has to ask Almighty God the same question in the face of every new tragedy: if you could reunite Frobisher’s fleet despite the sudden storms, then why couldn’t you stop the gunman at Umpqua Community College in Oregon or Marco Muzzo from driving drunk and killing Harry, Millie and Daniel Neville-Lake? “We yearn for a God who sets everything to rights,” says United Church theologian, Douglas John Hall, “but in such longings we overlook the fact that to have such a God we should have to relinquish our own freedom and become automatons who could only do right.” We must shift from gratitude to an Almighty God, to gratitude to a God who would willing limit his strength that we might be a little stronger.
What is asked of us as Christians is not to trust in God’s power, but to trust that there is power in following and walking in God’s way, a path that doesn’t lead us toward being almighty, but has us take direction from the almighty power of love – a love that is (in its very essence) patience; a love that is kind; a love that is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things – shipwrecks and gunmen and drunk drivers. So we are not only grateful for what we have, but that we have been given direction. We might be worried, but we have a way through worry, God’s way; a way that would have us forfeit our strength (as Douglas John Hall would put it) in order that others might be strong and experience thanksgiving.
I had been wracking my brain to find an example of this kind faith and trust and remembered the example of my best friend, Melissa. Melissa and I have been friends since we were 11 years old. When we were twelve or thirteen, we entered the “duologue” competition at Edmonton’s annual Kiwanis Festival. A duologue is a short scene written for two actors. Being fans of Lucy Maud Montgomery we decided to take as our scene a portion of the chapter in Anne of Green Gables where Anne accidentally gets Diana drunk, mistaking Marilla’s red currant wine for raspberry cordial. Of course were both adamant that we wanted to play the role of Anne, no other role would do for either of us and we were at a complete stand off, staring each other down, waiting to see who would be the mightier. And then Melissa did something completely unexpected. She willingly gave up the part she’d wanted so much to take on the much harder role – especially for a little Mormon girl: the part of Diana, drunk.
Of course she was influenced by her real, active and profound faith, not in the almighty power of God but in the almighty power of God’s love. I’m not sure she would have been able to articulate this at the time, but what gave her the courage and hope and confidence to be vulnerable was her trust in the difficult and costly way of love. She was insecure at first, playing Diana, and she was worried she might get laughed at when she had to pretend to be drunk, but she willingly gave up the role that would have made her feel strong and powerful in order that those feelings might come to me instead. It won’t surprise you to hear that she outshone my performance in every way.
Melissa strove first for the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness and reaped a bounty of accolades and praise, not to mention an exponential growth of character. Meda Stamper, minister at Anstey United Reformed Church in Nottingham, UK put it like this: God’s strange, countercultural kingdom promises the glorious beauty of the lilies and the soaring freedom of the birds to those who take upon themselves the yoke of the crucified, risen Jesus and find their treasure there.” We are reminded at Thanksgiving that the character of the One to whom we give our thanks and praise, is One who is almighty because she forfeits power and strength. And so we need not worry, but walk with confidence in a direction that honestly makes us feel a little insecure, a little vulnerable. For this perspective, for the God who grants it and for all the beauty and bounty that come to us because of it, we offer up our thanks and praise, living out of our sense of gratitude, trusting in God’s power, witnesses to this “Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.”