A Sermon: on Empire and the Birds of the Air

This is a sermon Hannah preached at the UCC church in Decorah on February 23, 2020. Disclaimer: there’s vulnerability about economics in here, and that’s not always the best look for a business owner. So be it known that Humble Hands Harvest is thriving by the metrics we choose to focus on! But when we compare ourselves to our non-farming peers, our lives tend to have less cash and fewer modern amenities, and that does raise questions about our personal sustainability, as well as the viability of small local farms like ours.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?


And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

–Jesus, in Matthew 6:25-34

I’m glad to get to share my reflections with you today. Pastor Laura asked me to come because I offered to speak about local food as a faithful response to the world right now. So, I spent all last week reading up on Jesus’ teachings and how they relate to agriculture, local community, and sustainability–and there’s a lot there, let me tell you. I chose the scripture passage we just heard because I’ve always intuitively loved it and have not been able to articulate why–when I really look at it intellectually as a farmer, Jesus’ “don’t do work” attitude annoys me in a big way.

I was doing all this reading and thinking, but I still wasn’t writing anything down. So yesterday afternoon I texted my little brother, who’s a Mennonite pastor in Kansas. “Ben! I’m supposed to preach at the UCC tomorrow and it’s not written yet and I’m in the middle of recording a bluegrass promo CD! Is there some kind of pastor helpline I can call?” He replied “Lol. Start with a long cute slightly self-deprecating story. They’ll love it and won’t remember anything else.”

So as I drove home from my recording session, I wondered what cute self-deprecating stories I had. Surely something related to livestock, or to being a naive young farmer. And then, something happened that wrote this sermon for me. My car overheated and I had a total emotional breakdown.

So this story is not cute, and it’s not self-deprecating–but it is long! And it’s also vulnerable, and inconclusive. Here’s some context: my car has been doing this very occasional very extreme overheating thing for the past month. I tried some things myself, and then brought it to 3 different mechanics over the past few weeks. The last time, Leon replaced my thermostat and some tubing and valves, to the tune of $500, and said that if it happens again it’s probably the head gasket, which is an extremely expensive fix. And then last night, that’s what it did.

I have an even keel personality. I take things in stride, I pride myself in my adaptability. For example, my yurt blew over in a storm before I had moved in. I fixed it, re-built it, and moved in, just a few weeks later than planned. In August 2016, my vegetable field flooded and I lost the income for the second half of my growing season. I found a second job and found land on higher ground and kept farming the next year, against all odds. So typically if my car were to poop out I would be able to be responsive and flexible and make a new plan and get things to work. I’ve even been contemplating what it would look like for me to not have a car of my own in my rural neighborhood, sharing cars with neighbors when I needed them. My idealistic side thinks that choice would bring abundant simplicity and connection to my life!

But here’s the other part of the context of this car breakdown. I’m in training to become a rural carrier for the postal service–a totally cool and essential job that requires me to have a functioning car.

So, let’s back up a bit more: why am I getting this job? Aren’t I a farmer? As a farmer I work many many hours during the growing season, and there are a lot of things to do over the winter, too–for our farm to thrive, we rely on people committing to buy our vegetables by investing in a Community Supported Agriculture share, and we’re trying to get those commitments right now, in part because we’re so preoccupied with growing food during the growing season that we don’t have additional capacity to run around showing ourselves off. So there’s a lot of work all year round, but since winter’s work is less time-bound, it feels possible to get a job on the side.

But there’s also a lot of “should” to this choice to work. See, right now, I live in a yurt during the growing season. My dwelling does not have running water. It’s very well ventilated, to the point of being breezy inside. I poop in a bucket and take my showers under a hose in the greenhouse. We could use a real house on the farm. But houses cost a lot of money and my full time work growing food that is good for the land and for this community nets me less than ten thousand dollars in a year. So, the moment I have free time, I neglect rest and instead look for a paying job that can help me feel deserving of respect when I walk into a bank to look for a loan. A real job with which I can earn real money which I can put toward a solid home. And then I wonder: why is farming not a real job?

I could go into details about the farm crisis we’re in right now–the fact is most farms are losing money and most farm households depend on off-farm jobs just to make ends meet. But I think at this point in my reflections it’s time to turn back to scripture.

Jesus draws our attention to both the beauty and the lack of striving of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. They’re cared for, and they have what they need. And it’s not to say that they aren’t working, that they aren’t contributing: those lilies are photosynthesizing their hearts out, drawing carbon out of the atmosphere and into their bodies, and even exuding it from their roots into the soil as a gift to the microbes that live there. The birds are flitting through the air on quests for food, constantly working to keep themselves alive. But they trust in creation to help them. They’re not thinking about tomorrow, they’re thinking about right now, bringing beauty to this moment.

