Sermon at PVMC Church Retreat worship service
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APRIL: I almost didn’t get this written because I was too busy canning tomatoes. Diced tomatoes, sauce, paste… my family loves tomatoes, so I grow a lot of them and that means August is a busy time in my kitchen. Oh, and the green beans were keeping me busy too. I’ve finally kept ahead of the bean beetles this year and those green beans will taste extra good in February. I didn’t get much of a squash crop because the squash bugs outnumbered me about eleven million to one, but I’ll try again next year. But all spring and summer, different fruits and vegetables have found their way into my freezer and onto my pantry shelves.
GREG: What you won’t ever find in our garden, though, is corn. That’s because for three of us, eating corn makes us pretty miserable. We get headaches, rashes, and are just plain grumpy! And it’s not just corn on the cob. We can’t eat any corn products at all; corn meal, corn starch, corn syrup, and even corn in much less recognizable forms, such as dextrose, citric acid, and lactic acid. Fruits and vegetables are often waxed with a corn-based wax. Lots of foods are processed on the same equipment that processes corn, or on equipment cleaned with a corn-based cleaner. The list of things that can make us feel bad is long and includes almost anything with a label. So what’s to be done, when any store-bought food might give us headaches? Well, the safest thing to do is grow it ourselves. So we do, or anyway we try. What we don’t grow, or get from our poultry and our cow, we buy at the farmer’s market, or directly from a local farm; we have found a few safe ingredients that we order on the internet (which is kind of the opposite of local, but we haven’t found a chocolate farmer in Harrisonburg yet). The food items we buy at grocery stores can be numbered on one hand. And then, April makes almost everything from scratch, from the safe ingredients we have grown or purchased. That’s the only way we’ve found to make sure our family feels good and is healthy.
APRIL: I know our situation is pretty unusual, and it takes a lot of my time to feed my family. I probably spend as much time on food production as I would at a full-time job. It can feel hard and stressful to do it this way. Sometimes I feel like giving up, but I also feel grateful that we can eat as well as we do.
GREG: Here’s the interesting thing, though. Before we found out about the family corn intolerance, we already had the goal of growing all our own food. Why? Well, our health was part of the reason. We were starting to recognize the unhealthiness of the industrial food system that our culture largely subscribes to. Eating unhealthy food from that system was very likely to negatively affect our health. But even more than that, we were noticing how food grown on an industrial scale was bad for community, bad for all of us, not just in what we ate but in what it did to our land, air, water, ecosystems, and human cultures. Again, community.
APRIL: Let me change course for a moment and talk about our theme for the weekend. “Creation is a song.” That’s a lovely analogy, but what does it mean? Well, when we sing together, we each have a part. We’re working together, but we’re not all doing the same thing. If somebody goes out of tune, or sings the wrong thing, it can really sound bad, but a skillful group can work with mistakes and turn them into something beautiful. And we have different roles: some are leaders in the song, some have less prominent parts, but if anyone stops singing, it’s not the same song. Each part is important. The same things can be said about we creatures in the midst of creation: each creature has a part, each part is important but different, we work together but at different things, and mistakes hurt but can be redeemed.
APRIL: Here’s what else I think: I think creation as song must be a collaboration between us the singers, and God the composer. And that brings up a question: how are we doing at collaborating? Are we working with, or ignoring, God the composer and our fellow singers?
GREG: Before we address that question, let me go back to our reasons for trying to grow most of our own food: first we have the reason of corn intolerance. That’s a question of health, very narrowly defined. Second, we have the somewhat broader definition of health, dependent on the quality of food we put into our bodies. Third, we have the most broad definition: the health of our community.
APRIL: Community is a familiar word in our congregation, but today I’m going to add a twist to it and use the definition of one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry is a farmer and writer who has worked and lived for most of his life in Henry County, Kentucky, a fact that is both shaped by, and shapes, his living and writing and thinking. Over the past several decades, Mr. Berry has become what some call a prophetic voice when it comes to agriculture, community, and environmentalism. What drew me to him first was an essay of his on community, but the more of his writing I read, the more I realized that all of his thinking and writing points in pretty much the same direction. Mr. Berry has a vision of health more unified than that of any other modern author I have seen. To him, “health” implies the whole family of words it belongs to: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy. God’s love calls the world to wholeness, which in Mr. Berry’s view means health, and that health must by definition include the entire community.
