Preached by the Rev. Pamela DOlan at Christ Church Cathedral on Flower Sunday, May 4, 2014
This quote from The Fault in Our Stars, a novel by John Green about two teenagers with cancer, seems to me evidence of a shift in our culture. There is a profound ethical imperative that arises from the simple act of noticing. At least since the Industrial Revolution, the emphasis in Western Civilization has been on doing, on discovering, on achievement and productivity and efficiency. Today, many of us feel called in a different direction. Our calling is not necessarily to the contemplative life, not in the traditional sense. But it is a calling to attention, to witness, to a level of observation that leads to wonder, to celebration, and to compassion.
Think about the collect for today. It makes a single, simple request. It asks God “to open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold Christ in all his redeeming work.” Why is that so important? What is it we’re missing here? Not to be too simplistic about this, but the world is all around us. Seriously. We don’t have to GO anywhere to behold God’s redeeming work; we don’t have to DO anything, or get special training. It’s the ground under our feet, the air that we breathe, it’s the sun that warms our backs and the rain that waters our gardens. I do know that I am stating the obvious, but that’s the point. Our culture has complicated our relationship to the environment so much that most of us need regular reminders that THIS IS God’s redeeming work, this world, these bodies, this complex, intricate, beautiful, fragile ecosystem that makes our very existence possible. Creation itself is God’s redeeming work, from the vast expanse of interstellar space to the tiniest microorganism living somewhere under the ocean depths, and we are a part of it.
So why is it so hard to see this? Why do we need God to open our eyes? Can’t we do it ourselves? You have heard many of the answers before. We are very busy people. We are detached from our surroundings by automobiles and interstate highways and shopping malls. We are distracted by our smart phones and celebrity gossip and video games and so on and so on. Today I would like to add to this list the oldest reason in the world: we are afraid. We are afraid to look at the world with eyes of faith and see what is really happening to it. But the universe wants to be noticed. And not just in the places of beauty, where all is sweetness and light. How would you feel if you loved someone and they would only look at you on your good days, when your hair was perfect and you had one an outfit that made you look like you had just lost ten pounds? What if the person you loved turned away when you were sick? What if she couldn’t stand to look at you when you were hurt, or suffering, or facing a crisis?
When we are afraid of something, often our first impulse is to close our eyes. It can be hard to look, really look, at a child with cancer, because that child is hurting and broken and might die. If we look at her, we might love her, and if we love her, we have to face the possibility of losing her, and how can any of us stand to have our hearts broken in advance? And so, dear friends, I believe that is where we are in terms of our relationship with our planet today. We are afraid to look. We are afraid of that heart-stopping moment when the blood will freeze in our veins as we realize that it’s too late to save her. It hurts too much to see how the world is suffering, how terribly degraded the environment is, how much death and destruction is all around us. I don’t want to see one more picture of a polar bear clinging to a dwindling piece of ice. I don’t want to read one more statistic about how many species of plants and animals have disappeared from the face of the earth forever. I don’t want to look at one more story about the ice caps, the rain forests, the honeybees, air pollution, or the ozone layer. I cannot face one more depiction of killer storms, raging wildfires, fatal tidal waves, or deadly droughts. And please don’t get me started on how the people who are hurt most by what we’re doing to the environment are the poor, those who already have no voice and very little protection in the world. Dear Lord, deliver us!
And the worst of it is, we know have no one else to blame. Nobody did this to us. We have raped, plundered, and pillaged the very system that God put in place to nurture and sustain us. Think again about the words of today’s Psalm: “The cords of death have entangled me; the grip of the grave took hold of me; I came to grief and sorrow.” I can hear the earth saying those exact words. I can hear the earth crying out. This beautiful, fragile planet is hanging from a cross, and it is a cross of our own construction. We are still pounding in the nails. No wonder we bury our heads in our hands. No wonder we are afraid to look.
