Epiphany 6 Year C — 17 February 2019
Christ Church Episcopal, Tacoma
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26
The Rev. Dr. Benjamin M. Stewart
Friends in Christ, it is a joy to be welcomed into this place, to share in word and sacrament, in a sign of the communion we share across denominations and time zones.
I’m from Chicago, and Chicago tends to be a little over-proud of its “Chiberia” winter reputation. But we had to give some grudging respect to Seattle and Tacoma last week. Already you’ve had the snowiest February in 50 years. And, unlike pancake-flat Chicago, you have hills.
It was a lot of snow, but part of what attracted attention was the unusual make-up of the storm: instead of the usual pattern of ocean-warmed air coming from the west, you had arctic air displaced from Canada coming almost straight south toward you, possibly as part of a climate-driven disruption of the jet stream.
The science is fascinating — and troubling. With a fast-warming arctic, the jet stream doesn’t spin as quickly or as predictably as it used to. It’s like a spinning top that’s slowing down and starting to wobble. (Some climate scientists and meteorologists have — because of that wobble — labeled this phenomenon the “drunken jet stream,” which has given them permission to deploy scientist-humor during the snowstorms: “go home, arctic, you’re drunk!”
Besides corny meteorologist humor, what does it mean to live in Tacoma or the Emerald City in an era of arctic incursions and other climate disruptions?
The first reading from Jeremiah sounds like it could be a reading for such a time. The prophet Jeremiah confronts the people with images of climate disruption, and interrogates them, asking if they will be resilient, able to survive.
Some, he writes, “will be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes.” But others, the prophet writes, “shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the time of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” Jeremiah is asking “do you have roots that will get you through the great disruption?”
Today it might be like asking: can I handle it if winters keep getting wilder? Or, if the snowpack disappears too early? Or when the fires come? Or, if the rent keeps rising, will I be able to stay in affordable housing here where I’ve put down my roots? Jeremiah asked the same question: what will keep us from being uprooted? How can I put down resilient roots?
The beatitudes, too, that we heard from the Gospel of Luke, are a sort of map for survival and the hope of thriving, a way to abundant life. Sometimes they get treated as a set of instructions for things to do, but they might be better conceptualized as — to extend the ecological metaphor — maps for where the fertility is. Not things to do but where the fertility is; where to set down roots that can weather storms and disruptions.
In the Gospel of Luke that we heard today — unlike over in Matthew — we also get a bracing account of where the the fertility isn’t. Instead, we hear where the sterility is: “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” On the face of this text, Jesus is not directly saying that riches, or having too much food, or having too easy of a life, or having a bunch of people envy you is bad, but he’s saying that when these things are used up, they are used up. When the weather changes there are no roots left behind. Jesus says, “you have received your consolation” and there’s no remainder when they’re gone.
Instead, the beatitudes say that the fertile ground is on the margins. If you want to sow seeds that weather the changes, plant them on the margins. There are great changes coming, Jesus says, and seeds sown among the poor, the hungry, the weeping, the excluded — that’s where people will laugh, will be full, will leap for joy.
We might say that the texts this week are a kind of map for “sustainable agriculture” in a changing world, and Jesus is claiming that the fertility is on the margins.
We can even picture the actual fields of ancient Israel. Do we still teach this in Sunday School? Remember the way the fields look after harvest in Israel? “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the margins of your field… you shall leave them for the poor and the immigrant: I am the Lord your God.” So if we picture these fields after harvest the center of the field is bare, but the margins are still standing tall, still bearing good fruit, and welcoming those who have been pushed to the margins of society, the poor and the immigrant, to come and eat.
Picture that from above, seeing a bunch of adjacent fields. This strange pattern on the landscape — the edges of the field standing fertile and fruitful — it’s like a kind of agricultural monument that’s repeated in field after field after field that says “the God of Israel gardens on the margins.”
One of my areas of research has been the natural burial movement. I’ve been especially interested in conservation burial, in which the legal protections of a cemetery are combined with a nature preserve, so the place of death, of burial, also becomes a place of flourishing life. I’ve visited a number of these conservation burial grounds in towering forests with shafts of sunlight on a forest floor of ferns and trillium, where the burial mounds are. It’s a stunningly beautiful place for burial.
I’ve also been captivated by the largest conservation burial ground in England, a place called Barton Glebe owned by the Church of England. This is no bucolic cemetery. Back in 2009, the church purchased this large expanse of scruffy, marginal ground west of Cambridge that had been almost completely deforested. The first thing they did was plant 10,000 little whips of trees, leaving a network of areas open that they called “glades” where people could be buried. And they said to the public: who would like to be part of a 100 year project to return this land to a flourishing forest? And the response was so great that they soon were able to double the size of the burial ground and plant another 10,000 trees. People are being buried there, in this presently un-pretty ground, in an act of faith that this marginal ground is fertile, giving their bodies to a hope that in a century or so this land and its creatures will again leap for joy in a garden of life.
I wonder, can we ask ourselves: where is my Barton Glebe? What scruffy ground is waiting to become a monument to the way God gardens on the margins? Maybe a fruitful part of ourselves that we’ve neglected or someone has suppressed in us for one reason or another? A plank of the good earth that’s out there in our peripheral vision that needs someone to care for it? Some part of our city or neighborhood or nation that’s been pushed to the margins? The beatitudes tell us where to join up with where God is gardening: “blessed are you who are poor… who are hungry, weeping, hated and excluded.” The God of Israel gardens on the margins. Where are the margins of your field?
Today, western societies are recovering our awareness of how God has been gardening like this since the beginning, nurturing life on “this fragile earth, our island home” as the Book of Common Prayer named it back in 1979.
From the margin of the Red Sea out of slavery into freedom; young Mary on the edge of an empire singing her Magnificat at her own unexpected fertility; Jesus, with all those on the margins, “being raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died,” his fruitfulness in death reaching all the way even to us.
I’ve heard how this church practices this and has gardened on the margins, advocating for low income housing, cooking and serving at My Sister’s Pantry, turning the parish hall into a home for the homeless, hosing a fantastic conference on caring for earth’s waters; the waters of your font overflowing with equal dignity and honor, calling all those who pass through them beloved, whether the world deems them fruitful or marginal — all here in this place: a watered fruitful garden.
Ecologically speaking, the scientists say it’s what they call the edge zones that are the most fruitful and creative: where the sea meets the shore, where the forest meets the meadow, where the river interacts with the land. It’s the edges, the margins, that are most fertile.
When Jesus, having come into the world, was being pushed out of it, there on the periphery, he knew where to plant seeds. In the night in which he was betrayed he took bread, broke it, and planted it — gave it to his disciples. So that as his body we too might rise and bear good fruit. As we receive bread and wine today, the gardener is planting again on the margins, in us.