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We Are Born, We Live, and We Die!

April 25, 2016

A sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fourth Sunday of Easter / Earth Weekend, April 24, 2016

 1 Corinthians 16:13-14
Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong.
Let all that you do be done in love.

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In the grey damp of yesterday morning, thirty children from our church’s Nursery School came galloping across the front lawn, parents in toe, making a beeline for the dark dirt on the east end of the front lawn.  There amid shovels and seeds they gathered, eager to sink their hands in and plant – many for the first time – a garden.  These small would-be farmers listened attentively and to my question:  what do we need to grow a garden? They stretched their little arms up toward the sky, squirming with eagerness and calling out – water, sun, soil, seeds, shovels, rakes, air, more sun, more water, rain, sun again.  And there’s one more thing.  Puzzled looks all around.  You!  I exclaimed.  Smiles, more excitement, scattered yelps.

I demonstrated how to mix the two types of soil in the beds, until it was the color of chocolate milk.  Then I put a dish of seeds upon every bed and showed them how to plant, seed by seed.  Each seed different.  Carrot seeds, 4 inches apart, the width of their hand from their pinky to their thumb.  Same for the peas – 4 inches.  The purple bean seeds, every ten inches in little mounds that they would make with the cups of their hands.   Zucchini seeds – one family took charge of the zucchini – and planted them, one seed in each corner and one in the middle.  Then the lettuce and spinach seedlings, that had been cultivated for us by Will Summers, these fragile budding sproutlets, with root systems, planted together in even rows.  Three rows of lettuce with spinach in between.

Once they were done planting, the children didn’t want to take their hands out of the dirt.  They kept patting and spreading, and patting.  While I had a neat picture of what the rows would look like, one parent confessed, well, we didn’t really go according to the plan.  I said the only plan that mattered was children planting.

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“Children are closer to the earth,” sang the children this morning.  “Children are closer to the earth.”[1]  All week long I’ve been thinking about this.  How are children closer to the earth?  Children are innately interested in the natural world around them, and without fear.  Worms?  Yeah!  Snakes?  Oooo!  Smelly soil?  Ahhhh!  Children are natural explorers, noticing the small things that adults pass by – the little violet in the midst of the curbside grass, the tiniest insect on a tender leaf, the slinky tracks in the soil whether from creature or rake.  Look! they cry out in amazement, flower!  Over here, no here – see?  Bird!  They crave the soil and grass and trees – the outside is all mystery and adventure and beauty.  Yesterday morning, one of the little ones woke up and the first thing he said to his mom was, “I’m going to plant a garden today!”  Children are nearer the earth.  They immerse themselves, they play, they are unafraid of stains.  They exult in mud, they tremble at the scent of the honeysuckle, they watch and dance after fireflies, longing for twilight to go on for hours.  They pick and pluck and bring rocks home.  They roll in the grass with glee.  Children are closer to the earth.[2]

As many of you know, Thursday is my Sabbath day, and this past Thursday, Noelle and I took a walk in the James Johnson Nature conservancy in Larchmont.  As we wound around the pond, we saw children, well, ponding, in two different locations, netting bugs and small slugs – comparing their catches against diagrams of various insects and amphibians.  This would be a perfect place to fish, we thought, and August loves to fish.  We paused on a bench after walking for about an hour.  Trying to not let the proximity of our cellphones call our attention elsewhere.  There’s always so much, and the tendrils of necessity and schedule, have their way of creeping into even time set apart.  I pulled out a book of poems.  There was one by one of Noelle’s favorite poets, June Jordan.  She had written it to author Alice Walker.

Redwood grove and war
You and me talking Congo
Gender, grief and ash

I say, “God! It’s all so huge.”
You say, “These sweet trees:  this tree.”[3]

There is something about being present to nature, that calls us back – not apart – but back to ourselves.  In the midst of war, and economy, the stresses of jobs and relationships, the uncertainties and immensity of social problems that we know we’ve created and for which we are responsible and out of which we find it hard to climb together…These sweet trees:  this tree.  We are not taken apart.  We remember we are a part.  We remember life.  We remember the particular.  We are present.  We are grounded.  Not just for ourselves.  But for all we’ve yet to do for our community.  For our world.  These sweet trees:  this tree.

Thursday afternoon, as I was with August at Greenburgh Nature Center where he volunteers caring for the barnyard animals – feeding them, putting them in the barn at night – I smelled the infant leaves and heard the hum of tiny insects; the fierce rays of the afternoon sun beat on the back of my neck.  Then my phone vibrated and it was Stella.  She had called to tell me the terrible news that Carol Larsen had died.  It was an awful shock.  Unexpected.  And as I got back to the church everyone was stunned, for Carol spent so much time in the office, helping, chatting, caring.  And Carol’s death comes on the heels of the death of so many beloved people in this congregation.  On Thursday it felt like a mountain of death, a mountain of grief, a mountain of helplessness.  And I stood in the vestibule of Kingsley House and the doors opened and closed, opened and closed, sometimes opened and closed without people coming in or out, just passing near, opened and closed, and the police came.  And Noelle collected August, and they opened and closed as they walked out into the parking lot.

On Friday I was with Norma and Carmen, reflecting on how unexpected Carol’s death was, and Carmen said, “We are born, we live, and we die.”  Yes, I thought.  “We are born, we live, and we die.”  That is what it means to be human.  We are not exempted from the cycle of life, we are born, we live, and we die.  It happens to us all.   To be human, to be part of nature, means we are born, we live, and we die.  There was a relief in that confession.  I found myself repeating it.  It was a comfort to say it.  And I thought about how this is Easter – the time when we think of resurrection.  But that resurrection isn’t resuscitation.  It isn’t about death defiance.  Resurrection starts in this life.  We die to sin and we live to Christ. And that living means we also die, but we have lived to Christ.  “Stay awake, stand firm in your faith, be brave, be strong.  Everything should be done in love,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians.  This is what resurrection means.  Resurrection is something we live.  What we confess in our baptism and what we celebrate at this table is that we are born, we live, and we die, all in the arms of God.  That nothing – not even death – can separate us from the love of God.

God’s hands are upon us, from the very beginning, mixing the soil, planting the seed, mounding the dirt, like the children’s hands, delighted in us and in who we will yet be.  Planting, patting, spreading, patting.  Delighted that we are and we will be a part of this mystery of life.  We are born, we live, and we die, all in the arms of God.  We confess that mystery:  we are born, we live and we die, all in the arms of God.

We are born, we live, and we die; all in the arms of God.

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*   *   *   *   *   *   *

[1] “Kusimama” by Jim Papoulis, translated as “Stand tall. I stand tall. With faith. With hope. Children are closer to the earth.”

[2] The classic study is Richard Louv’s award winning Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. (Algonquin Booksm 2008).

[3] Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille T. Dungy. (The University of Georgia Press, 2009)

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