April 26, 2020
The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, the land shall observe a sabbath for the Lord. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land. You may eat what the land yields during its sabbath—you, your male and female slaves, your hired and your bound labourers who live with you; for your livestock also, and for the wild animals in your land all its yield shall be for food.
You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. Then you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month—on the day of atonement—you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.
2020 has been my year of the Asparagus. I grew up loving asparagus, grilled in our backyard, with dill and lemon. As a kid, I never really thought about where it came from, beyond the store shelf. But then, in the summer of 2009 I boarded a plane to volunteer at the Asian Rural Institute in Tochigi, Japan. ARI is a farming training center run through the Methodist Church. Rural leaders from the global south come for nine months to learn how to farm in sustainable ways so that their communities can have access to food, not through selling commodity crops, but through eating what they grow. At ARI, my role as a volunteer was to work in the fields, and our life was structured around caring for the soil and animals so that we could eat. In the evenings, my fellow volunteers, and our participants, we would hang out and play guitar and sing, or jump on our bikes and head down to the Shinto Shrine down the way and drink plumb wine in a gazebo next to a Koi pond. It was heaven. On nights when it rained, or when we were worn out from the day’s work, we would read. And on one particularly stormy night, I started the first few chapters Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver. In her book, she and her family move to a small family farm, and try to eat locally for a year. The hard part of their experience was knowing when they can begin. What’s the first crop that will signal they can start this adventure? It ends up being Asparagus. And I found myself fascinated by this vegetable that I knew nothing about how it grew. I learned that Asparagus shoots, what we eat, eventually become massive ferns that store energy in the large roots of the plant. In the late fall, the ferns die back. Then in the early spring, shoots emerge. So I decided to enter into a new relationship with Asparagus, and volunteered to care for the bed at our community garden, Remington Village Green. Last fall I marked where we had established plants, where the ferns swayed in the breeze. Many of the plants had been choked out by weeds, so I decided to start some new plants. I started growing seedlings in our study window, on a heating pad in a small plastic greenhouse. It will take these seedlings three years to be fully established, but If they are tended to they can live upwards of 40 years. I’ve been weeding every few days, and read about companion crops. When we plant Asparagus with tomatoes, basil, parsley and clover, we can create an ecosystem where the plants support one another, repel damaging insects, attract and support pollinators, and builds healthy topsoil. There is something deeply spiritual to this project that I have relished. There’s a lot of patience involved, something that I don’t always have a lot of. I like making things happen. But our community’s Asparagus bed, it requires working for a future that is years off. There’s a relationship you have to establish with your asparagus bed; you have to be patient, and restraint is necessary. You can’t harvest every last asparagus shoot, or there won’t be any way for the plant to store up energy for the next year. You have to let the plants do what they need to, and give them Sabbath. And when you do, you can experience blessings from the soil and sun, rain and warmth for years to come.
Our planet is experiencing something of an unexpected Sabbath during this pandemic. Many of our Rivers and streams are less polluted, with the waterways of Venice being calm enough to see fish swimming. We’re slowing down our harvesting of fish and crustaceans from the seas, giving populations a chance to rebound. With factories closed across much of the planet, our CO2 emissions and pollution levels are falling. We’re discovering new ways of working that require less commuting. For some of us, this is actually possible in ways our employers wouldn’t consider before. It’s possible that we are experiencing a shift in how our world does work, a shift that might lead to a different understanding of our relationship to our planet. What would it mean for our world if we focused on the basics after these times? Focusing on food, food for all, grown in ways that need less transportation and processing? Our economy is likely to never be the same after this, and while there is very real pain in this, I have seen conversations starting about a new green recovery, that creates jobs for those who have found themselves unemployed to put into place a more resilient economy; shifting to renewable energy, more local farming focused on fresh food production, local meat production in ways that work with the soil, empowering farmers from Black communities, purchasing more produce from people of color, supporting local distilleries, breweries, and vineyards. For so long these ideas have seemed unrealistic, the dreams of radicals. But now, even if we’re working, helping our kids with studying at home, we’re being forced to pause. In this moment, environmental conservation and stewardship, having a more local, resilient food system, it seems more like a survival strategy than a progressive talking point. There is a lot of work to do. In the midst of all of this, we can take stock of our relationships with the earth, ourselves, one another, and God.
