Sunday morning, driving to church to deliver my hard-earned gleanings from weeks of research for my sermon, the land spoke to me again. A month ago, in “Lonely Groves,” I confessed to hearing the voices of trees. Now I’m going to tell you what the dirt said.
At first it was just the dirt piled up on the embankment of the Friant-Kern Canal where it goes under Old Highway 65 south of Strathmore. It said “You’ve been here before, remember?” And suddenly I was riding the bus on the tour I helped plan for the Forum on Church and Land in 1992. The weather was similar: gray, cold, dreary. The homeplaces along the road haven’t changed much. Neither has the road itself. But in the thirty-one years since then, fewer people are making a living from the land itself. A few other people are making a killing. But I’ve been here to witness it, and now to testify. That’s what the dirt on the embankment said.
Then the radio took my attention with news about Ukrainian soldiers north of Kharkiv. It talked about the weather they’re surviving as they wait for another invasion from the Russian border just to the north. “The mud,” they said. “The worst weather is when it’s just above freezing.” The soil there is heavy, black, clayey; with every step the mud clings to the soldiers’ boots, sucking them down, taking energy their bodies need just to keep warm. It told how they take shifts for watch, sometimes for more hours than their bodies have heat. It told how they light their shelters made of boards, wire, and mud with candles made from cardboard and wax. It told of a stray dog they feed because she barks whenever she hears something strange coming.
The news item then told how the mud is what defeated the Russian invasion a year ago. The Ukrainians were not yet mobilized in their sudden need to defend their land. But the land defended them. The Russian tanks and trucks got unmovably stuck and had to be abandoned as the unorganized but driven Ukrainians fired away at them with their muskets. And so the Ukrainian soldiers now, in their incredible determination not to lose, but win this war come hell or high water, are not cursing the mud. “Every war has its beginning and its end,” said the top commander in the area, Brigadier General Serhiy Melnyk. “I am sure that 2023 will bring victory and peace in the houses of Ukrainians.” The voice of this land defender lifted my spirits almost unreasonably.
Those two soil-borne messages went with me as I walked in the door of First United Methodist Church in Porterville. The praise team was practicing “Be Thou My Vision,” the hymn I’d requested to follow the sermon, and they sounded like a choir of angels. The hymn is Celtic, from Ireland, and I have loved it since I first heard it. But I didn’t know when I asked to include it in this service, before I’d even finished writing the sermon, how it would link my message of egalitarian Christian activism (hopefully agrarian!) to the worship of God.
I preached on equality, on God’s vision for Israel as a light that would convert all the nations. This people Israel would be a nation of equals created by maintaining an equal distribution of the land given to them, a nation where even the landless ones—the widows, orphans and sojourners—do not go hungry or are disparaged for being poor, but given the gleanings of the land. “Follow the provisions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy,” it says in the Hebrew Bible, “and I, YHWH, will provide. You will eat the fruit of the land and be satisfied. All of you.” Centuries later Mary would sing this vision again.
Most of us have not heard this old message, so we think it started with Jesus’ gospel, bringing good news to the poor. But the good news is for everyone, rich and poor alike. All you have to do to enter the kingdom of God is share the wealth. Love your neighbor as yourself: be equals. At least, that’s what I gleaned from the Bible recently, reinforced by the dirt.
“Be thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart…”