October 11, 2009

Marilyn Zehr



Joel 2:21-27 and Luke 12:13-21


Thanksgiving.   There is much to be thankful for.  We live in a land of abundance. It is the time of the year when much of the food in this province, in this country has been harvested and we know without even giving it much thought that we will likely have plenty to eat all winter.  And yet, with all of this abundance, sometimes we have to remind ourselves to be grateful.  And so, I asked myself, what is it that leads to gratitude?  Does abundance necessarily lead to gratitude? 

Last year, when the pear tree in my yard yielded seven plus bushels of pears, by the time I was struggling to figure out what to do with bushels number  five and six and seven, after I had already given away and canned and baked and made juice… to be honest, I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful any more.

This year on the other hand, when the tree yielded probably less than two bushels of pears and the squirrels and raccoons and birds and wasps and ants helped themselves to more than one bushel of those, I found myself deeply grateful for every mouthful of fresh fruit I salvaged and the one batch of chutney I was able to make.

There were two scripture passages read this morning – the first one from Joel 2:21-27 and the second one from Luke 12:13-21

Neither of these texts initially spoke to me as passages that would be typical for the celebration of Thanksgiving and I had to think carefully about what they said about gratitude.  The passage in Luke is quite negative and the passage in Joel begins with a negative injunction “do not fear…”  But both of these texts were suggested lectionary passages for Canadian Thanksgiving.

In Luke, a man with too much, builds bigger barns in order to store everything that he has and then doesn’t live to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

In Joel – the negative injunction … “do not fear …” comes before the injunction to rejoice.  I decided to concentrate on the passage in Joel for my sermon this morning in my attempt to deepen my understanding of gratitude.  As I studied the context behind this passage an image began to unfold for me.  It was an image of the land, the beasts and the people all curled in upon themselves emotionally, spiritually and physically because of the great devastation caused by a plague of locusts. The invitation or injunction  – to not fear and to rejoice  – is the invitation to the land and the beasts and the people to unfurl their trampled limbs and petals so that they might once again be free to be grateful.

Joel chapter one and two describes this plague of locusts in vivid terms.

It says in chapter one, “Tell your children, and let their children tell their children about this thing that has happened.

What the bark stripping locust left,

the locust swarm devoured.

What the locust swarm left,

The winged locust ate;

And what the winged locust left,

The scavenger locust finished off.”

There are four different Hebrew words used for locust in this passage. and whether these words represent different life-stages of the locusts, or are synonyms meant to underscore the severity of damage caused by the relentless waves of locust invasion, is not entirely certain.  The Hebrew word, Arbeh, one of the words used here, is the common word for locust, and may describe the adult locust swarm; these swarms have been known to travel fifteen hundred miles , and are able to fly for seventeen hours at a time.  A single swarm may contain up to ten billion locusts, cover a hundred square miles, and be so dense as to blot out the sun.

This description of locusts helps us understand the verses in Joel that describe their sweeping movement through the land:

Starting at Verse 4

Ahead of them,

The country side is like the Garden of Eden;

Behind them is a desolate wasteland.

Nothing escapes them!  They look like horses, they gallop like stallions.

With a racket like rumbling chariots

They leap over the mountain tops,

Like crackling flames burning up straw,

Like a vast army in battle array

People tremble at their sight;

Every face turns pale.

They charge like warriors in combat;

They scale walls like soldiers.

Each squad pursues its objective,

Never swerving to the right or left.

Never jostling each other,

They move straight ahead;

Like flying arrows, they continue their pursuit,

Never breaking ranks.

They hurl themselves at the city.

They leap upon its walls.

They climb through windows

Like thieves in the night.

The earth trembles at their approach;

The heavens shudder,

Sun and moon grow dim

 And the stars withhold their brightness.

The vivid  description of this devastation gives a new depth of meaning to the injunction – do not fear.

Do you also find it possible to imagine that beast and human and the land itself might be curled in upon itself, trying to no avail to protect itself from the onslaught of the devastating locusts?

Contemplation of this passage led me to ask,

What causes us to curl in upon ourselves with a similar deep and legitimate fear?

Some images that came to mind of what this could look like include a porcupine in danger that curls into a ball in an attempt to protect its soft underbelly,or certain flowers like portulaca or morning glories that  fold up in the cold, or in low light conditions? What causes our souls, spirits or our “inner” person to curl up in this way and makes gratitude challenging at best if not impossible.

Natural devastation?– certainly,

Harsh criticism? –  yes,

A lack of affection or understanding at critical moments in our lives?  – without a doubt,

Personal or family crises? – also possible.

And yet, just as importantly, what, if anything, makes it possible to unfurl – to unfurl the soft petals of our hearts enough to rejoice – to be grateful?

