Sunday, November 18, 2012

Hardscrabble Harvest: A Thanksgiving Sermon

(This sermon was based on the Thanksgiving lectionary readings: Joel 2:21-27, Psalm 126, & Matthew 6:25-33.  It was preached at New Gloucester UCC, November 18th, 2012)

Just so we're clear, I didn't want to preach about Thanksgiving. Like [the pastor of NGUCC], I'm mostly a lectionary preacher, and I love wrestling with the assigned readings for each Sunday, sitting with them, praying with them, researching the almighty heck out of them, and figuring out how and where those stories meet up with our stories, figuring out where the Good News might be hiding on any given day.
So, last week, I hit the lectionary, and got hit back by a scriptural superstorm. There were wars and rumors of wars. There was fleshly sacrificin', earthquakes and famines, and—in the middle of it all—there's old Hannah, praying and weeping bitterly because she has no children, and getting cussed out by the prophet Eli 'cause he thinks she's just a crazy old drunk (1st Samuel 1: 4-20, if you're interested).
Well, when it comes to scripture, I'm a bit of a storm-chaser, so all this had me pretty excited... until I made the mistake of sharing that excitement with a friend who's known me a little too long. “Too easy,” said my buddy Darlene, who knew me back in seminary. “You already know how to do the distraught woman thing. Too easy. Go look at the alternate readings for Thanksgiving. You want a real challenge? Go with THANKS.”
I don't know how it is for you, but for me, giving thanks IS hard. The worry card, the angry card, the bitter card, the why-me-Lord card...those are the easiest to play, the most dog-eared cards in the deck. Anxious: no problem. I know how to play that one. Fearful? I know how to play that card, too. But thankful? I don't... quite... know... what to do with that. It's a bit stiff, probably from lack of use. I know I should use it, but I seem to have misplaced the instructions. Yes, thankfulness is a challenge.
Thanksgiving is not built in to our culture, in spite of the federally-declared holiday. The self-mocking media stars teach us to accept nothing at face value. Don't trust the news, don't trust the police, don't trust the established authorities of corporations, churches, or the state, don't trust your parents, your children or your spouse, don't trust anyone over, for more than a decade, I haven't been able to trust mySELF!
Be cynical, they tell us. Doubt everything. Assume an air of constant frustration, irritation, and disappointment. Yet, at the same time, crave everything. Crave authority. Covet power. Covet sweet luxuries and a new flat-screen plasma tv. Covet the latest entertainment and technology, even if you have to throw out all your old gear and buy extra accessories to make the new stuff work. And somehow, in the midst of it, crave comfort. Crave peace. Crave nourishment. Crave safety and stability. Crave love.
It's like the story Dahlov Ipcar tells, in her book, “Hardscrabble Harvest.” It's the story of a New England farm year, from May through November, and it seems to have been drawn from her own hard-won experience. You know it from the first page, with a full cast of vermin lined up and waiting at the edges of the freshly-turned earth. The text reads, “The farmer plants early in the spring. She'll be lucky if she harvests a thing.” The next several pages show crows stealing seeds, pigs busting the garden fence, ducks eating the strawberries, and deer daintily devouring the cauliflower. Finally, a small, hardwon harvest is gathered in. Pumpkins are made into pies and a turkey goes into the oven. The tired farm family is shown setting the table, with the side door slightly ajar and several faces peeking through: “gather 'round the feast, hungry as a come the relatives, to eat it all up!”
It's not a particularly nice story. There's no moral here, no happy ending. Yet it's compelling—maybe a little too close to home—and when I get to that last page, I can't decide whether to laugh or cry or fling the book across the room. Some years are hard. Sometimes it gets to the point where the sun goes behind a cloud, the sky darkens, and you're right there with the prophet Joel, half-expecting another plague of locusts.
