Year C, Easter 6 May 5, 2013
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
On this Rogation Sunday, I want to start with a poem of unlikely origin for this context, Mass. It is Charles Bukowski’s a song with no end. It goes:
when Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric”
I know what he
I know what he
to be completely alive every moment
in spite of the inevitable.
we can’t cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take
it will have known a victory just as
I learned this poem on Friday morning from someone I met on Friday morning, someone who is very much thinking on issues of life and death as he struggles with a very aggressive form of cancer. One of the deepest privileges of priesthood, and without a doubt the most humbling, is being invited into people’s lives in the thin spots, the shallow patches in the river of life: birth, marriage, divorce, pain and suffering, loss and grief, and of course sickness unto death. Gladness, sorrow, and above all change, constant change. And the realness of it all, joyful and otherwise, is sometimes overwhelming. What overwhelms me is exactly what Charles Bukowski is talking about, our ability, our need, our God given responsibility to be completely alive in every moment in spite, in spite of the inevitable.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and the Lamb…” Sing it, sing it loud, St. John the Divine. “On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit each month; the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” O, God “the earth has brought forth her increase;” may you give us your blessing. May we sing our bodies electric in spite of the inevitable. May we sing the body of Mother Earth electric, may we sing the body of our Lord Jesus Christ electric in spite of the inevitable. What we need to do is sing these things electric as if it is the song itself that is inevitable.
Rogation is an agrarian observance, handed down to us from our ancient ancestors in pagan Rome. Being agrarian, being agricultural means having to do with the very real systems of life and death that make human civilization possible. Could there be a more strident call, a more definitive call to engage the inevitable? Rogation is an occasion to sing our collective earth-bound bodies electric not just in spite of the inevitable, but because of it, for it, in celebration of it. For as inevitable as death seems and of course is, life is just as inevitable, is just as pressing, just as looming, just as essential as death could ever hope to be. Just look at the blackberries. Life, the overwhelming aliveness of the world, is there a greater testament to God Almighty? Do we need anything else to be convinced of the grandeur of the Divine? The creation itself is at least a fifth gospel of our Lord.
Right there in Revelation: the river of the water of life, crystal clear, watering the trees of life, twelve kinds of fruit each month! I’ve seen apple trees grafted to grow three or four varieties, and maybe a pear, but twelve, and twelve each month? What an image of divine abundance. And the leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations of the world? An old friend of mine, a farmer, he always preached his produce as medicine, the best medicine money could buy: honest, pure, well loved food, a gift from God for the people of God, no doubt about it. The inevitability of life is revealed in the processes of life itself.
My work, before I came to Resurrection, was agricultural. I farmed and cared for the grounds of an Anglican monastery North of Boston. I also thought and wrote about agriculture, about a holy agriculture and a theology to help ground the systems of life in a vocabulary of faith, in an understanding of the world that transcended understanding hay fields, the rows of potatoes and the secret life of turkeys and opened up, hopefully, an apprehension of the Great Economy. Wendell Berry calls it that, the Great Economy. It is the all encompassing economy, God’s economy where everything is accounted for, where nothing is ignored or externalized. Because farming really is that, it is really about managing, massaging, manipulating, and at its best, cooperating with the infinitely complex systems and complexes of complex systems that enable life to happen. People talk of God as love: sure, and I sometimes broaden it out a bit and try to understand God as relationship itself, as the ability to relate, as the substrate within which relationship occurs, the intersubjective space. Witnessing, beginning to understand, participating in the ultra-complex relationships that are part and parcel of farming are a unique window to begin to understand God in God’s self. Hence, a project was born, “Helping the Land Help People Know God.”
We started a small farm at the monastery, feeding 15 local families, the brothers, their retreat guests, and some food went out into the food security system. We had mostly vegetables, but also grew grains, berries, eggs, turkeys and pigs. And we had a nice sugar bush that produced 10 gallons of maple syrup each winter. We used the chickens to weed the rows, grew grain to feed the chickens, spoiled food to feed the pigs and all of it fed the compost pile which came back to feed the soil and the green grass grew all around all around and the green grass grew all around. Complex relationships.
And all sorts of people crossed paths in those rows of tomatoes; toddlers and monks, grouchy old church ladies and bright-eyed young interns, bishops and crusty Yankees who had been farming the same land since 1600 something, and all somewhat choreographed by myself with all of my peculiarities. In five years, I think the best day we had at the farm was when 100 kids from inner city Boston came out as part of a summer enrichment program run by the Diocese. They picked raspberries, dug potatoes, petted the pig and all, and we culminated in a dramatic reading of Eric Carle’s Pancakes, Pancakes. The kids threshed the wheat, milled the flower, made raspberry-maple compote, and flipped pancakes on a giant outdoor griddle as the story progressed: then we ate. It was a good day.
And what did we all learn? That raspberries are best when they are eaten warm right off the bramble on a hot July day. That potatoes are absolute magic: dig your hands in the soil and a life giving apple of the earth emerges. That it takes a lot of work to make flour, a lot, and that whatever you put into it all, into the system, is what you get back. Garbage in, garbage out. Poison in, unwholesome food out. Love, attention, a dash of caring and ample heart water in, and the very essence of life will be returned to you encased in the three mil thick skin of a Pruden’s Purple tomato. We learned that God is great, and depending on where you encounter God, can be delicious. Most of all, we learned that the dynamic power of life, the force that through the green fuse drives the flower, that the majesty of God is revealed most convincingly in the indomitable, the inevitable pulse of life. The pulse in your wrist, the pulse of sap up into the maple canopy, the pulse of that turkey whose life is be taken that others may live, other bodies being nourished by its body, the pulse of rain seeping into the ground, the pulse of the cucumbers growing up the trellis, the sunflowers bending to seek the sun, corn reaching into the sky. The inevitability of being alive. This is the lesson we need to remember, this is the essence of the gospel: life is a precious gift; be grateful and do what increases life.
Our victory comes in living the lives we have been given to live, and living them fully, electrically, even. We do that by discerning the will of God and following it; discerning our own special place and purpose in life, and following that. Our victory, our inevitable victory in the face of our equally inevitable death is living and loving, feasting and fasting, seeking, always seeking the spread of life and the life giving. Eat real food. Make good friends and beautiful things. Laugh from the belly and cry from the gut. Love recklessly, forgive with abandon, try to leave the world a better place than it was before you came here and go gentle into the good night. Now that is the perfect victory of complete aliveness if there ever was one. AMEN