I will attempt to respond to that question in a moment, but first I want to say something about the movement back and forth between being curled up tight or so
ftly unfurled.  I don’t picture these two states of being as static conditions, but something we might move between many times in a lifetime, in a week or even in a day; open and close, close and open, open and closed again. As I typed these words their rhythm of “open and close, close and open” reminded me of the lyrics of a Leonard Cohen song,

“So long Marianne,

It’s time that we began

to laugh and cry

and cry and laugh about it all again.” 

What a remarkable ability we human creatures have to live

emotionally and spiritually so close to the line between

sadness and joy

fear and trust,

anxiety and gratitude.

This remarkable impulse towards joy and trust and gratitude – sometimes or often is found in the very midst of anxiety, fear or sadness.  So where does it come from; this flower within us that curls up in self-protection or unfurls in openness and gratitude?  What is it that influences the direction we might move?

The passage in Joel gives us some hints:

First, the prophet Joel called the people to a solemn assembly,

Sound the trumpet or shofar, he says,

Call a fast and gather,

Let the ministers of YHWH stand weeping and calling upon the name of God.

And then YHWH will be stirred on behalf of the land.

And YHWH responds with the promise:

My people –

I will send you grain, new wine, and oil, enough to satisfy you completely

Forget your fear, my beloved land, rejoice and be glad, for God has done great things.

Forget your fear, you beasts in the field!

The wilderness pastures will once again be carpeted in green, trees will bear fruit again,

And the fig and the vine will give you their full yield.

Rejoice children of Zion, rejoice!

What these verses tell me is that the impulse towards gratitude comes both from within and from without.  The people call on God.  God responds.  It’s the profound connection between them, the people and God, which makes gratitude possible.

Imagine the flower again.  Ingrained in its genetic code is the necessity to move towards openness.

The petals can’t be mechanically, or manually unfurled by force- you would tear the petals, but within its make-up is the creative power to bloom, unfold, and show its face towards the sun – It’s almost as if in this movement it is expressing  gratitude for the very fact of its existence.   So the created power within the flower moves it towards unfurling, but this tendency is only made possible by its connection with the power and warmth from without; from the sun.

In Joel, the people reached out to God just as God reached out for the people.  The point of contact or connection made gratitude possible. 

There is a Mennonite story that connects deeply to this story in Joel.  And this Mennonite story is being remembered this weekend in the Ukraine.  It is being remembered and commemorated by some of the members of this congregation, I understand.  As I was preparing my sermon this week, I read the pamphlet about this memorial that described one of the stories of loss that occurred during the purges in the Ukraine.  And this one story brought to mind many others that I have heard.  When you hear these stories of death and devastation, it is hard to imagine where in all of it there is any possibility for gratitude.  For the persons involved or close to these events it wouldn’t be hard to imagine that part of your spirit would long to remain curled up for a very, very long time.  And yet, when I mentioned the Memorial that is being unveiled in the Ukraine to Marlys earlier in the week and we talked about how that event might possibly link to our thanksgiving theme, she was immediately reminded of the hymn – Now thank we all our God.  That particular hymn of thanksgiving, sung in German, is also an important part of the story.  Marlys remembered being told about the spontaneous use of that hymn when these Mennonite people once again experienced the safety and promise of new land here in Canada.  This story speaks, as not much else can, to the power and force of gratitude that lies deep within us.

It is this impulse towards gratitude, deeply ingrained and yet coaxed from without, based on a profound connection between ourselves and God, that is often is too deep for words.

Our tendency to curl up can be but is not necessarily more powerful than our propensity to unfurl in gratitude.

Herein lies hope. 

And even though many of us younger ones will not have experienced the degree of anguish and devastation that some of our Mennonite ancestors experienced it doesn’t mean that the bumps and bruises of our own lives haven’t caused a few things within us to curl up. 

And so it’s good to notice when the impulse to gratitude occurs, because when we notice our gratitude we may also be aware of these moments as contact – connection with God.  And when they happen we can ask ourselves, “What was that something within that caused us to be grateful and what was that something outside of us that coaxed our gratitude to unfurl?”

I noted some of those impulses this week and I encourage you to note them for yourself in the coming week.

For me, gratitude got coaxed out of me this week when

I walked past a garden full of ornamental grasses with their grassy plumes waving in the wind. 

It happened for me on Friday when I saw the robins and the blue-jays and the cardinals turn a cold rainy day into a feast of worms.

And it happened for me when I saw gratitude and affection overflowing spontaneously in a new young father who kissed his wife or partner, a new young mother, on the top of the head as they strolled along the boardwalk with their newborn baby.

These are the things that coax the parts of my own curled up nature to unfurl.

I invite you to make note this week of the things that will do that for you, and my prayer for you and I is that we may discover that we live more grateful lives than we might have expected and we might just notice in those moments of gratitude – a connection – that God is trying to get our attention by inviting us to unfurl.

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving.