Year B, Easter 6 – Rogation Sunday May 10, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”
Abide. Now that is a good word. We heard it last week, remember? “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” Abide. What does it mean, to abide?
It means to accept or act in accordance with. Continue, remain, persist. Conform to, adhere to, act in accordance with. It comes from the Old English word abidan, the a meaning “onward” and bidan meaning “bide” or “wait,” so “onward wait” or more gracefully, “to continue without fading or being lost.” Abide.
We are in the midst of St. John’s Farewell Discourse, the 4 chapter long soliloquy that Jesus offers to his disciples while still sitting around the Last Supper table. This is it, His final chance to tell is disciples what it all meant, what was most important. Judas has already slipped away to the temple authorities; the betrayal has begun. This is serious. Central to this farewell discourse is this word “abide.” “Abide in me as I abide in you.” “Abide in me like the branches abide in the vine.” “Love one another as I have loved you.”
It is not a complex lesson. The teaching through the words and life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are very simple. See the world for what it really is and love it fully and to the end. In loving the world, the seen and unseen, in opening our hearts and souls and minds and bodies to the world, to how things really are, and living fully into that, abiding in the way it really is, continuing without fading in the truth… that is what we are to do. Now I mean here how it really is, not how it seems, but what it truly is after scraping away the patina of sin and death, the short cuts, the easy paths, the moments of “good for me to heck with the rest of you all.” The true nature of things, of God, the world and everything. “Abide in me as I abide in you.” That’s the charge.
There is nothing easy in the path of abiding in God in Christ as the branch abides in the vine. Well, maybe that is not exactly accurate. The real deal, the genuine article, what is truly right and good and joyful, it is not hard to see and abide in, well it wouldn’t be if such vast forces of darkness weren’t in the way, distorting, obfuscating, distracting and downright lying. “You are the most important thing in the world!” is the mantra of free-market capitalist hegemony (and of Satan, remember the temptations in the wilderness) and that is simply not true. Well, not if you are Christian or a person of any genuine faith. Abiding in Jesus, He shows us that we are “a most important thing,” which is distinct from being “the most important thing.” You are.
My awakening as a religious person, as a Christian, as a human being, began and continues to swirl around this issue, seeing the world as it is and loving it to the end. For a variety of reasons, my awakening began in a little plot of soil, in planting a few dozen cloves of garlic on an October morning in Western Massachusetts with my then girlfriend, Windy. Planting those cloves of garlic led not only to a delightful marriage and two wonderful daughters, but to a vocation to ordained ministry and more foundationally, to a conscious relationship with God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. That soil, the land, agriculture, our civilization, life itself, a profound encounter with all of it began on that morning in that soil. Pema Chodron, the venerable Buddhist nun writes, “this very moment is the perfect teacher,” and it is. What I began learning, continue to learn is that this land, this very place is also the perfect teacher, for in the land, in the agrarian and ecological systems upon which human life and civilization is based, we have a window through which we may catch a glimpse of the true nature of things, that we might abide in it, in God, and love it fully and to the end. This is our lesson for our Rogation observance today.
Agriculture is such a perfect teacher because it is so immanently real, it is so physical, tactile, in the end, it is all about life and death. We all make life and death decisions, how we vote, what we buy, how we invest our 401K or the church’s endowment fund, these are life and death decisions, as they affect the fate of thousands or even millions of people, but it is pretty abstract, removed. That that pair of Nikes on your feet impacts the people of Vietnam is real, but hard to taste or smell. But whether that plant lives or dies, whether we favor the dandelions or the spinach, whether or not that plot is put under the tiller and the billions of life forms in the soil are thrown into disarray, whether we eat that chicken or that one, or if we choose not to eat meat at all and those animals are never even born… I mean that is as life and death a decision as we could humanly make. It is positively Jobian.
Seeing the world for what it truly is involves us being involved in the world as it truly is. One of the great calamities of modernity is our ability to remove or insulate ourselves, or seem to insulate ourselves from the vicissitudes of the natural order. There is no water left in California, yet if you ate spinach anytime this winter and it did not come from your own garden or CSA share, you partook in the water supply of the desertifying Central Valley. We are able to participate in the mining and export of that place’s water and fertility for the sake of profit and not for the sake of life because we are so far from it, and our economic systems allows, encourages, offers very few alternatives to participating in that system of death and destruction. Oh modernity!
Take airport food. We don’t get out much, my family and I. Working in South Eugene, living on a working farm in Jasper, it is possible to live a pretty de-industrialized life, or at least to eat a pretty de-industrialized diet. Not so in most of the country, but around here you can pretty reasonably eat wholesome, regionally grown food much if not most of the time. But walk into the airport, as we do occasionally to visit family in New England, and you aren’t in South Eugene any more. Everything offered to eat is grown on a factory farm and/or processed in a factory factory. We got some apple slices once and the girls took a bite and kind of scowled, “these apples don’t taste like apples.” No they didn’t, they tasted like mealy water grown badly. The appleness of the apples was lost in, was stolen by the unwholesomeness of the culture and agriculture that brought that apple to my daughters’ lips.
But it is about more than bad apples. Joel Salatin, a Virginia farmer made famous in Michael Pollan’s great book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, writes deeply of the sins of industrial agriculture, in particular the horrendous conditions that animals in commercial/industrial food systems are subjected to. Horrible. In a talk I attended, he spoke of how these systems reflect and impact our larger culture, saying, “A culture that does not respect the pigness of a pig will surely not respect the Tom-ness of a Tom or the Mary-ness of a Mary.” No it will not, because those kinds of systems are not living, organic systems and therefore do not, cannot promote or respect life. The world is analog and systems like that are distinctly digital, you know what I mean?
But an agriculture, a sustainable agriculture, in a right relationship with the land and living systems, offers us a chance to see and participate in natural systems, systems of life and death and life again, and in that, in the raw, unfiltered, unpasteurized experience of life, we not only live a more healthy and wholesome existence, an existence as God intends for us, but we have the opportunity and invitation to encounter God in God’s self, right there, in that little plot of soil, in that sunflower stretching upwards in all of its glory, in that potato that you plucked from the bosom of the earth and made into what French fries were meant to be.
I wrote a doctoral thesis on the theology of sustainable agriculture, so I could go on and on and on about what we can learn from agriculture about the true nature of things and how to love it to the end as Jesus Christ teaches, but it is too beautiful for us to sit in here too long when our gardens are calling to us, or picnics, or brunch. So let me share just few lessons learned that I have found to shine a light on how God would have us be and what Jesus Christ would have us do.
First off, our agricultural systems need to mimic the natural systems they occur within. Trees and grass are great things to grow in the lower Willamette Valley, because left to its own devices, trees and grass is what would grow. (And blackberries). Look to the land and learn from it, it knows what grows and what doesn’t. Follow the path of least resistance, just like the river does, and you will know what to do. Why do rivers run crooked? Because that is what rivers do. So should we. So should our agriculture.
We need to seek balance in all things. Farms, soil systems, gardens, are living things, and no addition or subtraction from the system is without consequence. The butterfly effect, right? Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right? You start jacking up the nitrogen through petroleum based fertilizers and yes, the plants will green up and produce, but excessive fertilizer breaks down into salts, and as salts build up in the soil, the microorganisms that allow the soil to create its own fertility are compromised as the salinity increases. Then rates of decomposition decline, nutrients get tied up in the undecomposed litter, leading to soils that can’t hold water well enough, which calls for more irrigation, which leeches the volatile fertilizers out of the soil and into the rivers (another whole problem), calling for more fertilizer to prop up the plants, leading to further salinization and so on and so on and so on… Seek balance in all things.
Be plant positive, not pest negative. Plants are impervious to pests and moderate drought and other challenges when they are healthy. Health means resilience. A key lesson of the fields is to focus on the health of the plant and the system and not on the death of the pest. Cucumber beetles come and start doing damage: don’t just look for a new and better poison, but figure out why the plants are susceptible. And chances are, you are going to find the problem is not in the plant, don’t just add something to the plant’s life, but the problem is the soil. Feed the soil, not the plant; increase the health, don’t eradicate the disease. Now there is a lesson for our medical infrastructure. Don’t come up with better indigestion meds, help folks find food that doesn’t cause indigestion to begin with. Can you imagine the social and spiritual analogies to this lesson? Isn’t this exactly what Jesus was talking about the branches abiding in the vine and we in Him?
We are all in this together, in this vast interdependent web of creation. Creator, created, decider, decided for, we are all utterly dependent on systems and systems of systems that keep the planet turning, the rain falling, the plants growing and you breathing. See the world for what it truly is and love it to the end. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” AMEN.