This was a hardscrabble year. I started seeds indoors, prepared to plant them out when the soil grew warm. I didn't have high hopes—our soil is what they call “marginal,” nutrient-poor. We suspect an earlier tenant, facing their own hard times, sold off the topsoil for extra cash, a common practice in the 50s and 60s. In some places the drainage is bad, thanks to a thick band of clay a foot below the surface. In other parts, the soil is almost pure sand, and the water drains so fast the plants can hardly get a sip. Still, we usually do alright, growing some food for ourselves and a little extra to sell. There's usually one or two crops that fail, over-run by bugs or eaten down by rogue chickens. I was resigned to another year of that...and then, in May, we got word that, after three years of applying, we'd qualified for a small grant to buy a high tunnel greenhouse--in May, right when everything was supposed to be planted. So, those seedlings sat while the tractor came and leveled the pale yellow ground. They sat, leaves drooping, until the kit was delivered and the volunteer crew came, weekend after weekend, to help hoist the metal ribs, assemble the bracing, tighten all the bolts, and finally, to get the plastic skin rolled down and secured on the hottest, most humid day. The leaves on the seedlings turned brown as they became rootbound, and started, selectively, to die.
Still we scrambled, building end-walls, hauling soil, and finally—in mid-July—we planted the wizened remnants in the seedling trays. We watered them in, threw in a few onions, planted lettuce and swiss chard and squash for curiousity's sake, looked at the strange new structure, and resigned ourselves not to hope for much. A new greenhouse? So what. The plastic would probably split in the first windstorm.
Nothing turned out as we expected. The lettuce was early, and we couldn't eat it fast enough. So the pigs got lettuce. The chickens and the cows got lettuce, and so did we. It bolted in the heat and had to be pulled. Meanwhile, the onions apparently melted. We never did find them. But oh, the swiss chard, with its stalks of bright ruby red, golden yellow, snow white and shocking pink! The little four-pack of pansies, tucked along the edge of the farthest-back bed just bloomed and bloomed and bloomed for no apparent reason, and –even now, in spite of the frost—they're blooming still. And the three zucchini seeds we planted in August as a joke? They grew waist-high, their golden blossoms sprawling, bigger than my outstretched hand! I served up squash and picked them, tender and young, for the farmers' market.
On November 5th, convinced it was time to yank everything and lay the beds to rest, I found a single, perfectly ripe cantaloupe hiding under some leaves. I took it in and cut into the soft orange center. It was sweet & juicy & utterly ridiculous. Fresh cantaloupe in November in Maine, on marginal farmland, off a dusty road at the edge of town. Who'd a thunk it?
My hands had been clenched so long. My soul had been as pinched and parched as that soil. My dreams had been rootbound in the tiny space I made for them. I had forgotten. I had forgotten that God deals in wildflowers and desert streams. I had forgotten that God deals in sunlight and soft rains, blanketing snows and sheltering branches and fragrant blossoms. I had forgotten that God speaks the language of boulder-busting roots and improbable cantaloupes.
There's a word for this in Gaelic. The word is “gu leor.” It's the source of the English word, “galore,” as in, “this Black Friday, our door-buster deals will give you bargains galore.” But gu leor means something better than that. It means two things at once: sufficiency, or having enough to meet your needs, and...absolute abundance. An old poem attributed to Saint Bridgid goes, “I wish that Jesus, the king of heaven, would come and visit me. And if he should visit me, I would wish for him an entire lake of ale.” That's gu leor: having enough, and in that enoughness, having enough to share, so that every meal is a chance to make room for blessed guests, and every guest is an excuse for joyful generosity. In such hospitality and grace, we catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.
“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them." The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced....
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”
Joel and the Psalmist and Jesus are all full of this Good News today: the Good News that, into the midst of our human scarcities, our crop failures, our dream failures, our broken relationships, broken bodies, and hardscrabble lives, God keeps showing up with abundant enoughness. Yes, the cows may have chomped the tops off the turnips, and the raccoons eaten the corn, but on the other hand—all of God's creatures have been fed, and we still somehow have enough to bring in the sheaves, to gather with kith and kin, to rejoice and give thanks, to offer a prayer, and call it a feast.
Thanksgiving is a challenge. May we unclench our hands and embrace it—and each other—surprising ourselves with a harvest of laughter, a harvest of joy, a harvest of grace.

(All photos copyright Mainecelt except book cover, found here.)

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