APRIL: I’ll let him speak for himself for a minute. Here he is, in an essay titled “Health is Membership”.
“I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.
I believe that health is wholeness. For many years I have returned again and again to the work of the English agriculturist Sir Albert Howard, who said, in The Soil and Health, that ‘the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal, and man [is] one great subject.’ ...
I believe that the community--in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures--is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”
APRIL: A place and all its creatures. In Mr. Berry’s vision, then, each person, animal, clump of dirt, drop of water, breath of air is part of a community, and God loves each of them. As Jesus says in Matthew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” And a community is only healthy if all its parts are healthy. Furthermore, a true community cares for its constituent parts, because it knows each part is dependent on all the others. This is sounding a lot like our song analogy, where each member plays a role and everyone must listen to and care for each other to stay in tune. And, we need to listen to the Creator who is calling us to wholeness, so that we do not, with tone-deaf ears, introduce more disharmony into Creation.
GREG: What does that mean? Especially in a world where things already feel pretty discordant, what does it mean to try to collaborate with God and our fellow singers in this creation song? What does it mean to listen and sing?
APRIL: When I listen, in my garden or elsewhere, I hear lots of things: lessons I’m slowly learning of life and death, work, rest, and peace; but what I want to share with you now is a lesson of interconnectedness and place.
APRIL: My garden is a good place for me to see on a small scale how interconnection works. Everything in it is affected by everything else. For example, take my squash bugs. They eat my squash plants, thrive, and multiply. But if nothing keeps them in check, they kill the plants, and for lack of anything to eat, they die. Something has gone wrong in my garden community if there are so many squash bugs that they’ve killed my plants, and I need to think about how to fix it. There are many, many other connections in my garden: each small creature, each microbe, worm, plant, insect, bird that exists in my garden does something in the community, even if I don’t want them to. If my garden community is out of balance, I have to think hard about how to rebalance it, and I often fail. I’m glad I get to try again every year.
APRIL: With interconnectedness in mind, I will venture to address that question of collaboration, how to listen and sing with God and Creation. If God’s love calls us to wholeness, and wholeness means the health of the community, then we should make a practice of observing our fellow community members and seeing what is healthy in our community and what is not. Observe, take time to be present with your community: How are you, how is your family, your neighbor, how is the water, air, and trees, how are the worms in the soil and the bugs on the plants? And don’t forget the hidden members; not just those worms and bugs but also the community members who are far away, or invisible in your own neighborhood. What hands packaged the meat you bought at the grocery store this week? Were they near or far, or is it impossible for you to know? What hands sewed that seam in your clothing? Who collected your garbage, and where did they take it? Who cleaned your water, who made the ink that printed your paper--or mined the metals for the computer you read your news on? What is their health like, and why?
GREG: If it seems like a lot to observe… it is, and we can’t really ever see it all. One reason for that is that modern life, with its systems of transportation and global economy, ensures that many parts of our community are unknowable to us. We cannot know all the people who contribute to our daily living. They are too many, too distant, too foreign to us. We also become impatient with staying in one place long enough to really know it. If we undervalue the importance of place to our identity, we lose out on connections with our community.
APRIL: And while we are observing and listening, what are ways we can adjust our singing? What small changes might we make to bring our community more into focus, to better know the place we are in and our fellow members and to improve our community’s health? Perhaps choose to connect intentionally with community members who are far away, or close but invisible. Or maybe be deliberate about cultivating relationships close to home, for instance by buying more local foods or products, so your community becomes more easily observable. Find ways to learn more about something you never noticed before, pay attention to its health, and listen. Each of us can listen for our part, and when we all do it together, that’s a community.
GREG and APRIL: We’re trying to raise all our food on a little less than four acres. We don’t know if we’ll manage it; it will take many years if it ever happens, but we’ll keep trying. It’s a way for us to connect to the place, the community we are in: the people in our neighborhood, the soil and air and water around us; a way for us to practice listening to creation. But there are many ways to participate in the creation song, many ways to tune your ears and voice, and it will take all of us doing it to bring about the wholeness that God so strongly desires for us. Let’s practice singing God’s song of love that is big enough to hold all of us. Let’s practice singing together till we are all whole.
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