Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Margins: Epiphany 7 Sermon, preached 2.23.11 at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary Chapel

I really like the picture in Lev. 19: 9-10.
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien; I am the Lord your God.

If you would go out the doors of the chapel, turn left and walk two miles south on Seminary Ridge/Confederate Avenue, you’d come to a metal tower on the battlefield. And if you’d climb its many flights of stairs, you’d get a panoramic view of the land. From up there, you can see the outlines of what the rural farm fields were like, about 150 years ago, because you’d be looking at the park which keeps the land something like it was in 1863. The fields were smaller than they are now. They had boundaries. There used to be hedgerows, or edge areas, with trees and shrubs, vines and often a waterway or wetland through those borders. In Amish country the fields are still today set into strips and smaller patches, usually rectangular but sometimes oddly shaped to fit the contour of the land.

But most of the productive farm fields aren’t like that today. In the 1950s and 60s, when the big machinery came along, at the same time that petrochemical fertilizers and bold new hybrid crops were on the rise, American farmers began to plant hedgerow to hedgerow. The edges were disappearing. Then, in the 1970s, the Agriculture Secretary mounted a campaign: “Get big or get out,” he advised. That advice led, among other things, to larger fields. And fewer and fewer farmers work more and more land. Now, there are no hedgerows at all. The big machines cover huge distances, rolling over the old boundaries. The whole story was told by author Wendell Berry in his classic, The Unsettling of America.

Leviticus 19 stands in stark contrast. Leviticus 19 seems to be from a different world.

That author I just mentioned, Wendell Berry, was in the news recently. About 10 days ago, he left home to go visit the Governor’s office in Kentucky where he lives. He put a toothbrush in the inside breast pocket of his sport coat, because he didn’t know for sure if he’d be coming back home that evening, or if he’d have to spend the night in jail. He and thirteen others weren’t planning any sort of a crime, except that they were not going to leave the governor’s office until he would talk to them. You see, they wanted to discuss their concerns about coal mining in Kentucky. They had tried all the regular means: they wrote letters to their representatives, they mounted public campaigns, they tried to influence legislation, but none of those efforts stopped the abusive kind of mining that was tearing apart the mountains.

You see, there is a new kind of mining, which rolls over huge areas. With massive machines and with explosives, operators scrape off miles of rock and topsoil to expose coal seams that everybody used to think were impossible to get, because they were up inside the tops of the mountains. When they scrape off the tops of the mountains, the “debris,” as they call it, is simply plowed over the sides. That technique is called “valley fill.” Streams are clogged, and floods ensue. Mountaintop removal mining respects no natural boundaries. It plows over the former edges. Nature’s high and low places are little obstacle against today’s technological might. Reseeded in grass like golf courses, the plateaued heights of Kentucky, West Virginia and other places have lost their forests, their biotic communities, their waterways. The people who live there are suffering ill health, contaminated water and shattered culture.

And so Wendell Berry went with his toothbrush to the governor’s office, with thirteen others. They ended up staying three nights. They did talk to the governor, who is convinced that taking the tops off mountains to haul coal away does not damage the land and does not hurt the people. It is Kentucky’s best hope for economic prosperity he says. We might say the governor prefers a different kind of margin than the real, physical margin at the edges of the mountains.

Well, then, Leviticus 19 stands in stark contrast to the governor’s politics.

Margins are good places. In the fields that Leviticus 19 describes, the margins are places that the poor could find food, and the alien could get along. Modern ecologists tell us, too, that the edges are where interesting things happen. The old hedgerows, the old tree stands along waterways at the edges of fields, are great places for species diversity. The mountainsides and valleys with their streambeds are also great places for species diversity.

We recently got a little survey of the natural life on our campus here at LTSG, and nearby. There are over 10 species of concern living here—from a certain kind of little yellow warbler, to some different butterflies, to Shumard Oaks and Shellbark Hickories, and even one species that is of such concern that conservationists have advised us not to publicize it. We’re discussing how the campus could be a kind of an edge or margin that could help those species and others survive. It helps your species, too, O humans!, to have a healthy community around you.

The Holiness Code of Leviticus had something to say about living with margins. In the margins strangers get hospitality; aliens get some rights. And in our day we can add that in margins more species will survive, and maybe even human greed could be reined in at least a little bit? Leviticus is clear that people are to live simple, decent lives, and not take too much. The land is to be cared for. When the land was abused, Lev. 18 says, the land “vomited” the people out. And it very well may do so again, the Holiness Code says, in a rather prescient ecological insight.

