Sunday, October 24, 2010

Listening to the Locusts

Preached today at Broadway Presbyterian in NYC. There was a lot of good music courtesy of Patrick Evans & our choir... my favorite is a song called "the blue green hills of earth."

Here's the sermon... Listening to the Locusts.
(That's a picture of a locust swarm btw)

read these scriptures first:
Psalm 65
Joel 2:21-32

It’s a pleasure to be back home at Broadway Presbyterian, and a privilege to preach for you. It was a particular pleasure to find these two passages from the First Testament scheduled for me in the lectionary. These are beautiful and poetic passages, with a lot about nature and the goodness of God’s creation.
Psalm 65 is especially lovely, and especially for reading now in the autumn, around harvest time. I love the line “your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.” It can be hard to relate to that in the city where grocery stores always overflow with abundance... but imagine if you will a farmer going out in the fall to harvest his vineyard, with his family and a few neighbors. Usually they have no trouble fitting the entire harvest into a single wagon. But the harvest is bountiful this year and even though the children are eating fistfuls of grapes right off the vine, armload after armload keeps coming in, until the wagon is loaded to the very top... and spilling over. When they are done, and headed home, people walk alongside the wagon keeping their hands ready if anything falls, but there is more than anyone could manage to catch, and besides, the harvest is so much more than they need, and everyone’s so busy laughing and having fun... that they leave a long line of fallen grapes behind in the road.
That’s what our God is like. Nature may bestow this kind of abundance on a farmer once every few years, but God’s wagon tracks are always overflowing with abundance.

The Scripture lesson from Joel also tells us about this aspect of God, the generous God who blesses the land. “Do not fear, O Soil!” The prophet talks to the fields and the creatures as if they were dear friends. Do not worry – in fact, be glad – God is sending you blessings of rain and produce. God is giving you food and drink.
This is a beautiful passage. But it hints at a darker side. To be fully honest, we skipped most of the book of Joel, and the rest was much more somber. Often prophets work like that – they start with the bad news, and then move on to the good. But often WE like to read the blessing and skip the cursing.
The prophecies of Joel, pleasant as they sound, were actually given in response to a very unpleasant, massive swarm of locusts that destroyed all the crops – a hostile army’s attack. So listen to just the first few verses of the prophet Joel that were NOT included in the lectionary reading for today:
Hear this, O elders,
give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
or in the days of your ancestors?
What the cutting locust left,
the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
the destroying locust has eaten.

This is in-your-face nature. Farmers everywhere throw their hands up in surrendur. There’s no fighting this army. The digestive tract of a locust is specially adapted to accomodate just about anything. They are eating machines. Whatever you’ve planted, THEY will feast on, and lick the wagon tracks clean. It’s a good thing locusts and grasshoppers are technically a kosher food, permitted by traditional law for Israelites to catch and eat (Lev 11:20), because after the few hours it takes for them to devastate your year’s labor, that’s about all you will have left... a plateful of bugs.
So there goes the mythical and romantic notion that nature is always kind. Nature is awesome, and powerful, and majestic, and at times, overwhelming.
God is, at least somewhat, like that too. Surprising. Mysterious. And far beyond our comprehension.

God (as the Israelites understood God) communicated in a variety of ways. There was written law, of course, and traditional stories passed down, and priests who interepreted these, and prophets who defended them. But one of the other primary ways the Israelites experienced God was directly mediated by the world around them... by wagon tracks full of spilled grapes, by the constancy of sunrise and sunset, by the long-awaited spring rains, by water in the desert, by fire on the mountain, and even by swarms of locusts. These were the ways they learned about God’s generosity, God’s constancy, and God’s awesome power. What’s more, the people had a contractual relationship with God – a lease on the land, if you will – telling them how they could and could not live on the land. The land belonged to God, and the people were tenants, and sometimes when the people were not honoring this three-way covenant, the land itself would express God’s dissatisfaction. A few centuries before Joel, the prophet Hosea made this connection clear, between the people and their land:
Hosea chapter 4.
There is no faithfulness or loyalty,
and no knowledge of God in the land.
Swearing, lying, and murder,
and stealing and adultery break out;
bloodshed follows bloodshed.
Therefore the land mourns,
and all who live in it languish;
together with the wild animals
and the birds of the air,
even the fish of the sea are perishing.

The biblical scholar Ellen Davis puts it this way: As a rule of thumb – in the Hebrew scriptures – the best index for the health of the relationship between God and God’s people, is the health of the land. From the lush garden of Eden to the harshness of the desert, the condition of the land mirrors the relationship between human and divine.
So Joel is speaking a well-known language here. When he says “God has poured down for you abundant rain,” he is saying “God loves you.” When he says “God will pay back the years the locust has eaten,” he is saying “God is merciful and generous.” And Joel’s fellow Judeans understand that language. They have to! because they live in close contact with the land. Mainly, because they are farmers. They may not live at a day-to-day subsistence level, but they certainly live harvest-to-harvest, or year-to-year. Any little change in the weather could mean the difference between a year of feasting or of famine. They understand the connection between spring rain and God’s love, as easily as we connect a diamond ring and an engagement. They speak that language – the language of the land. Jesus spoke it too, and his parables are infused with agricultural language.
Unfortunately, those of us who are not farmers are missing out on deeper meanings throughout the Bible. We say “the Lord is my shepherd,” blah blah blah, but we don’t GET it in the way they did. Something like weather is a curiosity in an urban world where no crops depend on it. It’s a trivial conversation topic, or an inconvenience. It’s not important to us. And so we don’t understand how a swarm of locusts can be a life-or-death matter.
We might miss half the meanings in the Bible because of this, but there are other parts, of course, which we hold onto. For example, you may have noticed that the Joel reading was in two portions. There are two promises, two forms of consolation. The first promise is tangible – that God will pour out rain. The second is spiritual – that God will pour out the Spirit. And THAT is the famous one, that gets repeated at Pentecost. In our reading of the Bible, we have chosen to value the one and abandon the other. We will pray for the spirit, but we don’t really pray for rain.
Maybe we don’t want to be caught praying for rain, because it seems superstititous. We think that we are more enlightened now, and have our minds on higher things, and so we assume that God does too... that God cares about deep intellectual thoughts more than about grapes and grasshoppers.
Or maybe it’s just easier to ask God to bless us with some kind of intangible thing, so that we can’t really be proven wrong if we don’t get it. It’s less risky to ask for inner peace, sometime, please... than it is to ask for rain, and I need it, this season. It’s really going out on a limb, to believe that God would directly bless us, here and now, with tangible, edible proof – with the kind of grace that you can chew.
The other thing is, we really value our disconnection from the land. Dirt is dirty, after all, and we have invented a lot of machinery to keep us from touching it. We’ve got machinery to keep even our agriculture nicely insulated from the variances of the weather. We irrigate. We fertilize. We keep the locusts away with tons & tons of petrochemical pesticides. And we also just get away. Over the past few decades Americans have made a mass exodus from farms, turning the work of the land over to a few corporations. Farming is done by specialists with machines, helped by immigrant day laborers.
The loss of our cultural connection to the land extends even as far as losing our connection with the very food we eat. We eat fresh strawberries twelve months of the year, even though ten of those months they taste like styrofoam, but we don’t notice they taste lousy because we’re shutting down our own bodies. We only pay attention to them for the work they can do, or their usefulness in delivering pain or pleasure signals. And we approach the spiritual life the same way - just give me a shot of deep thoughts straight to the brain, please, and let me get on with my disembodied life!
We forget that the first person – Adam – was created out of the earth – the Adamah. We forget that the human was created from the humus – from the soil. There is ancient and timeless wisdom in the Hebrew Bible, about practical and physical stuff... wisdom that we simply skip over, looking instead for interesting thoughts to distract us from the very physical, concrete reality of a life lived in right relations with God and our fellow humans – and with the land. A Christian spirituality can never truly abandon this ancient sense that our lives are physical realities, interconnected with the world around us. If we disconnect from the land, we disconnect from our fellow humans, and we disconnect from God. And that is our loss.

