Sunday, April 21, 2013

Nothing wasted

Acts 9: 36-43; Revelation 7: 9-17
Saugatuck Congregational Church, Westport, CT
April 21, 2013

From the project The Victory Garden of Tomorrow by J. Wirtheim

Last Sunday I began an experiment of sorts. I planted some quick-growing grass seed in some makeshift terrariums. I used several of the plastic containers that house roast chickens that we have all carried home from the grocery store. I dug up some dirt from our vegetable garden, full of decomposed leaves, composted vegetable peelings, and the workings of earthworms. I scattered the seed on top of this fecund soil, watered it, fastened on the plastic lids, and put them up against a concrete wall, sitting on our blacktop driveway, as suggested by my husband. He thought they would stay warm enough there to germinate and grow at least an inch of tender green grass.

When I checked them on Friday, I could still see the seeds sitting on top of all that luscious dirt. Trying to figure out what had gone wrong (after all, the bag was labeled ‘quick-fix grass seed’), I asked my scientist-husband what he thought. “Well,” he began, “it’s an annual seed, which is why it would be quick-growing. But I thought it would need the varying temperatures of being outside in order to grow (I had said I wanted them inside to keep warm). Perhaps because it is an annual, it would need to be kept warmer.” Translation: he was wrong.

I had planned on bringing the grass terrariums with me to use in worship this morning, on Earth Sunday. They were going to be part of the children’s message, and I was going to have you all pass them around during the sermon, so you could see that beautiful tender green that we only see at the beginning of spring; so you could smell all that wonderful dirt and water and sunshine; so you could run your hands over the grass and forget for a few minutes that you’ll be mowing it for the next 6 months.

Now some of you might be thinking, “What a waste. All that effort and it turned out for nothing.” And it’s tempting to think that way whenever we experience a failure of some sort, when things don’t turn out the way we’ve planned or the way we want. It’s hard for us to admit even to ourselves when we’re wrong, when we’ve made mistakes, let alone admit it to others and to use a failure to teach and to learn.

And yet every Sunday we confess our failures, our mistakes, our imperfect attempts to create justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. Imagine how much air we could let out of our collective ego, our church image, if we gave ourselves and each other permission to experiment and learn from the outcome; if we talked frankly and openly about our own hopes and shortcomings as a deacon, a Sunday school teacher, a trustee, a pastor, as a disciple of Jesus. Imagine if we held each other safely and serenely, knowing ourselves to be held equally so. We could celebrate our failures and our successes together. Nothing would be lost. Nothing wasted.

Sun is up, a new day is before you.
Sun is up, wake your sleepy souls.
Sun is up, hold onto what is whole.
Take up your spade and break ground.

While my grass seed was withering in the dirt this week, my oldest daughter and I traveled to Chicago, to eventually visit Purdue University. Tuesday morning, as we were waiting at the gate for our flight, we were told to evacuate the building with no explanation. After thirty minutes in the windy cold of spring, everyone with a nervous, tense expression on their face, news traveled through the crowd that someone reported an abandoned package but now discovered to be completely harmless. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief and headed back inside.

After my daughter and I were seated on the plane, it was then announced that the entire American Airline computer system was down and the flight would be cancelled. We then had to go to another carrier, purchase one-way tickets for both of us, and then finally got on a plane that took us to Chicago.

We had planned on renting a car and driving the 2 hours to Lafayette, Indiana. When we exited the terminal, looking for our rental company shuttle, we saw every other rental company shuttle except for ours. After asking an airport employee, we found out that the road to the car rental company was closed because of a derelict truck that was being treated as a bomb scare. But soon the bomb squad arrived, declared the truck safe, cleared the area and the road was opened. After securing a vehicle and getting on the interstate, we finally arrived in Lafayette at 11:30 that night.

The next day we enjoyed a walking tour of the Purdue campus. But, as we were leaving a large lecture hall, an ambulance, a fire truck, and a hook and ladder arrived with lights and sirens. Students were standing outside a building, texting on their phones, posting a status on Facebook, a buzz humming from the crowd. Yes, it was another bomb scare; thankfully again, only a scare. We ended our time on campus later that afternoon and then drove back to Chicago for our flight home on Thursday.

As we came into the common room of our hotel for breakfast the next morning, we were greeted with the news of the explosion of the fertilizer factory in the town of West, Texas; of the manhunt in Boston. It seemed as though the world was coming apart at the seams, bit by precious bit, as it has for millennia.

We are often tempted to think that our times are the worst of times, or the best, as the case may be. In the words of Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way...”. We forget that there is a human history spanning tens of thousands of years, chunks of centuries with their own upheavals and uncertainties, terrorists and heroes, victims and survivors.

Martin Luther King said, “When evil men plot, good men must plan. When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind. When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love.” Fred Rogers reminded us to look for the helpers, but Christ calls us to be helpers: to speak not only kind words, but words of justice and truth; to share with others what we have that they do not; to live out our faith statement: “You call us into your church, to accept the cost and joy of discipleship, to be your servants in the service of others, to proclaim the gospel to all the world and resist the powers of evil, to share in Christ’s baptism and eat at his table, to join him in his passion and victory.”

And so when we were standing in line for the security check at O’Hare, and a man who engaged me in conversation said that whoever was behind the bombing in Boston was ‘evil incarnate’, I reminded him that we all came into the world the same way: beautiful, helpless, imperfect, and good. The wall between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has been coming down for half a century; some day it will be an ancient ruin. There will be no distance between any of us. None of this happened so we could learn to be better, but it is such a time for us to be better human beings. Nothing need be lost. Nothing wasted.

Shake off your shoes, leave yesterday behind you.
Shake off your shoes, but forget not where you’ve been.
Shake off your shoes, forgive and be forgiven.
Take up your spade and break ground.

In the realm of God, nothing is wasted. In God’s world everything is composted and brings forth new life. Those who have gone through the great ordeal, that which they thought would destroy them, God will guide them to the springs of the water of life and wipe every tear from their eyes.

In the story of Tabitha we hear once again that, working with disciples, God brings forth life from death. From what looks like waste, God brings forth redemption. From failure on the cross, God creates grace, a power that never dies. 

Byzantine mosaic, Peter Raises Tabitha From the Dead
Palatine Chapel of the Norman Palace, Palermo, Sicily

We are geared to look for cause and effect, why things happen the way they do. We like the common wisdom of “everything happens for a reason”. Neither good nor bad happens for the purpose of learning from it, yet we are fools if we allow our experiences to simply fade into the past without having gained wisdom and humility from them. Knowing why anything happens may increase our joy but it certainly does not decrease our pain and sorrow. Giving thanks for it all and plunging our hands yet again into the dirt of life until we come up with worms keeps us faithful through all of it.

So, no, this isn’t your typical Earth Sunday sermon. We all know what we need to do take care of this earth and that it is part of our calling as Christians to do so. But how can we treat the earth better if we’re still holding onto the past, our former hurts, and inflicting new ones on each other, if we still think of people who do evil or wrong or make mistakes as a waste? God wastes nothing and no one. As God’s co-creators, what are we willing to take up and do differently that life may be brought forth from death, that failure may resemble grace, that nothing we do may be wasted but redeemed?

Give thanks, for all that you’ve been given.
Give thanks, for who you can become.
Give thanks, for each moment and every crumb.
Take up your spade and break ground. *


* "Take Up Your Spade" by Sara Watkins, on her album "Sun Midnight Sun".

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