These kinds of pauses to make changes, is what is at the heart of much of the Hebrew Bible’s discussions of giving rest to the land. Pausing from planting, and seeing what emerges, was a suggested practice for the people of God in the land. We don’t know if these breaks occurred for most people, but I imagine there were fields that were allowed to lay fallow, vineyards that got to rest and recover. Part of the stewardship of the earth for the ancient Hebrews was allowing animals and plant species to have access to what they needed to survive. There were certain plants you didn’t harvest or weed out, so that other animals could eat. Pausing, and seeing what came up naturally from the ground would have allowed new species to be discovered. Ancient Palestine was at a crossroads for travelers coming north from Africa, West from Asia, and South from Europe, and it wasn’t uncommon for new species to be introduced. Pausing from harvesting allowed for invasive species to be identified and removed, or new plants to be discovered that were a new source of life, of food. But it took patience, and allowing the Earth to rest, every now and then. It also required the People of God to then go back to being good stewards. What needs to be weeded out? What should be cultivated? What’s the relationship with the soil going to be, going forward?
God has given us a good creation that can provide us with enough for each and every one of us to flourish, with enough to eat and drink, to have access to healthcare and meaningful relationships. But God also reminds us that we need to stop, to have a time of Sabbath, to take stock of how we are relating to the earth, ourselves, one another, and God. The Holy One reminds us that we can’t just be pushing for more and more all the time; sometimes we have to check in and see how we’re doing at being good stewards of human lives, the earth, and our relationship to God.
This has been the year of Asparagus for me, but also of taking stock of my relationships. Isolating has made me realize that, while I have deep connections with folks who are seeking justice in our world, while I have a new connection to the earth through my garden and growing food, I don’t have the relationships with farmers that I would like, or with as many people experiencing poverty as our calling demands. When Leigh and I got involved with the Interfaith COVID Task force, the group who is delivering food from the Assistance Center of Towson Churches to Woodbourne-McCabe each week, and preparing to provide 200 bags of food a week to Station North and Greenmount West, I felt the lack of farmers in my life, and I realized that, while I know many of the children in Woodbourne-McCabe, I didn’t know the many seniors living there. Pastor Emily Scott was able to reach out to a farmer who could provide fruit and vegetables for the households we are seeking to serve. Pastor Tim Hughes Williams knew a farmer who was looking to sell her eggs. And I realized, during this time of slowing down, that there were new relationships that God was quietly inviting me into. A few weeks in of making deliveries in Woodbourne-McCabe, and I’ve got a list of folks to get to know, pillars of the community we haven’t interacted with until now. While my work to steward the earth, and love my neighbor had been keeping me busy, there was a missing piece, that only pausing helped me recognize.
I wonder for you individually, and for us as a community, what this mandated Sabbath is helping to uncover? What Holy invitations are you receiving? Maybe it’s a realization that the frenetic pace of life has been keeping you from connecting to the people you care most about, now that you can’t be with them. Maybe you’re discovering new ways of reducing your impact on global climate change, and are wondering how to be a part of movements for environmental change that go beyond personal responsibility to demanding manufacturers, corporations, and governments do the same. What’s springing up, during this fallow time? Jesus calling you to walk outside more? Reaching out to a local farm to buy a Community Supported Agriculture share for the season, so you don’t have to head to the store, and can eat of the bounty of the earth, while caring for creation? This Earth month, I’d invite you to take stock. Because this can be a time when we see what emerges, weed out what’s in the way, and set down strong roots that can produce the bounty of the Reign of God that our earth groans for.
In the Name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, Amen.