When we disconnect we lose other benefits as well. For one, it’s healthy to be connected. It’s good for the body... and good for the soul. A little story about Children of Uganda... just a few years ago there was an agriculture project started at the orphanage... with the goal of feeding the children from our own land, instead of solely relying on USAID and the local vendors for a steady supply of 100-lb sacks of corn flour. They started a huge garden, a fruit orchard, and a chicken house. Now the project has done little more than inching slowly toward the goal of not needing to buy sacks of flour. THAT goal is not within reach. BUT even without that goal, they discovered that farming is totally worth the time and energy. The children participate, and learn to wonder at strange and marvelous new vegetables, they take pride and joy in raising their food, and they even express compassion as they gently nurture their chickens... or even their squash plants. When we take care of the earth, the earth takes care of us.
Another benefit of feeling connected to the land is that we often find it very easy to connect to God when we’re out in nature... mountains, trees, lakes, rivers... Sometimes it’s a sense of being stunned or overwhelmed by beauty, and sometimes it’s a quiet sense of peace and calm. Spending time in nature can be such a powerful experience that people honestly feel more connected to God there than they do in church. There’s nothing wrong with that. We are natural beings, we belong in nature. And God does still speak to us that way.
It’s an unfortunate loss for us that we should have turned away from the land, and forgotten its language. I’m not saying that we should all go back to subsistence farming. But we could do a better job of paying attention to God, and to hear God speaking to us through creation.

So first, pay attention. Look for the joys. There are still wagon tracks overflowing with abundance. The sunrise and sunset skies still shout for joy, as the Psalmist said, and it only takes a second to lift your gaze from the sidewalk below you and notice what’s above. The wind still whistles around playfully shaking up leaves on the sidewalk. The world around us teaches of God’s generosity, and constancy, and playfulness. How could a God who created chipmunks not be playful at heart? We may be losing our ability to communicate well in the language of the land, but that language can never completely leave us. If we take time to find a sunset to look at – or even just a single leaf – and to wonder at the beauty there, we can always see the fingerprints of God. I remember well Bruce Johnson, a member of this congregation who passed away last year, who took note of these signs. Every spring, there would be a time when he would stand up in church during the community announcement time, and simply say “go to Central Park! The cherry blossoms are in bloom!” He helped us all to pay attention.
Pay attention as well to the harder parts. Listen for the dreadful swarm of locusts telling us we’re not in charge of things – that life is painful – that things just aren’t fair. Listen for the cries of seabirds in the gulf, months after the bp accident, who are still struggling to clean their feathers of the oil. Listen to the mournful cries of land across the country: mountains falling for the sake of coal, and formerly fertile fields being stripped of topsoil by the wasteful, harsh practices of industrial agriculture. This morning’s opening hymn called us to “join the happy chorus which the morning stars began.” Join that chorus, and you may notice that the ranks keep thinning. Our choir is missing some seabirds, and entire species of frogs, and the tops of many mountains. When we hear these things we know that God is calling us to more reverent and careful ways of interacting with the land and the creatures entrusted to our care.
In the second part of our reading, Joel introduces the idea of an apocalypse. Apocalyptic thought was developing in early Judaism, especially in the few centuries before and around the time of Jesus. Joel says “the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.” And Jesus repeats similar ideas. Apocalyptic thought can be very important, especially when people are being oppressed and need to know that God will ultimately redeem and vindicate them. We need to be careful, though, because in regard to the land, such lines of thinking have lead many Christians down a dangerous path. The danger is that if we believe we are getting a new heavens and a new earth, real soon, that we decide to trash the land we have. This makes about as much sense as an addict saying, “well, since I’ve decided to get clean and sober tomorrow, tonight I’ll go all out.” And the Christian scriptures witness against the idea that this is a disposable earth, and we’ll get a new one. It is THIS world, this creation, that God loves and cares for and wants to restore to its original beauty and dignity. Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:22) speaks of all creation groaning, in labor pains, longing for redemption by God. Note: not just people. All of creation. And even the book of Revelations, which is full of terror and destruction, has an ultimate plan of redemption that includes the earth. Chapter 22: Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
No... we should not turn away from the earth God created. The land has cared for us since the beginning of human existence. It has expressed to us something about who God is. It has called to us in joy and in distress. And it is part of God’s ultimate plan. We will not be saved alone, but in the company of all creation, to which we are bound.
We should not turn away from it. But since we – collectively – as a culture – HAVE turned away, we are now invited to turn back toward the earth. Teach our hearts once again to speak the language of the land. Listen to the locusts... listen to the seabirds... hear the cries of all creation, both rejoicing and groaning. Listen to nature, not as an audience member in a symphony hall, but as a friend.... with an open heart ready to be touched and moved to action.

Let us pray.
God, may our hearts and minds be open to listen to the messages you send us in so many ways. Give us wonder and reverence for all your creation. Give us compassion for everything that suffers. Speak to us, Lord, help us to listen, and show us a way to respond. Show us the paths that lead to justice and peace, and that help everything in creation to flourish, to live, and to rejoice before you. May we be your instruments of mercy and renewal in the world. Amen.

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