November 24, 2019
To the leader. A Psalm of David. A Song.
Praise is due to you,
O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
your holy temple.
By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
My first seminary internship was as a farmer. Princeton Theological Seminary likes to be fancy, so our internships were called Field Education, but I don’t think when it was established in 1812, working on a farming training center north of Tokyo was exactly what Archibald Alexander, PTS’ founder, quite had in mind. And yet I spent the summer of 2010 as a volunteer at the Asian Rural Institute in Tochigi, Japan. ARI, as it is known, was established after World War II as a way for Japanese Christians to atone for the horrors of the war. Japan’s huge mountain ranges make much of the land unable to be cultivated, and this resulted in a nation that learned how to grow more food per acre than anywhere else in the world. ARI was established so that rural leaders from the Global South could come for nine months from their villages and farming communities, and learn how to grow food, with the idea being that poor farmers will never be free until they can feed their own communities, without relying on artificial fertilizers and pesticides, which are produced from oil. When the price of oil goes up, many rural farmers are unable to farm using modern commercial farming techniques, and must rely either on financial assistance from governments, charities, or by taking out predatory loans. Over the decades, ARI learned about the impacts on drinking water and soil health that come along with conventional farming, and sought to create what they refer to as “beyond sustainable and organic farming.” This is the idea of establishing legacy farming communities who are able to produce food for their people, educate and empower girls and women, and rely on generations of food production through the careful stewardship of God’s creation.
I arrived at ARI, and immediately fell in love with the place, and the participants who came from all over the world to learn. Each morning and evening we had an hour of FoodLife Work, which could be working in a raised bed garden, feeding the chickens and collecting eggs, caring for the cow and pigs, or helping make breakfast or dinner. We would eat together, and then get to work. The participants had so much to learn in their nine months that volunteers like me came in from all over the world to keep the farm running, with the participants able to see and participate in all the ways we cultivated the soil and the land. The volunteers were folks on gap years, retiree’s, volunteers through different church organizations, young German citizens serving in their compulsory service in a peace-building way, and of course Japanese young people who were part of the organics counterculture. We produced 80% of the food we ate at ARI,, and the only reason we didn’t produce all of our food came from a unique aspect of Japanese culture; it is customary, through the influence of Shinto and Buddhist traditions, to offer food to those engaged in religiously motivated intentional communities.
ARI gave me an opportunity to learn about the incredibly harmful and colonizing ways in which many US Church mission programs run, but also see a new way of empowering the rural poor across the globe through leadership development, sustainable agriculture, and long-term relationship building. ARI also kindled my love affair with gardening. It really was miraculous to see how God provides for human life through the soil, the sun, the water and air, to see how we can partner with what God is already doing in the world to build communities where all have enough, where folks of all genders are empowered, where we can experience the provision of God and be a part of the Kin-Dom of God breaking into our world.
The Hebrew people knew about God’s provision deep in their bones. From the two creation myths in the Book of Genesis, to Jesus’ use of agrarian parables, scripture is full of the Jewish understanding of Shalom, of a cosmic peace in which the earth and human society are made whole through a healthy relationship with the soil, between one another, and with God. Any abuse of these relationships could lead to hunger, war, and disaster. In Genesis, the first human, who is created expressing all genders, just as God does, is called A’dam, who has been firmed from the soil, which in Hebrew is called A’dam’ah. We are soil creatures, who come from the dirt and to the dirt will return. But we are also filled with the Ru’Ach, the breath of life, imprinted with the Image of God. When Eve is created from A’dam, that image of God is shared both in the feminine and masculine expressions of both, and they are to work together to tend to creation, and maintain the Shalom of the created world. If we do that, we will have enough to eat, have peace in our families and communities, and acknowledge God’s care for us through the natural world. And so the Hebrew people celebrated at the Harvest, to teach and remind the people of the relationships that led to the bounty. The harvest was a time to remember that God provides us with what we need through the sharing of labor equitably, and of caring for the earth, while acknowledging that God is the one who provides, not our cleverness, not our industriousness. Instead our call is to do our part in what God is already up to. And so at the Harvest, the people would come and offer praise to God, and give produce to the Temple. They would remind the people of how to maintain the relationships that lead to flourishing, arbitrate disputes, and the care for the widow, orphan, refugee and immigrants in the people’s midst, so all had access to God’s provision.