And yet, the universe wants to be noticed. When we close our eyes, when we avert our gaze, we miss so much. We miss the redbud blossoms that burst directly out of their tree trunks, too impatient to find a place on the branches above. We miss the way dirt smells after a late afternoon thunderstorm has passed through town. We miss the way a seedling unfolds leaf by curling leaf. We miss the lacy texture under our fingertips of lichen on a rocky surface. When we fail to notice, to observe, to witness, we miss all this evidence of life and abundance. We miss that there are patches of land in nearly every one of our towns, suburbs, subdivisions, and even church properties that can easily grow food and. We miss that rooftops can be green, that rainwater can be collected and used, that a compost bucket is a way to turn garbage into gold.
Some of you have heard that my parish, Good Shepherd, has started a garden. We call it Shepherd Farm. It is a community garden, but only sort of. We call it a community garden because we want it to involve the whole community. But it is not the kind of garden where every individual is assigned a plot and then they get to take home whatever they grow. Those kinds of gardens are wonderful, but we are doing something a little different. We are asking everyone to come help till and tend, and then whatever we all grow we will all harvest, and then we will give it all away to feed whoever needs it. This summer, we plan to give our whole harvest to the Peace Meal at St John’s in Tower Grove. We hope to be able to expand the garden every year, and as our yields increase, perhaps we can expand the number of partners who can receive what we grow.
Now let me tell you, we didn’t start Shepherd Farm because I am really into gardening and I could lead the way forward boldly, with my sheep following in my every footstep. Actually, it’s almost the exact opposite. I know almost nothing about gardening, and I am learning step-by-step, inch-by-inch, from my parishioners and from experts near and far.
Brennan Manning once wrote, “In every encounter we either give life or we drain it. There is no neutral exchange. We enhance human dignity, or we diminish it. We [must] define ourselves by our response to human need.” This is as true for congregations as it is for individuals. When a parish has resources and does not use those resources, whatever they may be, to meet the needs of the world, that is not a neutral exchange.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not here to tell you that the best or only way to change the world is to grow a garden. And frankly there are people who are much better positioned to talk about the spiritual benefits of gardening; people who have been doing this all their lives, people who know what it means to pray in the dirt. Those are the people who can tell you from experience about the benefits of slowing down, of paying attention, and of putting absolute trust in a process outside your control. I’m new to all this. I don’t even know if what we’re doing is going to work. This is truly an act of faith. We have more than enough land for a substantial garden, even a farm, but we don’t have everything we need. We don’t have enough money or enough people…yet. But by starting out this way, we are creating a situation of intentional interdependence. We’re going to need other people to show up and pitch in if it’s going to grow.
And truly, deciding on a garden was not a random act. We started Shepherd Farm because our eyes were opened to a simple reality: we have land. Our land is a gift from God and we are called to use the gifts God has given us to make a difference in the world. Shepherd Farm started with the eyes of our faith being opened. Our little corner of the universe was crying out for attention, and we took notice. Also, given our congregation’s history, there is little that is more precious to us than our property, the ground under our feet. And that is exactly why it is so necessary to share it, to work hard at making it productive and then to give away all that it produces. We are literally giving back the first fruits of what God has given us.
Finally, I have to tell you that what I love so much about this is that it’s not a business model. It’s a Gospel model. The disciples were on a road together when they encountered Jesus. They were at table together when they recognized Christ in their midst. It was when Jesus took bread, blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, that their eyes were opened. It is no coincidence that the bread that we share at Communion is both the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands. It is no coincidence that the earth has to break itself open to share its bounty with us, and from that bounty comes the bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Christ.
And still, the universe wants to be noticed. Call it the book of nature, or the environment, or creation, but the physical world is where God’s goodness and love are first made known to us. God is the fountain of life and the source of all goodness, and God gave the whole world into our care. The whole thing. You cannot care about human beings who are suffering and not care about the environment, because it is all one. We are all in this together.
So: How can we care for creation and one another? It starts with opening our eyes. It continues with kneeling in the dirt, and getting our hands dirty. And it ends around a table, where all are welcome and all are fed. Amen.