This even connects to the way I think about my livestock: when I see the sheep being perfectly themselves, eating grass, drinking water, telling me when they need help but generally being very content with what is, I think they’re admirable. I would like to live my life like a sheep or a pig, so fully trusting in the moment, letting my instinct guide me, knowing how to live because my needs are simple and what I need is here. In this part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is telling us that we are of as much value as these exemplary beings, that striving is not what God is asking of us.

Jesus is talking to peasants under Roman occupation. The Romans had techniques they used throughout their empire to subdue people in their colonies and extract wealth from them–systems of taxation and debt and slavery.

When land was held by Palestinian peasants in community, their farms were diverse and they could provision for themselves by tending their land according to Sabbath laws–these laws had an ecological vision. They left the edges of their fields unharvested so that wildlife and strangers in need would have a place to glean and be fed. They would leave their land fallow every 7 years so it could rest and replenish itself.

When Romans colonized the area, they saw the land differently. They saw the land as a resource to be used to feed Roman cities all over the world. They saw the land as something to be extracted from. Their taxation system forced the peasants into debt, which forced them to plant monocultures of grain, to produce as much as they possibly could. Because of that, farms lost diversity and soil. Communities also lost the ability to provision well for themselves, and were instead forced into a money economy to get their needs met. This process of extraction meant that peasants had to look out for themselves in ways they hadn’t before, and traditions of hospitality were eroded, because people could no longer spare extra for their neighbor, let alone strangers.

Learning about the Roman occupation feels eerie to me. I’m already familiar with this colonial system! This place where I live has been forced into monocultures of grain for export, too. Small farms are going under and big farms are consolidating wealth at alarming rates. Communities were locally self-sufficient 100 years ago, raising everything they needed except sugar and salt. Now these same rural places have no gardens, not even grocery stores–just monocultures of grain and people who have to drive to other places for jobs to make ends meet.

Jesus’s message to the indigenous peasants of Palestine throughout his ministry was: this is not inevitable. This is not the way things must be. This empire is not God’s reign. Jesus’ message is that we must lose our lives under empire in order to find salvation in God’s order.

The striving that Jesus tells us to shed has an imperial kind of logic: we must clothe ourselves in something impressive to gain respect, and we must sow and reap and gather into barns so that we can pay our taxes and debts and make a little money with which we can buy what we need. The logic of God’s reign is different. Our role is not extraction from our neighbors, other creatures, or the soil. Our job is to trust in relationship.

If I were to follow Jesus’ advice I would give up my job with the postal service, and I would not fix my car and instead would work out car sharing with my neighbors. Without a car, I would need less money, and without that job, I would have more time to be present to the life of my farm. The mission of Humble Hands Harvest is to celebrate our dependence on place-based community, grounding ourselves by growing food and gathering together on the land. It’s all about trust and relationship. But I’ll be real: I’m probably not going to follow Jesus’ call in this instance, as much as I want to. The logic of empire is too strong in myself and in the people around me. This is devastating.

This ending is abrupt and vulnerable and not tied together neatly. There’s a lot more to talk about: the logic of empire vs. the earth’s logic manifesting itself in climate change, for one. And I barely touched on the topic of local food which I promised earlier.

But for now I’ll leave you with a few questions to hold in your hearts, to answer in conversation with yourself and your neighbors in the coming days. What does striving in service of empire look like in your life? How can you let go of that striving and relax into God’s way? What keeps you from doing that? And how can this community of faithful people support you in losing your life devoted to empire so that you can find salvation in God’s transformative path?

This is big, and this is what church is about.

3 thoughts on “A Sermon: on Empire and the Birds of the Air

  1. Thanks Hannah. I wept. My upbringing also may have triggered a nostalgia from the verses.

    Your words fit so well in this time where, as Steve McCarger might say, We are in deep dooky. I’d be inclined to say very deep. So unwittingly have we absorbed the easy logic of the empire, that we find ourselves in genuine, huge, unfolding catastrophe. We largely have ceased to see without effort or at least intent, the true reality and in fact the beautiful logic that sustains the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, and the humans of this perfect earth. May our grief give way to our sense of wonder and oneness and open us to the Big Love!

  2. Thanks for preaching. Maybe you could be an itinerant preacher instead of mail carrier. Doesn’t pay as well but the world need this message as much as it needs mail.

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