Good Dirt (Harvest Thanksgiving)

Texts: Joel 2:21-27; Matthew 6:25-33

Rev. Canon Dr. Timothy Connor, St. George’s Anglican Church, London

Harvest Thanksgiving (03 October 2010)

“Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!”

These are the words of the prophet Joel who a long time ago found himself preaching to the dirt. It is a strange audience for a preacher. But Joel had good reason to apply a comforting message from God to one of the basic elements of God’s good creation – ‘Do not be afraid!’

Now in that moment the dirt had good reason to fear. A great army of locusts had laid waste the earth. The inhabitants of the land of Judah were forlorn and desolate because the crops had been ravaged. ‘The fields are devastated, the ground mourns; for the wheat and the barley are destroyed, the wine dries up, the olive oil fails. The vine withers, the fig tree droops; pomegranate, palm and apple are dried up.’ Temple sacrifices ground to a halt because there was nothing to offer. Not surprisingly, then, ‘joy withers away among the people.’ The good news is that God has taken notice of this devastation and is in fact doing something about it. He is responding to the distress of his people by sending grain, wine and oil so that they will be satisfied and their joy renewed. So Joel preaches this gospel to the dirt, to the soil of the ground: ‘Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things!’ And he extends this message to the animals of the field, ‘Do not fear, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.’

Now I said a second ago that Joel is preaching the gospel to the dirt and to the animals. I admit it is a strange thing to say. But surely the message ‘do not be afraid’ is at the core of God’s good news. His messengers repeat this message again and again to God’s people in distress: ‘Do not be afraid.’ In fact, we might want to say that this is God’s characteristic greeting to his people in every time and place. And when it is extended to the basic elements of God’s good creation surely this is to be heard as God’s good news, God’s gospel. The earth, right down to the soil of the ground, exists under God’s gracious care and concern. The animals of the field go about their lives under God’s promise of plentiful provision. We need to hear and understand that fact in a time of distress like this. God’s covenant extends to the earth itself. The whole creation is the object of God’s love. God desires that it should flourish. So picture the prophet Joel preaching to the dirt and to the animals of the field, drawing them under God’s promise of shalom.

Now I admit to feeling a little odd in saying that. Like most preachers, I think, I struggle with the notion of preparing and preaching a sermon to the soil. I have come close to preaching a sermon to the animals of the field, if my dogs are included in such a group and if what I said on the occasion when one of them chewed up my cellphone amounted to a sermon! But my point stands – we preach sermons to people because we think that people are the only audience that can understand God’s word. But that’s a little short-sighted. The preaching of a sermon can be a sign, a sign of God’s desire to address his creation. And this notion, that God desires to speak to the dirt and to the animals is something very important for us to reckon with for two reasons:

First, we are tempted to forget that we are creatures and that like the dirt and the animals we are part of God’s good creative work. That’s why it seems odd to think of someone preaching the gospel to the dirt. We think the gospel is only for us humans. We abstract ourselves and our well-being from that of the created world around us. We think that God’s love for us has nothing at all to do with God’s love for the fertile soil and for the animals who depend upon it, animals like us. So remember Joel saying to the dirt, ‘Do not be afraid!’ And remember that that message is also God’s word to us today.

Second, that God speaks is the sign of his creative love. There was a time when God spoke and the dirt came into being. There was a time when God spoke and human beings sprang to life out of that very dirt. We are, like our first ancestor Adam, of the earth, earthy, to adapt the language of St. Paul. We remember that we are dust and that to the dust we shall return. We need to recall all this in this time of distress, a time when the earth is suffering great stress and when many people have seen their joy wither away because the grain and the wine and the olive oil have failed. God speaks. He speaks to the dirt and to the animals of the field and to the fish of the seas. He speaks his word of creative and redemptive love. There can be no joy for the creatures of God, especially the people of God, apart from the fruitfulness of the earth. There is an ordering to creaturely life in which the soil and the animals have their appointed role to play. And today we give thanks for that. We give thanks to God for that.

So look around you at the beautiful fruits and vegetables that adorn this house of worship today. Each of them is the fruit of the earth. They’ve been cleaned up for church this morning just like we have been. The dirt has been washed off and they have been polished for display. They tell us that once again in this part of the world there has been an abundant harvest. We are truly blessed and there is joy that rises in our hearts when we recognize that blessing, that blessedness. And from joy there comes thanksgiving. We are thankful here for God’s provision of good things that grace and sustain our lives. The bread and the wine of the eucharist come to us from the soil and so our thanksgiving for God’s gift of salvation to us is grounded in the very goodness of God’s creation. Oh that we might live in this spirit of thankfulness every day, blessing God for this generous provision of food and drink. Imagine the joy of living an ethic of thankfulness, of sheer gratitude. What might that look like?

It might take shape as together we learn to say a good word from God to the soil of the ground and to the animals of the field. A good word as a reminder that God’s love embraces them as surely as it embraces us. It might take shape also in characteristic activities that underscore this fact. St Matthew the gospel writer gives us two commands from Jesus this morning: watch birds and observe wildflowers, for in so doing, Jesus tells us, we might learn something about God’s providential care. If God cares for the birds and the flowers of the field, shouldn’t we also? Should it not be a matter of concern to us that the songbirds are disappearing at an alarming rate, that the great forests are being cut down, that clean water and clean air are creatures under threat? Should the pollution and contamination of the creation not be a matter of concern for all of us? Out of an ethic of thankfulness arises an ethic of responsibility. These good gifts come to us from the earth. God gives them but gives them in the way he has appointed.

And from both thankfulness and care an ethic of generosity is made possible. Where joy reigns in our hearts because of God’s generous provision for us we too can live lives of generous giving to others. These harvests are in one sense ours, the fruit of hard work. But they are given and taken so that all might share in their bounty. We too have a part to play in God’s appointed order of giving gifts. The joy of thanksgiving births the joy of sharing.

Aren’t you glad, then, that Joel had a good word from God for the dirt? Isn’t it a cause for rejoicing that he preached too to the animals of the field? Doesn’t it tickle your fancy that the good Lord Jesus told his followers to watch birds and take a good look at the wildfowers? Our God loves the work of his hands and we should love it too. So give thanks for it – the wheat and the barley, the wine and the oil, the pomegranate, the palm and the apple, for everything right down to the good old dirt. Give thanks for it all, for it too is the gift of God’s love. Care for it all because God does. Share it all for that is God’s will for all people. In so thanking, caring and sharing, God will give you joy.