Year C, Proper 25 October 23, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“…he has given the early rain for your vindication, he has poured down for you abundant rain…” That is from the prophet Joel.
“You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges/with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.” That is the psalmist.
I usually open up the lectionary for the week on Monday or Tuesday, to let it ferment for the week before I sit down to write early on Saturday morning. With Shelter Week here, it has been busy, so I didn’t engage the scripture until Friday morning at Morning Prayer. And it was just splendid hearing this scripture, passages and psalms about rain and humility read above the din of rain on the roof on a rainy morning at the end of the first week of real rains of the season. That is one of the best sounds, rain on this roof. We have an intermittent stream next to our house; as of Thursday night it was not intermittent any more, at least not for the next eight months. It makes one of the best sounds, too. The rains and all they bring are a gift from God.
As the rains come down the green comes up. The floor of the forest out in Jasper is erupting in the Fall ephemerals; and the grass fields in Pleasant Hill are covered in what looks like green frost. Even here, the rectangle of brown where the canopy was in front of the church is nearly refreshed. What a gift the rain is! The gift of life itself just pours down on us from the skies. Undeserved, by grace alone it falls on us. What bounty!
“…He has poured down for you abundant rain, the early rain and the later rain as before. The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.”
Has anyone here ever threshed grain by hand? How about pressed grapes or olives? Apples for cider? Early on Friday morning I was down in the kitchen with Jerry, Lucy and Christine working on breakfast for Shelter Week. Christine was making pancakes and I was reminded of one of the best days in ministry I have had. It was back at the Anglican monastery where we lived and farmed before coming here. A big group of kids from a summer program in Boston came out to the country for the day. The monastery farm was hopping with more life that it had seen in a generation (and more people of color since it was stolen from the original inhabitants in 1630). The kids dug potatoes for making French fries, picked raspberries for making jam, and collected eggs and threshed and milled wheat for making pancakes. It all culminated in our interns doing a dramatic reading of Eric Carle’s picture book classic Pancakes, Pancakes, and then making and eating the pancakes that they just had a part in harvesting. The abundance of everything that day was just overwhelming. A top ten day to be sure.
Have you ever dug a potato? You just reach into the earth and pluck life out of the soil. You can live on well grown potatoes, and they are just laying there just under the surface of the ground. You start them in the spring, right when the Dandelions blossom, planting them in hard-dug furrows. At harvest you pull out the foliage you have spent the summer protecting from beetles, then reach into the soil you spent the summer carefully mounding, and there it is, life. It is amazing.
And wheat! Shocks of wheat are a deeply ingrained symbol of abundance. Wheat plants (or oats or barley, any of the grains) aren’t too impressive at first glance, not individually. Amber waves of grain are, but a one wheat plant? Ehh… But looking closer you can see in those rows of tiny grains the 30, 60, 100 fold increase! And then you spread them on the threshing floor and apply the force of the iron-wood flail (or in our modern scene, the shocks are spread on a good canvas tarp and are threshed with 4-foot lengths of heavy duty garden hose… easier to make than a flail and harder to hurt yourself with).
And right away you see it: the grain! A few good whacks, then you pick up the straw with the fork and it is there, piles of it, grain, the stuff of life. And you turn it and whack it again and again and again. There is something primal in threshing. We’ve been surviving by doing this for thousands of years; a stick for threshing and some breeze for winnowing… starter ingredients of civilization. I think of Almanzo Wilder and his Father in Farmer Boy, the second book in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. They spent the cold New York winter on the threshing floor of their barn. A little every day. Baby steps to the kingdom. When I dream of what the commonwealth of God looks like on the ground, it looks a lot like the Wilder farm; there is elegance in the work there, and there is an abundance of grace.
I don’t make a secret of my deep and abiding disgust with the state of so much of our world right now, with the leadership (or aspiring leadership) of our country in particular. There is hate and violence and open, vile misogyny and no demonstrable fitness for public service on one side, and there is the arrogance and latent corruption of people too long in power on the other. The root of my disgust is the hubris, is the message that it is my turn, that I deserve it, that I am the only one who can save you, us, our nation, the world, me and only me. None of that is true. Just the opposite, actually, as Jesus teaches us this morning“…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” Humility is not a trait valued in our culture and we all pay for that sin.
We don’t deserve what we get. Be it great blessings, or terrible curses, interesting times or the struggle of day-in-day-out living. We don’t deserve what we get, not usually. If we are well off, well educated, comfortable and healthy, mostly that is because of who bore and raised us and not anything that we have done. Or it is due to the luck of DNA, our inherent skills and abilities, or a healthy constitution or the simple absence of impediments. Those of us born into privilege who have done well, that is more a case of not squandering a gift, not giving up a head start than anything else. Like those of us not born into privilege, what we don’t have now is due to being born to parents without the means to meet their children’s needs. Not your fault. The struggles of poverty or racism, misogyny or homophobia aren’t your fault, they are injustices exacerbated by the greed and heartlessness of others.
It is just like the wealth of this nation. It has much less to do with the ingenuity of our people then it does with the inherent wealth of the earth and soils and other living things on this continent (and our willingness to exploit that wealth ruthlessly). We didn’t “deserve” the wealth of the Grand Banks or the prairie or the Central Valley any more than we deserve the rains that fall here or the snows above in the Cascades, any more than Syrians deserve the drought that contributed to the conditions that has led their nation to ruin.
All that we have comes from God. That is not a nod to the prosperity gospel that thanks God for our wealth! It is the existence of wealth itself, of things with tangible, life giving value that is the gift of God that deserves our gratitude. We have to grateful to God for the rain. “The threshing floors shall be full of grain, the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.” It takes skill to grow grapes, just ask the Oldales about that; but without the rain and the soil and the right amount of sun, and the right temperature at the right time, the greatest viticulturalist ever born couldn’t pry a bushel of grapes out of cold, parched earth. What you have or you don’t; that’s a distribution problem and a geographical problem not a God-blesses-some-and-not-others kind of problem. We have to remember that, because remembering that helps make sure that we don’t credit ourselves with things that have nothing to do with our efforts, but are simply gifts from God. And it helps us not to blame others for their deprivation, for far too often someone has stolen the gifts God meant for them.
All that we have comes from God and knowing that, the only appropriate response is gratitude. Well, gratitude and generosity, because if we know what we have is a gift and is not only of our own earning or making, we really ought to be generous. Beyond just being polite and in good taste, it is the whole impulse behind the practice and culture of sacrifice in ancient Israel. The first fruits, the unblemished calf, the very best, that is what was laid before the Lord, that is what was burnt at the altar. This was a practice of humility to remind ourselves that what we have is not largely due to our own effort or our own skill, but to forces and factors totally out of our control. In that kernel is the spiritual roots of stewardship. If you are blessed with skills, with productive genes, with the ability and good fortune to have material wealth, then a portion of that should be offered back to the whole in the name of God. It is a practice of humbling ourselves like what that tax collector did when he prayed, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
All that we have is a gift from God. Be grateful for those gifts and be humble. Next time you are out and about, and you see the grass pulsating with life, or see the usnia hanging radiantly from the oaks, or you eat a piece of sweet Fall kale hydrated with the blessed rains, or you see someone really down and out and needful of all sorts of things, really, really, really be grateful and be humble, “…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” AMEN