At ARI we harvested something almost every day. The miracle of Okra pods, tomatoes, fresh eggs and milk, it never stopped amazing me. When it was time to leave, it was difficult. My last Day at ARI I jumped on my Bicycle early in the morning and tore down the hill, past the local Shinto Shrine with its Koi ponds and gazebos the other volunteers and I used to hang out in, by candle light, drinking plum wine and eating Onogiri, rice balls with leftovers in the middle, wrapped up in seaweed. I peddled my bike along the aquifers that bring fresh water from the snowmelt in the mountains, and pulled into our natural rice paddy. The fields were full of bugs and frogs, because these fields we didn’t flood, instead hand mowing the weeds with sickles, and letting the tops of the plants break down to fertilize the rice. I got down on my knees, and dug my hands into the dirt. From this earth we came, and to this soil we return, I prayed. Thank you, God. Thank you for this gift of provision. And then my voice caught, and I said goodbye, not just to that place, but to a way of life, knowing that in a week I’d be back in the dorms in New Jersey. I felt like I was losing a way of life that felt so full, and right, connected to the soil and others, with God and creation, in a way I had always dreamed of.
Beloved, we come from the soil, and to it we will return, but the breath of God’s life moves within us. There is a way of living together, where we are aware of the web of creation, a way that can lead to shalom, to wholeness, for all. Now I’m not saying we need to all become farmers, although I have to tell you when I walk around our property the idea does cross my mind from time to time. But I do wonder if there are ways in which we can be more connected to God’s dreams to provide for us through the blessings of the earth.
Besides becoming a beyond organic, sustainable farming community, I do think there are ways of being aware of God’s provision, the miracles that Jesus is doing in our midst, of being reminded of the Holy Spirit moving in, and flowing out of us. That’s been my hope, watching our session lead us into a new relationship with one another, our neighbors, and God, throughout of Stewardship campaign, and our shifts in how we engage in God’s mission in the world. And so today, I want to invite us to give thanks for what God has brought about through the soil of this community, not the ground we stand upon, but the fertile soil of all of us gathered in this place.
Today is the last Sunday of our Stewardship Campaign, our last opportunity to sign up to volunteer for the ministries of MPC for next year, and I wonder, what is growing inside you, ready to be harvested? What from our elders work, their discernment together, what ministries that we have offered as being able to be planted next year, do you want to be part of bringing to harvest? Because there is a way to be in relationship with God, one another, and those in our midst who are in need of what God is bringing about. We have a part to play. So today during our offering, you’re going to be invited to come forward and drop off your money, offer your estimates of giving for 2020 if you haven’t turned them in yet, to share from the harvest. And then we are going to look forward to next year. You’re invited to walk up onto our stage, and sign up to volunteer in 2020. Because I truly do believe God is inviting us to plan for a harvest next year. God scatters seeds of the Grace of God, and we get to harvest what sprouts and grows.
It seems right that before we start to plant the seeds of what’s possible for 2020, that we stop and give thanks, and beloved there is so much to be thankful for. I have to tell you, I am so excited for Advent and Christmas with you all, so excited for the new year. It’s been a little over two years since I arrived here, when at 31, I was the youngest person in the congregation. Last week the Pray Ground was barely big enough for all our children. We heard from our Nominating Committee that we have candidates for two new Elders, and a Chair of the Ministry Coordination Team, folks who have joined us in the past year, and that God is rising up as leaders for our future. So much has happened this past year, and friends in the wider community are taking notice. Taize Baltimore, who joined us for our Ash Wednesday Service this year has agreed to move in, and host monthly meditative prayer services with beautiful music. SAGE has amazing plans for the coming year as we strive to be better stewards of the earth, and push for systemic ecological change. Massive amounts of money have been granted to us to grow our children’s, LGBTQ+, and community organizing Ministries. There is so much to be thankful for. But even more than what we are doing, there is the bountiful harvest of love. You have cared for one another through grief and loss. New friendships are growing and blooming in this place, and I see Jesus growing in you. I am so thankful for the harvest, for all of God’s good gifts, and I am excited to see what we will plant this next year to bring shalom to one another, our neighbors, our community and our world.
In the Name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer, Amen.