Leviticus 19: 9 & 10 at times seems to be from another world, but I don’t think it is all done with us…. not just yet. It’s not that we’d ever go back to the world of the Priestly writers who drew out the old Holiness Code. No, but I believe that God Almighty is yet working an order of justice and righteousness in and for this earth. You see, the roar of the machines breaking the margins of the land, and governors and tycoons screaming about their spreadsheet margins, are not the only voices out there. I’ve heard mountaineers who got blasted off their mountains, say, “I still love this land, and this is where I belong.” I’ve seen the poor, gleaning from the edges of the modern food system, share the bounty better than the affluent. And I’ve read about toothbrush-toting dreamers who wear out their welcome in the governor’s office, and then obstinately write and speak and proclaim that there could be another way.

And I’ve seen something else. I’ve seen a table that was first set in the last hours before a generous person named Jesus was betrayed and taken away to die. At that table, Jesus welcomed the marginal, the Nobodys and aliens of this world who had no real power or place. The people with Jesus were the downstream, down-valley types, the type who get valley fill dumped on their heads, or get their homes ripped out from under them. The people with Jesus, at the table he spread, were the type that fish all night and catch nothing. The people of Jesus were the type that the Caesars and Herods and Pilates knew only as slaves or servants in their designs of power and wealth.

But God prefers margins. And so Jesus went to an edge called Golgotha, and laid down his blessing upon the margin. He dipped his hand with the one who betrayed him, but still fed the marginal ones, whom he loved.

You are only footsteps from the table that he alone sets. His table is the margin of the Lord’s field. Come and glean, and then go out with new eyes to see all the margins and edges that are still there, where God is still working love and forgiveness and righteousness, and hospitality to strangers, and reforestation for species of concern, and even—I daresay!—a chance for those who might climb down off their roaring machines, and lift their eyes to behold the real margins, that they thought they’d pushed away.

But, for the time being, keep your toothbrush in your pocket.

Sermon manuscript is © 2011 by Gilson Waldkoenig. Reproduce only with permission.


  1. Gil - Thank you for posting this impressive and poignant sermon. Mountaintop coal mining is one of the most ungodly things I have ever seen. Some churchwide staff ventured to West Virginia two years ago and saw it firsthand, as though humans have the right to violently "undo" the natural beauty God placed on this earth. And more disturbing, we learned, was how wide-reaching electricity derived from this form of mining extends in the U.S. For anyone interested, I published an article on water pollution in Lutheran Woman Today magazine at the hands of this form of mining after interviewing the Charleston-area version of Erin Brockovich: (scroll down to "Finding Clean Water in Appalachia."

  2. Thanks Aaron--I'll pass along your article to my class, Ecology and Religion in Global and Interfaith Perspective, this week. We're going to be talking about drilling in the earth, including gas fracking, which is ripping up the mountains around here akin to MTR. The students have been looking into religious traditions of their choice--Buddhism, Islam, Baha'i, Judiasm and some New Age movements--and the question will be what the traditions ought to say about drilling in the earth. In light of your article, we're reminded that drilling for water is a venerable & legitimate interaction with the earth that is threatened by other drilling and majorly invasive practices like MTR.

    I, too, stood on the edge of an MTR site a few years ago, with some folks who refused to move. Despite having grown up around strip mines, deep mines, coke ovens, clear-cutting, etc--and not being very squeamish about industry--I was taken aback. Glued to our TVs and blue glowing screens, Americans still think there are vast stretches of wilderness "out there," but they are rapidly being transformed....

  3. Hey, Dr. Waldkoenig! This is Chad Rimmer, writing from Edinburgh. Thanks for this sermon. I love Wendell Berry.
    I also wanted to share the book by Carolyn Merchant, 'The Death of Nature' that we used here in a graduate course on Ecology and Spirit...I can't think of mining without hearing her critique on how this perspective on our relationship to the land got started. She takes it back to Francis Bacon, specifically with masculine perspectives on mining the earth. Not without its problems, her book is truth telling and powerful, and I'd recommend it to consider for your course. Also, in my dissertation, I'm working with Thomas Traherne...not that I want you to get the scoop on my dissertation before I finish it, but check out his Centuries of Meditations...powerful metaphysical poetry on creation from the age just prior to the epistemic problems created by Bacon.
    I'll be joining you on this blog, and it's great to find my teacher and friend out here in cyberspace! Thanks again for a great sermon.